Posts Tagged ‘Magic Johnson’

Small market powers rule NBA final four

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: Fans from five NBA cities, four of them medium or small markets, form a flash mob to support their squads

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — New York … who needs you?

Los Angeles … maybe next time.

Chicago and Houston … not since Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon, respectively.

The NBA playoffs thrive no matter which cities are represented. But with this year’s final four, we’re going to have something of a small-market extravaganza come Finals time.

San Antonio is perhaps the most successful small-market team ever.

With San Antonio up 2-0 on the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers tied at 1 heading into this weekend’s Game 3 matchups, the only thing we know for sure is that the 2014 NBA champion will hail from outside of Nielsen’s Top 10 media markets. (The Heat rank highest of the remaining teams at 16th, while Indianapolis comes in at 26th, San Antonio 36th and Oklahoma City 41st.)

The biggest headlines off the court are being generated by the teams ranking at the top of the Nielsen list. Phil Jackson and the Knicks are still looking for a coach in New York, the No. 1 media market. Kobe Bryant and the Lakers are doing the same in Los Angeles (No. 2). And that’s not to mention the Clippers and the Donald Sterling affair, which has engulfed Dallas (No. 5) Mavericks owner Mark Cuban as well.

On the court, however, the small(er) markets continue to dominate the landscape, to the delight of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who touted the game’s “renaissance” in all places, big, small and in between, before Tuesday’s NBA Draft lottery. The three best regular-season records in the league this season belonged to the Spurs (62 wins), Thunder (59) and Pacers (56).

The Heat, winners of 54 games during the regular season, have won the last two Larry O’Brien trophies and are attempting to complete a coveted three-peat. They beat the Spurs in The Finals last season and the Thunder the year before that. The Pacers, who fell to the Heat in seven games in the 2013 East finals, are looking to crash that three-team party this season and plant their own flag in this small-market surge.

If that’s not medium-to-small-market domination, someone needs to tell the rest of us what is. (more…)

Duncan, Parker, Ginobili make history

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Tim Duncan has 27 points to lead the Spurs past the Thunder in Game 1

SAN ANTONIO – Even after a dozen years in the NBA, there are some things you just don’t ever take for granted.

Such as Tony Parker being able to play in Game 1 against the Thunder without having any problems from his strained left hamstring.

“Doing good,” Parker said following Tuesday’s light workout. “Going to treatment really helped.

“Of course, I was concerned. I didn’t know how I was going to feel until we played the game.”

Parker played nearly 36 minutes, hit 6 of 12 shots, scored 14 points and dealt 12 assists.

In the process, Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili won the 110th playoff game of their careers, tying Lakers greats Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and Michael Cooper atop the all-time postseason list.

Parker also passed Isiah Thomas on the all-time playoff assist list and moved within six of becoming the 10th player in history with 1,000.

“It’s like weird,” Parker said. “It feels like a dream, coming from France, and to arrive and to accomplish all that, I feel very luck and blessed to be part of a great organization, a great team and being healthy all those years. And to pass a point guard that I really admired growing up, one of my favorite players, is just a great honor.

“It’s almost unrealistic. I look at the list and it’s weird. It’s just weird.”

What also seems hard for the Spurs’ Big Three to grasp is their place in history, getting ready to move ahead of not only Kareem, Magic and Cooper, but the Celtics trio of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, the Pistons’ Thomas, Bill Laimbeer and Vinnie Johnson for longevity and success in the playoffs.

“Same thing. I feel very lucky and blessed to be healthy and playing all those years and having another opportunity to try to go to an NBA Finals…We take nothing for granted. We know how lucky we are and, hopefully, we can keep it going.”

Those Lakers teams won five championships in the 1980, the Celtics three and the Pistons two titles. The Spurs’ threesome is working toward a fourth as it marches through the record book. Not that the stoical Duncan has been paying attention.

“Until you said it, I have never heard about it so I haven’t thought about it,” he said. “It’s a wonderful accomplishment, as a lot of the things we’ve done as a trio. Our only focus, our only concern right know is winning this series and moving on.”

Ginobili has taken the time to appreciate the accomplishments.

“We have been talking about it this year a lot, and I think it’s the same that happened as the regular season,” Ginobili said. “I think we were second, too, in regular season wins. It’s part of the same. We are so lucky to have landed in a franchise like this, with a coach like this, and having the opportunity to stay our whole career in the same city.

