HANG TIME, Texas — Well, the Hornets are changing their name to the Pelicans next season. Maybe the Rockets just wanted to get in on the excitement and fun of their own identity switch.
The Houston Doormen?
The Rockets couldn’t have been more accommodating to the lowly Suns if they had carried their luggage, rolled out the red carpet for the Warriors and in the process set themselves up to fall through a trapdoor in the playoff race. Houston could have taken a step closer to clinching the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference on Monday night, but now face a must-win game on Wednesday against the Lakers in L.A. to avoid the No. 8 spot.
It is the story of a young team, in fact the youngest in the entire league, not coming into a game against a losing team with the proper sense of urgency and respect. The Rockets allowed the Suns to beat them down the floor most of the night for fastbreak buckets and also pound the ball inside in the paint.
You could chalk it up to former Rockets Luis Scola and Goran Dragic wanting to get in their licks against their former team. Scola showed off all of his veteran wiles, hitting 11 of his 16 shots for 26 points and 15 rebounds, while Dragic piled up 21 points and handed out 14 assists.
Houston’s James Harden shot 5-for-18 and finished with just 16 points, Jeremy Lin shot 8-for-19 and the Rockets turned the ball over 16 times.
Give the Suns, who’ve been accused of tanking games, credit for playing their final home game of the season with pride. But give the blame to a Rockets that was a half-step slow from the opening tip and never played as if their there was anything on the line. Which, of course, there was.
Now the Rockets must win against the desperate Lakers on Wednesday and have the Warriors lose at Portland in order to claim the No. 6 seed. If both the Rockets and Warriors win, Houston will finish seventh and face No. 2 seed San Antonio.
If the Rockets and Warriors both lose, Houston will finish eighth and open the playoffs against No. 1 seed Oklahoma City, a matchup with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook that nobody wants.
If the Lakers beat the Rockets, the Warriors are sixth regardless and L.A. will finish seventh and play the Spurs.
In that case, you have to figure the Houston Doormen will at least have earned a nice tip.
Missed a game last night? Wondering what the latest news around the NBA is this morning? The Morning Shootaround is here to try to meet those needs and keep you up on what’s happened around the league since the day turned.
The one recap to watch: Eleven games on the schedule makes for the usual: a healthy dose of blowouts (Pacers-Cavs, Mavs-Hawks, Nets-Pistons, Warriors-Hornets, Wolves-Grizz and Lakers-Suns) and a smattering of close ones (Blazers-Sixers, Wizards-Bobcats, Nuggets-Bulls and Knicks-Jazz). We’d like to go outside the box and pick one of these closer games, but was any game more exciting last night than the Heat-Celtics affair from Boston? The Celtics jumped out to a 17-point lead in the second quarter, had control of the game most of the night and even had a 13-point lead with about eight minutes to go in the fourth quarter. But as our man John Schuhmann breaks it down (and as you can see in this comeback video), the efforts of Jeff Green and the rest of the Celts weren’t enough to slow the train that is LeBron James and the Heat.
Denver painting a masterpiece around basket — Although the ending to last night’s Nuggets-Bulls game at United Center was wrought with controversy (our man Steve Aschburner has the full details on “tip-in-gate”), one thing that couldn’t be disputed was how often Denver scored in the paint on Chicago last night. The Nuggets put up 119 points on the Bulls’ often-solid defense and a look at the scoring logs reveals a lot of layups and dunks for Denver. Benjamin Hochmanof the Denver Post takes a closer look at just how efficient the Nuggets have been this season at scoring around the hoop:
Sure enough, Denver scored 64 in regulation time and finished with 68 in its 119-118 overtime victory over the Bulls.
The Nuggets’ brand of basketball leads to persistent paint penetration. It’s NASCAR basketball. The fast-breaking Nuggets entered Monday leading the NBA with an average of 57.6 points in the paint, scoring 60 or more 27 times. In the NBA this season, the six-highest paint-point totals have come from the Nuggets, with 78 as their high.
