Posts Tagged ‘Matt Barnes’

Building Trust, Clippers Believe They’re Coming Together For Stretch Run


VIDEO: Jamal Crawford leads the Clippers past the Thunder

OKLAHOMA CITY – It’s taken nearly three-quarters of the season, but it seems the Los Angeles Clippers, through injury and inconsistency and now with trade deadline rumors buried, are forging the most important bond a team can form: Trust.

“This is our team,” Chris Paul said. “If we’re going to win it all this is who we’re going to do it with, so if we can’t get on one another and understand that we have one common goal … that’s what winning teams do, they understand it’s nothing personal.

“Our team, we talk a lot more than we used to in the past, try not to leave anything unsaid. We’re a family and we play like that.”

Paul is strengthening his trust in coach Doc Rivers and in forward Blake Griffin. Griffin’s developing greater trust in Paul and, as in Sunday’s 125-117 road win at the Oklahoma City Thunder that required a push of crunch-time execution to complete the job, the Clippers (38-20) are learning to trust in the system.

Perhaps most crucial to success is the bond between L.A.’s two All-Stars. And while no one wishes injury upon anyone, the separated shoulder that sidelined Paul for five weeks until right before the All-Star break may have served a greater purpose.

Griffin, the evolving, 24-year-old power forward, uncorked a phenomenal stretch, and while he remains well under the radar as an MVP candidate behind Kevin Durant and LeBron James, his all-around performances were central to the Clippers going 12-6 without Paul, the league’s assist leader and almost universally regarded as the top point guard in the game.

“The biggest thing is you see me and Blake’s relationship, we talk all game long,” said Paul, who said he didn’t expect to play against the Thunder because of a badly swollen right thumb, yet accumulated 18 points, 12 assists, eight rebounds and one turnover in 39 minutes. “I think we both realize how much we need each other. When I was out I got a chance to really see his growth and how dominant he is. So me, I’m out there to facilitate and pick my spots, but we’re really starting to get that chemistry at the right time.”

Griffin was the youthful, hopeful face of a downtrodden franchise. Paul arrived as the savior. There have been whispers throughout their now three seasons together about whether they liked one another, whether they could play together and succeed together. Griffin said Paul’s absence helped him grasp his larger importance to the team and to emerge with a stronger voice.

“It’s been important for us as a team to learn to have to play without him because I think at times we relied a little bit too much on him,” Griffin said. “At the end of games you kind of think, ‘OK, we have the ball and it’s in our guy’s hands and we’re just going to kind of let him do his thing. I think we really had to rely on our system.

“And for me, really, taking a different approach as far as being a leader for our team and having a little bit more vocal approach with him out, I think it was good for me.”

The Clippers trusted in the system and stuck with it at both ends after blowing a 15-point lead, 95-80, with 2:14 left in the third quarter and taking only a 99-93 margin into the fourth quarter.

Kevin Durant’s 3-pointer gave him a game-high 42 points (with 10 assists) and put the Thunder ahead 115-112 with 2:43 left in the game.

From there, the Clippers closed it out with a 13-2 run in which Paul, Griffin — who didn’t have his best game, but fought through foul trouble for 18 points, seven rebounds and six assists — and Jamal Crawford (36 points and five 3-pointers) combined for the final flurry.

It was a significant win for a team that only evened its road record at 15-15 and hadn’t beaten a top tier team away from Staples Center since Houston way back in November. The Clippers had already stumbled twice out of the All-Star break while reintegrating Paul — much as the Thunder are doing now with Russell Westbrook — including losing at home to a San Antonio team without Tony Parker and then a couple nights later at nemesis Memphis.

On Sunday afternoon they beat OKC’s fourth-rated defense badly in the first half in transition and throughout the game with a 3-ball that was expected to be prolific for them this season, but hasn’t. Matt Barnes went 6-for-10 from deep, and the Clippers believe when J.J. Redick is ready to return (likely before the playoffs) that they’ll finally be the team they always thought they would be — playing with pace, spreading the floor, rolling to the bucket for dunks and launching 3s for quick, momentum-turning scoring bursts.

“It’s funny [we’ve been] trying to get Matt to run to the corners all year and now he’s doing it, and that’s a good shot for him, we can get it in transition,” Rivers said. “And when he does run there, that’s why D.J. [DeAndre Jordan] gets the dunks because the guards have to make a choice, take D.J. or leave the guy in the corner, and it’s really helped us.”

The question facing the Clippers: Can they build off this singular victory as they head into the final 24 games? Paul said they’ll find out Monday night when they play at New Orleans.

Because through 58 games even Rivers said he’s unsure of the kind of team he’s got on his hands.

