Posts Tagged ‘Marco Belinelli’

Blogtable: Fave regular-season moment

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Memories | One to watch | A surprise champ



VIDEO: Derrick Rose sinks the game-winner to beat the Knicks on Oct. 31, 2013

> A quick look back: Your favorite moment of the 2013-14 regular season.

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: My favorite moment came way at the beginning: Derrick Rose’s high-arcing 12-foot game-winner from the right baseline over Tyson Chandler with 5.7 seconds left at United Center in the Bulls’ home opener. There was electricity and anticipation in the air that, alas, lasted only 10 games before the Chicago MVP candidate went down and out — again. Rose had looked good in October, leading Chicago in scoring (20.7 points a game) and hitting 44.4 percent of his 3-pointers, and everything seemed all right until … y’know. I’d also list the moments Greg Oden, Danny Granger and any other injured guy returned to action –- comebacks are a lot more enjoyable to cover than season-ending injury stories — and Shaun Livingston‘s continued ability to thrive in his revived career.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: Pick a moment, any moment, in any game when Joakim Noah was hungrily, frantically, feverishly passing, rebounding, scoring, pushing, shoving, diving to the floor, doing anything to help the Bulls win the next possession and the next game in a season that he could easily have let go.  For someone who has covered the league for nearly 40 years, Noah has been pure joy to watch.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: I harken to a game I witnessed on the Kevin Durant Experience. Go back to Jan. 22 at Oklahoma City. The Portland Trail Blazers were in town with a 31-10 record. They led 95-90 with 3:45 to go. Looking good. Then Durant went MVP. A driving layup gave him 37 points and cut the deficit to 95-92. A 3-pointer gave him 40 points and tied it at 95. Reggie Jackson and Kendrick Perkins made it 99-95 OKC. Then on consecutive possessions, the first with 48 seconds to play and the second with 26 seconds left, Durant drilled killer 3s from straightaway, giving him 46 points and 11 in the final 3:45. Afterward, the dejected Blazers all but handed Durant the MVP right there and then. “MVP performance,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “He’s the MVP. He’s the MVP,” Blazers forward Nicolas Batum said. “I mean, six years I have been in this league, I have never seen a performance like that. Six years.”

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.comSan Antonio’s 19-game winning streak. The consistency, the dependability, the way players who weren’t on the roster the season before stepped up, the tying for the sixth-best run in NBA history while maintaining a tight hold on minutes. It was all so Spurs-like. Oh, and everyone else was counting along more than the San Antonio players and coaches. Also so Spurs-like. Also worth remembering: Doc Rivers’ heartfelt return to Boston, the purple-splashed celebration at the opening night in Sacramento that almost wasn’t, Jerry Sloan’s tribute night in Salt Lake City. I’m sure there are other moments worth remembering that I am just not remembering.

John Schuhmann, NBA.comThe reception Paul Pierce got in his first game back in Boston (Jan. 26) was very cool. There are not many guys that have played 15 years in one city, and it was great to how much that connection means to the player, the franchise and the fans. Though Pierce played pretty poorly that night, every player would love to have a moment like that.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: That’s a tough one. We’re talking about an entire 82-game season and countless highlights and jaw-dropping moments. Picking one is nearly impossible. But it’ll be hard for me to shake the memory of TNT’s Charles Barkley walking in on my Hang Time One-On-One interview with Milwaukee Bucks rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo. The rookie’s jaw dropped, literally, and his eyes lit up. It was a totally impromptu moment that none of us caught on video because everyone in the room was so surprised it happened. Barkley told Antetokounmpo he needed to “eat a sandwich” before telling him how much he enjoyed watching the youngest player in the league play. Antetokounmpo was in disbelief for the next 10 minutes. He couldn’t get over his chance meeting with one of his idols. “Charles Barkley is huge,” he said before breaking into a wide smile.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball Blog: How about a look back quickly: Perhaps it’s because it’s still fresh on my mind, but that Memphis/Phoenix game the other night with a postseason trip on the line was incredible. Not only because the stakes were so high — it was essentially win or go home. But it was also because the quality of play was terrific — guys were sinking shot after shot, and it felt like they were almost willing the ball into the basket. If the level of play in the postseason comes anything close to that, should be an amazing postseason.

Adriano Albuquerque, NBA Brasil: My favorite moment of the season is still the shock and amazement of seeing the Philadelphia 76ers win their first three games in a row, especially that season-opening win versus the defending champions Miami Heat that included Michael Carter-Williams’ coming out party. Despite all the losing the young Sixers had to suffer during this season — especially that 26-game streak — “The Hyphen” and his peers can look back at that stretch and draw inspiration for climbing higher next season. Also, I loved that amazing Jeff Green 3-point shot with 0.4 seconds on the clock to beat the Heat in Miami. That was just ridiculous. And my third favorite moment was Carmelo Anthony hanging 62 points on the Bobcats to break the Knicks’ and Madison Square Garden’s scoring records.

Philipp Dornhegge, NBA Deutschland: Is it just me, or does everybody feel that you always miss the games with crazy endings? Therefore I’m super-glad that I did, in fact, watch the two Warriors-Thunder games live in which Andre Iguodala and Russell Westbrook hit game-winners. Intense games, playoff atmosphere, perfect endings.

Davide Chinellato, NBA Italia: I pick an All-Star moment, when Marco Belinelli won the Three-Point Contest. It was an historic moment for Italian basketball, and Marco totally deserved it because he made his way up from an end-of-the-bench guy in his first 2 seasons with the Warriors to one of the key role players in a team that can win the title. Putting my role as editor of NBA Italy aside for a moment, my favorite moment of the season is the second Heat vs. Thunder game. Those first minutes in which LeBron played like a monster are unforgettable.

Stefanos Triantafyllos, NBA Greece: OK, I cannot be objective about that. It’s not every day that you see a Greek player featured in the No. 1 of the NBA’s Top-10 highlight reel. So, my favourite moments were Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s coast to coast block-and-dunk against the Cetlics, and when he blocked twice Kevin Durant, forcing KD to call out the rookies’ skills.

Numbers reveal four strong MIP candidates

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The Kia Most Improved Player award is thought of as the most nebulous of the six major end-of-season awards and typically gets the widest range of votes. Last season, though Paul George finished with a vote total of more than twice that of any other player, 15 different players received at least one first-place vote and another 18 received at least one vote for second or third place.

But the award also lends itself to simple statistical analysis. It should be fairly simple to determine whose numbers have improved most from season to season.

If you want to get real simple, we can just compare the raw numbers, using the efficiency statistic.

Biggest increase, total efficiency

Player Season 2012-13 2013-14 Diff.
Kevin Love 6 372 2,060 1,688
Terrence Jones 2 147 1,048 901
Miles Plumlee 2 20 894 874
Andre Drummond 2 826 1,561 735
Andrew Bogut 9 418 1,103 685
Khris Middleton 2 167 836 669
Timofey Mozgov 4 174 837 663
Gerald Green 7 319 923 604
John Wall 4 949 1,511 562
James Anderson 4 180 740 560
DeAndre Jordan 6 1,079 1,638 559
Anthony Davis 2 1,167 1,705 538
Jordan Hill 5 275 810 535
Jeremy Lamb 2 48 579 531
Dirk Nowitzki 16 1,005 1,531 526
Jared Sullinger 2 454 975 521
Tony Wroten 2 84 601 517
Trevor Ariza 10 637 1,151 514
Reggie Jackson 3 465 955 490
Richard Jefferson 13 200 678 478

Efficiency = PTS + REB + AST + STL + BLK – TO – Missed FGA – Missed FTA

At this point, the big question has to be asked: Should second-year players be considered for the Most Improved Player award? If not, we can eliminate several guys on the list above, though both Terrence Jones and Miles Plumlee – two starters on Western Conference playoff teams — feel like strong candidates. Only two of the top 10 in last year’s voting — Nikola Vucevic (4th) and Chandler Parsons (10th) — were second-year players.

