Speculation about Del Negro’s future with the team has raged on for months, long before they faltered in the playoffs. With free-agent point guard Chris Paul still undecided about his future in advance of the July 1 free agent free-for-all, where Paul will be as sought after as anyone on the market not named Dwight Howard.
It should be noted that a Paul favorite and a man familiar to Los Angeles, Byron Scott, was on NBA TV’s airwaves Monday night and is available after being fired in Cleveland. The Clippers would be wise to think about coaches that could connect with their superstar point guard while pursuing Del Negro’s replacement.
There’s also the Phil Jackson factor to think about. If he’s interested in returning to the league in some capacity, but not as a coach, maybe the Clippers consider bringing him back and having him select the next coach.
In addition to Paul, the Clippers will have to take Blake Griffin‘s temperature to see what works for him moving forward. Because if Paul bolts in free agency, Griffin becomes the sole face of the franchise heading into the 2013-14 season.
This opening instantly becomes the hottest job on the market for coaches looking for work, especially if Paul remains with the franchise. And you should expect a whose who of candidates to be associated with the rumors in the coming days and weeks. Former Clippers and Suns coach Alvin Gentry, Scott, Golden State Warriors assistant Mike Malone, Indiana Pacers assistant Brian Shaw and even Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins will all be targets.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Zach Randolph has come a long way, baby.
From a 20-year-old, tantalizingly skilled and pudgy rookie reared by the infamous Portland “Jail” Blazers, to the now 31-year-old supremely skilled and pudgy leader of the first Memphis Grizzlies team to play for the Western Conference crown.
Randolph arrived in Memphis in 2009 still the bearer of a bad rap and possibly even a worse rep. Thirty-nine games into his stint with the Los Angeles Clippers, Randolph was moved out to move in, ironically, No. 1 pick and soon-to-become Randolph’s playoff nemesis, Blake Griffin.
Randolph’s third trade in two calendar years — from Portland to the New York Knicks in June 2007; from the Knicks to the Clips in November 2008; and finally from the Clips to the Grizz in July 2009 for Quentin Richardson — has been the tonic for peace and happiness and maturity and some darn good basketball.
Randolph can now boast being a two-time All-Star with Memphis. He’s also an emblematic figure of this blue-collar city and a fan favorite of its hard-nosed citizens, and a loyal teammate that his peers pull for and gush over.
“His career has had a lot of ups and downs, and it’s just evident when you think of being in this moment that not a lot of people get here, and Z is a perfect example of that,” Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley said. “He’s been in the league so long and done so many great things, he hasn’t had the experience to go to the Western Conference finals or the Finals yet, and so it’s kind of the message that’s being sent around to everybody, and we’re feeding off what Z’s been through and the fact that this could be special.”
Before the low-post — and lower-center-of-gravity — scoring machine arrived in Memphis, his Portland teams had two one-and-done postseasons. The first, as a rookie, he logged one minute. The next season, in 2003, he averaged 13.9 ppg and 8.7 rebounds as those misfit Blazers almost became the first team to come back from a 3-0 hole against the Dallas Mavericks, but they were blown out in Game 7.
He then went six seasons sitting on the postseason sidelines. Now he’s seizing the moment heading to the biggest stage of his career. Randolph is averaging a team-high 19.7 ppg and 9.3 rpg while shooting 51.2 percent as he and low-post partner Marc Gasol get set to face the San Antonio Spurs in Game 1 of the West finals Sunday afternoon (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC).
Along the way, Randolph dominated Griffin in the final four games to dispatch the Clippers in a rugged, emotion-filled, six-game series. He saved his best game so far to eliminate the top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder in Wednesday’s Game 5, a punishing performance from the jump that ended with 28 points, 14 rebounds and one wide grin.
“This moment means a lot to me,” Randolph said. “I’m happy, but we still have work to do. I want to win a ring.”
Randolph can be the king of colloquialisms when talking about others, such as when he described the defense teammate Tony Allen was applying to Kevin Durant: “Tony’s a dog, man. He’s in the mud.” The Grizzlies marketing department has crafted slogans and campaigns around Randolph’s colorful descriptors and phrases.
But he’s mostly bland when talking about himself. It’s a subject best left unto others, like Allen.
“I’ve [known] Zach ever since I got in the league, what his skill level was,” said Allen, who joined the Grizzlies a season later in the summer of 2010. “But he was … at first all about going out and getting his. And ever since I got alongside him, he’s done a good job of mixing it up, passing the ball when you don’t have a shot, being more of a vocal leader and just a teddy bear off the court. When I say teddy bear, just a nice guy. He’s the nicest guy in the world. I saw him grow a lot despite what I heard about him previously before I got here.”
“Just rough around the edges, that’s all,” Allen said, chuckling. “But me and him pretty much got the same characteristics. Growing up we overcame a lot. Right now, it’s a big time to do something big and I think that’s what his mindset is right now — trying to do something real big.”