“I think we know, but I don’t really know,” Rivers said. “We haven’t had a lot of games together. But nobody really cares about it except for us, so we just have to keep working, and if we do get our group together, the minutes that everyone had I have to think it will help our team overall.”


VIDEO: Jamal Crawford talks about the Clippers’ win in Oklahoma City

Coaching The NBA’s Hardheaded Players


VIDEO: Brent Barry and The Starters crew talk about J.R. Smith’s shoe antics

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – A sucker’s born every minute, or so they say. So maybe the Knicks can find one to dump their stupefying sixth man J.R. Smith upon. More likely, Knicks coach Mike Woodson is stuck with the shoelace bandit.

The NBA nailed Smith with a $50,000 fine Wednesday for “recurring instances of unsportsmanlike conduct.” One day after the league warned Smith after he untied the shoelaces of Mavericks forward Shawn Marion as the two stood side by side awaiting a free throw, he tried it again in the very next game to Pistons forward Greg Monroe.

The New York Daily News reported that Smith has now been fined $105,000 since joining the Knicks in 2012, not to mention his one-game suspension in the playoffs for throwing an elbow at Boston’s Jason Terry, and his five-game suspension to start this season for violating the league’s drug policy. Meanwhile, the Knicks awarded Smith a three-year, $18 million contract during the summer.

A fed-up Woodson on Wednesday lit into his juvenile shooting guard on New York radio station 98.7 ESPN:

“I don’t condone things that I know you shouldn’t do. No, I’m not happy about this. Because again, he was warned, he comes back and he makes the same mistake, and it’s not right. I just got the information, I’m going to address it tomorrow when he comes in here for work, because it’s unacceptable. It really is.

“It’s unprofessional. That’s the only word I can use. Or two words. You just can’t do that. You just cannot do it.”

And …

“There’s no question, he’s done a lot of things this year that has put him in a bad position and our team in a bad position. Somehow, we’ve got to clean that up. This is unacceptable…I keep saying this every time something pops up, but it’s got to stop.”

But really, what can a coach do when dealing with a volatile, hardheaded (but also a needed) player such as Smith? I was talking about this very topic recently with Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who has such a player on his roster in Matt Barnes and just released another in Stephen Jackson.

Barnes is more of a hot-tempered, playground bully/team-bodyguard type whereas Smith is more of a loose cannon and silly prankster. But both are emotional, off-the-cuff players who do inexplicable things at any given moment that can hurt their teams either by drawing a technical foul, an ejection and/or suspension.

Rivers’ answer to what a coach can do to reign in such behavior? Not a lot.

“I just let them explode and then move on,” Rivers said, laughing. “There’s not much you’ve got to do. I had Rasheed [Wallace]. He probably was the test market for any emotional player. Rasheed was a great teammate, he was a great guy, but when he lost it, he lost it, and listen, better coaches than me coached Rasheed. … I came to the conclusion if they couldn’t stop it I’m not going to try.”

Barnes has played in only 19 games this season due to various injuries, but has already been fined two times for $25,000 each for lingering on the court after being ejected. Last month, Barnes put a hard foul on Timberwolves forward Kevin Love in the third quarter, drawing a flagrant 1. The referees reviewed it on replay and upgraded it to a flagrant 2, resulting in automatic ejection. Barnes flipped. The upgrade proved to be more about Barnes’ reputation, a problem in itself. The league reviewed the foul and acknowledged it should have remained a flagrant 1.

“You never want to put your team in a position of vulnerability or giving away extra free throws or extra points, especially down the stretch of the season or if it’s the playoffs; everything has to be calculated,” Barnes told NBA.com last week. “It used to be a good, little game. Now it’s like a flag football-type game, so you really have to be smart about everything.”

His first ejection and subsequent fine came during a November game against the Thunder in which Barnes unnecessarily came to the defense of a teammate and got into an altercation with Thunder forward Serge Ibaka in the first half. Both players got tossed.

“My situation is I look at my teammates as my family, so it’s never really an altercation to me,” Barnes said. “It’s more if your teammates get into something, you get into something; that’s the way I was raised. I was raised to protect my brother and sister and my friends, so I look at my teammates as my family. I’m going to do whatever I can to help.”

How do you coach that?

“With Stephen and Matt, they are emotional and their emotions, for the most part, are in the right place; they want to help their team win,” Rivers said. “Yeah, you don’t want them to ever cross that line where it can hurt your team and when it does, it does, and you remind them of it and you just hope they get better. But that’s all you can do.

“I don’t know, it’s a tough one. I’d rather have it, I guess.”

Woodson and the Knicks aren’t so sure anymore in regard to Smith. The 10-year veteran had an excellent last season, earning Sixth Man of the Year honors, and many professed that he was a changed man, done with frivolous conduct and serious about taking care of business on the basketball court.