There are also a handful of veterans on the list who missed large chunks of last season with injuries, though Kevin Love and Trevor Ariza are having the best seasons of their careers.

Timofey Mozgov and Gerald Green are interesting candidates, but were both out of their team’s rotations last season, so their improved raw numbers may also be about opportunity.

But Mozgov’s name comes up when we look at PIE improvement. PIE takes a player’s numbers (with weights added to each) as a percentage of the overall numbers that were accumulated while he was on the floor. So it adjusts for pace and there’s a team-success element to it, because if your opponent doesn’t score as many points or grab as many rebounds your individual number will be higher.

Biggest increase, PIE

2012-13 2013-14
Player Season MIN PIE MIN PIE Diff.
James Johnson 5 879 5.3% 836 11.5% 6.2%
DeMarcus Cousins 4 2,289 13.2% 1,978 18.3% 5.1%
Kevin Love 6 618 14.4% 2,438 19.4% 5.0%
Markieff Morris 3 1,837 7.5% 1,864 12.3% 4.8%
Lance Stephenson 4 2,278 8.8% 2,487 13.0% 4.2%
Kris Humphries 10 1,191 9.2% 1,272 13.3% 4.1%
Bismack Biyombo 3 2,186 6.3% 957 10.1% 3.8%
Kendall Marshall 2 702 5.8% 1,270 9.6% 3.8%
Draymond Green 2 1,061 5.1% 1,481 8.9% 3.8%
Timofey Mozgov 4 366 6.9% 1,479 10.5% 3.6%
Xavier Henry 4 625 3.9% 895 7.5% 3.6%
Patty Mills 5 656 8.2% 1,306 11.7% 3.4%
Marco Belinelli 7 1,882 7.0% 1,749 10.3% 3.3%
Avery Bradley 4 1,435 4.9% 1,602 8.1% 3.3%
Andrew Bogut 9 786 9.2% 1,661 12.5% 3.3%
Isaiah Thomas 3 2,121 10.6% 2,450 13.8% 3.2%
Anthony Davis 2 1,846 13.5% 2,248 16.6% 3.0%
Marcus Morris 3 1,524 6.7% 1,601 9.7% 3.0%
Brandon Knight 3 2,366 8.2% 2,051 11.2% 3.0%
Alec Burks 3 1,137 7.4% 1,909 10.4% 3.0%

Minimum 300 minutes in 2012-13 and 800 minutes in 2013-14

Love, Mozgov and Andrew Bogut are the only players on both lists. But Bogut had better seasons in Milwaukee and Love’s increase is just 1.0 percent over his third season in the league. Mozgov has taken a decent jump, but still isn’t a real impact player in the league.

Based on the above lists and deeper dives into the numbers, there are four non-second-year candidates that stand out.

Marco Belinelli, Spurs

Choosing between the Spurs’ two back-up guards is tough, because Patty Mills‘ play has been eye-opening. But Belinelli has had a bigger role on the league’s best team.

Belinelli’s points per game have increased from 9.6 season last season (with Chicago) only to 11.4 this year. And he averaged more than that (11.8) two seasons ago with New Orleans. But he’s having, by far, the best shooting and rebounding seasons of his career.

Among 168 players who have attempted at least 100 shots from the restricted area each of the last two seasons, Belinelli (51.9 percent last season, 70.2 percent this season) ranks second in improvement, behind only Love.

Among 139 players who have attempted at least 100 mid-range shots each of the last two seasons, Belinelli (35.9 percent, 44.0 percent) ranks sixth in improvement.

And among 126 players who have attempted at least 100 3-pointers each of the last two seasons, Belinelli (35.7 percent, 43.7 percent) ranks fifth in improvement.

No other player is in the top 25 of all three lists, and only one (Markieff Morris) is in the top 10 of more than one. It certainly helps (quite a bit, one could argue) that Belinelli has gone from a bottom-10 offensive team last season to a top-10 offensive team this year. But he also ranks 10th in improved rebounding percentage among players who have played at least 1,000 minutes each of the last two seasons.

DeMarcus Cousins, Kings

Boogie has seen a jump in both usage (USG%) and scoring efficiency (TS%). Though he’s still not a great shooter (his 49.3 effective field-goal percentage is below the league average), he has gone to the line a lot more than he ever has. He has also rebounded at a career-high rate.

Defensively, he’s not exactly Roy Hibbert or Kevin Garnett, and transition defense is a major problem. But the Kings have been almost six points per 100 possessions better defensively with Cousins on the floor. He’s a plus-62 for a team that’s 25-46.

Cousins’ teammate Isaiah Thomas seems like another good candidate and is 16th on the most-improved PIE list above. But his scoring effective field-goal percentage and true shooting percentage have barely budged (his 3-point percentage and free-throw percentage have gone down), and his numbers jump is mostly about an increased usage rate and a small jump in assist rate.

Markieff Morris, Suns

If you could vote for the Morris twins as one entity, that would be the clear favorite. You can’t, but Markieff (No. 11 in your programs) should be on the short list.

He’s been a much more efficient player this season, even though his usage rate has jumped quite a bit. And the Suns, who are an improved defensive team, have been better on that end of the floor with Markieff in the game.

As referenced above, he’s the ninth most improved mid-range shooter in the league and also ninth most improved in the restricted area. He’s played about the same number of minutes as he did last season and he’s gone to the line more than twice as many times.

With both Morris twins, Plumlee, Gerald Green and Goran Dragic all worthy of some consideration for Most Improved, it’s obvious that Jeff Hornacek should be in the running for Coach of the Year.

Lance Stephenson, Pacers

Like Cousins and Morris, Stephenson has seen a big jump in both usage rate and efficiency. But he’s also the most improved rebounder among 203 players who have logged at least 1,000 minutes each of the last two seasons, with his rebounding percentage jumping from 7.5 percent to 11.4 percent (best among guards).

Stephenson still has some improving to do. He’s a below-average shooter from outside the paint and his turnover rate has jumped as he’s been asked to handle the ball more. But overall, he’s taken a step forward this season.

Spring and Spurs are back in the air

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Bill Land and Sean Elliott chat about the Spurs’ streak of 15 straight 50-win seasons.

It happens every year. After all the wind and sleet, the snow drifts and frozen highways, the crippling storms and blinding blizzards, spring arrives.

So do the Spurs.

The Heat cool off, the Pacers wobble and the Thunder roll in and out. But the Spurs simply hum. Electricity through a power line.

Every year they’re supposed to get older. Every season they seem only to get wiser. And better. About managing their minutes. About healing their aches and pains. About avoiding the lows and managing the highs.

The Spurs stepped on the necks of the Lakers on Wednesday night, for the second time inside of a week, pushing their win streak to 11 in a row, their longest of the season, heading into Friday night’s game at Sacramento (10 ET, League Pass).

Gregg Popovich (Rocky Widner/NBAE)

Gregg Popovich (Rocky Widner/NBAE)

They are 13-1 since the All-Star break and have extended their NBA-record streak of 50-win seasons to a mind-numbing 15 in a row. The Spurs even won 50 in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, finishing 50-16.That is the real March Madness.

So while Phil Jackson gobbles up the headlines in New York, the Spurs keep their heads down and chins up. And now look who’s sitting on top of the standings with the best overall record in the league, 1 1/2 games up on slumping Indiana.