Everything with the 6-foot-9, 260-pound Randolph is big, especially his game. Nicknamed Z-Bo back in middle school growing up in gritty, small-town Marion, Indiana, the southpaw’s game is described as “old-school” or “old man.” That’s because his vertical won’t win him any dunk contests and because he relies more on guile and honed skill than athleticism. Randolph’s excellent footwork makes him quick, agile and unpredictable with his back to the basket. He has tremendous upper and lower body strength to gain position and a sublime touch to finish with short hooks and up-and-under bank shots. And he can always float in fall-away jumpers. His arsenal is a lethal combination of power and finesse that few power forwards today posses.
Just listen to Thunder coach Scott Brooks go on and on when asked to detail the difficulty in defending Randolph in the low post.
“He has relentless determination, he’s an aggressive offensive rebounder and he has so many different shots he can throw at you,” said Brooks, who watched Randolph work over Defensive Player of the Year runner-up Serge Ibaka for 18.4 ppg and 10.8 rpg. “He can face-up and hit a shot; he can drive right with one dribble and the little pull-up off the glass; he goes to the left, to the middle very well, and he has so many different release points. He can score down low at the block. He doesn’t look like he can do it, he just doesn’t have that body that you think that can score, and he doesn’t jump very high, but he has that determination and he obviously has the ability to score.
“He’s a handful.”
Allen calls the whole package “backyard ball.”
“He’s the backyard bully. Welcome to the Z block,” Allen said. “He’s just a monster down there; he’s a load.”
He’s now the responsibility of Spurs big men Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter, a tough job compounded by the fact that one of them will be preoccupied with Gasol, also having a brilliant postseason averaging 18.3 ppg and 7.9 rpg.
The big stage has been a long time coming for Randolph, a player many assumed would have run himself out of the league by now. That’s not the case or even any longer an option. The 12-year veteran has found a home and fulfillment in Memphis.
“He just understands the big picture a little bit better. He understands winning better,” Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said. “I think there are lot of good players in this league that have statistics, that have talent, but never win, never understand that it takes more than their 20 points to win; that it takes moving the basketball, it takes playing defense, it takes being a decoy sometimes.
“We just try to challenge him and he accepts being challenged, and he’s risen to the occasion.”
MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Still alive and rocking is Loud City, the Roaracle, a classic in the Garden and while it’s not old Chicago Stadium, the United Center crowd takes no prisoners.
Moving up the list of loudest NBA playoff arenas, if not yet documented as one of the toughest to snare a road win: The Grindhouse.
Otherwise known by its corporate moniker, the FedExForum, The Grindhouse is unlike the romper rooms of Chesapeake Arena, aka Loud City, in Oklahoma City, and Golden State’s Oracle Arena, redubbed Roaracle for its altered game-day state of delirium.
The Memphis Grizzlies’ home gym didn’t derive its horror-flick nickname from the deafening screams of a zealous fandom. The Grindhouse was born from the team’s sweat-and-blood, grit-n-grind style and bequeathed by Memphis guard Tony Allen, the ultimate grit-n-grind Grizzly.
Yet, with each passing playoff game and series — just ask the hated Los Angeles Clippers — The Grindhouse name has also become representative of the team’s fans and the atmosphere they create inside the joint. There was a time when crowds only packed the Forum for their beloved University of Memphis basketball.
Ever-so-slowly, that is changing. Memphis’ roster, with players like Allen, Zach Randolph, Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, who attended high school in the city when his brother Pau Gasol led the first playoff Grizz teams, as well as coach Lionel Hollins are also emblematic of this Southern city and its citizens, making it an easy team for the people to identify with and appreciate as their own.
As a former Memphis Tigers assistant coach said this week of this town on the banks of the Mississippi: “Memphis is a grinding, gritty city of blue-collar people.”
When the Thunder enter The Grindhouse Saturday afternoon for Game 3 (5 p.m. ET, ESPN) of this semifinal series tied 1-1, they’ll face the Grizzlies and a sellout-crowd of 18,119, the 14th consecutive home playoff sellout going back to the 2010 season when Memphis upset top-seeded San Antonio and then lost to the Thunder in seven heart-stopping games.
Game 4 on Monday night is almost certain to make it 15 in a row. Only a few hundred tickets remain, a Grizzlies official said Friday night.
Grizzlies fans will be there in force and wildly waving yellow rally towels as they did for three games against the Clippers, the team that demoralized the city a year ago with a miraculous Game 1 comeback and then a Game 7 victory in The Grindhouse. It spawned an atmosphere of vengeance this time around with the feel of a WWE asylum on steroids.
Saturday’s Grindhouse crowd won’t have forgotten 2011′s seven-game semifinal loss to OKC and especially the Thunder’s triple-overtime Game 4 win on the Grizzlies’ floor.
“They came into our building and got a win,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said of the Grizzlies’ Game 2 equalizer Tuesday that stunned and silenced Loud City. ”Now we have to go into their building and get a win. Is it impossible? Absolutely not.
“It is going to be tough.”
Around the Bay Area, the refrain reminds of the “We Believe” Warriors of 2007, the eighth-seeded squad that knocked off the Dallas Mavericks in six games. Oracle Arena was just as nuts then and is known for its lunacy even when the Warriors stink.