Nuggets fans should appreciate what they’re watching — few teams win this way. The Nuggets are just different.
“And you go down the roster, there’s speed and quickness,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said before the game. “Ty Lawson is as fast as anybody. Kenneth Faried runs the floor as well as any big. Andre Iguodala is a tremendous athlete. So they have a lot of guys who can go. Andre Miller is an older guy who plays at a different pace, but the way he plays allows him to play really fast. And you look at a guy like Corey Brewer, he’s found his niche there. He’s a winning-type player.”
Denver could finish with the highest average of paint points since the league started keeping that stat in the 1996-97 season. The record was set by the 1997-98 Lakers, who averaged 54.1.
Denver entered Monday leading the NBA with an average of 19.7 fast-break points and trailed only the Clippers with 19.7 points per game off turnovers.
Frank wasn’t there for the March 10 game at Staples Center when the Clippers center put Knight on a poster as he was away tending to his ill wife.
But when asked casually before tonight’s game about the uproar on social media and ESPN, Frank was critical.
“They’re called ‘game-quitters,’ they’re in the game but they’re really not in the game, so they bail out just because they don’t want to be dunked on.
“I mean, to me, I don’t know what the culture, whether it’s an AAU environment — I hate to blame that — or what the situation is, but when I read that and saw that stuff how it was such a … it just goes to show you we’re celebrating the wrong (stuff), we really are.”
He added: “If Brandon could have fouled the guy (and stopped the basket), DeAndre Jordan, the way he shoots free throws, it would’ve been a total non-issue. But at least Brandon has the courage to put himself out there to make a play. And the fact that people laugh about it and joke about it, I don’t know. There’s a whole lot more things to glamorize in our sport than something like that. I don’t even understand how that’s, like, a story, you know? And you read about how it’s trending on Twitter? Talk about Miami winning 22 games in a row, or talk about something else. But a dunk? Who cares?”
Scola’s playing time dwindling — As a member of the Houston Rockets for five seasons, Luis Scola started a possible 343 of 368 games and played in every possible game in a season four times. After being waived by Houston over the summer via the NBA’s amnesty program, he latched on with Phoenix and was thought to be the Suns’ starting power forward. That was the role Scola occupied at the start of the season before losing the gig … and then gaining it again … and then losing it again. In short, Scola’s role has been unpredictable at best for the Suns, but he hasn’t complained, writes Tyler Killian of the Arizona Republic:
Scola is averaging the least playing time (26 minutes, 11 seconds entering Monday’s game against the Los Angeles Lakers) since his rookie season in 2007-08 with Houston, when he seized the starting power-forward job midway through the year and never again came off the bench for the Rockets.
With the Suns struggling to forge an identity under interim coach Lindsey Hunter, Scola’s role often has been reduced as Hunter experiments with different rotations. The 6-foot-9-inch Argentinian admits to feeling discouraged at times.
“It’s hard for me. It’s hard,” Scola said. “It is (frustrating), but I try to use that frustration to work a little harder. Just try to stay ready and in shape.”
Whatever frustrations he may be feeling, Scola is keeping them private, living up to his reputation as a team player.
“We have no problems with Scola whatsoever,” Hunter said. “He’s the ultimate professional. If he plays 30 or he plays three (minutes), he’s the same guy — consistent. So he’s been great for us.”
Scola is doing his best to provide value in other ways, however, mentoring the younger Suns and helping them through the tougher stretches of the season.
“The NBA is about winning 50, 60 games a year, going to the playoffs and making noise and hopefully winning a ring,” he said.
“Sometimes young guys, all they know is this (losing), and that’s a problem. So the biggest thing for us is to let them know that this is not what they should be looking for.”
