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Morning Shootaround — Feb. 29


VIDEO: The Fast Break: February 28

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Cavaliers don’t look title ready | Curry’s greatness at heart of skepticism about Warriors | Carmelo brushes off Stoudemire’s barbs about Knicks | Thunder had no answer for Warriors’ death lineup

No. 1: Cavaliers don’t look title ready — Losses to the Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards over the weekend has taken the shine off of things in Cleveland, where the world knows it’s championship or bust for LeBron James and company. YEs, they remain the clubhouse favorites to win the Eastern Conference title and represent in The Finals, but they don’t look title ready right now, as Michael Lee of The Vertical points out after Sunday’s LeBron-less loss to the Wizards:

The Cavaliers have way too much talent, experience and shared success to use James’ absence as even a partial excuse for a 113-99 loss to the Wizards – a team that is currently on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff race looking in. Even if their best player – and apparently lone playmaker – decided his mind and body needed a break, the Cavaliers still had three times as many players on maximum contracts than their opponent, but none of them, Lue said, gave maximum effort.

The loss was more alarming and disturbing because it came two days after a loss to the steady-charging Toronto Raptors that led James to say, “We lack mental [strength] right now.” J.R. Smith took the critique to another level after Sunday’s loss with a very nonchalant slam of his team’s performance.

“If we lose a game like the other night to a team like Toronto and to come out here and play the way we did – you have a lack of energy – maybe we shouldn’t be in this position,” Smith said, voice barely rising above a purr. “We shouldn’t be who we are and be in these uniforms.”

The Cavaliers haven’t reached the point where they should panic but they can’t be extremely comfortable about where they stand. They were supposed to have a much easier run through the East than defending champion Golden State in the West, but they only have a two-game lead over the Raptors for the top spot in the conference while the Warriors’ lead over the 50-win San Antonio Spurs feels more vast than Steph Curry’s limitless range.

No other team in the East made the kind of offseason or midseason upgrades to pose much of a threat to James’ reign over the conference but the struggle has been real. The Cavaliers are easily the most talented team in the East, but they are among the least content. James once blamed complacency as the culprit for the team coasting at times, but the Cavaliers have been involved with a considerable amount of chaos for a team that was only two wins from an NBA championship last June despite missing two of its best players. There has been an intense pursuit of perfection that has robbed this season of the kind of fun that Cleveland’s record (41-17) should otherwise suggest.

“It’s the same thing we’ve been searching for, consistency and efficiency,” veteran forward James Jones told The Vertical. “We’re good enough, talented enough, to do things the majority of the time, to win games against the mid-tier teams. Against the good teams, we can piece together a game or two of really good basketball and look exceptional, but deep down inside we know that we aren’t hitting on all cylinders defensively, offensively. We still have some of the same issues of isolation and ball stopping and not moving bodies. For us, even though we’re having success, it’s not the fact we were winning but the way we were winning that gave us concern and you really can’t enjoy it as much when you know you’re not doing what you’re supposed to do.”

 

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 No. 2: Curry’s greatness at heart of skepticism about Warriors — There’s a reason that some of the men who came before Stephen Curry cannot find a way make sense of what the reigning KIA MVP is doing right now. They’ve simply never seen anything like it, nothing close actually. And that unfamiliarity with a player who can shoot as well as Curry does, and in turn dominates the floor in ways no player has before him, does not register with the likes of Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson. That inability to frame Curry’s exploits is what lies at the heart of all these doubters of both Curry and the Warriors, writes Tim Kawakami of the Mercury News:

The frustration is logical, though, in a historic sense:

When the old stalwarts don’t get what you’re doing … that’s when you know the revolution is well underway.

It works two ways: The criticisms from all-time greats such as Oscar Robertson highlight the vast gap between then and now and serve to motivate the Warriors to make it even greater.

“It’s starting to get a little annoying just because it’s kind of unwarranted from across the board,” Curry said late last week on the “Warriors Plus/Minus” podcast with Marcus Thompson II and me.