In Memphis, this certainly is no longer 2006. Pau might not recognize the place that little brother Marc has helped to cultivate. That was the year the Grizzlies suffered a third-consecutive first-round sweep. The Grizzlies’ Game 3 overtime loss against Dallas didn’t sell out and Game 4, a 102-76 thumping, officially drew 15,104, but that number most certainly was inflated as section after section of the upper bowl sat empty.
This season marked the best in franchise history with 56 wins despite Hollins working on the final year of his contract, plus the initially controversial trade of Rudy Gay and an earlier trade that shook up the Grizzlies’ bench. There are season-ticket holders that complain that these days Grizzlies fans don’t show up until the playoffs.
They have a point. Memphis ranked 19th of 30 teams this season in attendance, averaging 16,624 per home game. Of the eight teams remaining in the playoffs, only the Indiana Pacers drew fewer fans (15,269). The Grizzlies played to 91.8 percent capacity, 17th in the league. By comparison, the Thunder ranked 12th in the league in attendance (18,203), but were at 100 percent capacity.
Still, Memphis’ situation has improved drastically since the franchise moved to Memphis from Vancouver for the 2001-02 season. For most of the decade it ranked in the bottom five in attendance.
This is known: The Grindhouse will rock-n-roll on Saturday. But as Memphis fans know, they can only deliver the insanity. Remember at the start of the playoffs when all the talk was about the home teams winning? It didn’t last long. Three of the eight teams that advanced to the second round did not have homecourt advantage — Golden State, Chicago and, yes, Memphis.
After two games in each second-round series, all four were knotted up. If more proof is needed that the loudest, most fiendish home crowds can’t guarantee victory, then check out what happened Friday night at Roaracle. Or Tuesday inside the Thunder’s own bubble called Loud City.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – We always seem to find coach Doc Rivers and his Boston Celtics in this position at the end of a season.
Perhaps it has something to do with the exhausting effort the Celtics put in each and every season, or the grueling emotional fallout from coming up short of their ultimate goal (it’s always championship-or-bust in Boston, even when the rest of us understand that it’s not possible). Rivers always seems spent when the ball stops bouncing, like he’s not sure if he has another season in him, regardless of his contract situation.
The way he and Kevin Garnett acknowledged the end in that Game 6 loss to the New York Knicks last week, it certainly felt like the end of an era was near. But maybe not. Celtics boss Danny Ainge spoke publicly on a radio show in Boston about both Rivers and Garnett coming back for another go at it next season.
They’re both under contract and even with the inevitable changes that are sure to come in the offseason, Ainge is counting on those two franchise pillars to be in place. At least that’s what he said on the radio, as Chris Forsberg of ESPNBoston.com details here:
“Doc is always unsure [about his future],” Ainge said. “Coaching is very, very draining. Every year with Doc, he’s had to go home and sort of recharge and ask himself that question, ‘Is this something that I’m passionate about and want to continue doing?’ I understand that. And we sorta give him time to unwind and relax, and after a couple of 92s on the golf course, he usually comes back.”
Pressed further on what he believes Rivers will do next season, Ainge added, “I think Doc will be coaching the Boston Celtics.”
Rivers signed a five-year, $35 million contract extension with the Celtics following the 2010-11 season. That hasn’t stopped his name from dancing in rumors about other vacant jobs, and a report by ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith suggested there were whispers around the league about a potential deal that could land Rivers, Garnett, and Paul Pierce with the Los Angeles Clippers as part of a blockbuster swap.
Said an amused Ainge: “Hey, listen, those things are silly. Those are a waste of time to even acknowledge.”
Pressed on Smith’s suggestion that there could be lingering friction between Ainge and Rivers, Ainge added, “Well, you’d have to ask Doc what he thinks, but what I think is that I have the best coach in the NBA and I’m not the least bit tired of hearing his voice. We have a great relationship from what I feel, and what I perceive, and so I have no idea where that’s coming from. But it’s certainly not coming from my side of the table.”
Ainge has every reason to support his coach. Rivers has held the Celtics together through some absolutely tumultuous times over the past couple of seasons, given the injuries to both Garnett, Rajon Rondo and others as well as the roster shuffling that has gone on since the Celtics played in The Finals in 2010.
There is a genuine love between Rivers and his veteran leaders. It’s a bond that will be extremely difficult for Ainge to break up. And make no mistake, there will come a time when the remaining nucleus of the Celtics’ championship crew of Garnett, Pierce and Rondo will no longer be a viable unit.
The Celtics’ vets aren’t getting any younger. And even with an influx of youth (Jeff Green and Avery Bradley) and fresh faces (Jason Terry and Jordan Crawford), the playoff load was just too much for Garnett and Pierce to handle without Rondo around to help direct the traffic.
“We need more,” Rivers said. “It’s like that little girl on the commercial said. ‘We need more, we need more because we need more.’ We need more, because we do. The key for us is do you want to take away to get more. And that will be a decision that make … later.”
