Posts Tagged ‘Marc Gasol’

Mavs, Griz fight for right to play… OKC?

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Rick Carlisle talks about the Mavs’ season-ending game vs. the Grizzlies

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – The Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies might as well just come out and say it: Give us the MVP.

The vibe emanating from both camps as they prepare for tonight’s Grindhouse showdown that will decide the Nos. 7 and 8 seeds in the Western Conference is that both teams would just as soon stay away from the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs and take their chances against probable league MVP Kevin Durant and the somewhat shaky-looking Thunder (or still possibly the hard-charging Los Angeles Clippers).

Records before and after the All-Star break

                                    OKC              SA           Memphis       Dallas

Before                       43-12            39-15           30-23              32-23

After                           15-11              24-4             19-9                 17-9

With multiple story lines swirling, the Mavs and Grizzlies, both 49-32, will make this regular-season finale count (8 p.m. ET, ESPN). The loser settles for the No. 8 seed and a first-round playoff series against the Spurs. The winner takes the No. 7 seed and will head to either Oklahoma City or L.A., depending which team takes the No. 2 seed after tonight’s games.

Dallas won the first three meetings against Memphis. The first two came before Christmas when Memphis was a defensive mess. The third, at Memphis in early February, the Grizzlies played without point guard Mike Conley.

Memphis is trying to secure a second consecutive 50-win season. Dallas has been talking up 50 wins as a team goal for weeks, trying to get back to the mark it hit for 11 consecutive seasons, but not since the championship year of 2010-11 (they were 36-31 during the 2011-12 lockout season, falling below the .610 winning percentage of 50 wins, and 41-41 last season to snap a 12-year playoff streak).

After struggling early in the season at home, the Grizzlies are riding a season-best 13-game win there. The Mavs have won their last six road games, their longest such streak this season.

As for the preferred playoff matchup, neither the Spurs nor the Thunder will be a walk in the park. San Antonio ranks fifth in the league in offensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions) and fourth in defensive efficiency. OKC ranks seventh in offensive efficiency and fifth in defensive efficiency. Only the Thunder have looked out of sync since the All-Star break, struggling at times defensively and with cohesiveness because of missing pieces due to injuries.

The Mavs and Grizzlies both stumbled to 0-4 against the Spurs. Worse, Dallas has lost nine straight to San Antonio and Memphis has dropped 14 of 16.

Dallas’ four losses came by an average margin of 11.5 points; Memphis by 11.3. At least the Grizzlies can claim they were without big man Marc Gasol for essentially two of those games. Gasol injured his knee in the 102-86 loss on Nov. 22, playing just nine minutes. The injury that kept him out of the 110-108 overtime loss on Jan. 7, a game defensive bulldog Tony Allen also missed. However, fully loaded on April 6, Memphis got trounced in San Antonio, 112-92.

For offensive-minded Dallas, San Antonio simply presents an awful matchup. The Spurs’ excellent close-out defense limits the Mavs’ 3-point attempts while their precision offense dissects Dallas’ porous defense. In the four meetings, the Spurs have attempted 31 more 3s and outscored the Mavs from beyond the arc by 54 points. In their final meeting on April 10, Tony Parker didn’t play and Patty Mills did the honors, lighting up Dallas for six 3-pointers and 26 points.

Spurs vs. Mavs                      Spurs vs. Grizzlies

Dec. 26: W 116-107                  Oct. 30: W 101-94

 Jan. 8: W 112-90                     Nov. 22: W 102-86

 March 2: W 112-106               Jan. 7: W 110-108 (OT)

April 10: W 109-100                 April 16: W 112-92

If San Antonio has a rooting interest in tonight’s game as they wrap up the regular season at the Lakers, it has to be for the Mavs to pack to their bags for South Texas. Memphis puts up more defensive roadblocks and dishes out far more physical punishment that the Spurs and Tim Duncan, creeping up on his 38th birthday in nine days, would prefer to avoid.

Against Dallas, ranked 22nd in defensive efficiency, the worst among the 16 playoff teams, Duncan averaged 18.5 ppg on 51.1 percent shooting and 12.5 rebounds. Against Memphis, even with Gasol missing time, Duncan averaged 12.0 ppg on 45.0 percent shooting and 8.5 rebounds.

Memphis, which can have a hard time scoring — only the Pacers and Hawks rank lower in offensive efficiency among playoff teams — didn’t fare any better against the Thunder, losing all four games to the team they beat in five games in last year’s conference semifinals. Of course, OKC played that series without Russell Westbrook, as they did twice against Memphis this season. But Memphis can make similar claims with Gasol. As with any regular-season series, who’s in and out of the lineup can alter relevance.

Dallas gained a measure of confidence against OKC over the last month, beating it twice, routing the Thunder at their place on March 16 and outlasting them in a wild OT game at home nine days later. In the two games, Dallas made 28 3-pointers, four more than it managed in four games against San Antonio. Of course, the Thunder was missing Westbrook, defensive stopper Thabo Sefolosha and starting center Kendrick Perkins in the first Dallas win and Sefolosha and Perkins in the second.

Thunder vs. Mavs                      Thunder vs. Grizzlies

Nov. 6: W 107-93                            Dec. 11: W 116-100

March 16: L 109-86                        Jan. 14: W 90-87

March 25: L 128-119 (OT)              Feb. 3: W 86-77

–                                              Feb. 28: W 113-107

Finally, after tonight, the playoff pairings will be set and all these numbers can be tossed out the window.

Defensive Player: Do-it-all Joakim Noah

By Lang Whitaker, NBA.com


VIDEO: Joakim Noah is a nominee for April’s Kia Eastern Conference Player of the Month

My choice for Kia Defensive Player of the Year does not lead the NBA in rebounding, blocks, steals — any of the categories that for years were traditionally cited when considering the best defensive players in the NBA.

That said, it is easy to defend the choice of Joakim Noah as Defensive Player of the Year because he’s been the linchpin defender for a team that ranks as one of the best in the NBA. This selection was influenced in many ways by the always-unreliable eye test: Noah looks like he defends harder than anyone else, reading the opponents plays, heartily embracing the challenge of stopping whichever player he is asked to defend each night, clapping his hands, using defense to fuel his intensity.

Considering what they have been through this season — losing Derrick Rose to injury, trading away Luol Deng; the Bulls have basically held this season together with twine and strategically placed scotch tape — the Bulls have needed Noah like never before. And Noah has been the straw that stirs the drink. As Houston coach Kevin McHale said about Noah a few weeks back, “He should be defensive player of the year. He’s done a great job with these guys. They’ve been winning a lot just on his energy and effort, his kind of determination and toughness. Those are all qualities everybody appreciates.”

These are also all qualities that aren’t easily quantifiable. So just to make sure my eyes weren’t lying to me, I checked with our stat guru John Schuhmann to see if the numbers matched my brain. I asked Schuh for a few advanced stats that needed to be considered when selecting the best defensive player. John initially mentioned team defense: As of today, the Bulls have the second-best defensive rating in the NBA, at 97.8. John also mentioned looking at the plus/minus numbers for the players I was considering. The Bulls are +4 when Noah’s on the court, and -3.6 when he’s off the court.

Finally, John said, to measure the effect of a big, look at how they defend at the rim: Noah ranks 12th in the NBA. Noah also has shattered his career high in rebounds with 877 total, which includes (as of today) 600 defensive boards; his previous season high was 484 defensive rebounds.

What really underscores his value is that Noah is versatile enough to step out and defend stretch fours on the perimeter, while also able to dig in and bang with bigs on the interior. Noah can do almost everything on the defensive end, and if there’s something he can’t do, he doesn’t seem to notice, giving the type of effort that coaches dream about. Noah does all of this with terrific consistency, working his butt off night after night, like a physical manifestation of coach Tom Thibodeau’s raspy verbal exhortations.