Pacers’ Granger OK’d to practice — Indiana waited until late February to get its one-time All-Star forward, Danny Granger, back in the lineup because he was suffering from patellar tendinosis in his left knee. Granger played five games after coming back to the Pacers’ lineup on Feb. 23, but was hardly himself (his averages: 5.4 ppg, 1.8 rpg while shooting 28.6 percent from the field) before he was shut down again due to soreness in the left knee. According to FoxSportsOhio.com’s Sam Amico, though, Granger is OK to practice again with his teammates:
Danny Granger has been cleared to resume basketball activities, Pacers coach Frank Vogel said prior to Monday’s game at Cleveland.
A sore left knee has caused Granger to miss all but five of the Pacers’ 66 games this season.
“We sort of took him off his feet for a little while, so to speak, (but) he’s resumed activity,” Vogel said. “He’ll put in a lot of individual work this week, and practice time when we have practice. We’ll see where he’s at toward the end of the week.”
Granger, a 6-foot-7 forward, led the Pacers in scoring last season at 18.7 points per game. He’s averaging 18.1 points for his career, including 5.4 in 14 minutes per game this year.
ICYMI of the night: Lawrence Frank won’t like this play, but we know a lot of people who do …:
HOUSTON — As far as seismic shifts in the landscape go, there was no tremor, no low rumble of an earthquake’s warning and it never hit with the fiery blast of a volcanic eruption.
When the Rockets went 49 days — seven full weeks — without a single loss in 2008, it grew quietly for the longest time like an oak tree’s roots growing up through the cracks in a sidewalk until one day it was busting apart the concrete.
The 22-game win streak, second-longest in NBA history, is the outlier in the record book, the one that nobody, even themselves, saw coming, and many, even in hindsight, can still not comprehend.
Before the defending champion Heat, led by the three-headed juggernaut of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, joined the club, only three teams in history had won 20 in a row. The 1971-72 Lakers with their record of 33 consecutive wins and a star-studded roster of Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and Gail Goodrich went on to win the NBA title. The 1970-71 Bucks, led by Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson, ran off 20 straight on their way to win it all.
In fact, of the top eight win streaks ever in the NBA before the Heat, five of those teams won championships. Only the Rockets did not get out of the first round of the playoffs.
“Our names will be mentioned with Hall of Fame people,” said point guard Rafer Alston. “We have something to tell our kids.”
Shane Battier, now with Miami, has called the Rockets’ streak “organic,” part of a process that evolved over time.
It wasn’t often flashy or pretty, but it was effective, like seeing a boa constrictor slowly squeeze the life out of its prey.
The Rockets were led by Tracy McGrady’s bundle of offensive skills, but they survived the loss of Yao Ming and they won and won with a growing confidence and surging defense. During the 22-game streak, they held 19 of their opponents under 100 points and 13 under 90. They won 14 games by double figures, an average margin of 12.36, and had only three games decided by fewer than six points. They won 15 games at home and seven on the road.
The Rockets even won the last 10 without their All-Star center Yao, whose season was ended by a stress fracture in his left foot on Feb. 26.
“Every time a team gets a chance to come close, the streak comes up,” said forward Luis Scola, now with the Suns. “It was a great stretch. It was a good team. If we lose any of those games it wouldn’t change that fact. But maybe that team wouldn’t be as remembered.
“You know we were playing well. It was a fun team to play with. The momentum that we had going. We were playing very well. We were beating teams just because we were good…That month and a half was great. I remember it was a lot of fun.”
The Rockets were 15-17 on Jan. 2 and 24-20 when they beat Golden State 111-107 on a night when Yao was dominant with 39 points and 19 rebounds. They were fighting for their playoffs lives, sitting precariously as the seventh seed in the Western Conference. Two nights later, they went on the road to win at Indiana 106-103 and ran off seven straight wins where they never gave up 90 points.
“What we’re developing is a great team like the Pistons,” said McGrady. “A great defensive team going out there and playing together and not relying on one or two people to score the rock.”