All of which is as surprising to coach Gregg Popovich as gravity.

“That’s what we usually do, right?” Popovich told Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News. “Historically, we’ve always tried to play our best ball after the All-Star break. This year it also coincided with everybody getting healthy, but we’ve done that before. It doesn’t mean we’re going to be the last team standing, but it’s what we usually try to strive for.”

It’s been a habit for nearly a decade to write off the Spurs. That seemed valid after they let the 2013 championship slip through their fingers in those final 24 seconds of Game 6 in Miami. The players have acknowledged that it’s still kicking around in the back corners of their minds. Popovich admits that it rides like an 800-pound gorilla on his back every day. Yet they don’t let it chase them into dark corners each time they step out onto the court.

That ability to stay in the present has been constructed from those 15 consecutive years of 50-win excellence.

“It’s better than losing 50 I guess,” Popovich said, “but we are thinking about other things. We’ve just had a great group of guys for a long time, I guess, and that is the reason we have been able to win. Records and that sort of thing, streaks, aren’t really on anybody’s mind.”

What’s on their mind is getting back to The Finals, though not with a sense of vengeance or redemption. It’s the only goal that matters.

These Spurs are deeper, more balanced, just plain better than a year ago. They have nine different players averaging between 17.6 (Tony Parker) and 8.3 (Tiago Splitter) points per game. There are eight players with a Player Efficiency Rating — ranging from 21.3 (Tim Duncan) to 15.2 (Marco Belinelli) — above the weighted average of 15.0. They have a deep bench led by Manu Ginobili, who is back to his former Sixth Man of the Year level,  and a corporate knowledge that allows them to assimilate new pieces into the mix easily.

Belinelli has been a perfect addition, hitting career highs in shooting percentage, rebounding and, soon, assists. Patty Mills has stepped into Gary Neal’s old backcourt role off the bench and has been at times a distributor, a spark plug and a basket filler. Over the past month or so, Boris Diaw has virtually turned back the clock years to his old Phoenix days.

All that comes on top of the continued under-the-radar growth of Kawhi Leonard, who can attack the basket, pull up and stab in shots from the perimeter, completely disrupt passing lanes with his long arms on defense and barely bat an eye or show a twitch of emotion when he puts the wraps on the likes of LeBron James.

There was a time earlier this season when the Spurs were 1-10 against all of the top level playoff contenders and yet there were no team meetings (a la the Pacers) and no talk of being in “uncharted territory” (the Heat).

When they embarked on their annual Rodeo Road Trip, starting shooting guard Danny Green was just coming back from an injured wrist. During the trip, seven other players missed games due to injury or, in the case of Parker, overall aches and pains. Yet they still came home 6-3. Since then, they haven’t lost a game.

“We stuck with it,” said Duncan. “Through ups and downs, we try to play as steady as we can. It helps that we’re back to full strength. We have all the guys out there. We’re starting to, I think, turn that corner.”

An annual rite of spring.

Live From New Orleans … It’s State Farm All-Star Saturday Night!




VIDEO: Distance is never a problem for Stephen Curry and won’t be during All-Star Saturday night

NEW ORLEANS — Showdown Saturday night is here, finally.

We’ve been waiting for days down here in New Orleans for things to get officially started and for years All-Star Saturday served that purpose for the NBA’s showcase weekend. This year is no different, as we come to you live from the Smoothie King Center and State Farm Saturday night well into the wee hours.

This has long been the domain of the league’s best and brightest, from Dr. J, Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins, Vince Carter and so many other of the league’s greatest dunkers, not to mention the most prolific 3-point shooters and skilled technicians.

Is there someone in tonight’s field for the Sprite Slam Dunk contest … say someone like this Paul George fella below?



VIDEO: Paul George has all of the tools to become one of the league’s all-time great dunkers

Your All-Star Saturday night schedule can be found here. And we are going to provide you with a non-stop in-arena feel for what’s going on down here in the Big Easy.

First up is the Sears Shooting Stars competition, followed by the Taco Bell Skills Challenge , followed by the Foot Locker Three-Point Contest and, we saved the best for last, the Sprite Slam Dunk contest.

I’m going to go ahead and get my predictions out of the way now. Here are my winners …

– Sears Shooting Stars: Team Curry looks lean and mean. They win this one for the Western Conference.

– Taco Bell Skills Challenge: The West has two wicked teams in this one (Trey Burke and Damian Lillard on Team 1 and Goran Dragic and Reggie Jackson on Team 2). I have to roll with Team 1! Another win for the West.

– Foot Locker Three-Point Contest: The Currys need to adopt me, because in Steph Curry I trust when it comes to a shooting contest. (East coast bias … where?)

– Sprite Slam Dunk: The defending champ, Terrence Ross, and the East will be tough to beat. I’ve been hearing rumblings around town that Ben McLemore has some crazy stuff planned. We shall see. In the meantime, I’m rocking with my man “Ross” and George and John Wall.

Get your popcorn ready …

Sears Shooting Stars

– Team Bosh vs Team Durant in the championship for the Sears Shoot Stars.

– Team Bosh with the repeat thansk to Chris Bosh … ain’t nothing but a winner! Durant finishes second again … unreal.

Swin Cash going all Seattle Seahawks and Doug Baldwin on the TNT crew after Team Bosh was handed the trophy was a most appropriate way to finish off the opening event of the night. Straight Cash homie!

Taco Bell Skills Challenge

– East rookies MCW and Victor Oladipo representing for their side with a 43-second run in their run through the course. Too easy for two youngbucks like that.

– It’s still not the Year of the Dragon. Burke and Lillard come through with a 40.6 second-run on the course and keep my prediction alive.

– 45.3 second run for the rookie team in the finals. Always believe in Burke baby! West delivers a 45.2 to take the title. My dude Burke has mad quicks (not that NBA.com’s John Schuhmann has noticed. He’s too busy hating on the best rookie in the league.)

– A little controversy on All- Star Saturday never hurts! We’ve got to get the replay.

Foot Locker Three-Point Contest

– Redemption time for Steph Curry. This is your night sir. This is your event. Do what you do!

– Chuck picks an upset and goes with Bradley Beal (his mom calls him Bradley, so I’m going with Bradley).

– Great field in this competition. All-Stars in Lillard, Curry, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.

– Who jinxed me and the Curry clan tonight? Steph is watching the finals like me. Ugh!

– RapCam turns up shots of Ludacris and Nelly sitting courtside. These young rappers clearly need to step their game up if the vets are getting all of the major Jumbotron play tonight. #whereyouatDrakeand2Chains?

– Nice theme music for Arron Afflalo, Robin Thicke‘s Magic Touch playing as he hits the stage and his 15 is the new score to beat.

Bradley Beal has the high-mark with 21. Kid has wicked range and an absolutely pure shooting stroke.

– The Kendrick Lamar concert/interlude is coming up soon. Just FYI

– Belinelli didn’t smile at all during the final round tale of the tape interview with Nick Cannon and Beal. Not sure how to take that. I know you want to win and everything but have a little fun with this thing fella. His method worked, though. Dropped a 19.

– Beal struggles on his money ball rack but rallies down the stretch for a 19 to tie it and now we get these guys in a 60-second tiebreaker.

Belinelli wins it with a monster effort in the OT. Fantastic showing by both guys.

– Kendrick Lamar’s tearing it up. perfect intro for what I hope will be a spectacular Sprite Slam Dunk contest.

Sprite Slam Dunk

– So I’m 0-for-everything going into this final contest of the night. Somebody on this East team needs to get greasy from the start so I can get back on track. Judges are Dr. J, Dominique and Magic. No worries with those judges.