• For me, the player who came closest to beating out Noah for this award was Indiana’s Roy Hibbert. Hibbert is probably the NBA’s best rim defender, but his rebounding numbers have plummeted the last few months, and as the Pacers have struggled the last few weeks, particularly on offense, they haven’t been able to look to defense to sustain them.

• Other bigs in the mix for this award? Besides Hibbert and Noah, I also considered DeAndre Jordan, Andrew Bogut, Serge Ibaka, Anthony Davis and Marc Gasol.

• As far as perimeter players go, numbers make a bold case for Andre Iguodala. As Schuhmann pointed out in his Defensive Player of the Year By the Numbers post, with Iggy on the court, Golden State holds opponents to 6.5 fewer points than when he’s not on the court. Iguodala has helped the Warriors become a top-5 defensive team.

Paul George and LeBron James round out my list of best all-around perimeter defenders. As of Monday, George was tied with Noah for the lead in Defensive Win Shares at 6.4.

• Finally, I don’t think his defense will earn him a place among the top five defenders, but if I had to choose a player who I find to be the most fun player to watch play defense, that nod would go to Houston’s Patrick Beverley.

Grizzlies deserve praise for grit, grind and playoff perseverance

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: Grizzlies scratch out a crucial win against the Suns

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – You’ll have to forgive the Memphis Grizzlies for scoffing at the idea of a short NBA regular season.

For a team that suffered through a tumultuous 15-19 start to 2013-14 after making the 2013 Western Conference finals, the Grizzlies 34-14 finish (which includes Monday night’s playoff-clinching win over the Phoenix Suns) is a testament to the power of the grit-and-grind movement the that has been cultivated in Memphis the past few seasons.

We counted them out early, there’s no shame in admitting it now.

But they persevered, kept the playoffs in their sights and battled their way through for that final playoff spot. The Suns are being praised for fighting their way into the playoff mix in a season that most of us assumed would end exactly where it did … in the lottery. It’s the way the Suns went about their business, though, that captivated the basketball-loving public.

This season, they were surprising, exciting and as entertaining to watch as any team in the league. Even though it goes against everything I believe in, this is one of those rare times where I would advocate a change to the traditional playoff structure, if only to watch the Suns play four or five more games.

Jeff Hornacek will get the love he deserves in the Coach of the Year balloting, just as Goran Dragic and Gerald Green will get their due during awards season. Their accomplishments will be appreciated in the end.


VIDEO: Zach Randolph talks after the Grizz top the Suns in Phoenix

The Grizzlies, whose style isn’t nearly as pleasing to the flash-and-dash crowd, are just as worthy of our attention. So while it’s fine to bemoan the Suns just narrowly missing out on the postseason, we should spend just as much time heading into the postseason appreciating the fine work of new coach Dave Joerger as well as Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Tony AllenCourtney Lee, Mike Miller and the rest of Memphis’ relentless crew.

“This is a culmination of not just this week or not just March or April, this is a culmination of everything we’ve been through since December,” Joerger said after the clinching win over the Suns. “For these guys, it’s a happy locker room, a relieved locker room and just a bunch of very proud guys with great chemistry.”

A Grizzlies front office that was second-guessed repeatedly (here and beyond) throughout the course of this season for replacing Lionel Hollins with Joerger (and other decisions) should be feeling good that their calculated risks paid off.

In a business notorious for the what-have-you-done-lately belief to determine a franchise’s success, the Grizzlies’ brass went against the grain and proved the haters wrong. They beat back every theory that said they shouldn’t finish the season with a playoff bid, and that includes the in-house data model constructed by vice president of basketball operations John Hollinger 

The folks who should be really worried about the Grizzlies grinding their way into the postseason live in San Antonio and Oklahoma City. The Spurs and Thunder are the ones who’ll have to deal with Randolph, Gasol, Allen and Conley by the weekend. They’ll be someone else’s headache in a few days and that’s an issue that every other team in the Western Conference playoff mix would admit to not wanting to deal with.

“No one wants to play Memphis in the first round,” an assistant coach for a Western Conference team told me weeks ago, long before the final spot was locked up. “With Z-Bo and Gasol you’re going to get your big men beat up right away. That’s not a good look for anybody. They’re attacking you in the middle and with that physical style. You have to survive them in a playoff series.”

The Grizzlies have added weapons this year in Miller and Lee, guys who can stretch the floor in ways the Grizzlies have not been able to in the recent past. Had Gasol not missed 22 games with injury, there’s no telling how high the Grizzlies might have finished in the standings.

With everyone healthy and the Grizzlies’ collective playoff experience, there isn’t a more dangerous team in the entire postseason landscape. They might not be the darlings that the Suns were all season, but the Grizzlies are certainly the sort of team anyone should be able to appreciate this time of year.


VIDEO: Zach Randolph scores 32 in the playoff-clinching win over the Suns

Morning Shootaround — April 14


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played April 13

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Changes ahead in Minnesota | Dumars leaves conflicting legacy in Detroit | Gasol’s last ride in Lakerland | Pacers back in control of No. 1 | Grizzlies’ magic number is down to one

No. 1: Timberwolves head into offseason with many unanswered questions – It’s no secret. The Minnesota Timberwolves have a ton of work to do when this season ends, namely figuring out how to proceed with All-Star big man Kevin Love, head coach Rick Adelman and point guard Ricky Rubio. The futures of all three men will be in the crosshairs in the coming months, as the Star Tribune lays out … and if you thought things were sticky with Love, they might be even stickier with Rubio:

Three pending contract situations loom large for the Wolves heading into the offseason:

Kevin Love

Why don’t the Wolves just rip up his contract and sign him to a maximum long-term contract extension right now? Well, because they can’t.

Here are their options after they convinced him in January 2012 to sign a four-year contract that gives him an opt-out clause after three seasons and makes him an unrestricted free agent in 2015:
• They can sign him to a two-year extension in January 2015. It would keep him put until 2018, but he has no reason to accept that because he can sign for twice as much if he waits six months.

• When he opts out in July 2015 — a slam dunk, if you will — they can sign him to a five-year extension, one year longer than any other team. They also can give him larger annual raises, so he would be refusing an extra $26.5 million if he signs a four-year deal elsewhere.

Rick Adelman

Either he or the Wolves can choose to opt out of the final season of a four-year contract he signed in September 2011. Both parties say the issue will be addressed after the season ends Wednesday. There’s a two-week window at season’s end for either side to opt out.

If one side doesn’t exercise the opt-out for next season, the other side almost certainly will. Adelman is 67 and his wife, Mary Kay, has had health issues the past two seasons.

There’s a provision for Adelman to continue as a consultant if he doesn’t return to coach next season.

Ricky Rubio

The Wolves can negotiate a contract extension starting July 1 and they will make it a priority during a window that lasts through October. But this one could get complicated.

If former Wolves boss David Kahn insisted Love take a four-year deal so he could save his one five-year maximum “designated player” slot for Rubio, well, the third-year point guard hasn’t played nearly well enough to deserve it, even if he is finishing the season with a flourish.

Look for the Wolves to position themselves offering something less than the four-year, $44 million deal Stephen Curry signed or certainly the four-year, $48 million contract Ty Lawson received.

Both sides want a deal done, but the disparity between what each thinks Rubio is worth could create a situation similar to those involving Utah’s Gordon Hayward, Phoenix’s Eric Bledsoe and Detroit’s Greg Monroe. All three didn’t sign extensions last fall and this summer will test the restricted free-agent market. Their current teams will have the right to match any offer.