“When you hear kind of … obviously legends and people that respect their era and what they were able to accomplish and what they did for the game kind of come at you, it’s kind of, just, weird.”

Some of the skepticism is understandable, because Robertson and others are great figures in the game and, yes, the rules and standards are different now.

Times change, as they did from the era before Robertson to his era and so on …

Some of the carping is logical, because this Warriors team has just the one title (so far); some of it is envy for the current limelight; some is general cantankerousness.

But let’s underline the true heart of the public doubts about Curry and the Warriors coming from Robertson, Stephen Jackson — and even from Clippers coach Doc Rivers and others last offseason:

It’s about questioning Curry’s true status as a generational figure, because he’s a departure from the normal procession of bigger, faster, stronger (Elgin Baylor to Julius Erving to Michael Jordan to LeBron James).

Almost every other NBA quantum leap came in the form of a physical leap forward, and Curry’s ascension isn’t tied to strength, size or speed. He’s a skinny guy who went to Davidson and was supposed to be knocked around by Jackson and Monta Ellis in his first Warriors training camp.

But Curry wasn’t. He survived, they were sent away, and now here he is, with one MVP on his mantle and No. 2 coming at the end of this season.

Curry’s greatness is about an unprecedented talent level and work ethic — no matter what Robertson says about current defense, there is no consistent way to defend a man who can casually dribble into game-winning 38-footers, as Curry did in Oklahoma City on Saturday.

This is new. This is unfathomable, unless you know Curry, unless you’ve spent a few years studying how he is altering this sport.

Curry’s status is comparable to the way Wayne Gretzky changed hockey, the way the West Coast offense and Joe Montana reset football and the way Muhammad Ali made everything before him in boxing seem outdated.


WATCH: Steph Curry with the (12 from deep) shots

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No. 3:  Carmelo brushes off Stoudemire’s barbs about Knicks — Amar’e Stoudemire has some interesting memories about his time in New York. There were good times and bad, plenty of ups and downs, and in hindsight, plenty of factors played into his time there alongside Carmelo Anthony. He spoke his mind when asked about his time there, with is Miami Heat at Madison Square Garden for a Sunday game. But Knicks All-Star Carmelo Anthony didn’t take any of it to heart and he certainly didn’t think Stoudemire was taking shots at him. Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN.com has more:

Asked if he feels for his former teammate Anthony for going through another tough season with the Knicks, Stoudemire hinted that Anthony needs to be better to pull the Knicks out of their mess. The Knicks (25-36) have lost 14 of their past 17 games.

“It’s tough,” Stoudemire said before the Heat beat the Knicks 98-81 on Sunday. “When you get involved in this situation, you have to take ownership of it. You have to make sure you made the right decisions for your team and teammates.

“You have to become a complete player in order to bring your team out of a rut. Everyone can’t do it. It’s not always easy.”

When asked if he has any advice for Anthony moving forward, Stoudemire mentioned how he knew at this stage of his career that he needed to surround himself with “other class A players” to chase a title.

“It’s a situation where you have options,” Stoudemire said. “If you want to win, that’s the main priority. And if physically you can’t do it as a player and make your teammates better and get them to the point they can win, then you surround yourself with a team that’s built to win.

“And for me, I knew Father Time was ticking on my clock, so I wanted to put myself in a position around other class A players, put myself in a position to at least compete for a championship.”

Stoudemire played four and a half seasons with the Knicks, and his time overlapped with former fan favorite Lin. Although he did not mention any names, Stoudemire said not every Knick was thrilled with Lin’s exploding popularity back then.

“If he stayed, it would’ve been cool,” Stoudemire said of Lin, who played one season in New York from 2011-12. “But everyone wasn’t a fan of him being the new star, so he didn’t stay long. But Jeremy was a great, great guy. Great teammate. He worked hard. He put the work in, and we’re proud of him to have his moment.

“A lot of times, you gotta enjoy someone’s success,” he continued. “And that wasn’t the case for us during that stretch. … You got to enjoy that. You got to let that player enjoy himself and cherish those moments. He was becoming a star, and I don’t think everybody was pleased with that.”