Rivers is fiercely loyal to the players who have sacrificed for the greater good in Boston. So it won’t be easy for him to part ways with Pierce either, especially with Pierce’s history with the franchise.
“He’s one of the greatest Celtics ever to ever play. He’s done so much for this franchise,” Rivers said. “Listen, we live in a day and time when guys are changing teams like socks. And Paul has chosen to stay here throughout his career, when clearly he had all rights to leave. And he chose to stay here. I have so much respect for him for that. When I first got here we were really rebuilding. Its’s funny, we made the playoffs that first year and I remember telling him that ‘we’re going to change our team and things may not go very well for a year or two.’ And they didn’t. And Paul, he never wavered. I give him that and just an amazing amount of respect. He wanted to get it done here. He made that choice … [where] other guys are running around trying to find it.”
Ainge will ultimately have to make the decision on when the Celtics’ Big 3 era officially comes to an end. Ray Allen‘s departure last summer didn’t do it. Neither did Rondo’s season-ending knee injury nor the deflating end to this season.
If Rivers and Garnett do indeed return, whether Pierce stays on or not, the Celtics are poised to make at least one last run together before the inevitability of it all finally catches up to them.
Did P.J. Carlesimo have to go? Does Vinny Del Negro have to go?
Steve Aschburner: Let’s see, all Brooklyn did under P.J. Carlesimo was win at a clip (.648) greater than any Nets coach in history. Then, in the span of two weeks, he got lousy at his job? Right. That crew in the locker room has issues, from self-absorption to softness to an odd array of talents (not even the Teamsters need brawn badly enough to have Reggie Evans, Keith Bogans, Kris Humphries, aging Gerald Wallace and a 42-year-old Jerry Stackhouse on one roster). Blame the owner, Mikhail Prokhorov, who is impatient and star-driven, essentially the opposite of team-building. Del Negro? Well, the franchise has had two seasons of .600 or better winning in its 41 years. So of course the coach who oversaw it must go. In this case, it might be a win-win. Point guard Chris Paul gets control not just on the floor but off it and Del Negro gets that boost on his resume that accrues to all who exit the Clippers.
Fran Blinebury: I thought P.J. did a solid job after taking over for Avery Johnson and thought he earned a chance to come back next season with his own coaching staff and a full training camp. It’s pretty clear Nets ownership wants a name they can put up on the marquee. On the other hand, despite 56 wins and the first division title in franchise history, the Clippers have clearly gone as far as they can go with Del Negro. Yes, Chris Paul is their best player and team leader, but he can’t be the only voice. The Clips need a coach who can put his stamp on the team, teach Blake Griffin to play defense and stop simply relying on the whole Lob City facade.
Vinny Del Negro (by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE)
Jeff Caplan: I like P.J., he’s the genuine article, but this roster needs a stern hand to come in and throw down the hammer. Because of the payroll and the restrictive nature of the new CBA for teams like Brooklyn that are over the luxury tax, this club is going to look very similar next season so a new approach is needed to maximize players like Joe Johnson and a low-scoring forward duo of Reggie Evans and GeraldWallace, who after the entire season weirdly stated that he had no idea what his role is. As for Vinny Del Negro, what does Chris Paul want? I mean that’s really all that matters at this point. But man, I really want VDN to succeed. He’s been ridiculed and ripped since he entered the league as a no-experience head coach with Chicago. The bottom line in L.A. is that the roster was not as good as many thought. Did VDN not squeeze enough out of these guys or did players like DeAndre Jordan not fulfill his contract and potential? The bottom line is if the organization believes VDN’s strategies, adjustments, etc., did not serve the team well and/or the players don’t respect him, then it’s time to move on.
Scott Howard-Cooper: Carlesimo did not have to go — the Nets’ problems were in place before he got a chance — but it is no surprise that he did. Del Negro is more in the has-to-go category. Bad finish to the regular season after a good start. Bad finish to the playoffs after a good start. Players openly questioning the lack of strategy.
John Schuhmann: Though I was pretty critical of his extended use of a forward combination that was clearly hurting his team offensively, I don’t necessarily think that Carlesimo had to go, because we don’t know what kinds of changes he would have made with a full summer and training camp. He was handed the reins in late December, righted the ship and got his two best players playing well again, which was very important. And come playoff time, his bench options were pretty limited, because guys like Keith Bogans and Jerry Stackhouse couldn’t hit a shot. Still, I think he could have been more creative with his offense and given a floor-spacer like Mirza Teletovic more playing time to figure things out. The Clippers should probably make a move too. Like the Nets, they need someone who can be a little more creative offensively and hold his players accountable on the defensive end. That team has top-five talent, but seemed to be treading water over the last two months of the season.