***

No. 2: Dumars leaves behind a conflicting legacy in Detroit – For the better part of his adult life Joe Dumars has given his life to the Detroit Pistons. He’s spent thirty years as a player and executive in the Motor City, living through and helping orchestrate some of the franchise’s highest highs while also being there for some of the lowest lows. Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press shines a light on the conflicting legacy the Hall of Famer Dumars will leave when he walks away, but insists that Pistons fans need to focus on the good that he helped facilitate more than anything else:

Dumars, now 50, treated players fairly, honestly and professionally. He kept them informed if they were on the trading block. He had them to his home, mentored the younger ones, shared laughs with the older ones. There’s a reason you’ve almost never heard a traded or cut player bad-mouth Dumars. That should bring applause as well.

True, the man who built the 2004 championship team has had his stumbles. Nobody now thinks Darko Milicic was worth the second pick in the 2003 draft (although plenty did then). And the 2008 trade for Allen Iverson (although partly about money) was a terrible turn. Josh Smith, Brandon Jennings and other recent moves are questionable, but you are limited when you’re a losing team with an impatient owner (more on that in a moment).

Remember, no GM is infallible. Jerry West is considered possibly the best ever. But he left the Lakers (and their L.A. allure) for Memphis, where his first team lost 54 games and his last, five years later, lost 60. The Grizzlies never won a playoff round in his tenure.

Milwaukee’s John Hammond was the NBA’s executive of the year in 2010; this year his Bucks are the worst team in the league. Danny Ainge, hailed as a Boston genius, traded his biggest stars last year; now the Celtics are behind the Pistons.

The job is a roller coaster. The salary cap is insanely frustrating. Dumars has won and lost. But if you think he suddenly lost his keen ability to evaluate talent, you don’t know him or basketball.

***


VIDEO: Joe Dumars is out in Detroit

No. 3: Gasol’s last ride in Lakerland is a somber one – Pau Gasol knows it wasn’t supposed to end like this. His ride with the Los Angeles Lakers included it’s fair share of drama, but it also included two championship parades alongside Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson. It was a glorious time, interrupted lately by drama, injury and losing in ways the Lakers hadn’t seen in … forever. And now comes, Gasol’s walk into free agency this summer, and in the view ESPN‘s J.A. Adande, Gasol’s emotional divorce from a franchise that helped make his career:

He’ll be a free agent this summer, which means this might have been his last home game at Staples Center. It certainly meant he felt the emotional impact. As the game drew to a close he reached toward the seat to his right and tapped teammate Jordan Farmar’s leg to signal that it was time for them to leave. Except Gasol wasn’t really ready to leave. He congratulated his brother, Grizzlies center Marc Gasol, then playfully shoved Marc away so he wouldn’t sweat on Pau’s nice, movie-ticket-taker- burgundy red jacket. He moved on to other players and coaches, stopped to talk to a couple of fans, then chatted with courtside regulars Jimmy Goldstein and Dyan Cannon.

He stopped and signed autographs for fans on the other side of the courtside seats. He leaned in behind a woman who took a selfie with her phone. He entered the tunnel and accommodated more fans who reached through the rails to have him sign programs, hats, tickets and — just when he was ready to cut things off — a fan who dangled a No. 16 Gasol golden Lakers jersey.

Finally he said no mas. 

“I gotta go in,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

He blew the fans a kiss with both hands, bowed and moved on to the Lakers’ locker room.

“I always appreciate the fans,” Gasol said. “You never know. The last couple years when I walked out of this building it’s been emotional. This year it’s been a little bit different because we haven’t been successful as a team, we had a lot of injuries, I haven’t been able to finish the season playing. So I kind of had it more in my mind.

“The last couple of years I didn’t know if I was going to be back. This year with even more reason, because now I’m a free agent. It’s just a way of me appreciating everyone and our fans.”

The fans showed their appreciation, giving him a warm cheer when he was showed on the scoreboard video screen late in the game. Will the Lakers do anything similar — something along the lines of the golden parachute they granted Kobe Bryant? The Kobe contract might actually preclude a Gasol gift by eating up too much salary cap room. Gasol can’t expect to match the $19 million he made this season; he might get about half of that, from what some general managers say. It’s also possible that the Lakers could sign him to a short deal that would give them the possibility of using him as a trade asset next season.

But a multi-year contract would alter any Lakers plans to make a big splash in the 2015 free agent market — or even to bring in the additional pieces the Lakers would need around Bryant and Gasol.

That’s why Sunday was the night for sentiment. Come July 1 it will be all business.

.***

No. 4: Pacers back in charge of No. 1 in the East – For all of the bellyaching that’s gone on in recent weeks and months about the Indiana Pacers and what they haven’t done, here they stand with one game remaining in charge of their own destiny and in prime position to secure that No. 1 seed they’ve been talking about all season. Did we all make too much of their struggles? Or is this just a product of a depressed Eastern Conference? Mike Wells, formerly of the Indianapolis Star and now working for ESPN.com, weighs in:

Patience. Execution. Discipline.

The Pacers didn’t always do those things Sunday afternoon against the Thunder, but they did just enough to move their magic number to clinching home-court advantage throughout the East playoffs to one game with a 102-97 victory. A Heat loss in either of their final two games or a Pacers victory at Orlando on Wednesday will give Indiana the No. 1 seed.

Hard to imagine that after the way the Pacers have played over the past month, huh? “We’re just trying to put together good basketball at this point and hopefully carry momentum into the playoffs, being positive and upbeat about where we are,” David West said.

The talk of being the No. 1 seed has died down from the Pacers after they spent the majority of the season discussing it with anybody who would listen.

Coach Frank Vogel brought it to his team’s attention days before their March 31 game against the San Antonio Spurs.

The Pacers had become too distracted reading their own clips, watching themselves on the highlights and believing stepping on the court would be good enough for them. Success went to their heads, and for a team that got to this point playing with a purpose, that was the worst thing that could happen to them.

Center Roy Hibbert looked around, noticing how teams like the Heat, Thunder and Spurs went about their business. It didn’t take long for him to realize the Pacers didn’t have that same professional approach.

“Most of us have never been in that position before,” West said. “Since I’ve gotten here and most of the guys, with the exception of Evan [Turner], everybody is sort of under-drafted, not drafted or simply passed over. Everybody’s attitude has been with the underdog mind-frame.

“Then you get out front, nobody doubts you because you have a five-game lead and everybody is pumping you up. I don’t think we handled that the best. Only way you can deal with it is to go through it and experience it. That’s what we’ve done.”

Indiana is at its best doing the little things, even if that meant staying silent about its goals: defending the pick-and-roll, talking on defense, moving the ball and having fun playing with each other again.


VIDEO: Indiana’s players talk about their big win over OKC on Sunday

***

No. 5: The Grizzlies’ magic number is down to one for the playoffs – Has it really come down to this, just one more win (in two tries) and the Memphis Grizzlies are in the playoffs for the fourth straight season? Indeed. The Grizzlies miraculous turnaround this season could come full circle with their next win. Ron Tillery of the Commercial Appeal sets the table:

The Griz only need to win one of their two remaining games — either at Phoenix on Monday or against Dallas in FedExForum on Wednesday — and they’ll lock up a fourth straight postseason berth.

“It’s amazing that we’re in this position,” Mike Conley said. “If you would have asked me in November and December, I don’t know. You didn’t know what was going to happen with the year. So we’re happy with where we’re at. We still have a lot of work to do but we’re looking forward to (Monday).”

Memphis moved to a game ahead of Phoenix for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Phoenix needs to beat Memphis to keep alive its postseason hopes. The Griz, though, own the tiebreaker against the Suns in the season series.