Going back to his playoff implosion and the multiple incidents since, that certainly does not appear to be the case. As Woodson said during his Wednesday radio appearance:

“If you look at what happened last year, everybody played a role on that team and J.R. was a big piece of the puzzle. Yeah, it can come from Carmelo [Anthony], it can come from his teammates, it can come from his coaching staff, it can come from me being there, it can come from the GM, the owner. At the end of the day, he’s got to grow up.”

Spurs’ Bench Propelling Hot Start


VIDEO: Spurs bench players Marco Belinelli and Matt Bonner connect for a nice play

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The Spurs’ starting lineup was a big part of their defensive improvement last season. It was the best defensive lineup in the league and outscored its opponents by 18.1 points per 100 possessions in its 364 minutes.

This season, that same starting lineup hasn’t been too good It’s been pretty bad offensively (with Tim Duncan shooting less than 40 percent) and has actually been outscored by four points in 99 minutes. Yet the Spurs are 13-1 and rank in the top six in both offensive and defensive efficiency, because they have the best bench in the league right now.

While the Spurs’ starters have basically broke even, all other San Antonio lineups have outscored their opponents by 16.1 points per 100 possessions, playing great on both ends of the floor.

Spurs efficiency

Lineup GP MIN Pace OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg +/-
Starters 10 99 95.8 93.5 92.7 +0.8 -4
Other lineups 14 572 97.2 108.3 92.2 +16.1 +173
Total 14 671 97.0 106.1 92.3 +13.9 +169

Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions

There are two aspects to having a great bench, and neither have to do with how many points the players off the bench score. You just have to go back to the 2010-11 and 2011-12 Chicago Bulls for an example of a great bench that didn’t score a lot of points. That group built on leads because they were great defensively.

Building on leads (or decreasing deficits) is obviously the most important trait of a good bench. But keeping your starters fresh is also critical (and obviously related to how well you build leads). Through Tuesday, every player on the Spurs is averaging less than 30 minutes a game and the five starters have played just 52 percent of the teams total minutes. You couldn’t ask for a better start to the season from a roster.

No other contender in the Western Conference has had the bench success that the Spurs’ “Foreign Legion” crew has had, but some have done well with their reserve minutes.

Note: Before the season started, six West teams would have been considered as “contenders.” Portland has been added to this group, because they’re off to such a hot start and also because their bench was their primary issue last season.

Efficiency from lineups other than starters

Team GP MIN Pace OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg +/-
Golden State 15 532 98.3 97.8 97.2 +0.6 -1
Houston 15 665 100.4 106.4 101.5 +4.9 +36
L.A. Clippers 15 448 100.4 107.1 105.9 +1.2 +10
Memphis 14 513 91.8 99.4 104.0 -4.6 -47
Oklahoma City 12 483 99.6 106.0 96.1 +9.9 +81
Portland 15 442 97.1 106.9 101.6 +5.2 +64

Note: This includes lineups with 1-4 starters on the floor. It also includes lineups that started games when regular starters weren’t healthy or before a coach (Kevin McHale) made a lineup change.

Each team is its own case. Some have had their starters healthy for every game, some have not, and one – Houston – has already made a major change to its starting lineup.

Golden State

The Warriors’ starting lineup – Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, David Lee and Andrew Bogut – has been ridiculously good offensively, scoring 118.8 points per 100 possessions in 192 minutes together. Combine that with solid defensive numbers and they’ve been the league’s best lineup (minimum 75 minutes) thus far.

Bench units (which include lineups that have started games that Curry and Iguodala have missed) have been strong defensively, but weak offensively. When Curry has been off the floor, the Dubs have scored an ugly 87.5 points per 100 possessions.

Breaking even will do when your starting lineup is so good, and the Warriors are in good shape if they’re healthy. But it’s clear that Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry will be missed if injuries keep popping up.

Houston

The Rockets moved Terrence Jones into the starting lineup just seven games ago and have been without James Harden in three games since then, so their optimal starting lineup has played just 69 minutes together and their numbers above include lineups that have started 11 of their 15 games. That set includes lineups with both Dwight Howard and Omer Asik that we know were bad offensively.

So it’s difficult to gather much from these numbers. We do know that the new starting group, with Patrick Beverley and Harden in the backcourt, has been terrific so far. And we do know that the Rockets have been strong defensively – allowing just 95.7 points per 100 possessions – with Asik on the floor without Howard. So that’s a good sign for their bench … at least until Asik gets traded.

L.A. Clippers

As we all expected, the Clippers’ starting lineup has been great, especially offensively. It currently ranks as the fifth best lineup in the league. But the five starters have played over 68 percent of the team’s minutes, the second highest mark among the seven teams we’re looking at here.