“That doesn’t happen very often. Three guys? At the same time? It’s very unique. And if you add the fact it’s the same coach, too. I don’t think it’s ever happened. We acknowledge, we know that we are very lucky to be here. At the same time, we just can’t be satisfied, thinking about that all the time. We are right here in the conference finals, and we just want to keep winning. We want to get another championship. We will have time to think about that in a few years once we are on a couch with a remote.”

Morning Shootaround — May 10



VIDEO: Daily Zap for games played May 9

NEWS OF THE MORNING

League appoints CEO to run Clippers | Pacers rediscovering groove | Westbrook brilliant again | Magic: Clippers won’t play for Shelly Sterling

No. 1: Richard Parsons takes over Clippers — The NBA announced on Friday that former chairman with Citigroup and Time Warner Richard Parsons was appointed interim CEO of the Los Angeles Clippers. Parsons will represent the team as the franchise goes through the process of finding a new owner, following the decision by NBA commissioner Adam Silver to ban team owner Donald Sterling for life. Broderick Turner of The Los Angeles Times caught up with Parsons to discuss his role:

“I am going to be the interim CEO of the team. In terms of the management of the team, I’ll be the owners’ representative, in terms of the relationship of the team for the NBA and its ongoing function.”

What he’ll do:

“The team from a business perspective is leadership. Now [Coach] Doc [Rivers] is the man on the basketball side. Thank goodness for him. But in terms of operation of the team, well, you don’t have an owner who can be present and you don’t have a CEO who is running the shop. And you have probably hundreds of employees, a score of players, you have advertisers, fans and ticket holders who are saying, ‘Who’s in charge here? Where is this thing going?’ We’re going to try and answer that question for them and settle things down and get things stabilized and make sure that this franchise does not lose value. We want it to continue to move in an ascending direction as it has been.”

How long does he plan to be around?

“Hopefully we’ll get things in order. I know that the NBA and Commissioner Silver are committed to moving forward ideally with cooperation with Mr. Sterling to change ownership, a transition ownership. So my initial thought is I would be there through the period of transition. A, to get things in order, and B, to keep things in order.”

His reaction to the news that Shelly Sterling wants to keep the team.

“That is really between the Sterlings and the NBA. My job is to really be a conservator of the assets, to manage the assets so it runs properly, we keep the momentum, we build the value while that question of ownership is being bought out in another arena, an arena in which I’m not standing.”

“I plan to run it until we A, restore order and then B, maintain it and hopefully through a transition process.”

When does he start?

“I’ll be out next week.”

***

No. 2: Pacers act like contenders again — For the first time in these playoffs, the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed played like a No. 1 seed. The league’s top defense during the regular season squashed the Washington Wizards, holding them to just 63 points. Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz was there and shares the details of a team that just might be rediscovering its groove:

For the first time in this postseason, the Pacers imposed their considerable will on an opponent, did it on the road against the up-and-coming Washington Wizards, played to the smash-mouth identity they forged in the first 60 games of this regular season.

After getting punched in the grill in Game 1 and barely surviving at home in Game 2, the Pacers finally looked like a team with NBA Finals aspirations, pounding the Wizards 85-63. In the process, they took back home-court advantage and grabbed a 2-1 lead in this Eastern Conference semifinal series.

These were the Pacers of November, December and January.

These were the Pacers who inspired the Miami Heat to go out and sign Greg Oden in order to match up with Roy Hibbert.

These were the Pacers who were once viewed as a candidate to reach the NBA Finals.

Question: Where’s this team been since the All-Star break?

Answer: Beats me. Beats Frank Vogel and Larry Bird and Pacers’ fans, too.

***

No. 3: Westbrook battles Paul toe-to-toe — Clippers point guard Chris Paul is regarded as the best point guard in the league. His counterpart with the Oklahoma City Thunder Russell Westbrook is giving the slighter Paul all he can handle in a semifinal series the Thunder now lead 2-1. Westbrook followed up his efficient triple-double in the Game 2 win with 23 points on 50 percent shooting, 13 assists and eight rebounds. Paul had 21 points and 16 assists, but it wasn’t enough. Anthony Slater of the The Oklahoman has more:

Kevin Durant continued his MVP play, scoring 36 points and nailing a lethal late-game fadeaway to help seal it. Serge Ibaka played his best offensive game of the playoffs – scoring 20 points on 9-of-10 shooting.