“It’s going to be a playoff atmosphere and that’s what you want,” Griz reserve swingman Mike Miller said. “We are real fortunate. I don’t know if the NBA knew it was going to turn out this way. For us to be able to control our own destiny playing two teams we’re chasing is lucky for us and it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Is there a double standard in the Portland locker room for Damian Lillard? … Concerns and excitement abound in Toronto, where the Raptors are chasing the franchise mark for wins in a season on their way to the playoffs for the first time in six years … The season is already over for Kings big man DeMarcus Cousins … Someone in the Nets’ big man rotation will have to sit and wait his turn in the playoffs, and it won’t be Mason Plumlee (if his recent work is any indication)

ICYMI: Steph Curry didn’t get the win but he got everything else he wanted against the Trail Blazers …


VIDEO: Again, the Steph Curry show travels anywhere

Defensive Player of the Year by the numbers

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com

Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut have been key cogs in the Warriors' defense. (Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)

Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut have been key cogs in the Warriors’ defense. (Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images)

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – Defense is difficult to quantify.

In the boxscore, we have steals and blocks, which don’t really tell us much. Two of the league’s top five in total steals plus blocks – Josh Smith and Andre Drummond – are Pistons. The Pistons are awful defensively and worse when Smith and Drummond are on the floor together than they are when one or both is off the floor.

NBA.com/stats tells us how many points per 100 possessions a player’s team has allowed when he was on the floor, a category dominated by players on the league’s best defensive teams.

To be considered for the Kia NBA Defensive Player of the Year award, you should be on a good defensive team. The last player to win the award that wasn’t on a team that ranked in the top 10 in defensive efficiency was Dikembe Mutombo in 1997-98. And 12 of the 15 winners since then (including each of the last six) played for teams that ranked in the top five.

And you can find plenty of great defensive players in this season’s top five teams in defensive efficiency. Indiana (1) has both Paul George and Roy Hibbert. Chicago (2) has Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson. Golden State (3) has Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut. Oklahoma City (5) has Serge Ibaka.

It’s hard to pick a Spur for DPOY candidacy when none of them have averaged 30 minutes per game. Beyond the top five defensive teams, Chris Bosh, Marc Gasol, Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan could be candidates. Their teams all rank in the top 12 in defensive efficiency, and Howard’s Rockets have only dropped out of the top 10 since he started missing games.

This season, we have SportVU data to tell us how well opponents shoot near the basket when a player is there defending it. And we can supplement that with data on how often opponents actually shoot near the basket when that player is on the floor. Big guys should get credit for keeping the other team away from the basket, after all.

All stats are through April 7, 2014.

Big men DPOY candidates, defending the rim

Player %FGA Rank1 FG% Rank2
Andrew Bogut 27.5% 1 45.5% 7
Chris Bosh 32.1% 34 52.5% 39
Marc Gasol 30.3% 20 50.4% 24
Taj Gibson 31.1% 27 45.0% 6
Roy Hibbert 28.3% 4 41.7% 1
Dwight Howard 30.7% 24 47.8% 13
Serge Ibaka 34.2% 53 44.3% 3
DeAndre Jordan 31.9% 32 49.4% 19
Joakim Noah 29.6% 13 46.1% 8

%FGA = Percentage of opponent shots taken from the restricted area with player on the floor.
Rank1 = Among 72 bigs who have been on the floor for at least 2,000 opponent shots.
FG% = Opponent’s field goal percentage at the rim while player is defending it.
Rank2 = Among 58 players who have defended at least 5.0 shots at the rim per game for at least 50 games.

There’s more to defense than protecting the rim, though. For a big man to be an impact defender, he has to be able to contain ball-handlers on pick-and-rolls. This is where a guy like Bosh can show his value on a team that defends like the Heat. It’s also where a guy like Drummond still has a lot of work to do.

SportVU has numbers on how efficiently opponents have scored when a player is the help defender on pick-and-roll.

Big men DPOY candidates, defending pick-and-rolls

Help Defender Screens Poss. Team PTS PTS/Poss
Andrew Bogut 725 688 624 0.91
Chris Bosh 1,120 1,063 1,051 0.99
Marc Gasol 765 726 759 1.05
Taj Gibson 715 695 699 1.01
Roy Hibbert 1,159 1,111 1,026 0.92
Dwight Howard 1,343 1,271 1,293 1.02
Serge Ibaka 961 924 925 1.00
DeAndre Jordan 1,494 1,441 1,500 1.04
Joakim Noah 974 939 879 0.94

There’s a lot that goes into these numbers. They’re from all possessions in which that player defended a ball-screen and the results (a score or no score) could be several passes away. So they do depend on his teammates quite a bit. Still, we can see that Bogut, Hibbert and Noah have distinguished themselves as both rim protectors and pick-and-roll defenders.

The other thing we can look at his how much of an impact these guys make on their team defensive numbers.

DPOY candidates, on and off the court

On floor Off floor Difference
Player MIN DefRtg MIN DefRtg DefRtg Rank
Andre Iguodala 1,976 96.6 1,745 103.1 -6.5 9
Chris Bosh 2,395 100.8 1,293 105.7 -4.9 20
Paul George 2,823 95.9 941 97.8 -1.9 74
Roy Hibbert 2,331 95.6 1,433 97.5 -1.9 76
Dwight Howard 2,310 102.1 1,368 103.5 -1.3 90
Andrew Bogut 1,688 99.1 2,033 100.2 -1.1 98
Taj Gibson 2,216 97.2 1,525 98.2 -0.9 105
Joakim Noah 2,619 97.5 1,122 97.9 -0.4 114
DeAndre Jordan 2,766 102.0 993 101.4 +0.6 139
Marc Gasol 1,775 102.8 1,941 101.5 +1.3 150
Serge Ibaka 2,475 101.3 1,198 99.8 +1.4 154

Rank = Among 239 players who have logged at least 1,000 minutes for a single team

If a team has better defensive numbers when a player is off the floor, it doesn’t mean that he’s a bad defender. The Thunder are typically defending the opponents’ best players when Ibaka is on the floor and their subs when he’s off.

Who these guys are being replaced with also plays a role. Hibbert’s the best rim protector in the league, but Ian Mahinmi is also a very good defender.

But the on-off court numbers make a strong case for Iguodala. The Warriors have been a much better defensive team with Iguodala on the floor and Bogut off than vice versa. Opponent shooting numbers, when you compare Iguodala to some of the league’s other good defenders at the small forward position, also make a case.

Top five small forward scorers* with defender on the floor

On floor FGM FGA FG% 3PM 3PA 3PT% FTA PTS eFG% TS%
Luol Deng 68 180 37.8% 21 57 36.8% 61 208 43.6% 50.3%
Paul George 82 170 48.2% 11 30 36.7% 62 232 51.5% 58.8%
Andre Iguodala 65 156 41.7% 17 43 39.5% 48 185 47.1% 52.2%
LeBron James 97 210 46.2% 24 67 35.8% 73 272 51.9% 56.2%
Kawhi Leonard 64 139 46.0% 8 26 30.8% 51 179 48.9% 55.4%

* Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Paul George and Rudy Gay
EFG% = (FGM + (0.5 * 3PM)) / FGA
TS% = PTS / (2 * (FGA + (0.44 * FTA)))

Ron Artest (2003-04) and Gary Payton (1995-96) are the only perimeter players to win Defensive Player of the Year in the last 25 years. And it’s hard to argue against a pick of either Hibbert or Noah as the anchors of the two best defensive teams in the league.

But Iguodala should definitely be in the conversation. He’s the biggest reason why the Warriors have jumped from 13th in defensive efficiency last season to third this year, and why the Denver Nuggets have gone in the opposite direction (from 11th to 21st).