No. 8 was their narrowest escape, needing Steve Novak to come off the bench to hit a 3-pointer — his only field goal of the game — with two seconds left to rescue an 89-87 win over the Kings.
The streak continued through trades. On the afternoon of No. 10, they sent Bonzi Wells to New Orleans and Kirk Snyder to Minnesota, yet didn’t miss a beat in thumping Miami. They attracted real notice around the league when they whipped the No. 1-seeded Hornets in New Orleans.
When the Rockets took the floor on Feb. 26, the word was out that Yao was lost for the season and the fears inside Toyota Center were palpable. But with 41-year-old Dikembe Mutombo blocking shots, waving his finger and filling the middle, the streak rolled on.
“You could probably check this, but I’m thinking all the way to the 17th or 18th game of the winning streak we still were in the eighth spot or the ninth spot or something like that,” Scola said. “It was a really tough year for the West. The playoffs were in jeopardy.” (more…)
Coach Alvin Gentry is signaling another round of lineup changes for the Suns. Fair enough. They’re 7-13, have lost five in a row, including to the Pistons (by 40!) and Raptors, Gentry is searching for anything close to a good fit after a summer roster renovation, and this season in Phoenix is for developing rather than the playoffs. So search away.
But a possible demotion for Marcin Gortat? Now we’re talking signs of trouble.
Gortat was the biggest certainty of the entire roster at the start of camp, a double-double man in 2011-12 in his first full season there, one of the underrated centers of the game, a sign of consistency on a team slowly moving forward without Steve Nash and Grant Hill. Gortat and Luis Scola, one of the main newcomers, were supposed to be the tandem of veteran bigs who would keep the transitioning Suns in telescope range of respectability. Among several looming problems in Phoenix, center wasn’t one of them.
Except there was Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic noting Friday that Gortat was a candidate to be pulled from the starting lineup along with small forward Michael Beasley, an obvious choice at 37.4 percent from the field. If so, this goes well beyond the planned hunting for the right lineup combination.
But, wrote Coro:
Lineup moves might not be isolated to the Beasley situation. After a sensational start, Gortat’s play has dropped off drastically to the point that veteran Jermaine O’Neal went from rotation fringe to a departure from the team for his aunt’s death to playing crunch-time minutes instead of Gortat. Against Dallas, Gortat made an alleyoop on the Suns’ first play and then missed all seven of his other shots. The Suns rallied without a center (Jermaine O’Neal after taking an eye poke), as Luis Scola and Markieff Morris teamed for 28 points and 26 rebounds.
Gentry already made one set of moves earlier, putting Morris in for Scola at power forward and Shannon Brown for Jared Dudley at shooting guard. Now Gortat is at 11.3 points and 8.2 rebounds in 31.1 minutes, while shooting 52.2 percent, and the Suns are looking at the possibility of turning over the entire front court before the season is a quarter old.
Gentry is saying, according to the Republic, that it is “more than likely” Beasley will be going to the bench, as soon as Saturday against the Clippers and probably in favor of P.J. Tucker, if Tucker is ready after spraining his right knee Thursday. If an accompanying switch comes at center, the options are not as clear. The Suns could go with O’Neal or try to keep playing small with the Scola-Morris pairing that worked well the last game.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – When Rasheed Wallace talks, referees listen.
It’s been that way throughout Wallace’s basketball career, dating back to his fouling out of and then being ejected from the 1993 McDonald’s All-American game at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis (I know I’m dating myself a bit here, but I was in attendance that day).
Wallace continued his decades-old tradition Sunday in the New York Knicks’ win over the Phoenix Suns when he headed to the showers early after being ejected in the first quarter. But not everyone is convinced that he earned this latest ejection, as both Tyson Chandler and Carmelo Anthony told ESPNNewYork.com that his reputation earned him an early exit:
“I think so. He’s the only guy in the league that gets technicals for saying, ‘ball don’t lie,’ so that should go to show you right there,” Tyson Chandler said.