But it was Westbrook, again, who masterfully captained the ship.

He finished with 23 points, 13 assists and eight rebounds, coming up just short of what would have been his fourth triple-double of the playoffs and second in a row, something that hasn’t been done since Jason Kidd in 2002.

But more than the numbers, it was the calm aggression he played with and the smart decisions he continues to make. He had only two turnovers and made seven of his 14 shots, with only three of those 3-pointers.

Dating back to Game 6 against the Grizzlies, Westbrook looks like a different player, dynamic as ever but under control at all times.

And that was particularly true in the game’s biggest moments on Friday night.

With the Thunder clinging to a 106-103 lead with three minutes left, Westbrook whirled in for an important layup. A minute later, after two big Clippers shots had cut OKC’s lead back to one, Westbrook rose for an in-rhythm three. He knocked it in, continuing his smart and potent long-range shooting in this series (6-of-12 overall in the three games) and capped it off with his patented 3-point holsters.

***

No. 4: Magic says Clippers won’t play for Shelly SterlingMagic Johnson said Clippers players won’t stand for Shelly Sterling retaining 50 percent of her ownership stake in the team and that if she does, the players will not play. Eric Prisbell of USA Today has more:

“Those guys are not going to play for anybody (named) Sterling,” Johnson told USA TODAY Sports and two other reporters at the Omni Dallas Hotel. “It’s just how it is. It’s hard to separate the two. … It’s going to be hard for them to sell that to the fans and definitely to the players.”

USA TODAY Sports reported on Thursday that Shelly Sterling intends to remain a 50 percent owner of the Clippers, even though the NBA banned her husband for life in the wake of his racist remarks that were tape recorded and released by the website TMZ. Shelly Sterling said she would remain a passive owner and does not want to be involved in running the team.

But Johnson said it is impossible to separate Shelly Sterling from her husband, even though her voice was absent from the audio recording. He noted past allegations about deplorable living conditions by tenants who lived in properties owned by the Sterlings.

“When they accused them of (being) slumlords, that was both, it wasn’t one person,” Johnson said. “It was both of them. … They will never recover from this. All the sponsors pulling out, they will pull out for good if she is owning it. It’s not going to be the same.”

When asked to characterize his level of interest in buying the Clippers, Johnson said he wanted to wait until the team is officially up for sale before he states his interest level. Johnson has said that he one day wants to own an NBA team.

“First of all, we have to all remember that that is a long way away,” Johnson said. “The board of governors first has to vote him out. Donald Sterling is going to fight it. You know that. It is going to be a long time.

“I have other things to do before I just say my level of interest. The team has to be up for sale. And I think that is going to be eight months to a year. Once it’s official, that it’s really up for sale, we’ll take a look at it.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Sacramento arena deal complete, heads to City Council for historic vote … Warriors latest expected to explore the availability of Tom Thibodeau?LeBron James is not thrilled his favorite NFL team passed on Johnny ManzielGreg Oden: “I know I’m one of the biggest busts in NBA history

Morning Shootaround — May 9



VIDEO: Daily Zap for games played May 8

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Report: Kobe wants a say in hiring of next Lakers coach | Wizards’ Wall eager for Game 3, redemption | Thunder: Griffin up to old tricks | Nets’ Williams missing when team needs him most

No. 1: Kobe wants a say in hiring of Lakers’ next coach: After years of suggesting that he didn’t want anything to do with the work being done by ownership and the front office, it appears that Kobe Bryant has warmed up to the idea of having some input on such matters. The Los Angeles Lakers superstar wants a say in who the franchise pursues and hires to replace Mike D’Antoni, according to Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com. That’s an abrupt departure from his public stance for years:

Kobe Bryant, speaking publicly for the first time since Mike D’Antoni resigned from the Los Angeles Lakers, expressed apathy about the turn of events while saying he would, though, like to have an active role in choosing a new coach.

“Honestly I didn’t care,” Bryant said Thursday during a guest appearance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” when asked by Kimmel if he was “happy” that D’Antoni accepted a buyout of close to $2 million for next season rather than come back to coach the team.

“Mike was dealt a really bad hand in dealing with all the injuries that he had here,” Bryant said. “This is a tough place, man. If you’re not winning, you’re not going to survive, man.”

Bryant added that Magic Johnson‘s controversial tweet in which he celebrated D’Antoni’s departure reminded him of a scene out of “The Wizard of Oz.”