Grizzlies showing their playoff teeth

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: The Grizzlies storm back in Salt Lake City to topple the Jazz

This is the way you always expect Grizzlies to look. Big and scary with sharp teeth and claws.

Dangerous, too.

Pity the poor team in the upper half of the contentious Western Conference bracket that wakes up on the eve of the playoffs to find Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph lumbering hungrily into their campsite.

At just the right time, in just the right way, the Memphis blues have given way to a more ominous sound. Think more of Darth Vader‘s “Imperial March”.

That should frighten everyone from San Antonio to Oklahoma City to Los Angeles to Houston.

“Oh, you really don’t want to run into Memphis in the first round of the playoffs,” said ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy. “Not with the style they play that is so different from most other teams these days, grinding it out and beating you up. Not with Randolph and Gasol on their games. They’re a bear.”

OK, pun appreciated.

It was, of course, no joke when the Grizzlies opened the season looking like they were in competition with the Lakers in a nose-dive competition to the bottom. Not with Gasol and eventually Tony Allen hobbled. Not when everyone in the locker room and on the court was trying to get adjusted to the coaching change and the style tweaks from Lionel Hollins to Dave Joerger. There were rumors that Randolph was on the trading block.

Back then, the Grizzlies dug themselves a hole in the standings as deep as the No. 12 spot, yet now are at No. 7 and quite possibly climbing higher. They are just one game behind No. 6 Golden State and 1 1/2 games behind No. 5 Portland.

After last night’s 91-87 win at Utah, the Grizzlies have the best record (28-9) in the NBA since Jan. 10 and are positioning themselves maybe even make a return trip to the West finals.

Salt Lake City was the first stop on a critical five-game road trip that will also go through Golden State, Portland, Denver and Minnesota and go a long way toward determining where the Grizzlies wind up in the playoff chase.

“It’s the biggest trip of the year,” point guard Mike Conley told Ron Tillery of the Memphis Commercial Appeal. “It’s going to test us a lot mentally and physically. We don’t overlook anybody. We just have to play our basketball and worry about making the plays we make, and not adjusting to what other teams do. We’re going to be ready for battle.”

Playing the Grizzlies of recent vintage has always been like a fight, with the scratch marks, bruises and scars left behind as proof. With Gasol now healthy and back in the middle to offer serious rim protection, the Grizzlies boast the No. 2-rated defense in the league since his return on Jan. 14. With Allen back and scrapping out on the wing, they are Grizzlies who can take a game — and an opponent — in their paws and squeeze the life out of them.

Memphis has won 11 of last 14 games with the only losses coming on the road at Miami, Brooklyn and Toronto. The Grizzlies have been taking care of business at home in the “Grind House,” defeating the teams they’re supposed to and outright devouring the awful ones.

“It shows our focus is at an all-time high,” Conley said. “Playing against good teams over the last few weeks has got our minds in a playoff mode and our sense of urgency back. We’re playing with a higher standard.”

While the return of Gasol has been credited the most for turning the season around and getting them back to their old snarling defensive ways, the Grizzlies are also are somewhat different and better on the offensive end. Memphis still ranks dead last in 3-point shots attempted and made, but the Grizzlies’ success rate from behind the arc (35.6) has crept closer to the middle of the pack (18th). Their overall field goal percentage (46.3) ranks eighth, making offense less of the teeth-gnashing affair it has been. The additions of Mike Miller, Courtney Lee and Jon Leuer have provided much needed outside shooting and given Conley more options to direct the ball. Miller hit three key jumpers, including a pair of 3-pointers, in the comeback at Utah.

And then there is Conley, who continues to get overlooked among a crowded Western Conference crop of point guards when the spots on the All-Star teams are handed out. He’s upped his scoring to a career-best 17.1 points as he continues to hand out an average half dozen assists each game. His PER (20.1) is just outside the top 25 in the league. He’s grown steadily through seven NBA seasons to become a veteran leader of an offense and concentrating less on making steals to play solid team defense at the other end.

Toss in a bench that also has Ed Davis and Kosta Koufos and the Grizzlies have a deeper, more balanced roster than even the team that went on the long playoff run a year ago.

For a season that could have gone over the edge, the Grizzlies have pulled themselves back up to the level of real threat in the playoffs to one of the so-called elite teams at the top.

“This is a crucial stretch of the season,” said Randolph at the start of the trip. “These five games can determine where we end up.”

And which team in the West gets a big and unexpected headache in the first round.


VIDEO: Inside Stuff’s crew talks about the Grizzlies’ comeback in the standings

Morning shootaround — March 22

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Westbrook bangs knee; Durant scores 51 | Gasol leaves in walking boot | Knicks make it eight straight | Nash dishes 11 dimes | Bynum out indefinitely


VIDEO: Closer look at Durant’s 51-point performance

No. 1: Westbrook gets scare, Durant scores 51 — In a wild game at Toronto, Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook left in the third quarter after banging knees with Toronto’s Kyle Lowry. It was Westbrook’s right knee, the one he’s had three surgeries on since initially tearing the meniscus in the first round of last year’s playoffs. He immediately reacted to the pain and slammed his palm on the floor. He was assisted off the floor as the Thunder held their breath. More will be known as Westbrook is re-evaluated in Oklahoma City today. The Thunder won the game in dramatic fashion, 119-118, in double overtime. Kevin Durant capped a remarkable night with his seventh 3-pointer with 1.7 seconds to go, giving him 51 points. Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman has the details:

The official word is a right knee sprain, and the plan is to re-evaluate him Saturday in Oklahoma City.

Although Westbrook didn’t return to the Thunder’s thrilling 119-118 double-overtime victory over the Raptors, he was in great spirits after the game and said he doesn’t expect to miss any time. He left the Air Canada Centre walking just fine, without crutches or even a knee brace, just a routine black sleeve hidden under his pants.

And judging by Westbrook’s demeanor and that of his teammates and coach Scott Brooks, the injury didn’t appear to be serious.

“I feel good, man,” Westbrook said. “I’m pain-free. I’m just going to, (Saturday), get it looked at and go from there.”

The injury occurred with 7:37 remaining in the third quarter.

Westbrook made a slight jab-step beyond the 3-point line on the left wing. As Westbrook held his left foot in place as his pivot, Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry inadvertently bumped into Westbrook’s right knee while closing out.

Westbrook’s knee bent inward, and he immediately called a timeout, slamming the ball to the court upon doing so.

“You’ve been hurt before, you kind of get nervous like I did,” Westbrook said of his reaction.

After briefly attempting to walk off whatever pain or discomfort he was feeling, Westbrook was helped to the locker room by Thunder center Hasheem Thabeet and trainer Joe Sharpe. He remained in the dressing room for the duration of the game as the Thunder battled back from an eight-point deficit inside the final minute of double overtime.

Kevin Durant hit the game-winner, a 3-pointer from 31 feet with 1.7 seconds remaining. He then forced Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan into contested fadeaway from the right baseline. It fell short as the clock hit zero.

Durant finished with a game-high 51 points, his second 50-point game this season, and added 12 rebounds and seven assists.

“We couldn’t go another overtime,” Durant said. “So I had to live with whatever happened.”

***


VIDEO: Gasol injured in Grizzlies’ loss in Miami

No. 2: Gasol sprains left ankle — Midway through the third quarter, Grizzlies center Marc Gasol hobbled off the floor with a sprained left ankle and left the American Airlines Arena floor in a walking boot. It was a double whammy for the Grizzlies, one of the hottest teams in the NBA since Jan. 1. Not only must they wait and wonder about the health of the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, they lost a lead they had held for most of the game as the Heat pulled out the victory. More will be known on the severity of Gasol’s injury, but one thing is certain — Memphis needs its big man in the final month of the regular season to ensure it makes the playoffs, let alone have a chance to return to the Western Conference finals. Ronald Tillery of the Memphis Commercial Appeal has more:

Memphis’ bigger issue seemed to be executing without Gasol.