Wallace picked up career technical fouls 316 and 317 late in the first quarter on Sunday for arguing a foul call.
He played just 1 minute, 25 seconds in the game, the quickest ejection of his 15-year career, according to Elias.
Wallace appeared to argue with officials after he was whistled for a foul on Phoenix forward Luis Scola.
He then apparently yelled “ball don’t lie” after Goran Dragic missed his technical free throw and was ejected.
Wallace, 38, continued to argue with officials as he walked off the court flanked by security.
“I didn’t think it was that much for him to get kicked out,” Carmelo Anthony said. “He needs to trademark ‘ball don’t lie’ though. I tell you that.”
Wallace has been ejected 30 times, according to STATS, LLC, 26 times in the regular season.
On the season, Wallace has four technical fouls, one behind Anthony and Demarcus Cousins, who entered play Sunday tied for the league lead with five.
You can judge for yourself if Wallace’s latest ejection was real or based on his reputation. He is guilty as charged, for hollering after the missed free throw, but is that worth another technical and an ejection?
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – The start of training camp is just days away.
There are 30 teams that believe deep down this is the year they do it. This is the year that it all comes together. This is the year that they win it all again in Miami, finally win it in Oklahoma City or finally break through and make the playoffs in places like Sacramento, Detroit and New Orleans.
The power of positive thinking will be on full display around the league when players convene for the initial stage of the 2012-13 season.
Not all of those hoop dreams will be realized, though, and there will no doubt be teams that are convinced they are prepared to take that next step this season when they simply are not.
But we’re focusing on the positives today, peering into our crystal ball and trying to identify the teams with the goods to make good on whatever promise they’ve shown in recent seasons, Drafts and in the offseasons (in free agency and trades).
There are no guarantees, of course. Injuries and other unforeseen issues can alter the fate of a team at any time.
We’ve checked the radar, though, and the skies are clear for HT’s Five Teams On The Rise … five lottery teams with a chance to move into the realm of playoff contention:
CLEVELAND CAVALIERS, 21-45 last season
They were supposed to go away for five or six years after the departure of Lebron James and rebuild quietly. Then Kyrie Irving showed up and forced us all to reconsider. The roster is slowly but surely being fortified to surround a budding star like Irving with a supporting cast capable of making a little playoff noise at some point in the near future.
Anderson Varejao looked like his usual pesky self in London during the Olympics and Tristan Thompson showed significant promise last season as well. They’ll form the foundation of a frontcourt rotation that will include rookie center Tyler Zeller and rugged workman Samardo Samuels.
The only thing that worries us about the Cavaliers is whether or not rookie Dion Waiters is ready to assume his role as Irving’s backcourt sidekick. We were a bit surprised to see him picked where he was in the June Draft, but we were forced to reconsider when a handful of coaches and two league executives we trust gushed about him after the Draft.
Bottom line: With the fearless Irving as the ringleader (he learned from the best in Las Vegas this summer), the Cavaliers have a fighting chance this season.
MILWAUKEE BUCKS, 31-35 last season
Bucks general manager John Hammond was the league’s Executive of the Year in 2010 for a reason. If he believes that the Monta Ellis-Brandon Jennings combo is the key to getting this team back to the playoffs, we’ll ride with him. And it’s not like we needed to be convinced. Ellis has always been on our most underrated list and Jennings continues to do his thing without the respect he deserves for the improvements he’s made since entering the league.
Hammond wasn’t afraid to recognize that Andrew Bogut wasn’t the right fit for the franchise, a move that will either look like a disaster or pure genius depending on how things for turn out for Bogut and the Golden State Warriors this season. The Bucks, instead, are opting for the big-man-by-committee approach this season with Sam Dalembert, Drew Gooden, Larry Sanders, Ekpe Udoh and rookie John Henson manning the paint.