Last season, when the Clippers had a great defensive second unit, that number was 51 percent. This season, they’re suffering on both ends of the floor when they go to their bench and though their starters have been solid on defense, they currently rank as a bottom 10 defensive team.

A healthy Matt Barnes will help, but a defensive big off the bench is needed. Lamar Odom was exactly that for them last season and you can understand why the Clips are monitoring his progress as he works his way back into shape.

Memphis

The Grizzlies’ starters weren’t what they were last season, when they outscored their opponents by 13.1 points per 100 possessions after the Rudy Gay trade. This season, they were just a plus-0.8 in 169 minutes together. But losing Marc Gasol (out indefinitely with a sprained MCL) is obviously a huge blow.

The new starting group (with Kosta Koufos in Gasol’s place) was an encouraging plus-12 in 33 minutes against the Spurs and Rockets. But the impact of Gasol’s injury might be felt most in the bench units, which have been poor already. Jerryd Bayless and Quincy Pondexter, two guys who are supposed to bring offense off the bench, have shot a combined 32 percent.

Oklahoma City

We thought that, in the wake of Kevin Martin‘s departure, bench production was going to be a problem for the Thunder. But OKC’s bench units have been terrific, ranking second to only the Spurs in terms of NetRtg. The Thunder have outscored their opponents by an amazing 17.7 points per 100 possessions with Reggie Jackson on the floor.

The issue with the Thunder is the starting lineup, which has been outscored by 12.4 points per 100 possessions in its 97 minutes. Of the 27 lineups that have played at least 75 minutes together this season, that ranks 25th, ahead only the original starting lineups of the Kings and Jazz. In those situations, both coaches have already made changes.

Scott Brooks will surely have more patience with his group, which was excellent (plus-12.3 points per 100 possessions) last season. The starting group has basically been bad in three games (minus-31 against the Pistons, Wizards and Nuggets) and OK in three games (plus-7 against the Suns, Mavs and Clippers). And the success of the bench units has far outweighed the starters’ struggles. Still, it’s something to keep an eye on going forward.

Portland

Last season, the Blazers’ “other lineups” got outscored by 5.2 points per 100 possessions. No team suffered more offensively when a particular player stepped off the floor than Portland did when Damian Lillard sat down. So the bench, along with better defense from their center position, was the focus of their summer moves.

So far, so good, as the Blazers’ bench units have basically turned that number around, outscoring their opponents by that same 5.2 points per 100 possessions. They’ve scored a solid 103.5 points per 100 possessions when Lillard has sat, and he doesn’t have to lead the league in minutes this year.

The issue is that those bench units still include a lot of minutes from the starters. Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez account for more than 72 percent of the team’s total minutes. It’s obviously a younger group, but compare that with the 52 percent the Spurs’ starters account for.

Morning Shootaround — Nov. 15


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Nov. 14

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Report: Rockets’ Asik wants trade | Budinger cleared to return to practice | Challenge ahead for Rivers, Barnes | Duncan struggling early in season

No. 1: Rockets’ Asik seeking trade — Rumors that the Houston Rockets’ starting center of a season ago, Omer Asik, wanted a trade started to bubble up shortly after the Rockets signed Dwight Howard in free agency. Houston, at the time, was in no big hurry to make a deal for him and wanted to see how the big-man combo would work out. Before last night’s game against the New York Knicks, the Rockets big man apparently made his trade desires known again, writes Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle, and our own John Schuhmann says pulling the trigger on a trade isn’t a bad idea now:

Rockets coach Kevin McHale started Asik and Howard together for the first eight games of the season, but the two-center combination has not worked (particularly on offense) and had put the Rockets in several first-quarter holes. On Monday against Toronto, McHale finally pulled the plug on the experiment, keeping Asik on the bench to start the second half. Wednesday in Philadelphia, Terrence Jones started in Asik’s place and Asik played just 4:22 in the Rockets’ overtime loss to the Sixers.

Less than 24 hours later, Asik was asking for a trade. And in the Rockets’ crazy 109-106 victory over the Knicks, he didn’t play at all. McHale used Greg Smith as the backup center late in the first quarter, and when Smith injured his knee less than a minute later, McHale played Jones at center.

It was the first DNP of Asik’s career and ended his league-leading streak of 239 consecutive games played. He was not available for comment after the game, having left the Houston locker room well before it was opened to the media. McHale said: ”He told me today he wasn’t feeling good and he didn’t know if he could play,” McHale said after the game. “I asked him, ‘Are you ready to play?’ and he said, ‘I don’t feel good.’ That’s why I went with Greg.”

A few more starts here or there doesn’t change the fact that the Rockets would be better off swapping Asik for a forward who can shoot and defend. While Asik gives Houston depth up front and insurance on Howard (who struggled to score against Andrea Bargnani on Thursday), he’s not worth what the Rockets are paying him as a 12-minute-a-night backup, especially if there are nights like this — if you think McHale’s “wasn’t feeling good” claim was a little dubious — when he doesn’t play at all.