Kevin Hart and Cannon doing their two-man routine before we get started. Mr. Box Office himself is picking Lillard. And Hart goes with McLemore (who got roasted by Barkley and Hart for his ‘fro … cold blooded).

– East had one day of practice for that routine they turned in for the freestyle portion of their program. Impressive!

– West had a couple of decent dunks but the choreography was way off.

– East wins that freestyle round easy!

– Someone pulled Vanilla Ice out of uh, moth balls … I’ve seen it all now. Bring on the battle round!

– Ross comes out with Drake as an assistant. Battle Round brings out the human props and a cape … and a between-the-legs jam that looks way better on replay after he missed it the first time.

– Lillard’s nights end mercifully without any hardware. The effort was outstanding, though.

Harrison Barnes has some explaining to do after this NBA2k14 dunk …

– McLemore dunking over Shaq and getting crowned had the crowd on its feet. Dunk looked much better on replay, of course. But no one has nailed that all-important first attempt …

– Until now. Thank you JohnWall, the reverse over the mascot and the Nay Nay with George after the dunk. Energy back up just like that. Even the judges agreed on that one. The East wins it. The new format is still being digested as we await the word on the individual champ … well, the dunker of the evening. Wall!

All-Star Saturday Gets A Makeover

Portland's Damian Lillard will have a busy weekend in New Orleans. (Cameron Browne/NBAE)

Portland’s Damian Lillard will have a busy weekend in New Orleans. (Cameron Browne/NBAE)

There will still be the rim-rattling, mind-bending slam dunks, the barrage of breathtaking 3-pointers and the dazzling array of skills on display when the greatest talent in basketball gathers.

But State Farm All-Star Saturday Night will undergo an extreme makeover this year in New Orleans with rule changes for all four of the events and an overall team competition between the Eastern and Western conferences — led by captains Paul George and Stephen Curry – with $500,000 in charitable contributions on the line.

Perhaps the most familiar name by the end of the extravaganza will be guard Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers, who will be busier than a trumpet player in a French Quarter brass band. He’s taking part in three of Saturday’s four events — including stints as a dunker, a long-distance shooter and a playmaker in the Taco Bell Skills Challenge. The 2013 Rookie of the Year already has a busy dance card; he’s scheduled to play in the BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge on Friday night and in the 63rd NBA All-Star Game on Sunday.

The most dramatic change Saturday is coming in the night’s marquee event, the Sprite Slam Dunk Contest. The competition will feature six dunkers, three from each conference, in a free-wheeling, two-round showdown to determine the best conference. For the first time in the event’s history, no individual dunker will be crowned. Instead, the title will go to the best conference. Complete rules.

Dunking for the Eastern Conference will be the team captain George of the Pacers, 2013 champion Terrence Ross of the Raptors and John Wall of the Wizards.  The Western Conference dunkers will be Lillard, Harrison Barnes of the Warriors and Ben McLemore of the Sacramento Kings.

The 6-foot-3 Lillard will be battling in the land of the giants as the shortest participant in the slam dunk contest.

Highlights: George | Ross | Wall | Lillard | Barnes | McLemore

Before he puts on his dunking shoes, Lillard will be showing off his marksmanship as part of the Foot Locker Three-Point Contest.  The other participants are Kyrie Irving of the Cavaliers, Bradley Beal of the Wizards, Joe Johnson of the Nets and Arron Afflalo of the Magic for the East.  Curry of the Warriors, Marco Belinelli of the Spurs and Kevin Love of the Timberwolves will join Lillard shooting for the West.

The major rule change in the contest is that players will have an entire rack of “money balls,” which count double, that can be placed in any of the five shooting positions around the court. Complete rules.

The Taco Bells Skills challenge has been turned into a relay race this year with each conference fielding two teams consisting of two players each.  Each team will run the course, competing in a relay format for a single overall time. Complete rules.

The ubiquitous Lillard will team with Trey Burke of the Jazz and Reggie Jackson of the Thunder will team with Goran Dragic of the Suns to make up the Western Conference lineup.  The East teams will be Michael Carter-Williams of the Sixers with Victor Oladipo of the Magic and DeMar DeRozan of the Raptors with rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Bucks.

The Sears Shooting Stars will once again team a current NBA player with a WNBA star and an NBA legend in a time competition that will require four shots made from different spots on the court.

Tim Hardaway Jr. of the Knicks and Chris Bosh of the Heat will head up the East teams, while Kevin Durant of the Thunder and Curry will lead the West. Complete rules.

Each conference will be competing for charity. A total of $500,000 will be donated at the end of the night. For each competition, $100,000 will go to the winning conference’s charities, with $25,000 going to the charities of the runner-up.

State Farm All-Star Saturday night will be televised exclusively on TNT on Feb. 15 (8 p.m. ET).

[UPDATE: TNT will hold a fan vote during the Sprite Slam Dunk Contest to determine the Sprite Dunker of the Night. The winner of that vote will be considered the individual champion for the competition.]


Video: 2014 All-Star Saturday Night Participants

Morning Shootaround — Jan. 22


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 21

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Durant boosts his MVP case | LeBron: ‘Tough’ for Heat when Wade sits | Carter reflects on Toronto days | Belinelli picked Spurs because of Ginobili | Bradley injured in loss to Heat

No. 1: Durant boosts his MVP case with play vs. Blazers — If you’re a regular reader of our Kia Race to the MVP Ladder on this very website, you know that it’s been a back-and-forth battle between LeBron James and Kevin Durant for the No. 1 spot. Durant, though, may have helped get a couple more votes — not just in our eyes, but in the public’s as well — with his monster performance last night in leading the Oklahoma City Thunder to a comeback win over the contending Portland Trail Blazers. Our own Jeff Caplan was on the scene and says that KD’s play sure looked MVP-like to him:

They’re piling on the Kevin Durant MVP bandwagon now as it barrels through Western Conference contenders with reckless abandon. Its latest victim, the Portland Trail Blazers, was left to dust off a 46-point onslaught and doff its cap as it rode out of town.

“The guy is the best player in the world right now. What can you say about him?” said Blazers forward Nicolas Batum, a salty defender who fended off the pain of a broken left middle finger better than he could Durant, the league’s runaway leading scorer halfway through the season. “When you watch him on TV, like, he is the best. When you guard him in the game, sometimes you have two guys on him and he makes the shot anyway.

“He’s the MVP. He’s the MVP,” Batum repeated, fiddling with his aching finger. “I mean, six years I have been in this league I have never seen a [performance] like that. Six years.”

Durant’s hot zone is the entire court. He blistered Portland for 11 points in the final 3:23, including a terrific drive through traffic and consecutive 3-point daggers from the top of the arc to give him six long balls on seven attempts. The Blazers’ 95-90 lead went up in smoke as did their lead in the Northwest Division. The Thunder (32-10), clamping down with an underrated or under-appreciated or simply under-talked-about defense, pulled out the 105-97 victory for their fourth consecutive win after briefly regrouping following Russell Westbrook‘s latest setback after Christmas.

They’ve knocked down Golden State, Houston, an improving Sacramento squad and now the Blazers (31-11).

Durant, classically and predictably, downplayed his brilliance and praised teammates for doing the hard work to set him up to finish things off.

“You know Perkins giving his body up for me, Serge [Ibaka] is giving his body up, Nick [Collison] and Steven [Adams] , our bigs are doing a great job of getting me open and, like I always say, it’s on me to finish,” Durant said. “So I have to put in the work before and after practice, shootarounds, in order for me to make those shots. My teammates do a great job of setting me up. It’s far more than just me; it’s a small part actually. What I do is more so plays coach [Scott Brooks] calls and the screens being set and the passes being sent. I think the end result is just on me, just trusting in the work and believing in the work to knock those shots down.”