The 7-footer left with 6:34 left in the third period. He was hurt earlier on a non-contact play. Gasol appeared to roll his ankle as he turned to run. Gasol left the arena wearing a walking boot and he’ll be re-evaluated Saturday before the Griz face the Indiana Pacers for the second game of a back-to-back.

“It made it tough, but we tried to play small and stretch them out,” Griz coach Dave Joerger said. “I thought we did a good job of getting it to Zach. He had a heck of a game.”

Gasol had been a force, too, and not just because of his 14 points and six rebounds.

“We were using him to make the second and third pass,” [Mike] Conley said. “He was playing point forward. The whole scheme went through him.”

The game was knotted at 68 entering the fourth quarter after both teams exchanged large scoring runs in the third. Memphis allowed a 12-point advantage to disappear in the final few minutes of the third.

***

No. 3: Knicks keep playoff push alive — The Knicks handed the Philadelphia 76ers their 23rd consecutive loss, but the bigger news was that New York kept its playoff hopes alive despite already having 40 losses as the calendar turns to spring. But that’s the beauty of the Eastern Conference, folks. And with the Atlanta Hawks losing, the Knicks moved within three games of the eighth and final playoff spot. And guess what? New York’s upcoming schedule offers even more hope with games against the hobbled Cavaliers and Lakers followed by the Kings. Peter Botte of the New York Daily News has the story:

With new team president Phil Jackson returning to his California home following his triumphant Garden return two nights earlier, the bench nearly coughed up a 17-point lead in a game the Knicks had controlled with five minutes left. But [Mike] Woodson turned back to his first unit in the final 30 seconds, and the Knicks just barely did what they had to do to survive and advance Friday night against a team that now has dropped 23 straight games, holding on for their season-best eighth straight win, 93-92, over the dreadful Sixers at Wells Fargo Center.

“We didn’t have no choice at that point. I felt like we had a very comfortable lead. It happened. Them guys never quit,” [Carmelo] Anthony said about having to return to the game after it looked like his night was finished. “You could just see the lead dwindling, possession by possession. You go from up (17) and you look up and we’re only up two with a couple of seconds on the clock, so hopefully we didn’t have to come up with a prayer.”

***

No. 4: Nash shines in return — Maybe 40-year-old Steve Nash has something left after all. Fighting injuries all season, the two-time MVP made yet another return Friday night just a week after being declared done for the season. The Los Angeles Lakers still lost to the Washington Wizards, but the aging wizard for L.A. put on quite a show, dishing out a season-high 11 assists to go with five points, four rebounds and three steals in 19 minutes. He came off the bench for the first time since March 9, 2000 with Dallas, snapping a stretch of 975 consecutive starts, reports Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times:

“Just to feel good and feel like you can make a play for your teammates and put pressure on the other team and move freely,” Nash said. “It’s why I love this game and that’s why I’ve kept fighting and trying to work in case I got another opportunity.”

Nash said he came out of the game in the fourth quarter after tweaking his back but remained hopeful he could play Sunday against the Orlando Magic. Lakers guard Xavier Henry also hurt his left wrist and said he would have an MRI exam on Saturday after X-rays were negative.

Nash made his first appearance since Feb. 11, when he suffered a recurrence of the nerve irritation in his back that has limited him to 11 games this season. There was concern in that Nash might never play another NBA game.

Lakers Coach Mike D’Antoni told reporters March 13 that Nash would not return this season because it didn’t make sense for him to push his 40-year-old body with so few games left.

Then Jordan Farmar strained his right groin in practice Monday, opening the door for Nash.
After entering the game to warm applause late in the first quarter, Nash quickly found Hill for a jump hook and made a couple of behind-the-back passes on the way to collecting five assists in his first six minutes.

D’Antoni said Nash probably would continue to come off the bench unless he “gets to a certain point and gets that good” because of limited practice time and the Lakers wanting to be cautious with his body.

Nash has one more season and $9.7 million left on his contract but could be waived by Sept. 1, allowing the Lakers to spread out his salary over three seasons.

He would prefer to prove over the next month that he’s ready to play one more.

***

No. 5:  Swelling puts Bynum on ice — If the Indiana Pacers truly signed big man Andrew Bynum to keep him away from the Miami Heat, well the Heat’s training staff will probably be sending a thank-you card. Experiencing continued swelling and soreness in his right knee, Bynum will be out indefinitely, the team announced Friday. Bynum signed with the Pacers on Feb. 1, but has played in just two games. On a strange note, although not so much when it comes to Bynum, he reportedly got his hair cut at halftime of Friday’s game against Chicago. Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star has more on Bynum’s injury status:

Bynum has played in two games with the Pacers, averaging 11.5 points and 9.5 rebounds in just under 18 minutes per game.

Though the Pacers expected to play Bynum in short spurts, last Saturday he reached 20 minutes against the Detroit Pistons. Since then, Bynum has been on the inactive list.

On Tuesday, Bynum, who did not participate in practice, said after the session that his swollen right knee needed to be drained.

“This one is a lot more concerning for me because it caused me a lot more fluid,” Bynum said.

Now days later, Pacers coach Frank Vogel answered “no” when asked if there had been any progress with Bynum’s knee since the return from Detroit.

“There’s still swelling,” Vogel said on Friday. “I really don’t have anything new. Other than it’s swollen right now, we’ll give you an update when we’re ready to.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Heat present Mike Miller his 2013 championship ring as Grizzlies visit Miami … Tony Parker says he will play five or six more years with Spurs then play for French team he owns … Andre Miller says Nuggets made him out to be the bad guyKevin Garnett is unsure of return from back spasms … Bobcats ask Charlotte for $34.1 million to improve arena.

DPOY award pits big apples vs. on-the-ball oranges

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: The Starters discuss the leading candidates for the Defensive Player of the Year

Quick, pick your winners: Range Rover or Porsche 911? Golden retriever or Jack Russell terrier? Leonardo Da Vinci painting “Mona Lisa” or Nat King Cole singing “Mona Lisa?”

It’s an apples-and-oranges world when it comes to choosing “the best” this or that, certainly when the categories are so broad – vehicle, acting performance, piece of art – as to include wildly disparate entries.

And then there are those moments when the choice might as well be kumquats vs. lug nuts. That’s the case annually when voters stare at the three blank ballot slots for the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award.

It’s difficult enough ranking candidates by criteria that essentially requires you to prove a negative. Great individual defense is … holding an opposing star under his scoring average? Denying someone the ball? Racking up big steal totals? Blocking, contesting or even altering shots?

Defensive statistics, even in this advanced age, still trail the offensive numbers in what they can authoritatively tell us. Then there’s the whole element of team defense – it is a team sport – and a player’s contribution to that in helping, rotating, diving to the floor or otherwise claiming the so-called 50/50 balls.

And in none of the league’s major awards does it get stickier to sort out the issue of size: Big vs. small. Rim-protecter vs. perimeter defender.

“Those are mutually exclusive concepts,” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said on a recent stop in Chicago. “When you think MVP, most people just look at the points , and that’s a valid entity, I guess. But with defensive players, the big guys, they usually just look at blocks.

“There are some guys who block shots but can’t play a lick of D, but get credit for blocking shots. When I look at the bigs, I look at somebody like Joakim [Noah] who can guard ones, twos, threes, fours and fives. He can switch onto people and people can’t go by him. I watched him guard LeBron [James] the other day and, my gosh, it was pretty impressive.”