“The first thing I thought of was seeing the Munchkins on the Yellow Brick Road dancing and singing, ‘The Wicked Witch is dead,’ ” Bryant said. “When he tweeted that, that song just came to mind.”

Bryant hopes the Lakers will sing a different tune than they have in the past when it comes to consulting him about hiring their next coach.

“On the last two they didn’t,” Bryant said, referring to Mike Brown and D’Antoni, who both failed to endure the length of the initial contracts they signed with the Lakers before parting ways. “On the third one, I’m hoping they do.”

Taking over for a legend like Phil Jackson is never easy, of course. Bryant said he still speaks to Jackson “often” and expects the 11-time championship winning coach to transfer those results to his front-office role with the New York Knicks.

“I think he’ll do fantastic,” Bryant said. “Especially the more people say that he won’t be successful.”

Bryant had similar faith in the Lakers’ brass, endorsing the efforts by Jackson’s fiancée and Lakers president, Jeanie Buss, as well as her brother and Lakers executive vice president of player personnel, Jim Buss, in steering the franchise in the right direction.

“Jimmy and Jeanie both, they’re just really determined and excited about the possibilities of next season and rebuilding this and building on their father’s legacy and everything that he’s accomplished,” Bryant said. “And they’re taking the challenge extremely, extremely seriously. They’re both on the same page and they want nothing but excellence here, so I have no doubt that we’ll make it happen.”

 

(more…)

Westbrook’s Game 2 one for the books

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Westbrook steps up in Game 2 as Thunder even series

OKLAHOMA CITY – It took Memphis coach Dave Joerger seven games to finally shake his head and throw up his arms.

“I have no idea why he takes the flack that he takes,” Joerger said. “This man can play.”

This man is Russell Westbrook. Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers needed just two games and a third playoff triple-double from the Oklahoma City Thunder point guard to say the same.

“He gets criticized a lot, but I don’t know why,” Rivers said. “The dude plays hard.”

Still, the dude gets piled on, so much so that Kevin Durant felt compelled to address it in his MVP acceptance speech: “A lot of people put unfair criticism on you as a player…”

Criticism revolves around a Westbrook tendency to go off on volume-shooting binges. The theory goes his poor judgment steals shots from Durant, the more natural scorer who should always finish with more attempts.

Lost in this simplified dissection is that Durant is a four-time scoring champ, and now the MVP in six seasons playing alongside Westbrook. Together they’ve made two Western Conference finals and one NBA Finals. Had Westbrook, 25, not torn the meniscus in his right knee in last year’s postseason, well, who knows?

Westbrook’s full-throttle, yet totally in-control Game 2 performance for a third triple-double in five games thrust him into elite company. Only four other players have produced three or more triple-doubles (but no more than four) in a single postseason going back to 1985: Magic Johnson had four in 1991 and three in each 1986 and 1987; Larry Bird had three in 1986; Rajon Rondo recorded four in 2012 and three in 2009; Jason Kidd had four in 2002; and LeBron James had three last season.

Just a reminder: The Thunder and Clippers are only headed into Game 3 of the second round (Friday, 10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Westbrook’s Game 2 mega-performance of 31 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists and three steals is a four-category combination so rare in the postseason that only three other players have managed it: Charles Barkley (32 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists, three steals) in 1993; Gary Payton in 2000 (35 points, 10 rebounds, 11 assists, six steals); and James in 2013 (32 points, 10 rebounds, 11 assists, three steals).

Going 13-for-22 from the floor (59.1 percent) made Westbrook the first point guard in NBA playoff history to post at least 30 points on 59-percent shooting while also accumulating double-digit rebounds and assists. He’s the first player to do it since Barkley in 1993, and he became only the sixth player since 1985 to accomplish such a stat line, also joining Ralph Sampson (1986), James Worthy (1988), Michael Jordan (1989) and James (2010).

The 6-foot-3, 200-pound Westbrook scored his Game 2 points in a variety of ways — pull-up jumpers, post-ups against his smaller counterparts Chris Paul and especially Darren Collison, full-speed penetrations, plus two 3-pointers on four attempts.

“Just taking what the defense gives me,” Westbrook said afterward.

Hard to criticize that.