The Rockets, who have had an up-and-down first 10 games, could raise their ceiling and put themselves in the driver’s seat of a wide-open Western Conference if they can trade Asik for a better fit with Howard and James Harden, someone who could play 30 minutes a night instead of 12. And with other Western Conference contenders (like the Clippers, Grizzlies and Thunder) also ripe for a trade, Houston shouldn’t hesitate to pursue the guy they want.

Though they currently rank 23rd in 3-point shooting (at 32.1 percent) and spacing the floor around Harden/Howard pick-and-rolls is critical, their biggest priority in any deal should be perimeter defense. They’ve had plenty of glaring breakdowns already this season and they have no one to defend the likes of Kevin Durant or, if they truly have title aspirations, LeBron James. Exhibit A is Carmelo Anthony‘s 45 points on 17-for-30 shooting on Thursday.

That’s why the Sixers’ Thaddeus Young should be their primary target, whether it be a straight trade with Philadelphia or a three-team deal. The Pelicans’ Ryan Anderson would be a great fit offensively, but would only add to the defensive problems.

***

No. 2: Budinger cleared to resume some hoops activity — Just before the start of training camp, the Minnesota Timberwolves got some bad news — small forward Chase Budinger had suffered swelling in his left knee and needed meniscus surgery. Since then, Budinger has been on the mend and has been cleared to rejoin the team and resume basketball activities, writes Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo!Sports.com:

Six weeks after surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee, Minnesota forward Chase Budinger has been cleared to resume basketball activities and will rejoin the team Friday, a league source told Yahoo Sports.

It is unclear how soon Budinger, 25, can return to the Timberwolves’ lineup, but doctors are enthusiastic about his progress and expect him to make a complete recovery, a source said.In the past week, Budinger started running on a treadmill and shooting on the court. In rejoining the team, the plan is for Budinger to continue building on his basketball-related rehab process.

The 6-foot-7 Budinger signed a three-year, $16 million contract to return to Minnesota in July.

Budinger had surgery to repair torn cartilage in his left knee less than a month into the 2012-13 season and played only 23 games.

***

No. 3: Barnes presents a key test for Rivers’ coaching – In case you’ve been living under a rock the last few days, you might have missed the scuffle that ensued during Wednesday night’s Thunder-Clippers game, the resulting ejection of Clippers forward Matt Barnes from the scuffle and his postgame tweets that raised some eyebrows. Barnes was fined $25,000 for his actions and did apologize for what he had done, but now comes a challenge for coach Doc Rivers, writes Bill Platschke of the Los Angeles Times:

The first real test of the Doc Rivers era has appeared, and it can appropriately be described in less than 140 characters.

Can the new Clippers coach practice the same toughness that he preaches?

Less than a month into his first season as the Clippers’ $7-million savior, Rivers must start by repairing his own locker room after one of his players threatened to blow it apart.

On Thursday morning, Barnes publicly apologized for the tweet. Several hours later, the NBA fined him a relatively light $25,000. But the real test will come Friday morning, when the team meets for the first time since the incident and Rivers must figure out how to punish the popular Barnes while strengthening any bonds he has frayed.

“Adversity is good, it always is,” Rivers said Wednesday night. “Accept it, embrace it, enjoy it.”

“The choice of words, obviously, that’s a word that I’m not a fan of in all venues,” Rivers said Wednesday night.

Now Los Angeles will learn the extent of Rivers’ disappointment, which could help define the start of Rivers’ tenure here. Though the NBA’s agreement with the players’ union prevent the Clippers from administering formal punishment beyond the league’s action, there are ways Rivers could make a statement here.

Rivers could cut Barnes’ 19 minutes per game down to single figures for a night, or even leave him on the bench for an entire game. Rivers could order Barnes to make a public statement that puts a remorseful voice and face to his tweets.

The new coach will meet with Barnes and the team Friday, at which point Los Angeles will have a better understanding of Rivers’ renowned definition of toughness.

Barnes, whose hardened on-court persona is diametrically opposed to his kind and thoughtful off-court nature, was actually defying toughness in his tweet. If he really wanted to call out his teammates about their fortitude, shouldn’t he have done it to their faces? And should the context of the racial slur really mitigate the offensiveness of its use?

His Clippers teammates, meanwhile, seemed more upset with the tweet’s implications. They love Barnes’ muscle, but they worry about his head. They respect him as a teammate, but they feel his form of playground aggressiveness is counterproductive in an NBA arena.