Impressive enough that two days later, Houston coach Kevin McHale – who has three-time DPOY Dwight Howard at his disposal – went public with his choice of Noah for the award this season. (For the record, media folks vote for DPOY and NBA coaches select All-Defensive teams.)

And yet James, in his interview with NBA TV’s Steve Smith, admitted that the vacant space on his trophy shelf cleared for the DPOY bugs him.

The basketball world knows why Miami coach Erik Spoelstra refers to James as “1-through-5″ as a defender – he can guard everyone from point guard Chris Paul to center DeAndre Jordan, and did just that when facing the Clippers this season. But over the past five years, James has finished second twice, fourth twice and ninth.

Nearly a decade has passed since anyone other than a big man has won the award. Metta World Peace wasn’t calling himself that back in 2004 when he earned the trophy with Indiana. Gary Payton was well-established as “The Glove” when he broke up in 1996 Dikembe Mutombo‘s stranglehold of three DPOYs in four years (1995, 1997, 1998).

Kevin Garnett in 2008 was a special case. By the time he picked up his lone DPOY honor, Garnett was – if not strictly a rim defender – pretty much a paint protector. That was the role he embraced in his first year in Boston and it’s likely the award went his way because, short of the MVP (Kobe Bryant), there had to be some acknowledgement of his impact on the Celtics.

Big men have won 22 of the 31 DPOYs, led by Mutombo and Ben Wallace with four each. Howard had a three-year run in Orlando (2009-11). Mark Eaton, Alonzo Mourning and Hakeem Olajuwon won two each, while Marcus Camby, Tyson Chandler, David Robinson, Marc Gasol and Garnett each won once.

Naturally, some of the leading candidates for Defensive Player this season play center or power forward, including Noah, Jordan, Indiana’s Roy Hibbert, Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka and New Orleans’ Anthony Davis.

But it wasn’t always so. Seven of the first nine DPOYs went to guards or forwards. Average size: 6-foot-4, 190 pounds. Milwaukee’s Sidney Moncrief was downright spindly when he won the first two in 1983 and ’84. The Lakers’ stopper, Michael Cooper, was even skinnier (6-5, 170) as the 1987 recipient. And Dennis Rodman was undersized and frenetic when he won seven rebounding titles and the DPOY in 1990 and ’91.

Among the perimeter defenders deserving of DPOY consideration are Memphis’ Tony Allen, San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard, Indiana’s Paul George, Boston’s Avery Bradley and James.

But they’re swimming upstream in a league where specialists such as Bruce Bowen, Raja Bell, Shane Battier, Joe Dumars and Scottie Pippen never won the award. The DPOY probably was created too late to catch the likes of Bobby Jones, Dennis Johnson or Norm Van Lier and other worthy choices in their primes.

It’s almost tempting to suggest two separate awards – one for rim protection, one for the on-the-ball guys – until you hear Popovich boil down NBA defense:

“A defender to me is somebody who can defend the ball, can rebound and can react, weak side to strong side, whether he’s small or whether he’s big.”

Size matters, but not just in physique. Everyone in the Grizzlies’ locker room, for instance, knows of Allen’s heart and defensive hunger. And Memphis is one of those teams blessed with elite versions of both types of defender.

“I would have not won that award, probably, with any other team in the NBA,” Gasol said recently. “Without having TA, without Mike Conley on my team. Having the teammates I have and the system we have allowed me to defend the way I do. As soon as I won it, I told them, [it was] Tony’s hands, Mike’s legs and kind of like my brain, that’s the way I broke it down.”

The Memphis center finished with 30 first-place votes to James’ 18, a 212-149 points spread. Gasol benefited from some advanced analytics tracked by NBA media folks, but felt he was helped more by the familiarity on the Grizzlies’ roster and in former coach Lionel Hollins‘ system.

“We’ve been playing for so long together, I’m behind them so I know their tendencies defensively so I can help,” Gasol said of teammates. “This is not boxing, where it’s only one guy. If the team benefits and feels confident with you, that’s what matters. Some days TA is gonna be the guy who shuts somebody down. Sometimes it’s gonna be Mike Conley or me.”

Said Allen: “You get beat on the perimeter, Marc Gasol has it in his memory bank to know ‘I’m the last line of defense and all I have to do is either take a charge or jump up and not get the foul.’ He’s big, he’s long and he’s good at blocking shots. I’m pressuring the perimeter and digging at the same time.

“We just feed off each other defensively. We understand the court is only so big, and we play off each other.”

Given their druthers, most NBA coaches would start their defense with a towering master of verticality like Hibbert or, maybe better, a versatile, mobile big man like Noah.

“Your bigs organize your defense,” said Jeff Van Gundy, ABC/ESPN coach-turned-analyst. “They’re asked to make multiple efforts, because so much of this game now is pick-and-roll defense, not post defense. So you need a guy who is intelligent enough to recognize situations, athletic enough to defend them and has the energy to make multiple efforts. That’s why today you need a big guy who can be the captain of your defense.

“But you also need the guys who can keep the ball in front of them…”

Which puts us right back where we started, trying to rank Marlon Brando‘s Don Corleone vs. Meryl Streep‘s Sophie. Now that’s a real Sophie’s choice.

Duncan Not Publicly Planning His Exit


VIDEO: Tim Duncan and the Spurs pick up a big win vs. the Clippers in L.A.

During his news conference with the world’s media just a few minutes before Sunday night’s All-Star Game in New Orleans, Kobe Bryant said he hadn’t given any real thought to when he might finally retire.

“I don’t really want the rocking chair before the game,” he said.

Neither would Tim Duncan.

For 17 NBA seasons now, he’s been about the game and not the showmanship. In winning four championships and two MVP awards, Duncan has been as inscrutable as the Sphinx, keeping his personality walled up within the Spurs locker room, rarely even smiling in public. Except, of course, for that time he supposedly laughed at referee Joey Crawford.

One could more readily imagine Duncan slipping into a shirt of thorns rather than a comfortable public embrace from all corners of the NBA.

That’s why it would be unwise immediately to dismiss the comment made by former NBA coach George Karl, now an ESPN analyst, on SportsCenter:

“You know over the weekend, that was the whispers that I got. I got a couple of phone calls, one from San Antonio that said that Tim Duncan’s thinking this is going to be his last year. The best, most fundamental big guy ever to play in the NBA, and he leaving would make me very, very sad. The San Antonio Spurs without Tim Duncan would be very difficult for me to watch.”

Even as he approaches his 38th birthday in April, it is not at all difficult to watch Duncan play near the incredibly high standard that he has always set for himself. He’s averaging 15.6 points and 10 rebounds per game and has a true shooting percentage of 53.6. His PER of 22.09 ranks 18th in the league, even though he is playing an average of just 29.6 minutes.

In the last game before the All-Star break, Duncan scored 23 of his 25 points in the second half, leading a Spurs lineup that was without Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter to a win at Boston. He has been as sturdy as an oak, starting more games (49) than any other member of the lineup to push San Antonio to the No. 2 seed in the West. In other words, Duncan is still an elite player and likely could have appeared in his 15th All-Star Game if Gregg Popovich hadn’t likely spread the word to his coaching peers that his big man needed a weekend off.

There was a time after the 2011 playoffs, when the No. 1 seeded Spurs were upset by the No. 8 Grizzlies in the first round, that it seemed unfathomable that Duncan would still be playing now. He was slow, worn out, injured and overwhelmed by the inside Memphis tandem of bruising Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph.