Morning Shootaround — May 8



VIDEO: Daily Zap for games played May 7

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Whose house? Russell’s house! | Blazers have to prove they can hang with Spurs | Hibbert feeds off of positive vibes from teammates, mentors | Heat always ready for “lineup Twister”

No. 1: Round 2 of an epic point guard battle goes to Russell Westbrook: Chris Paul fired the first shot in Game 1. Russell Westbrook‘s response … whew! After spending the opener as a guest on his own floor, Westbrook made it clear whose house it was with a wicked Game 2 effort, finishing with a triple-double* that helped lift the Thunder. Before things head for Hollywood for Games 3 and 4, Westbrook took his star turn. Jenni Carlson of the Oklahoman has the details:

Russell Westbrook made it clear early that Game 2 was going to be different.

On the first possession of the night, he snagged a steal, then in the process of gathering the ball and heading up court, he ran counterpart Chris Paul into an official. It was whistled a foul on Paul. Then, Westbrook got an offensive rebound and drew a foul on Blake Griffin. Then, he dished an assist to Kevin Durant.

The game was less than a minute old, but the Thunder point guard was already filling the stat sheet.

Setting the tone, too.

“I think Russell probably played harder than all of us combined,” Paul said. “He was all over the place.”

On a night when the Thunder needed to win on home hardwood and even up this Western Conference semifinal – and did just that with a 112-101 victory — Westbrook made sure that this series turned around. He scored. He rebounded. He assisted. He defended. He hounded.

In the process, Westbrook notched his third triple-double of these playoffs.

No other player has even one triple-double in this postseason.

Roll that around in your head a minute. Westbrook 3, rest of the NBA 0.

His triple-double numbers: 31 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists. He became the fifth player in the last 25 seasons with three or more triple-doubles in one postseason. The others: Magic Johnson, LeBron James, Jason Kidd and Rajon Rondo.

Westbrook added three steals and plenty of defensive headaches for the Clippers. What’s more, Westbrook contained Paul, who managed only 17 points and 11 assists. Maybe that seems like a lot, but compared to what he did in Game 1, the damage was minimal.

Two nights after Paul dominated this matchup with eight three-pointers, 32 points and a career night, Westbrook showed that he wasn’t going to back down. Yes, Paul is great. Sure, he might be the best point guard on the planet.

Then again, maybe not.

The point guard battle royale is back on.

And it is because Westbrook went right at Paul. He drew that foul on the opening possession. Then, he just kept coming. He crashed the boards. He looked for contact. He drove to the basket. For as good as Paul is, he’s more jitterbug than bruiser, and with Westbrooks height and size advantage, he used that to his advantage.

Less than halfway through the first quarter, Paul picked up foul No. 2 and had to go to the bench.

“It’s tough to guard him as it is,” Paul said, “but you get two bad fouls early in the game … it makes it that much tougher.”

(more…)

Morning Shootaround — May 1



VIDEO: Daily Zap for games played April 30

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Fisher next to lead Lakers? | Report: Magic interested in owning Clippers | Hawks unveil revamped ‘Pac-Man’ logo | Report: Bulls trying to trade Boozer | Nets’ Twitter account blasts own fans

No. 1: Should Lakers look to Fisher next? — ICYMI last night, Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni resigned from his position … and the speculation about who will have one of the NBA’s most glamorous jobs began almost immediately. Our Sekou Smith thinks Duke legend Mike Krzyzewski would be a good fit in Lakerland, and there’s buzz out there that ex-Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins might be interested in the gig, too. But what about a former Laker (and Kobe Bryant running mate) coming back in the fold to lead L.A.? Adrian Wojnarowski broaches the idea of current Thunder reserve guard Derek Fisher taking the reins some time soon:

As little as Mike D’Antoni wanted to coach Kobe Bryant in the end, Bryant wanted to play for D’Antoni even less. They had barely communicated for months, steering clear until a permanent parting on Wednesday night. They would’ve been miserable together, would’ve inevitably imploded the Los Angeles Lakers locker room.

D’Antoni is a great offensive mind, but his difficulties with Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol and Bryant have played a part in the unraveling of his coaching career. Lakers management had a willingness to bring him back next year, but refused to make a commitment beyond 2015.

The Lakers have lost talent, lost stability, lost what separates winning and losing franchises. Bryant won’t pick the next coach, the way he had no input into Mike Brown and little into D’Antoni. Bryant will wish for Tom Thibodeau to free himself from Chicago. He loves Jeff Van Gundy, and shares management’s affinity for Euro legend Ettore Messina, who spent a season on Mike Brown’s staff.