Sekou Smith: Carlesimo had to go. The Nets haven’t exactly hid the fact that they’re interested in some superstar type to come in and run the show in Brooklyn. And that’s not a knock on Carlesimo, mind you, it’s just the facts as we all know them. Truth be told, it wouldn’t have mattered who coached this team. The moment that Game 7 debacle at ended Saturday night at Barclays Center, it was obvious that the Nets’ next move would be to relieve their head coach of his duties and begin the hunt for suitable replacement. The Del Negro question is best suited for Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Because we all know that they are the guys who hold Del Negro’s fate in their hands. If the Clippers’ two biggest stars demand that Vinny D remains in place, then it will be hard for the Clippers to make that move without a blockbuster hire to replace him (and we’re talking about a Phil Jackson-type blockbuster). As long as the monstrous shadow of the Zen Master hovers over both the Clippers and Lakers, no coach in either franchise is free from the drama. It’s nothing personal against Vinny. It’s just time to go if the Clippers plan on going bold in their pitch to keep Paul.
Lang Whitaker: As much as I like PJ Carlesimo, I understand why the Nets let him go. This is a franchise very concerned with perception, and Carlesimo was too much of a ham-and-egger to ever fit in perfectly. The first-round knockout surely didn’t help matters, although as the Bulls continue to rampage through the postseason, I wonder if eventually a postseason loss to this Bulls team will be viewed in a less harsh light? The Clips obviously need to settle the Del Negro question as soon as possible, with Chris Paul approaching free agency. The Clippers’ flameout in the Playoffs got progressively worse as they went along, and Del Negro’s inability to settle on a rotation became more and more glaring. The Clippers have improved greatly, but if they’re going to contend for a title, they need to do it now. As such, it’s time for a coach who can get them over that final hurdle. And that coach is not Vinny Del Negro.
HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – California’s basketball hierarchy is on its head.
As the second round is set to begin, in is the All-Star-snubbed Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors; out are the two biggest superstars set to hit the free-agent market: Dwight Howard of the Los Angeles Lakers and Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers.
In strange symmetry, Howard and Paul were both ejected in their final games of the season. Howard twice lost his cool and got the heave-ho early in the third quarter of the Kobe-less and totally injury-depleted Lakers’ Game 4 loss to the San Antonio Spurs. Referee Joey Crawford gave Paul a more controversial walk to the showers late in the fourth quarter of Friday’s Game 6 downer at the Memphis Grizzlies, the Clippers’ fourth consecutive defeat after taking a 2-0 series lead.
Both superstars will become free agents on July 1. While the smart money still says D12 and CP3 love L.A. and will stay, unceremonious endings to what were supposed to be storybook seasons for both franchises at least adds a layer of intrigue and speculation to the proceedings.
For the Clippers, 118-105 losers Friday, suddenly the celebrations of a franchise-best 56-win season and a first-ever Pacific Division title are being washed away by a tidal wave of disappointment and tough offseason decisions headlined by Paul’s choice of where next to take his talents.
“I got a lot of time to think about that,” Paul, wearing a Clipper red sports coat, told reporters after Friday’s game. “As I do with any decision I make, I consult with my wife, my parents, my brother, my family. I might even let little Chris chime in on this. We’ll see what happens.”
L.A.’s front office will wait on pins and needles for July 1 to get Paul’s answer, but they will likely move much quicker to determine the future of lame-duck coach Vinny Del Negro. When management assesses the job he’s done in leading the Clippers to the playoffs in consecutive seasons for just the second time in the franchise’s 29 years in L.A. and first time in 20 years, there will be two sides of the coin to each topic of debate.
Since being hired to lead Chicago with no previous coaching experience, Del Negro has been scrutinized, even ridiculed, like no other coach regarding his acumen of the X’s and O’s.
In this series, Del Negro’s team allowed a 2-0 lead to slip away. But how much of that is on the coach and how much is on a team that seemed to get outworked in the final four games? Did the coach not have his team prepared or did the players not show up? Did the coach fail to make proper adjustments or did the players fail to execute?
Paul averaged 22.8 points and 6.3 assists. He shot 53.3 percent and rarely turned the ball over. He didn’t get a lot of help from what was considered to be the deepest team in basketball. His All-Star teammate Blake Griffin sprained an ankle and played 24 minutes in the final two games. He finished the series with a well-below-average 13.2 ppg and 5.5 rpg while nemesis Zach Randolph dominated in the final four games.
Veteran point guard Chauncey Billups, who missed most of the season due to injury, played as if his head wasn’t in it, finishing the series with more turnovers (eight) than assists (six). After going 4-for-8 from the floor in Game 1, he went 7-for-28 the rest of the way.
Sixth Man of the Year runner-up Jamal Crawford was 7-for-21 in Games 3 and 4 and was benched in the second half of Game 6 after going 0-for-5. Matt Barnes, who threw in 30 points Friday night, was 9-for-24 in Games 2 through 5.
Caron Butler averaged 5.8 ppg in Games 2 through 5 and scored five points in 34 minutes of Games 4 and 5. Del Negro ripped center DeAndre Jordan‘s effort. Grant Hill, either injured or buried on the bench this season, was on the floor in the second half of Game 6.
The Clippers could look quite different next season. They have $45 million tied into Griffin, Jordan, Butler, Crawford, Hill and Eric Bledsoe. Two million could get returned if Hill retires as he speculated he might last month.