“I think, at times, toughness can be mistaken in the form of being ready to fight and stuff like that,” said Chris Paul. “Toughness comes down to basketball. At the end of the day, ain’t nobody in the NBA holding the world championship belt, you know what I mean?”

***

No. 4: Duncan struggling with offense early in season — Lost to many in the course of the Spurs’ win over the Wizards on Wednesday night was that Tim Duncan endured the worst shooting night (1-for-12) of his illustrious career. Overall, Duncan has gotten off to a slow start on offense this season, but as Dan McCarney of the San Antonio Express-News points out, Duncan started slow last season, too, and ended up as an All-NBA First Team selection:

Tim Duncan’s nightmarish shooting night on Wednesday against the Wizards (1 for 12, the worst showing of his illustrious career), or the fact that he’s currently shooting just 38.6 percent through seven games should be cause for significant alarm.

It’s ridiculously early, and the Spurs are still 8-1. (Incidentally, their lone defeat coincided with Duncan’s best game, 24 points on 12-for-23 shooting against Portland.)

No longer the low-post force he once was, Duncan’s perimeter-oriented styles makes him increasingly vulnerable to swoons. Last season he endured the following slumps:

31.7 percent, three games
39.5 percent, three games
40.5 percent, six games
41.0 percent, six games (playoffs)
39.7 percent, four games (playoffs)

Duncan ended up shooting 50.2 percent for the year, and 47 percent during the playoffs while becoming one of the oldest players in league history to earn All-NBA honors.

So, just in case the point isn’t sinking in, we’ll spell it out: With almost 90 percent of the regular season yet to be played, there’s absolutely no reason to panic.

Yet.

The good news for Duncan: He’s generally getting quality looks. Indeed, he’s taking a higher percentage of shots at the rim (42.2) than he has since 2007-08.

Now, the unsettling part: He’s converting just 54.3 percent of those shots, roughly 10 points below last season’s league average and almost nine points below his lowest mark in seven seasons tracked by Hoops Data.

But wait, there’s more!

According to  NBA.com’s new SportVU player tracking data, Duncan ranks:

* 23rd out of 25 players averaging at least five catch-and-shoot attempts per game at 27.8 percent
* 71st out of 72 players averaging at least two close-range points per game at 35.3 percent

Again, at a point of the season where one performance can still skew the statistics, it’s completely reasonable to expect Duncan will bounce back at some point. His teammates think it’s only a matter of time.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Wizards assistant (and ex-Rockets, Nets and Timberwolves star) Sam Cassell has no problem with players doing his trademark dance … Interesting read from the Miami Herald on the origins of Shane Battier‘s last name

ICYMI Of The Night: If you somehow missed the exciting finish to the Thunder-Warriors game, we’ve got it right here for ya …


VIDEO: Russell Westbrook and Andre Iguodala trade hero moments

Clips’ Hopes Of Contending Depends On Defense Of Jordan, Griffin

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HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The Los Angeles Clippers, a team that won 17 straight games and finished with the league’s fifth-best record last season, made some upgrades this summer in an effort to turn themselves into true title contenders.

On the bench, Vinny Del Negro was replaced by Doc Rivers. And in the starting lineup, Chauncey Billups and Caron Butler were replaced by J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley.

But if the Clippers are to compete for a championship this season, they will need improvement from within, specifically with starting big men Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, who will need to make up for some lost defense on the bench.

L.A.’s bench delivered

One thing that gets overlooked in the Clippers’ rehaul is that they had an excellent second unit last season. Their starters were terrific, but they suffered little drop-off when they went to their bench.

Clippers efficiency, 2012-13

Lineups MIN Pace OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg +/-
*Starting lineups 982 91.9 112.8 103.4 +9.5 +181
Other lineups 2,960 94.2 106.0 100.2 +5.8 +348
Total 3,942 93.7 107.7 101.0 +6.7 +529

* Paul, Butler, Griffin, Jordan and either Billups or Green
Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

The Clippers’ starting unit was ridiculously good offensively, but slightly below average defensively. And though their bench struggled to score (it basically depended on Jamal Crawford‘s one-on-one ability), it still built on leads because it was so good on D.

In general, bench units are going to be better defensively than starting units because they’re going against other reserves. But the Clippers’ second most used lineup in the regular season, comprised of all reserves, was the third-best defensive unit in the league (minimum of 200 minutes played).

Three members of that unit are gone. Eric Bledsoe is in Phoenix, Ronny Turiaf is in Minnesota, and Lamar Odom is in NBA limbo as he deals with whatever off-court issues he has.

The importance of Odom

Here’s the thing about Odom last season. He was a disaster offensively (and was the season before that), but was a big part of the Clippers’ defensive improvement. L.A. went from 20th in defensive efficiency in 2011-12 to ninth last season. Their bench — particularly the big men — provided the strongest D.