“MVP performance,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “I mean, to score 46 points on 25 shots, 6-for-7 from 3s; I think he got two of his shots blocked. I mean it was a remarkable performance. He made shots when they mattered, he took his time, he didn’t force it, he just took what was there and made some great shots.”

“I just like our approach to the game,” Durant said. “We’re just playing hard. We’re moving the basketball. We missed some shots, but that happens. We’re just playing for each other. We just have to stick together no matter what. Defensively, I think we’re doing a good job of using our length. They hit some 3s and tough shots on us, but we haven’t gotten down on ourselves, we haven’t felt sorry for ourselves, we just kept playing and tonight is another case.”


VIDEO: Kevin Durant dominates down the stretch vs. Portland

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No. 2: LeBron: ‘Tough’ for Heat to fill Wade’s void — NBA followers are well aware the Miami Heat have made a concerted effort this season to keep the knee of star guard Dwyane Wade as healthy as possible for a long playoff run. To try and make that happen, Wade often rests in the second game of back-to-back sets and, to date, Wade has missed a dozen games this season to rest his knee. But last night’s game against the Boston Celtics marked the first time this season Wade had intentionally missed three straight game. As Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald notes, LeBron James said before the game that not knowing Wade’s status each game is proving ‘tough’ on the Heat:

With Dwyane Wade missing his third consecutive game to rest his knees, LeBron James said Tuesday that it has been difficult establishing a collective rhythm amid the uncertainty about whether Wade would be available from game to game.

“It’s tough,” James said. “Guys think it’s easy, but it’s tough. We have a team built on chemistry, built on rhythm. With so many of the guys being in and out, and the concern with D-Wade, it’s been tough on all of us. We’ve got to go in with the mindset sometimes that he’s not playing, as opposed to: Is he playing?”

Wade has missed 12 games, but this marked the first time he has skipped three in a row. He admitted feeling “a little soreness” in the knees on Monday but wasn’t available to speak before Tuesday’s game. One of the games Wade missed earlier in the season was because of flu, with “rest” listed as the reason for the 11 other absences.

“What we try to do is not predetermine and have expectations about it,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “You can’t predict it. You’re going to have some good days and some days where you don’t feel great. We know as long as we stick to the routine, he should get better, quicker and stronger. Now that we’re at home we can get back on the routine of strength training and conditioning.”

Miami entered Tuesday with a 5-6 record without Wade, compared with 11-2 last season and 14-3 in 2011-12.

“We’ve had a little more guys out than just Dwyane this year,” James said. “From a rhythm standpoint, it’s kind of hurt us. We’re a team that is built on rhythm and chemistry, and we’ve had so many guys out with injuries that it’s kind of hurt our performance.

“Me watching the film, some of the things we’ve been able to cover in the past is off. Last year, when D-Wade went out, we had Mike Miller to step in. Mike Miller was in the system for a while, so we could automatically fill that void. Now, with D-Wade out, it’s given more opportunities to guys that haven’t been in the system as many years or as many situations as Mike Miller.”


VIDEO: LeBron James talks about the Heat’s victory over the Celtics

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No. 3: Carter reflects on Toronto days — The Vince Carter era of the Toronto Raptors is one filled with mixed emotions for the player, the team and the fans. Carter burst onto the scene in the 1998-99 season and ran away with the Rookie of the Year trophy. From there came a memorable Dunk Contest performance, All-Star games, the Raptors’ first playoff series victory.  There were lowlights, to be sure, which led to acrimony between he and the team and ultimately led to him being traded during the middle of the 2004-05 season to New Jersey. As the Raptors prepare to host Carter and the Mavericks tonight, the swingman spoke with The Dallas Morning NewsEddie Sefko about his time in Toronto:

He’s as revered as any athlete in Toronto history who doesn’t play hockey, as evidenced by the dozen or so local reporters who wanted interviews with Carter after the Mavericks worked out at the Air Canada Centre practice court.

In short, he was basketball in this pucks-crazy town.

And Carter, in his second season with the Mavericks, has the memories embedded in his mind like snapshots.

“I remember when Vinsanity started, from an article [in the newspaper],” Carter said. “I remember when Half-Man, Half-Amazing started.

“I remember making the first basket here in history [at Air Canada Centre]. You can’t change that. Winning rookie of the year here, you can’t change that. Winning that dunk contest and putting Toronto on the [basketball] map, you can’t change that. Those are all historical to me. I put all three of those as one.”

At 37, Carter still gets airborne as well as some of the kids that have followed in his ozone layer. He threw down a remarkable dunk against Portland on Saturday, and he breaks out those jaw-droppers on occasion.

But when he walked into the Raptors’ practice gym, he could really appreciate the trip back in time to when his aerial “wow” moments were plentiful.

“Of all the times I’ve been back, this is probably just my second time to come back to the practice facility,” Carter said. “This is where everything was created. This is where it was all built. Me, the team, winning our first playoff game — this is where it started. This is where I can say Oak [Charles Oakley] grabbed me over there at the 3-point line and said, ‘Hey, I’m going to make you a player in this league.’ That’s where the memories were made.”

Carter played for Toronto from 1998 to Dec. 17, 2004, when he was traded to New Jersey. Carter’s jersey will be retired someday by the Raptors. It’ll happen after his career is over. It wouldn’t be surprising if Toronto signed Carter to a ceremonial one-day contract so he could retire a Raptor.

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No. 4: Playing with Ginobili helped Belinelli pick SpursA quick look at the season leaders in 3-point percentage reveals that new Spurs guard Marco Belinelli is fitting in quite well in Texas. Belinelli leads the league in accuracy from deep and is in the top 30 or so of 3-pointers made. His shooting touch has proven key for San Antonio as it is among the West’s leaders in wins as the Spurs are again chasing the No. 1 spot in the conference. Dan McCartney of the San Antonio Express-News details how Belinelli has fit in with the team and explains how he passed on bigger offers because he wanted to play with his idol — Manu Ginobili:

To hear the involved parties describe it, Marco Belinelli’s free-agent signing with the Spurs was less a transaction than a match made in basketball heaven.Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, always on the prowl for smart, competitive players to plug into his hive-like collective, had long admired the Italian combo guard.

“He’s not afraid to take big shots. He’ll make big plays,” Popovich said. “When he became available at the end of last season, that was our main goal to try and sign him.”

Belinelli, meanwhile, said he had more lucrative offers than the two-year, $5.6-million deal he eventually signed with the Spurs. But the opportunity to play for one of the best teams in the NBA, alongside long-time idol Manu Ginobili, was too good to pass up.

“I know money is important,” he said. “But I’m a young guy and I want to improve my game. Money will come. I just want to win.”

In no other area does Belinelli’s hoops IQ manifest itself better than his consistent ability to create space for himself by moving without the basketball.

Nearly 84 percent of his buckets are assisted, while he’s taken just five isolation shots all season — and missed them all. That’s a tribute to the Spurs’ emphasis on ball movement, and their wealth of willing passers. But Belinelli does his part with tireless movement, which results in more than 40 percent of his made field goals per Synergy Sports (defined as off screens, cuts and hand offs).