So let the introspection begin for a franchise that has scrapped bottom for decades and seemed to be headed for better days, if not glory days. Owner Donald Sterling in his later years has seemed to soften and to smartly open his wallet to make things happen. It’s resulted in two sensational seasons that have produced regular-season results like never before, two rare trips to the postseason while also rousing a fan base and creating a fun environment at Staples Center.
Yet the Clippers failed to accomplish Del Negro’s goal and that was go deeper in the playoffs that last season’s second-round sweep at the hands of the Spurs when Griffin was again hurt and unable to perform at a peak level.
So while Curry and the Warriors keep doing their thing, the mood is considerably darker today down in L.A.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Winning at home is a given. It’s what the Indiana Pacers are supposed to do when facing a lower-seeded opponent in the playoffs. Bullying said opponent is always a good thing, too, especially when you are trying to shift the pressure back on the Atlanta Hawks the way the Pacers did with their 106-83 Game 5 beat down of the Hawks Wednesday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
But now comes the real challenge for the Pacers, armed with a 3-2 lead and the chance to end this series in Game 6 Friday night in Atlanta.
Do it again.
Be the bully.
Impose your will.
But, do it away from home this time.
Do it in Atlanta, where you haven’t won since 2006. Snuff out that 13-game losing streak on the Hawks’ home floor. Make those of us who are still skeptical of the Pacers’ Eastern Conference contender status believers.
It’s easy to play the tough role at home. Both of these teams have done that through five games. If you want to be taken seriously, though, you’re going to have to make a statement on the road at some point. If you don’t believe that, ask the Memphis Grizzlies (who used a huge road win in Los Angeles Tuesday night to take control of their first-round series against the Clippers).
Pacers’ big man and unquestioned leader David West understands what needs to be done. He showed as much in Game 5 with a much-needed breakout performance (24 points on 11-for-16 shooting from the floor). For all the things All-Star swingman Paul George can do to take over a game, the Pacers need a show of force to get past the Hawks and move on to whatever challenges await them in the conference semifinals.
West instigated things in Game 5 and his teammates followed. George finished with 21 points and 10 rebounds, Roy Hibbert with 18 and nine and Lance Stephenson 12 rebounds as the Pacers outmuscled the Hawks on the boards 51-28. West finally backed up his barking with the production and the Pacers reaffirmed their control in this series. Now they have to take this show on the road.
“I just wanted to come out and be aggressive, take a couple of jump shots and get our guys going and get our flow,” West said. “We looked at the film [from Games 3 and 4 in Atlanta] and we left about 30 to 40 points on the board down there just not concentrating on our finishes. We didn’t give up that four or five minutes stretch we gave up in the two games at their place where they were able to extend the lead and make us fight uphill the rest of the way. It’s more about us, we were just a little bit more focused, we’ve had a couple of fiery film sessions and really, really challenged guys to own up and I thought guys did a good job responding to that. We were the initiators and not so much reacting to what they were doing.”
The Pacers earned the clear advantage in Game 5 with a show of physical force, one that caused the Hawks to melt down with Josh Smith, Jeff Teague and Ivan Johnson earning technical fouls, causing coach Larry Drew to chide his team afterwards for losing their composure and not playing smart.
It had nothing to do with the Pacers’ scheme or their analytics. It had to do with Pacers’ coach FrankVogel‘s favorite word, “disposition.”
Improved disposition on both ends of the floor by the Pacers, the better team by basically every measure, have to find a way to do what they did in Game 5 in Game 6 Friday night at Philips Arena.
Vogel disagrees, of course. He’s still clinging to the notion that this is tactical battle instead of an emotional test of wills.
“It’s just about how we’re playing in that building versus this building,” Vogel said. “I think there has been a series of moves in this series where you play a game and something works or doesn’t work and you make an adjustment. Their adjustments down there, give Drew credit, changed the momentum. Hopefully, we changed it back into our momentum and hopefully we can get game 6.”
West knows better. You lose 14 straight games in Atlanta and the pressure shifts right back on the home team for Game 7. The skeptics come roaring back into the picture, questioning the Pacers’ mettle.
A legitimate contender, the sort of big-time outfit the Pacers’ paper profile suggests they are, finds a way to end this series in six.
“We just have to fight,” West said. “We can’t have those spells where we’re on somebody else’s floor, where we for four to six minutes we are turning the ball over and giving them extra opportunities. We’ve got to to be able to go in there and handle that environment and control the basketball game. Go inside, set the tone defensively and let the chips fall where they may after that.”
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – You need a passport for this week’s stop on the Phil Jackson rumor train.
Cleveland is history, Mike Brown‘s the new (old) coach there. The Seattle situation, complete with Chris Hansen and his affinity for Jackson, took a serious hit Monday when Sacramento prevailed in its bid to keep the Kings in California. The Los Angeles Lakers’ situation is still in flux as no one knows what is going to happen with Dwight Howard (free agency looms), Kobe Bryant (rehabilitation from Achilles surgery is underway) and coach Mike D’Antoni (good for next season as coach), but they will all certainly be in the crosshairs this summer.