In 821 minutes with Odom on the floor with either Turiaf or Ryan Hollins, the Clips allowed less than 91 points per 100 possessions. That’s elite defense no matter who the opponent is. No two-man combination in the league that played at least 450 minutes together had a lower on-court DefRtg than Odom and Turiaf.

On-court efficiency, Clippers big man combinations (min. 100 minutes)

Combination GP MIN OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg +/-
Griffin + Jordan 80 1,810 112.5 104.2 +8.3 +291
Griffin + Odom 66 502 105.7 97.9 +7.8 +114
Odom + Turiaf 53 479 100.0 91.0 +9.0 +56
Odom + Hollins 41 343 111.4 90.8 +20.6 +118
Odom + Jordan 34 166 99.3 104.6 -5.3 -16
Turiaf + Hollins 32 148 85.6 104.7 -19.1 -45
Griffin + Hollins 26 133 106.1 111.5 -5.4 -13

Why Jordan, Griffin must improve

The Clippers’ starting lineup — with Willie Green at the two — was one of the best offensive lineups in the league. Although Jordan can’t shoot at all and Griffin’s mid-range jumper still needs work, that unit scored at a rate better than the Heat’s No. 1 offense. No lineup that was on the floor for nearly as much time scored as efficiently, and great offense can make up for mediocre defense, especially in the regular season.

But there are reasons why Griffin and Jordan need to get better defensively …

1. In the postseason, it’s better to be a great defensive team than a great offensive team. Over the last 12 seasons, 23 of the 24 teams that have reached The Finals have ranked in the top 10 defensively and 15 of the 24 have ranked in the top five defensively. Only 17 of the 24 have ranked in the top 10 offensively and only eight of the 24 have ranked in the top five offensively.

2. Odom and Turiaf have been replaced by Antawn Jamison and Byron Mullens, two defensive liabilities (to put it lightly). The Clips’ bench won’t be nearly as good defensively as it was last season. If L.A. wants to remain in the top 10 on that end of the floor, the starters must make up for the drop-off.

3. The Clippers were just awful defensively in the playoffs, allowing the Grizzlies — who ranked 18th offensively in the regular season — to score almost 110 points per 100 possessions over six games. The only team that was worse defensively last postseason was the short-handed Lakers, who got trounced by San Antonio.

How Memphis exposed L.A.’s bigs

The problems in that series started with the Clippers’ inability to force turnovers and continued with their inability to keep the Grizzlies off the foul line.

Clippers defense, 2012-13

Season Opp2PT% Rank Opp3PT% Rank DREB% Rank OppTOV% Rank OppFTA Rate Rank
Reg. sea. 46.8% 6 37.3% 26 73.5% 15 17.2% 1 .306 29
Playoffs 48.5% 9 32.5% 5 73.3% 12 11.3% 15 .451 16

DREB% = Percentage of defensive rebounds obtained
OppTOV% = Opponent turnovers per 100 possessions
OppFTA Rate = Opponent FTA/FGA

Though it was a slow-paced series, the Grizzlies — a team not known for getting to the line — attempted over 34 free throws per game, 13 more than they averaged in the regular season. They shot better than 50 percent from the field in two of their wins, but 38 trips to the line in allowed them to be nearly as efficient in Game 3, when they shot just 39 percent.

All five L.A. bigs averaged at least six fouls per 48 minutes in the series, with Hollins and Turiaf totaling an incredible 24 fouls in just 96 minutes. Griffin fouled out of Game 1 and committed five fouls in Game 3. Jordan had three fouls in just 17 minutes in that same Game 3.

The combination of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol is a tough matchup for any frontline. But the Clipper bigs got worked over, especially in the post …



Where Jordan and Griffin can improve

Griffin and Jordan aren’t terrible defenders. They both rank as “very good” on pick-and-rolls, according to Synergy Sports Technology. And when it came to rotations and team defense, Butler was a bigger liability in that starting lineup. L.A. was better defensively with Barnes at small forward with the other starters.

But the bigs aren’t great and their defensive focus and energy comes and goes. When guarding a big who faces up in the post, they often fail to contest his jumper or bite on his pump fake. And though they might contain an initial pick-and-roll, they don’t necessarily bring the second and third efforts needed against an offense that knows how to execute …


Both Odom and Turiaf ranked higher on pick-and-roll D and on post defense, where Griffin and Jordan rated as just “good” by Synergy in the regular season … and “poor” in the playoffs. The Grizzlies scored 69 points on 61 post-ups against the pair over the six games.