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No. 5: Celtics’ Bradley could miss next gameWith a combination of Rajon Rondo at point guard and Avery Bradley at shooting guard, the Boston Celtics can boast perhaps the best defensive backcourt in the game. However, Rondo has played in just three games this season (he returned from season-long ACL surgery and rehab on Friday) and is still getting his bearings on the court. But it seems that Rondo will have to work with a new running mate in the backcourt after Bradley suffered an ankle injury last night in Miami and could miss at least the next game, writes A. Sherrod Blakely of CSNNE.com:

The Boston Celtics were having a tough time with the Miami Heat early on, and it only got rougher following Avery Bradley going down with a sprained ankle injury.The 6-foot-2 guard was unable to return as Boston went on to lose 93-86 to the Heat.

While it is unclear if Bradley will play in Wednesday’s game against Washington, Celtics head coach Brad Stevens didn’t sound too optimistic.

“He didn’t seem like he was walking great,” Stevens said. “If I had to guess, I’d say no (he won’t play) but it would be a guess.”

Bradley limped off the floor early in the second quarter and immediately headed to the locker room with team trainer Ed Lacerte next to him. Moments later, team officials said he would not return.The 6-foot-2 guard, who has started in all 43 games this season, has had an injury-riddled career up to this point.

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Magic center (and Shootaround fave) Nikola Vucevic isn’t sure when he’ll return to the lineup Ricky Rubio has fun playing catch with little girl during the middle of last night’s Wolves-Jazz game … Warriors forward Andre Iguodala isn’t a big fan of playing in national TV games … Good look at the longstanding feud between Raptors fans and their former star, Vince Carter … Solid profile piece on Commissioner David Stern and his legacy in the NBA … Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau is pushing Taj Gibson for some Sixth Man of the Year love

ICYMI of The Night: Nets play-by-play man Ian Eagle makes just about any dunk call sound great and his label for Andray Blatche‘s slam over Kyle O’Quinn gives this dunk a little extra oomph: 


VIDEO: Andray Blatche powers home a jam over the Magic’s Kyle O’Quinn2014/01/21/20140121-daily-zap.nba

Belinelli, Most Improved Shooter

Marco Belinelli is shooting 57 percent from 3-point range (D. Clarke Evans/NBAE )

Marco Belinelli is shooting 57 percent from 3-point range. (D. Clarke Evans/NBAE )

The List

Biggest improvement, effective field-goal percentage

2012-13 2013-14
Player FGA eFG% FGA eFG% Diff.
Marco Belinelli 610 46.0% 140 63.6% 17.6%
Michael Beasley 766 43.4% 119 58.4% 15.0%
Andre Iguodala 879 50.2% 110 65.0% 14.8%
Jodie Meeks 530 50.2% 198 61.9% 11.7%
Wesley Matthews 808 54.0% 238 64.9% 10.9%
Tony Allen 638 44.8% 128 55.1% 10.3%
Jeremy Lin 897 49.0% 155 57.7% 8.7%
Spencer Hawes 811 48.3% 236 57.0% 8.7%
Markieff Morris 653 44.2% 196 52.0% 7.9%
Klay Thompson 1,205 50.9% 352 58.7% 7.8%

Minimum 500 FGA in 2012-13 and 100 FGA in 2013-14
EFG% = (FGM + (0.5 * 3PM)) / FGA

The Context

It’s interesting how a different team can make a player better. The top two guys on this list went from bottom-10 offensive teams last season to top-10 offensive teams this season. Marco Belinelli went from the Rose-less Bulls to the Spurs, while Michael Beasley went from the Suns to the Heat. Andre Iguodala was part of a top-five offense last season, but the Warriors certainly space the floor a lot better than the Nuggets did.

Speaking of floor spacing, Belinelli is shooting a ridiculous 30-for-53 (57 percent) from 3-point range after going 2-for-3 in Tuesday’s win in Toronto. He’s also shooting 51 percent from inside the arc.

Is it a product of the system? Do Tony Parker‘s pick-and-roll brilliance and the Spurs’ ball movement produce more open shots for Belinelli?

First of all, only 54 of Belinelli’s 140 shots have come with Parker on the floor. He actually has shot better with Parker on the bench. He’s played more minutes with Patty Mills as his point guard and has been assisted 22 times by Manu Ginobili. Mills’ improvement, Ginobili’s resurrection and Belinelli’s shooting are big reasons why the Spurs are 16-4 despite an underperforming starting lineup.

According to SportVU, 61 percent of Belinelli’s shots have been uncontested* this season, a jump from 56 percent last season. But the jump is all in his 2-point attempts. In the 20 Bulls games that were tracked by SportVU last season, none of Belinelli’s 47 2-point attempts were uncontested. This season, 42 of his 87 2-point attempts have been uncontested.

*Uncontested: The nearest defender is at least four feet away.

Both years, most of his 3-point attempts (87 percent last season and 83 percent this season) have been uncontested. But he’s shooting them much better with the Spurs. He’s also 6-for-9 on contested threes this year.

So it’s very possible that this is just a fluky start to the season for Belinelli. Or maybe there’s something in the Riverwalk water.

There is one more aspect to Belinelli’s shooting that SportVU can clue us in on: whether he’s shooting more off the catch or off the dribble.

In games tracked by SportVU last season, 60 percent of Belinelli’s shots were catch-and-shoot. This season, that number is up to 75 percent. But again, he’s shooting much better on those catch-and-shoot jumpers this year.

While the Spurs run the most beautiful offense in the league and that offense certainly makes players look better than they would elsewhere, it’s hard to believe that Belinelli’s shooting numbers are very sustainable.

The Video

Here’s video of Belinelli’s six 3-point attempts against the Rockets on Nov. 30. One was a half-court heave, three were wide-open looks on feeds from Ginobili, one was a semi-heat-check, and the last was a rushed shot with the Spurs down four in the closing seconds. If you’re a Spurs fan, you have to love the way Ginobili has been playing.

And if you really like your meatballs spicy, here are all 30 of Belinelli’s made 3-pointers this season.

The bottom of the list

Kosta Koufos is the anti-Belinelli, with a regression of 13.6 percent. That mark edges out Kevin Garnett (-12.7 percent), Jerryd Bayless (-11.4 percent), Patrick Patterson (-10.6 percent) and Tyreke Evans (-9.4 percent). Koufos had an effective field-goal percentage of 58.1 percent on 508 shots with Denver last season and is at 44.5 percent on 146 shots with Memphis this season.

Trivia question

To qualify for the above list, you had to have attempted at least 500 shots last season. There are five players who had at least 500 field-goal attempts last season and have not played a game this season. Four of them are on rosters and are injured: Carlos Delfino, Danilo Gallinari, Carl Landry and Emeka Okafor. Can you name the fifth?

Random notes

  • Chris Paul has 84 assists to Blake Griffin this season and no other combination has nearly that number. Next on the list of teammate-to-teammate assists is Jeff Teague and Al Horford, who have hooked up for 62 of Horford’s buckets.
  • Paul, Griffin and the Clippers have the No. 1 home offense, scoring 111.2 points per 100 possessions in 10 home games. But they have just the 17th best road offense, scoring only 100.9 points per 100 possessions in 12 road games. Their differential of 10.3 isn’t the biggest in the league. That belongs to the Mavs, who have scored 10.9 more points per 100 possessions at home than they have on the road.
  • The biggest defensive differential belongs to the Rockets, who have allowed 14.9 fewer points per 100 possessions at home. Houston ranks third defensively at home and 28th on the road. The good news is that they have the No. 1 road offense.
  • Deron Williams returned to the Nets’ lineup against Boston on Tuesday and Brooklyn played its best offensive game of the season, scoring about 116 points per 100 possessions against what was a top-10 defense. Point guards are important.

Trivia answer

Shannon Brown, who attempted 571 shots for the Suns last season. He was sent to the Wizards in the Marcin Gortat trade and was waived before the season.