Ersan Ilyasova was a bit of a revelation last season and should give Bucks fans another dose of hope about this season and the future of the franchise. It’s not often a team stumbles onto a gem like Ilyasova, an unselfish worker bee who is effective on both ends of the floor with the range to shoot from deep and the size and versatility to guard as many as three different positions.
Bottom line: The pressure is on and Bucks coach Scott Skiles usually does some of his best work in those situations.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – For NBA players who reside outside of the superstar city limits of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant and their kind, the chance for stardom is more complex than just strapping on a jersey and someone turning the arena lights on.
Taking that step from player to star player requires not only the desire to be great but also the space and opportunity to do so, the right team at the right time, etc.
(See Jeremy Lin for further reference …)
Those roads will intersect for many during the 2012-13 season. Some will seize the moment and embrace their revised roles and others will miss the opportunity to move up the league food chain. It’s a seemingly never-ending cycle that we love to observe, if only to see which budding stars rise to the occasion.
One player with all of the pieces in place for that breakout season is Suns point guard Goran Dragic, who has a window between the end of the Steve Nash era and rookie Kendall Marshall‘s formative years, to make the case that the flashes of greatness we’ve seen from him in the past are more than just momentary bursts of greatness.
Dragic has clearly done the hard work (check the video, above … and yes, we’ll talk with him about getting us a pair of those shorts later) necessary to become the sort of player he, and so many other who have championed his cause over the years, believe he can be. Opportunity is banging on his door something fierce.
We’ll find out soon if he’s as ready as he appears to be, because if not …. there are plenty of other guys willing and waiting for their chance to pounce.
FIVE GUYS TO WATCH IN 2012-13
In addition to Dragic, these are the other guys on HT’s list of potential breakout stars this season:
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – With the Steve Nash era over and no sign of a Valley of the Sun-themed version of the Big 3 on the horizon, fans of the Phoenix Suns are bracing themselves for a rebuilding project that could be as painstaking a process as they have witnessed in years.
It’s a fact of life for fans of basically every franchise in the NBA (save for the Lakers), and a reality that the Suns organization is tackling in a somewhat unconventional and rather refreshing way.
Instead of scrambling for a quick fix or looking for some superstar to rescue them, the Suns are focusing their attentions within their program and going about the business of trying to build a playoff contender from the inside. They are making player development the staples of their operation, with 17-year NBA veteran Lindsey Hunter leading the charge as the coach in charge of helping develop homegrown talent.
Hunter began working out players this month with more individualized plans to come in September, when voluntary sessions begin.
“We’re trying to put together a system where we’re no longer looking for outside influences to create a better product,” Hunter said. “We want to do it right from the interior. A lot of people say, ‘You got to go get better players,’ which is true. But you have to make what you have better and we’re serious about it now.”
The Suns intend to hire a young former NBA big man and make the staff available to players “24-7,” General Manager Lance Blanks said.
“This is really important to me,” Blanks said. “It’s not something that was needed. What the organization was doing worked. It won at a very high level. Different personnel and situation. This will create a lot of continuity between front office, coaches and training staff.”
HANG TIME, TEXAS – There have been plenty of different reasons for teams to use the amnesty provision in the new collective bargaining agreement.
By severing their ties with Elton Brand, the Sixers put themselves in a position where they could eventually land Andrew Bynum to anchor the middle of their lineuip.
The Rockets let go of Luis Scola in part to clear space for their failed pursuit of Dwight Howard, but also as a next step in an extreme makeover of their roster.
The Suns released Josh Childress so they would have cap space to acquire Scola, who they hope will be a solid, steady veteran presence as they head in a new direction in the post-Steve Nash era.
Then there are the Wizards, who cut big man Andray Blatche because, well, it was time.
The dictionary definition of amnesty is: a forgetting or overlooking any past offenses.
After seven seasons of unrealized potential, frustration and immaturity, it might be difficult for the Wizards to completely forget all that Blatche never became, but it was clearly worth the $23 million it cost to turn him loose and turn the page. (more…)