Bryant has long admired Byron Scott, but there’s a different ex-Lakers guard who could go much further to regenerate the franchise’s culture and hold the insight into getting the most out of Bryant’s final two seasons: Derek Fisher.

The Lakers need to make themselves a destination again. Free agency has major importance in 2015 and ’16 for the Lakers, and they’ll need to be positioned to make a run at Kevin Durant.

Superstars want desperately to consider the Lakers in free agency, but they won’t go anywhere based only on geography and banners. They’ll need to see an infrastructure of talent, management structure and coaching. Durant will want a culture, and Fisher could’ve grown into the job by ’16 to sell him on the Lakers’ brand.

It is risky to hire a coach with no experience, but the right minds and right coaching staffs can make it work. Fisher will command respect and he’ll be synonymous with a championship heritage that Lakers fans crave as a face of the franchise. Fisher is close to the end with the Thunder, and he’ll be the rare non-star to choose his next direction: management, coaching or television.

Derek Fisher is nearing the end, and willing to listen. This is a call the Buss family and Mitch Kupchak must make, a conversation with Fisher they owe it to the franchise to have sooner than later.

(more…)

Hakeem to Dwight: It’s mind that matters

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: What does it take to come back from a 3-1 deficit?

HOUSTON — It was 20 years ago when I entered a Rockets locker room in Phoenix and got a lesson in mind games.

Hakeem Olajuwon was sitting at a stall in the cramped room for the visiting team, lacing up his sneakers. His Rockets had lost the first two games at home to Charles Barkley and the Suns, then won Game 3 in the desert.

Still the Rockets were the team in the hole just a little more than an hour before tipoff of Game 4 when I mentioned to Olajuwon that the heat and the pressure were again on his team.

He looked up, smiled peacefully and reached out to pull a folding chair up next to his.

“Sit down and let me explain,” Olajuwon said. “The pressure is all on Phoenix. Because they know if we go back home 2-2 they will have wasted having the advantage. The know we will win Game 5 at home. They will have to fight to survive in Game 6 and then they will not have a chance in Game 7 in Houston. That is why they will feel the pressure. They know they must win tonight.”

The Suns didn’t. The Rockets won in seven and the legend of Clutch City was born.

Fast forward to 1995. This time Barkley and the Suns built a 3-1 lead on the Rockets. This time Barkley and the Suns had home-court advantage.

This time I was sure I had Olajuwon backed into the corner when I approached him again about an hour before Game 5. Now the situation was reversed and the Rockets were the ones on the ropes. He saw me coming.

“Where’s your chair?” he asked with that impish grin.

I sat down and he was immediately off making twists and turns of logic and faith and resolute determination.

“Phoenix must win tonight,” he said. “If they don’t end the series, they know we will go back to Houston and win Game 6. Then we come back here and the pressure to win Game 7 will be so great. They will be tight. They will be tense. They will be afraid to fail and that often leads to failure.”

Which it did. And the Rockets went on to win their second consecutive NBA championship.

Mind games.

That’s where the Rockets are today, trailing the Trail Blazers 3-1 with their toes and their season dangling over the edge.

That’s where Olajuwon comes back in. The Hall of Famer didn’t just work with Dwight Howard on his post moves at practice Tuesday. He worked on his head.

“It is deceiving if you look at the situation as 3-1,” Olajuwon said. “I told Dwight, I told all of them, that the situation is just one game and then everything changes around.”

Three of the first four games have gone to overtime, every Blazers win by five points or less.

Let Kevin McHale and his coaching staff worry about the X’s and O’s, the juggling of the playing rotation, the tweaks to the lineup, how to corral LaMarcus Aldridge. The greatest player in franchise history says all the Rockets have to do is have the right attitude.

“This is the Rockets’ chance not just to win a game, but to dominate, to take control of every play, every possession at both ends of the court and take over the series,” Olajuwon said. “If you think about it, this should be the most free, the most easy game the Rockets have played in the playoffs. Play that way and everything changes.”

That’s how the great ones from Bill Russell to Larry Bird to Magic Johnson to Michael Jordan to Hakeem always climbed the ladder. They played to thrive, not just survive. They never felt their backs were against the wall, because they simply refused to acknowledge the very existence of the wall. The problem is never theirs, but one that belongs to the other guy.

“Portland is feeling good about themselves right now,” Olajuwon said. “They have won three times and they have a chance to close it all out in Game 5. But they better, because if you think about it, this next game is their best chance. If they lose this game, if you punish them, dominate them, you plant that doubt.”