Spurs Bury Past By Playing For Today


VIDEO: Charles Barkley gives credit to Spurs before joking on city of San Antonio

SAN ANTONIO — It’s still there, rattling around inside their heads like a ghost in the attic.

Whether you’re Danny Green willfully using the harsh memory as a painful everyday fuel or you’re Manu Ginobili trying hard to push it back into the shadows, it’s as much a part of what they take onto the court as their sneakers and jerseys.

Those 28 seconds at the end of Game 6 in the NBA Finals when the Spurs let a five-point lead over the Heat and a fifth franchise championship slip through their hands is now who they are and, maybe because of that, what they can be. Again.

They are the same old Spurs for whom the camouflage uniforms they wore against the Wizards were redundant, since nobody ever seems to notice them until they get to the end of yet another 50-win season. It’s a league record 14 in a row and counting.

These Spurs have won six straight, running their record up to 8-1, which trails only the unbeaten Pacers in a year after when it might seem natural to have a hangover.

“I’m sure it crosses everybody’s mind once in a while,” Green said. “I’m sure it gets brought up in a lot of conversations, not just with (media), but with mutual friends, family.

“This is a new year, a new season. You try to let that go, but I think it’s a good motivational tool that could keep us at it. February, March, sure. Let it keep pushing us.”

The veteran Ginobili takes the opposite approach.

“If somebody asks me, you can’t force not to remember it,” he said. “But if not, I’m just focused on … the next game and my health and the next game and trying to get better. I really don’t think about what happened last year.

“It’s something that we’re going to have in the back of our heads forever. It’s not that it’s going to leave. I still remember the semifinals I lost in 1997 with the Under-22 team (in Argentina) because it was a game like that. So it is going to stay there forever. You’re going to bring it when you need to, not on an everyday basis because it doesn’t help.”

What helps is simply getting back to the basics, getting back to what the Spurs do best, which is to play the game to their own selflessly exacting standard that comes together like a symphony.

“San Antonio runs offense perfectly,” said Wizards center Marcin Gortat. “It was like listening to Mozart. It’s just ridiculous how they play.”

What would seem insanely impossible anywhere else is that the Spurs have sprinted out of the starting gate while other would-be contenders — Grizzlies, Nets, Clippers, Rockets — stumble, all with perennial All-Star Tim Duncan struggling to find his shot.

When Duncan went 1-for-12 against the Wiz, it was the third time this season that he scored a single field goal. He is shooting 32 of 83 (.386) to open his 17th NBA season and matched his single-game career low with two points. Nevertheless, the Spurs have trailed for a total of only 11 seconds in their last four wins over Golden State, New York, Philadelphia and Washington.

It has been about Tony Parker setting the pace with his scoring, passing and constantly attacking style on offense, about Green getting back his shooting stroke following a bumpy start, Kawhi Leonard continuing to bloom and Ginobili coming back healthy and confident to begin the season. The Spurs are also getting production up and down the lineup from Tiago Splitter to Marco Belinelli to Boris Diaw.

While everyone on the outside keeps looking at the calendar and the clock and thinking that the time running out on the Spurs Big Three of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili would make them lost in the fog of what got away last June, the point that’s missed is the sense of urgency they take into each season, each game, every possession at both ends of the court.

The Spurs simply keep playing the game according to the Xs and Os you would expect to see drawn up in a coach’s textbook, based on an organizational style and philosophy that is plainly demanding and with an inherent sense of responsibility to the whole.

“We don’t talk about it as a group,” said coach Gregg Popovich. “We did that the beginning of the year like we do every year. We start with the end of the season before, whoever knocked us out of the playoffs. We go through that film … We went over it in every single detail. We do it excruciatingly, honestly … We already did it, so there’s no sense doing it again.

“But you never forget that. I still remember 0.4 (when Derek Fisher’s 18-foot fadeaway for the Lakers beat San Antonio in Game 5 of the 2004 West semifinals). It goes through once every month or something.

“The Miami thing goes through my head every day. Pretty soon it will be every two days and then it will be every week and every month. That’s the way it is. Everybody remembers things good and bad. It’s not something to be dwelled on. Like I told the team, it’s just another episode in your life, one of the easier ones that you’ll face. When you think about all the things we have to face — family-wise and friends-wise and all that stuff. The things that go on in our lives, basketball, that’s a joke compared to the real stuff.”

Which is how the Spurs inch away from the past while keeping it within everything they do today.

Three More Earn World Cup Berths

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HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – Three more teams earned berths to the 2014 World Cup of Basketball on Thursday. Slovenia, Croatia and Lithuania will be making the trip to Spain next August thanks to big wins at Eurobasket.

Slovenia had to recover quickly from Wednesday night’s disappointing loss to France, playing Serbia just 16 hours later. But they pushed the pace early and got off to a hot start, scoring 30 points in the first quarter. It was the second straight day that Serbia got smoked in the opening 10 minutes. They were able to recover a little better than they did against Spain on Wednesday, but they shot a brutal 2-for-18 from 3-point range and never really made things interesting.

It was Zoran Dragic who led the way for Slovenia with 23 points and nine rebounds, with brother Goran finishing with 15 points and five assists. The win puts the Eurobasket hosts in the WCOB field (see below) and they will play the winner of Ukraine-Italy in the sixth place game on Saturday.

In Thursday’s first quarterfinal, Croatia used a 19-1 run in the second quarter to build a double-digit lead against Ukraine, who could never cut that lead down to less than eight. Bojan Bogdanovic had a relatively quiet afternoon, but Krunoslav Simon picked up the slack, scoring 23 points on just 10 shots from the field. Croatia’s 84-72 win was their eighth straight (after losing their opener to Spain) and put them in the semifinals, with Ukraine being sent to the loser’s bracket, where it will have win one of the next two games to qualify for the WCOB.

The nightcap was the best matchup of the quarterfinals, and it sure looked like it through three quarters. But Italy went scoreless over the first 5:57 of the fourth as Lithuania built a 14-point lead. They held on for a four-point win that sends them to the semifinals against Croatia and makes them the 18th team to qualify for the WCOB. It was a balanced attack for Lithuania, who played small with only one big man on the floor, leaving Jonas Valanciunas on the bench for all but 10:51. Marco Belinelli led Italy with 22 points.

So here’s where we stand with three more days of action left in Slovenia. Early on Friday (8:30 a.m. ET), Italy will play Ukraine for another spot in the WCOB. The winner of that game will play Slovenia on Saturday for sixth place, while the loser will play Serbia for the seventh place and the final WCOB berth.

Also on Friday, we’ll have the two semifinals, both on NBA TV: Croatia-Lithuania (11:45 a.m. ET) and France-Spain (3 p.m. ET). Both are great matchups between teams playing some of their best basketball. The final will be on Sunday.

2014 World Cup of Basketball field

No. Team Qualified
1 Spain Host
2 USA 2012 Olympic champion
3 Iran FIBA Asia champion
4 Philippines FIBA Asia 2nd place
5 Korea FIBA Asia 3rd place
6 Australia FIBA Oceania champion
7 New Zealand FIBA Oceania 2nd place
8 Angola FIBA Africa champion
9 Egypt FIBA Africa 2nd place
10 Senegal FIBA Africa 3rd place
11 Mexico FIBA Americas champion
12 Puerto Rico FIBA Americas second place
13 Argentina FIBA Americas third place
14 Dominican Republic FIBA Americas fourth place
15 France Eurobasket semifinalist
16 Croatia Eurobasket semifinalist
17 Lithuania Eurobasket semifinalist
18 Slovenia Eurobasket 5th/6th place
19 Ukraine/Italy winner Eurobasket 5th/6th place
20 Serbia or Ukraine/Italy loser Eurobasket 7th place
21 Wildcard
22 Wildcard
23 Wildcard
24 Wildcard

16 NBA Players Still Going At EuroBasket

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HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – With training camps set to open in less than two weeks, most NBA players are getting back to their places of business and working out with their teammates.