Anthony did not think Stoudemire was talking about him when it came to being less than receptive to Lin’s brief success in New York.

“Still?” Anthony asked when told that Lin came up when reporters talked to Stoudemire. “That was [four] years ago? I don’t know. I don’t have no comment about that. If [Lin] was becoming a star, we should embrace that. I don’t know. We didn’t embrace it? Was that the word?”

“S—, if that was the case then I’d be upset right now with KP [rookie fan favorite Kristaps Porzingis], if he’s talking about me. I doubt if [Stoudemire is] talking about me. I doubt that. I highly doubt that.”

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No. 4: Thunder had no answer for Warriors’ death lineup — The Oklahoma City were the one team most pundits thought to be built to deal with the Golden State Warriors’ vaunted death lineup, a small-ball group that has shredded all comers this season. But in the final minutes of Saturday night’s instant classic, that lineup flummoxed the Thunder as well. Thunder coach Billy Donovan and his staff have until Thursday night (when they meet agains, on TNT) to come up with a fix for what went wrong. Anthony Slater of the Oklahoman provides the details:

But lost amidst this hardwood classic was a dilemma that should concern the Thunder in the present. Curry’s impossible accuracy won it. But the Warriors got back into the game with their small-ball death lineup, which completely dictated the final 10 minutes.

With 4:37 left in regulation, Andre Iguodala subbed in for Shaun Livingston, joining Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green. The Warriors were down 11. In fewer than five minutes, they forced overtime. Then in five overtime minutes, they outscored the Thunder by three.

So in a little under 10 total minutes, that nightmarish Golden State unit beat the Thunder 36-22. Curry played hero. Green was a defensive menace. The other three chipped in. But of greater consequence, the versatility of that Warriors five-man grouping forced Billy Donovan’s hand, shrinking OKC’s depth.

Breaking news: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are the Thunder’s two best players. They’re always on the court in crunch time, barring a foul-out…which we’ll get to.

Beyond them, Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams are the team’s third and fourth most balanced, important talents. You want both on the court in crucial moments.

Which is where the problem lies. When the Warriors slide Green to center and pepper two-way wings all over the court, they challenge you to take one off the floor or risk some uncomfortable mismatches.

After an 8-point, 3-rebound, 0-block disappearance in Oakland, Ibaka was great on Saturday night. The Thunder demolished Golden State 62-32 in rebounds and Ibaka was the key. He had a season-high 20 rebounds, along with 15 points, two blocks and countless other contested and altered shots. He played a team-high 41 minutes. His presence was required.

Which meant Adams was the odd man out. Of late, Adams has been great, providing a sturdy defensive back-line while finishing layups and dunks with more consistency. He had 10 points and nine rebounds in his 28 minutes on Saturday. But in his final 136 seconds, Adams was out of his element.

From the 4:37 mark of the fourth to the 2:21 mark, Donovan kept Adams and Ibaka in together against that small-ball unit. The Warriors quickly blasted off a 7-0 run to get back in the game. Adams was assigned Iguodala. The Warriors recognized it and attacked Adams with Curry and Iguodala in a pick-and-roll. Curry got the big man on a switch and hit the ninth of his 12 3s.

Right after, Donovan subbed in Dion Waiters for Adams, going small and ceding to the Warriors style.

Then as the game navigated through overtime, Adams sat all but nine seconds. Donovan put him in to win the tip at the start of overtime, which he did, and then pulled him at the first whistle, reinserting Waiters.

Durant fouled out 38 seconds later, a crippling blow, presenting Donovan with another choice. Go back big with Adams or stay small? He remained small, choosing Kyle Singler to replace Durant.

And this is the conundrum the Thunder faces against the Warriors. While many believe OKC’s talent could give Golden State its biggest postseason challenge, the Warriors versatile options exposes the Thunder’s roster imbalance. OKC is deep in the frontcourt but thin on the wing. The Warriors small-ball strategy can nullify frontcourt players and force you to dip deep into your bag of wings.