Those Rockets of 1994 and 1995 were a veteran bunch. From Hakeem to Otis Thorpe to Vernon Maxwell to Clyde Drexler to Kenny Smith to Mario Elie, they had been around more than a few basketball blocks. By the second time around, even the youngest bricks in their wall — Robert Horry and Sam Cassell — had lived through the crucible of the first experience.

These Rockets, as far as playoff pedigrees, mostly couldn’t be more wet behind the ears if you tossed them into the ocean.

“That’s why I told Dwight that it’s up to him to set the pace,” Olajuwon said. “He and James Harden are the veterans. But he is the center. He is the one the game goes around, on offense and on defense. Set the pace. Come out strong.

“I am excited about what I see from Dwight since the beginning of the season. I watch and I see many of the things that we’ve worked on coming out in his game. I see moves. I see a jumper that could be a bigger weapon in the future. I see aggressiveness in him that is becoming more consistent.”

What he wants to see, what he needs to see now, is a team leader that doesn’t recognize the current predicament as anything but an opportunity.

Two decades later, a seat in another folding chair and another lesson, for me and for Howard.

“Like I told him,” said Olajuwon, “3-1 is just going out and having fun.”

Mind games.

MVP only half the battle for Durant

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: Kevin Durant has more than just the MVP trophy on his mind this year

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Kevin Durant really was tired of being No. 2, finishing second, being a groomsman and never the … you get where this is going.

When the Oklahoma City Thunder star declared earlier this season that he was tired of leading a life filled with being second best, dating as far back to his prep days to Draft night and all the way through his first six seasons in the NBA, he meant every word.

Once the ballots come in for the KIA MVP Award, Durant should finally be able to shed that No. 2 label. He’s already achieved as much in our eyes, topping reigning back-to-back and four-time MVP LeBron James and the rest of a star-studded field for the No. 1 spot on the KIA Race to the MVP Ladder.

Durant has already claimed his fourth scoring title in just seven NBA seasons. But has he played his way into that intergalactic category with some of the other universal superstars — James, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Dwyane Wade, Tony Parker and Kevin Garnett rank among the active MVP or Finals MVPs still in business today?

Could be. He certainly has all of the credentials necessary for inclusion … well, everything but the official word that he is the most valuable player in the NBA. And even that might not be enough validation for Durant, who holds himself to a championship standard.

NBA TV research ace Kevin Cottrell agrees that Durant has only finished half the battle, provided he walks off with KIA MVP honors. Oh yes, there’s definitely more to be done this season …

Spoiler alert: Kevin Durant will win his first ever Most Valuable Player award.

Durant is average career highs in points (32.0) and assists (5.5) while shooting 50.5% from the field. K.D. winning the award may come as no surprise but the odds of him doing so in route to winning a title may shock you.

Since the inception of the MVP award (1955-56), the hardware has been handed out 57 times. There have been 36 players to win the award however only seven first time MVP winners went on to win a title in the same season.

​Surely Durant can make it eight but it’s been 20 years since we’ve last seen it done. The 1993-94 award went to Houston Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon after which he led them to their first of two NBA titles. According to Elias Sports Bureau, the other six players to join Olajuwon in this feat are no doubt Hall-of-Famers (as seen below) but there are many other legends that didn’t make the cut.

First Time MVPs to win a title in same season
56-57–Bob Cousy (Celtics)
69-70–Willis Reed (Knicks)
70-71–Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (as Lew Alcindor)- Bucks
83-84–Larry Bird (Celtics)
86-87–Magic Johnson (Lakers)
99-00–Shaquille O’Neal (Lakers)
93-94–Hakeem Olajuwon (Rockets)

​Keep in mind 5-time MVP Michael Jordan was occupied with batting cages when Olajuwon won in 1994. As for Durant, former MVPs Tim Duncan and LeBron James still stands in his way.

Consider this, despite the greatness of Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Julius Erving, Jordan, Duncan and James, none of those luminaries were able to win a title the same year they captured their first MVP award.

​There’s so much energy exerted throughout an 82-game season, one can only imagine how tough it would be for a player to win the MVP award for the first time and have enough left for the post season. The edge for Durant may be his 2012 Finals appearance, which resulted in disappointment and ultimately the fuel needed to elevate his game to another level.