So the attention to Jackson has shifted north, to Toronto, where reports have the Raptors exploring the possibilities of trying to woo Jackson to be a part of their front office structure. Since he’s made it clear that he has no interest in returning to the league as a coach, the ideal situation for the Zen Master is to return as Front Office Phil.
One source said that Leiweke’s “vision and energy” and history of shared success at Staples Center with the 11-time championship coach ensures that Jackson will give the pitch strong consideration despite skepticism around the league about his willingness to relocate to Canada.
Amid its pursuit of Jackson in the wake of Leiweke’s arrival, Raptors president Bryan Colangelo is scheduled to meet with the MLSE board next week in hopes of convincing his bosses to pick up the option year on his contract. The 2013-14 option in coach Dwane Casey‘s contract was picked up by Colangelo before this season, but Leiweke’s arrival has thrown both of their futures into some immediate doubt.
In an interview last week with the San Francisco Chronicle, Jackson said “three or four teams” have already expressed interest and that “none of it involves coaching.”
“There are some interesting situations that are presenting themselves, but I really haven’t made up my mind yet what I’m going to do,” Jackson told the Chronicle.
Jackson also confirmed to the newspaper he’s interested in a developing team “where you’d have the influence in [selecting the] coaching staff and the kind of culture that goes along with it.”
It makes sense, until you remember that Jackson’s ties to the Lakers remain extremely strong. And until the Lakers make some concrete decisions about their future, there always be those who hold out hope that Jackson (alongside his fiancée Jeanie Buss) will return to the Lakers and help fix all that’s gone wrong since he departed two years ago.
That reconciliation seems impossible as long as Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak remain at the controls for the Lakers. Quite frankly, they have more pressing matters to tend to, namely what Howard will do in free agency. Having him in the fold with Pau Gasol makes the Lakers’ recovery from their ragged 2012-13 season one of the most crucial stretches in recent franchise history, considering they’ll have to do it without a healthy Bryant to shoulder the bulk of the responsibility.
There remains another potential option in Jackson’s preferred Southern California, one that Lakers faithful fear above all others, and that’s Jackson working down the hall at the Staples Center in the Los Angeles Clippers’ locker room. What better way for the Clippers to cement their takeover as the city’s top basketball outfit than to lure Jackson over to their side in his return to the NBA?
A team with a nucleus of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan with Jackson working behind the scenes (or as coach/executive, if things don’t go Vinny Del Negro‘s way during this postseason) has all sorts of possibilities. Same goes for the Brooklyn Nets, who could have a coaching vacancy this summer, barring a surprise championship run during these playoffs.
So much of this is speculation at this point, with everyone believing that they have the perfect situation for Jackson to walk into and craft to his liking, it’s hard to know what’s a legitimate possibility and what’s just hot air.
But as long as Jackson is reportedly interested in making a comeback, in whatever capacity, there will be suitors lined up to pitch him and plenty of fans anxious to see if he bites.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Forget about The Finals, for now.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have to worry about getting out of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, now that we know they’ll have to finish the Houston Rockets without one half of their superstar dynamic duo. Russell Westbrook needs surgery to repair cartilage in his right knee and could be out anywhere from four to six weeks, depending on how quickly he recovers.
“We hope [he comes back in the playoffs],” Kevin Durant said. “Our firs thing is to make sure he gets healthy and gets that knee back right. We’re not trying to rush him or bring him back ahead of schedule. We want to make sure he’s healthy and his knee is right. That’s our only concern right now.”
There is a time frame that would allow Westbrook to return later in the playoffs, perhaps late in the conference finals or the start of The Finals.
But again, the Thunder will have to make it that far without the league’s resident iron man. Love him or hate him, no one can question Westbrook’s durability, before now. He hadn’t missed a game during his five-year career, having played in 394 consecutive regular season games and all 45 playoff games the Thunder have played during that same span.
But he won’t be on the floor for Saturday night, joining a long list of game changers who are watching this NBA postseason from the bench of or beyond due to injury. Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, Amar’e Stoudemire, David Lee and Danny Granger are all watching their teams toil without them in this postseason. They all serve as human reminders for their peers that your next false step could be your last, of this season.
But none of those aforementioned stars plays on a team that had the supposed inside tack to get back to the conference finals and then The Finals, for that rematch with the Miami Heat. Westbrook’s injury opens the door in the Western Conference for the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers or Memphis Grizzlies and the Denver Nuggets or Golden State Warriors to start eyeballing the calendar in early June for a possible trip to The Finals of their own. Shoot, even the Los Angeles Lakers, down 2-0 to the Spurs in their first round series, can start dreaming about doing the unthinkable.
Simply put, the West is wide open now.
“Kevin Durant needs to take the Carmelo Anthony approach,” said ESPN analyst Jalen Rose. “Take around 25-30 shots per game, his team already has a 2-0 lead. The one thing about professional sports, and life for that matter, when opportunity knocks, you have to seize it. So trust me, all of the teams in the Western Conference, their ears perked up today. They feel like they have chance to advance.”