But Duncan used that humbling experience as a reason to spend the summer changing his diet, changing his workout regimen and ultimately changing his body so that he’s returned to the court lighter, healthier and able to have fun and dominate again. The result was the Spurs going to the Western Conference finals in 2012 and pushing the Heat to the Game 7 limit before losing in the NBA Finals last June.

Duncan signed a three-year, $30-million contract in 2012, the final season a player option and there was talk at the time that he might very well take a pass on that. But since then the Spurs signed Parker and Ginobili to new deals, all of them set to expire at the end of 2014-15, the assumption that the Big Three would take two more cracks at winning the the fifth title in franchise history.

So would Tim walk out the door prematurely on Tony and Manu and Pop?

Only if he feels like the spark and the joy are no longer out there on the court every night. Only if he decides the physical and mental sacrifices to keep himself pushing forward at his high and exacting standards are too much. Which, creeping up on 38, that could happen any day.

So much will depend on how the Spurs and Duncan handle another playoff grind. You can certainly see the championship that slipped through their fingers as a motivational force this time around. But what if the injury-plagued Spurs don’t get back to The Finals for another try at the ring? Or even out of the first or second round?

Even if he’s thinking it, Duncan won’t crack and let us know or share his feelings or an itinerary. He’ll just keep shooting and rebounding and setting screens and doing all those things that make him the Big Fundamental until he doesn’t.

He won’t hit the rocking chair, just the exit door.


VIDEO: Tim Duncan talks about the Spurs’ win against the Clippers

Morning Shootaround — Feb. 13


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Feb. 12

NEWS OF THE MORNING

LeBron’s game-winner takes Heat into break | Wade’s All-Star status in the air | Rose not thinking about a return | Another scare for Gasol, Grizzlies | Knicks hit another low point

No. 1: LeBron’s game-winner takes Heat into break — The Miami Heat seemingly cruised through the first 50 games of the season, but as they head into the All-Star break, they’re very much in striking distance of the Indiana Pacers, thanks to Dallas’ win in Indy on Wednesday and LeBron James‘ fadeaway, 3-point game-winner in Oakland. It was one of the more incredible shots of the season so far, and it sent the Heat into the break on a high note. Ethan Skolnick of Bleacher Report was there:

As Andre Iguodala, defiant defender, would say after the 111-110 defeat, “There’s nothing I would change. He just made a tough shot.”

But, for the James and the rest of the Heat, so few words would not suffice. This was a shot to savor, a shot that sent them into the All-Star break on a serious sugar high, with another sweet road win against a strong Western Conference squad. This was a shot by someone who has never made one like this from this range in this circumstance since joining Miami, or at least none that he or his teammates could remember.

This was a shot — this step back 27-footer just before the buzzer — that really shouldn’t have happened, not if the Heat had held a large lead, and not if Erik Spoelstra had stuck with his plan.

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No. 2: Wade’s All-Star status in the air — That win came without Dwyane Wade, who was a late scratch with a sore left foot. Wade was voted in as an East starter for the All-Star game, but has missed 15 games this season and wasn’t sure what was wrong or if he could play on Sunday. Marc J. Spears of Yahoo!Sports has the story:

The 10-time All-Star said he had numbness in his left leg in warm-ups before the game after “the nerve kind of shut down” and kept him from having feeling in his left foot. Wade said his injury was “drop foot,” also known as foot drop, which causes an inability to lift the front part of the foot.

“It’s one of the most bizarre things…,” Wade said. “Hopefully, the numbness wears off more and more as it started to do throughout the game and throughout the rest of the night. By [Thursday] hopefully it subsides and we will go from there.”

Wade was still expecting to take the Heat team plane that arrives early Thursday morning in New Orleans for NBA All-Star Weekend rather than return to Miami. Wade, who described himself as day-to-day, plans on getting treatment from the team’s trainer in New Orleans in hopes of remedying the injury before Sunday.

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No. 3: Rose not thinking about a returnDerrick Rose spoke to the media at a charity event on Wednesday. And while he didn’t say anything to absolutely rule out a return this season and Joakim Noah seemingly left the door open on Tuesday, Rose said that he’s just taking his knee rehab step by step. K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune was there with the story:

Bulls’ doctors, management and confidantes of Rose ruled him out for the season following surgery to repair the meniscus he tore in his right knee on Nov. 22. But speaking for just the second time publicly since the injury, Rose again couldn’t bring himself to acknowledge that as reality.

“I haven’t even had a chance to think about it,” Rose said Wednesday night at the Bulls’ charity gala at the United Center when asked if he’s done for the season. “I’m just worrying about my next stage in this process and that’s running right now. I’m on the AlterG (an anti-gravity treadmill). Hopefully be running without it pretty soon.

“I’m not keeping (a return) open. I just said right now I’m not thinking about it. I’m not running yet. When I get off the AlterG, that’s when I’ll consider coming back or not.”

General manager Gar Forman reiterated the Bulls have no plans for Rose to return this season.

Rose did say that he’d like to play for USA Basketball this summer.

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No. 4: Another scare for Gasol, Grizzlies — Speaking of knee injuries, Marc Gasol reinjured his left knee in Wednesday’s win in Orlando. The early feeling is that this isn’t as bad as the injury that kept Gasol out 23 games earlier in the season, but the knee will be checked out on Thursday. The Grizzlies won 14 of their last 18 games heading into the All-Star break, but are still on the outside of the playoff picture in the West. Ronald Tillery of the Memphis Commercial Appeal has the story from Orlando:

Griz center Marc Gasol left the game midway through the third quarter after aggravating a left MCL injury that cost him 23 games earlier this season. Gasol returned to the locker room after he banged knees with Magic point guard Jameer Nelson.

The 7-foot Spaniard didn’t return for the Grizzlies’ second straight victory heading into the NBA’s All-Star break. Gasol downplayed the situation after the game.

He will, however, have an MRI test during the break to determine the seriousness of his injury. There is swelling and Gasol walked with a limp.

“It’s scary when it happens, but I think we’re going to be OK,” Gasol said. “We’re going to get it checked to make sure everything is OK. But it feels a lot better than it did the first time.”

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No. 5: Knicks hit another low point — While the Heat went into the break on a high, the New York Knicks don’t have much to celebrate. They blew a 12-point, second-half lead and lost to the Kings at home, a result that will only fuel more speculation about Mike Woodson’s job status. Peter Botte of the New York Daily News was at MSG with the story:

No one should have been surprised that the Knicks appeared to have a collective eye elsewhere for most of a game that Carmelo Anthony had declared a must-win heading into All-Star weekend.

Certainly not owner James Dolan, who sat slumped in his front-row seat along the baseline watching Mike Woodson and the Knicks suffer yet another brutal home loss on Wednesday night, falling, 106-101, in overtime to lowly Sacramento at the Garden.

The Knicks’ fifth loss in six games can’t do much to alter the perception that Woodson’s job is in serious peril — or lead anyone to believe that this team magically will be able to turn around its tumultuous season when it reconvenes Tuesday in Memphis.

“I am not thinking about that at this point,” Anthony said of Woodson’s job status. “That has been an ongoing issue, ongoing story. Every day is a new story so he is still here and that is what we are dealing with.”

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo details Chris Grant‘s mistakes in Cleveland … Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal has some good notes about the Cavs’ turnaround since Grant’s departureAvery Bradley suffered a second ankle sprain last week and the Celtics aren’t sure when he’ll play again … Eric Bledsoe is making progress toward a post-break returnThe Knicks still want Kenneth Faried … and Pierre the Pelican has a new look (video).

ICYMI of The Night: James Harden beat the Wizards with a Eurostep around Kevin Seraphin:


VIDEO: Harden Seals the Deal.