​Let me be the first to congratulate Durant and lead the applause on becoming the 37th different player to be named League MVP. It truly is an honor.

So prepare for your twitter mentions to hit a new high.

However, if @KDtrey5 can find a way to become the eighth player to win his first MVP award and a title in the same season, his mentions will far surpass social media.

#All-TimeGreats


VIDEO: Kevin Durant has put up fantasty-like numbers all season for the Thunder

Kobe criticism can’t all fall on Jim Buss

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Shaq weighs in on Kobe’s frustration with the Lakers organization

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Phil Jackson is gone. Mike D’Antoni remains, for now. Two parties at the top of the Lakers pyramid aren’t going anywhere: Jim Buss and Kobe Bryant.

The latter, reduced to six games this season due to injury but signed to a two-year extension for $48.5 million, last week turned up the heat on the former to put the broken Lakers back together. This summer.

As Kobe should know after signing his over-market deal, it’s easier said than done. Yet during his press conference to officially announce that his slowly healing knee will prevent him from playing again this season, Bryant dug into the late, great owner Jerry Buss‘ son-in-charge Jim — and to an extent Jeanie, Jim’s sister and Phil’s girlfriend — to set a distinct course for the future on everything from team culture to the team’s coach.

“You got to start with Jim,” Bryant said. “You got to start with Jim and Jeanie and how that relationship plays out. It starts there and having a clear direction and clear authority. And then it goes down to the coaching staff and what Mike is going to do, what they’re going to do with Mike, and it goes from there. It’s got to start at the top.”

Of course no one, not Kobe, was fanning distress signals at the start of the 2012-13 season when the conversation was whether the Lakers would win 70. They had pulled off a deal for Dwight Howard (no complaints at the time in Lakerland), a move the club had planned to come after trading for Chris Paul following the 2011 lockout, but everybody knows that story.

Then-commissioner David Stern, acting as decision-maker for the then-New Orleans Hornets because the league owned the team at the time, vetoed the trade that would have joined Paul with Kobe. A week later Stern stamped Paul’s ticket to the Clippers, leaving Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak fuming. The next summer, as consolation, the Lakers made the swap with Phoenix for Steve Nash, again prompting praise void of complaint.

Only nobody could foretell the freak leg fracture Nash would suffer in his second game in purple-and-gold, an injury that spawned relentless nerve damage and could well end his career next month.

Mike Brown was fired five games into the season. The hiring of D’Antoni over Jackson was, yes, mishandled, messy and ill-advised, deserving of criticism. The maniacal Kobe despised the happy-go-lucky Dwight. Dwight pouted over D’Antoni’s no-post offense. Then Kobe blew out his Achilles in the final days of the regular season. Conveniently lost in the clutter was the 28-12 finish to the season. Before Kobe’s injury and before injury would again force Nash to bow out, experts on TV, including the highly critical Magic Johnson, were calling the Lakers a serious threat to beat the Spurs in the first round.

Only now, as this injury-plagued disaster of a season limps to the end, it seems so long ago.

Now, as Jackson takes the controls of the Knicks to Kobe’s dismay, the Lakers’ future, as murky as it is, will have to unfold one step at a time, regardless of how quickly Kobe wants a contending team to magically appear around him.

Jim Buss might not be his father, but it’s also not the same NBA. The collective bargaining agreement doesn’t make a quick rebuild easy even for big-market, high-revenue teams. Kobe’s high-priced extension eats into this summer’s cap space, making it next to impossible to re-sign Pau Gasol along with a max-level free agent despite Kobe’s constant lobbying to the front office keep Pau on board.

In fact, Jim Buss believed he had already secured contending seasons for Kobe’s final years by securing the franchise’s next superstar in Howard.

Kobe had no tolerance for Howard’s playfulness nor did he hold an interest in convincing him to stay. And now Kobe is short on teammates, patience and time. He says he’s not interested in a drawn-out rebuild, even as few other choices are plentiful.

His turning up the heat on Jim Buss can’t come without also looking in the mirror. The Lakers will have cap space to work with this summer and next, and a high draft pick this June. That’s Jim Buss’ new starting point.

“It’s my job to go out there on the court and perform. No excuses for it, right?” Kobe said. “You got to get things done. It’s the same thing with the front office. The same expectations they have of me when I perform on the court is the same expectations I have for them up there. You got to be able to figure out a way to do both.”

Unfortunately for Kobe and the Lakers, it’s easier said than done.