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Atlanta Hawks missed on Joe Johnson, who chose Miami, but rebound by getting Kris Humphries off the waiver wire … Johnson, by the way, chose the Heat because of his connection with players already on the roster … A sprained right ankle will cost Danilo Gallinari all of the Nuggets’ upcoming homestand … Folks in Sacramento are celebrating Vivek Ranadive for the new arena but blaming him for the team that can’t get it rightDamian Lillard and the red-hot Portland Trail Blazers are keeping it rolling on their Eastern Conference road trip

Anthony Davis shines with transcendent performance


VIDEO: Anthony Davis dropped a NBA season-high 59 points on the Detroit Pistons

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Anthony Davis served up a reminder Sunday of why so many NBA pundits and observers pegged this season as his opportunity to take his game to the next level.

His 59-point, 20-rebound effort in a win over the Detroit Pistons was jaw-dropping in both effort and result. Davis became just the fourth player in NBA history to pile up that many points while also grabbing 20 rebounds (Shaquille O’Neal did it once, Elgin Baylor twice and the great Wilt Chamberlain did it 33 times, including 17 times during the 1961-62 season).

It was a transcendent effort from one of the truly unique talents the league has seen. Davis, just 22, and having barely scratched the surface of what he can do in this league, showed off all facets of his current offensive arsenal. He finished with authority around the rim, was precise off the dribble and with his mid-range game and even stepped out beyond the 3-point line a couple of times for good measure.

It was a virtuoso performance that left Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy shaking his head and accepting blame for his team not being able to contain Davis, who admitted to surprising himself with his performance.

Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry told Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical the same:

Ever seen something like it? “I haven’t,” New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry told The Vertical in a text message. “Not by a big with that skill level.”

This season had been targeted as Davis’ MVP breakthrough, his time. Now, he’s nowhere near the conversation. Sit down with him, and the sense comes quickly: That’s the least of his concern. Winning matters to him, and that’s how Davis wants to be judged. Chris Paul pushed his way out of New Orleans, but Davis is starting a new five-year deal, and he’ll have to find a way to become part of the solution there.

Throughout All-Star weekend, Davis probed the biggest winners in the NBA. Throughout this lost Pelicans season, Kendrick Perkins has been guide to his personal inventory of franchise star stories – from Kevin Garnettand LeBron James to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

“Perk tells me stories from 10 years ago, and says: As the franchise player and leader of this team, you have to do this, you have to do that,” Davis told The Vertical.

Davis listens, but here’s the truth of the matter: The franchise star job demands that you learn through experience. Otherwise, everything will devour you. Davis is so gifted, so dedicated. And he takes everything – the losing, the unrealistic insistences that he ought to be to able to win all alone – in the most personal way possible.

“It’s tough,” Davis told The Vertical recently. “You start hearing all the white noise. ‘They lost three in a row, and it’s Anthony Davis’ fault.’ The blame gets put on you. Of course, there are other factors that go along with it – like the praise when you are winning. But to handle that when you’re so young, and haven’t really accomplished anything, it’s tough – especially when people put you on a pedestal. ‘He should be doing this, he should be doing that.’ It’s frustrating.

“It’ll make you overthink your game. You start thinking too much. You start listening and trying to figure out, ‘Well, I’m going to try to do this,’ and it takes you away from your game. Now, you’re losing more because you’re not doing what you’re supposed to do.”

Davis said Gentry challenged the Pelicans to be the best team in the league after the All-Star break, a task that will be difficult given the way the Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers and San Antonio Spurs have been grinding all season.

The more realistic task, even with Stephen Curry playing the way he has all season, is for Davis to be the best player in the league the rest of this season.

That’s what many thought he’d do last summer, after his breakthrough effort in pushing the Pelicans into the playoffs. Injuries and the adjustments from an old system to Gentry’s didn’t allow that to happen early on this season. But Sunday’s effort could be the start of something spectacular for Davis the rest of the way …

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VIDEO: Anthony Davis joins the Game Time crew after his 59-point, 20-rebound effort in a win over Detroit

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.

***

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


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