The Thunder earned the No. 1 seed in the West this season but entered the postseason with plenty of worthy challengers who did not plan on the fragile nature of things to swing in their favor with Westbrook’s injury. No offense to Reggie Jackson, Kevin Martin, Derek Fisher or anyone else in a Thunder uniform, but it’s Durant and Russell Westbrook who do the headlining. In fact, the Thunder have never had to work for an extended period of time without both of their stars in the lineup.
Trying to navigate these rough playoff waters with only one half of that devastating combination sounds more like mission impossible for a Thunder team that, truth be told, spent much of this season learning how to operate without the former third member of their superstar crew, Rockets All-Star guard James Harden.
Thunder GM Sam Presti, coach Scott Brooks and Durant all did their part to rally the troops today after the news spread of the severity of Westbrook’s injury.
“Our team as a whole, we’ve got a resilient group of guys, a lot of character within that locker room and a group that enjoys playing together and has been through some adversities over the last several years that they’ve been together.” Presti said. “We’d expect them to adjust, come together and have different guys step in and play well collectively. Once we were able to gather all of the necessary information and everything was accumulated, it was an easy decision for our medical team.”
The decision on how to play in Westbrook’s absence won’t be nearly as easy. The Rockets’ defensive strategy shifts now from worrying about picking between two lethal performers to focusing solely on Durant and daring that Thunder supporting cast to beat them. Westbrook averaged 24 points and seven assists through those first two games while also serving, as always, as the Thunder’s primary facilitator.
Jackson’s been solid in spurts of relief this season. Doing it daily, however, could be more than he’s capable of handling. And even if does acquit himself well in the first round, either Chris Paul or Mike Conley and their teams, will be waiting on the Thunder’s replacement for Westbrook in the next round.
Durant insists that the Thunder’s “Next Man Step Up” mantra applies in this case, just as it does any other.
“We have good depth on our team,” Durant said. “Reggie Jackson is ready for the moment. He has been working his tail off ever since he got here. So he’s ready for this. We just have to rally behind him and know that we have to give him confidence, because he’s going to make mistakes like everybody else. But we just have to keep encouraging him.”
All the courage and encouragement in the world won’t make Jackson into Westbrook. Their is certainly survival after losing a superstar. The Lakers (Kobe) and Celtics (Rondo) are proof of that much.
But we’re talking about a team focused on competing for championships, not just surviving.
“It doesn’t matter who we throw out there. We’re a 15-man team and we still are, even with Russell being hurt,” Brooks said. “We’re a 15-man team and everybody believes in each other and that’s what you have to do. You don’t win in this league with one player. You don’t win with five or six players, you win it with your team. We talk about that and we believe in the things that we talk about. We don’t jus throw it out because it looks cool on a t-shirt or a billboard. We believe in each other, we believe in what we do and we take pride in it and we’re proud about what we do.”
We’re all going to find out exactly what the Thunder do when they are forced to play a man down.
LOS ANGELES – Opposing playoff coaches Vinny Del Negro and Lionel Hollins have a lot in common. Both men have improved their clubs’ winning percentage each season as coach. The last two soared over .600 for consecutive top-five finishes in the rugged Western Conference.
Both won 56 games this season to set each franchise’s record for most wins.
While both have produced excellent seasons by any measure, one will be going home earlier than hoped. And despite public stamps of approval this week from their superiors, neither coach’s future is certain, and prior to Monday’s Game 2, neither was pretending otherwise.
“Would I liked to have had a contract before this? Of course,” said Hollins, now in his fifth consecutive season and third stint as the Grizzlies coach, a relationship that dates back to the franchise’s roots in Vancouver. “But that’s a decision that’s made and you go and do the best job you can, and it’s not like it had to be done before the season is over. It’s just like players, you can extend players early or you can wait till later. Guys become free agents and they go out in free agency and sometimes it gives you leverage and sometimes it doesn’t.”
Del Negro, who guided the Clippers to the franchise’s first Pacific Division title and first 50-win campaign in his third season and second with All-Star point guard Chris Paul, has been one of the most scrutinized coaches since Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf hired him without any coaching experience five years ago. Del Negro lasted two .500 seasons there before being fired and then hired by the Clippers.
L.A. advanced to the West semifinals last season, but with Paul and Blake Griffin banged up, was swept by the San Antonio Spurs. Del Negro said this season’s goal is to go deeper, which implies a goal of achieving another franchise milestone, a first conference final. It would take finishing off Memphis and then likely ousting the reigning West-champion Oklahoma City Thunder.
“I believe in what we’ve done here,” Del Negro said. “I think my assistant coaches have done a phenomenal job and I’ve had great support from ownership and the front office … and everybody to try and put the best team out there possible.
“Right now the focus should be on the playoffs, should be on the players and the commitment that they’re putting in to help us be successful. And all those things (contract situation) will get answered at the end.” (more…)