Several guys, however, are in Slovenia, representing their countries at EuroBasket. Sixteen teams have gone home and eight remain, playing for national pride and seven spots in next year’s World Cup of Basketball. EuroBasket has been the best basketball of the summer and the single-elimination action starts Wednesday.

Here’s the quarterfinal schedule:
Serbia (E1) vs. Spain (F4), Wednesday, 11:30 a.m. ET (NBA TV)
Slovenia (F2) vs. France (E3), Wednesday, 3 p.m. ET (NBA TV)
Croatia (F1) vs. Ukraine (E4), Thursday, 11:45 a.m. ET
Lithuania (E2) vs. Italy (F3), Thursday, 3 p.m. ET

And here are the 16 NBA players still playing, with some notes on how they’ve done so far…

Nicolas Batum (Blazers) – France
His stats: 28.1 MPG, 11.7 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 2.6 APG, .463 FG%, 7-for-31 3PT
The buzz: Batum has been filling the box score (as he’s known to do). He had 19 points, 10 boards, six assists, a steal and a block in last Friday’s win over Latvia. But he’s had some rough shooting nights from beyond the arc.

Marco Belinelli (Spurs) – Italy
His stats: 31.6 MPG, 14.1 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 2.4 APG, .369 FG%, 11-for-34 3PT
The buzz: Belinelli is Italy’s primary ball-handler, a different role than he’s played in the NBA. He’s had some big games, but will be facing one of the tournament’s toughest defenses in the quarterfinals on Thursday.

Jose Calderon (Mavs) – Spain
His stats: 23.4 MPG, 9.4 PPG, 1.5 RPG, 3.0 APG, .458 FG%, 18-for-37 3PT
The buzz: Sharing the backcourt with Ricky Rubio, Calderon has been playing a lot of two guard for Spain. But that’s OK, because every team needs a secondary ball-handler and he’s also a great shooter. He has a 24/8 assist/turnover ratio and has hit three or more 3-pointers in four of Spain’s eight games.

Victor Claver (Blazers) – Spain
His stats: 17.9 MPG, 4.9 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 0.9 APG, .412 FG%, 5-for-15 3PT
The buzz: Claver is a terrific rebounder starting at power forward and doing the dirty work for Spain. He’s averaging almost 11 boards per 36 minutes at Eurobasket and had 11 in just 24 minutes before fouling out against Greece. He has drained a few threes, but probably spends a little too much time hanging out on the perimeter.

Luigi Datome (Pistons) – Italy
His stats: 29.9 MPG, 14.0 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 1.3 APG, .488 FG%, 15-for-36 3PT
The buzz: The Pistons’ rookie has had a couple of big games and sent Monday’s thriller against Spain to overtime with a driving layup at the buzzer. He can shoot and will be a decent role player in the league, but will need to play off Detroit’s playmakers. He’s not very mobile or skilled off the dribble.

Nando De Colo (Spurs) – France
His stats: 20.3 MPG, 8.8 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 0.9 APG, .413 FG%, 11-for-26 3PT
The buzz: Coming off the bench for France, De Colo shot well early in the tournament, but has cooled off of late.

Boris Diaw (Spurs) – France
His stats: 28.1 MPG, 10.1 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 3.4 APG, .508 FG%, 3-for-12 3PT
The buzz: Tony Parker is the star in France, but it’s Diaw’s passing from the high post that can really make the French offense click. Though Parker has the ball in his hands more, Diaw has almost as many dimes.

Goran Dragic (Suns) – Slovenia
His stats: 23.3 MPG, 15.3 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 4.4 APG, .392 FG%, 8-for-32 3PT
The buzz: Dragic is a terror on the break and has had some big games for the tournament’s hosts, including 28 points in a win over Greece on Saturday. The shooting numbers look ugly, because he missed his first 11 threes of the tournament. His matchup against Parker could be the best of the quarterfinals.

Marc Gasol (Grizzlies) – Spain
His stats: 29.5 MPG, 13.8 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 1.8 APG, .521 FG%, 3-for-6 3PT
The buzz: Though Gasol had 32 points and 10 boards in Monday’s overtime loss to Italy, his offensive numbers don’t make it clear that he’s one of the two best players in the tournament. But he’s anchored Eurobasket’s No. 1 defense, which has allowed 16.5 fewer points per 100 possessions than the tourney average.

Mickael Gelabale (Wolves) – France
His stats: 25.5 MPG, 7.9 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 1.6 APG, .449 FG%, 8-for-23 3PT
The buzz: Like De Colo, Gelable shot well early on (7-for-15 from 3-point range in the first round), but has since cooled off (1-for-8) in Round 2. He’s in France’s starting lineup for his defense, but can provide some scoring off the ball.

Viacheslav Kravtsov (Suns) – Ukraine
His stats: 17.9 MPG, 6.6 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 0.8 APG, 1.4 BPG, .436 FG%
The buzz: Ukraine’s only NBA player is its fifth leading scorer. Kravtsov is a big body who needs more polish in the post.

Donatas Motiejunas (Rockets) – Lithuania
His stats: 11.6 MPG, 5.8 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 0.3 APG, .486 FG%, 4-for-12 3PT
The buzz: Lithuania is deep up front and Motiejunas was barely playing  earlier in the tournament (he picked up three fouls in eight minutes against Bosnia). But he totaled 23 points in 39 minutes in Lithuania’s last two games, helping them secure a spot in the quarters.

Nemanja Nedovic (Warriors) – Serbia
His stats: 26.0 MPG, 9.0 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 2.5 APG, .368 FG%, 11-for-38 3PT
The buzz: With the absence of Hang Time favorite Milos Teodosic, Nedovic – the No. 30 pick in the 2013 Draft – has been starting at point guard for Serbia. He’s solid and can shoot off the dribble, but he doesn’t have the quickness to be much of a threat on the pick-and-roll. But he doesn’t need to be a real floor general with a team like Serbia, that moves the ball pretty well.

Tony Parker (Spurs) – France
His stats: 27.9 MPG, 17.3 PPG, 1.5 RPG, 3.9 APG, .532 FG%, 7-for-26 3PT
The buzz: The best offensive player in the tournament is leading the No. 1 offense. Parker has been a terror on the pick-and-roll (no surprise there), but his pull-up jumper has been a little shaky. France has a lot of work to get through Slovenia on Wednesday, but a semifinal matchup against Spain could be the game of the tournament.

Ricky Rubio (Wolves) – Spain
His stats: 21.4 MPG, 8.3 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 3.0 APG, .446 FG%, 3-for-7 3PT
The buzz: Against defenses that are packing the paint (there’s no defensive three-second rule in FIBA), Rubio isn’t as dynamic a playmaker as he is in the league. He’s done a decent job of making opponents pay for going under the screen, stepping up and knocking down the mid-range jumper. But shooting is probably why Calderon has played more minutes.

Jonas Valanciunas (Raptors) – Lithuania
His stats: 17.4 MPG, 7.9 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 0.0 APG, 1.0 BPG, .697 FG%
The buzz: Continuing his excellent play from Summer League, Valanciunas has made 23 of his 33 shots and is averaging 16.3 points and 12.4 rebounds per 36 minutes. But Lithuania is deep up front, so his playing time has been somewhat limited. He had a double-double in just 13 minutes against Belgium on last Friday. We’ll see if he gets more minutes in the elimination rounds.