Overall, the Griffin-Jordan combo just didn’t measure up defensively to the big man pairings on other Western Conference contenders …

On-court efficiency, starting bigs, West playoff teams

Combination (Team) GP MIN OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg +/-
Duncan + Splitter (SAS) 60 819 106.0 92.7 +13.3 +208
Randolph + Gasol (MEM) 74 1,923 102.6 95.5 +7.1 +322
Ibaka + Perkins (OKC) 76 1,721 109.8 98.0 +11.8 +349
Faried + Koufos (DEN) 79 1,235 106.7 101.9 +4.8 +126
Bogut + Lee (GSW) 31 720 106.7 103.0 +3.7 +50
Griffin + Jordan (LAC) 80 1,810 112.5 104.2 +8.3 +291
Gasol + Howard (LAL) 46 994 103.5 104.2 -0.7 -19
Patterson + Asik (HOU) 46 797 108.3 104.8 +3.6 +78

The Clippers will again be competing with the Spurs, Thunder and Grizzlies, three teams with bigs they can count on defensively. The Rockets have (a healthier) Dwight Howard and the Warriors could have a healthy Andrew Bogut.

Rivers was the coach of the league’s best defensive team of the last six seasons, and this team will likely be the best offensive one he’s ever led. But he’s not bringing Kevin Garnett with him from Boston.

The tools are there for Griffin and Jordan to improve. They have as much athleticism and mobility as any frontline in the league. But it takes a lot more than that to be an elite defender.

Jordan spoke about being a better communicator earlier this summer, and that’s a step in the right direction. But discipline, focus and sustained effort must also be priorities.

The Clips don’t need either guy to turn into Garnett. But if they’re to be included as one of the West teams that could be in The Finals next June, their starting bigs need to go from good to great defensively … especially since they won’t have as much help from their back-ups.

Bench Mobs: Four That Got Better

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Every general manager’s goal is to assembly an energetic, productive bench.

A strong second unit filled with single-minded role players enhances a team’s chances at winning. Just look at the two-time champion Miami Heat and perennially contending San Antonio Spurs: both clubs received significant bench contributions throughout the 2012-13 season. Still, a deep and talented bench does not ensure success — the Los Angeles Clippers being Exhibit A.

Arguably the NBA’s deepest bench last season, L.A.’s reserves ranked fourth in scoring and second in overall production (points, assists and rebounds combined). The second unit of Eric Bledsoe, Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, Lamar Odom and Ronny Turiaf ranked as the third-best defensive unit in the league. Yet the Clippers lost in the first round to the Memphis Grizzlies, whose thin bench was considered a major weakness.

The goal is to build a well-rounded and deep roster that doesn’t falter when the starters sit, that can change pace when needed and can light it up just as well as lock it down.

Four teams looking to make a charge in their respective conferences — including the all-in Clippers and the go-getter Golden State Warriors in the West; and in the East the rugged-but-reinforcement-thin Indiana Pacers and the money-is-nothing Brooklyn Nets — completed significant offseason signings and trades that should bolster each club’s depth:

LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS

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Loses: G Bledsoe, G Chauncey Billups, F Odom (still available), F Grant Hill (retired), F/C Turiaf

Additions: G J.J. Redick, G/F Jared Dudley, G Darren Collison, F Reggie Bullock (draft pick)

Why they’re better: Only two members of the aforementioned third-ranked defensive unit, Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes, are returning as of today (Odom remains a possibility) to the Clippers’ second unit, so they could slip defensively. But the firepower is all-world with Redick (a 39 percent career 3-point shooter) and Dudley (40.5 percent) joining Sixth Man runner-up Crawford (35.0 percent). Collison has plenty to prove after twice losing his starting job in Dallas to late-30-somethings Derek Fisher and Mike James. The ultra-quick Collison backed up Chris Paul as a rookie in New Orleans and he now has a defined role that should suit his game. Plenty of experience and savvy leaves town in Hill and Billups, but they played a combined 51 games last season. Hill was not part of the playoff rotation until former coach Vinny Del Negro got desperate late in the first-round series loss. New coach and senior vice president of basketball operations Doc Rivers has given himself plenty of options with a bench unit that might top last season’s group. Free agents Barnes, center Ryan Hollins and guard Willie Green return.

GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

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Loses: Jarrett Jack, Carl Landry

Additions: Marreese Speights, Toney Douglas, C Jermaine O’Neal, Nemanja Nedovic (draft pick)

Why they’re better: Simply, Andre Iguodala. Acquiring the veteran forced out Jack and Landry, but also provides instant depth for a young team that basically rode seven players in the playoffs after David Lee injured his hip. The tough call for coach Mark Jackson will be moving either semi-conscious shooter Klay Thompson or confident forward Harrison Barnes to the bench (both started every game they played last season) to make room for the 6-foot-6 Iguodala. Thompson could challenge for Sixth Man of the Year honors and he’d easily replace the scoring punch Jack provided. The second-year Barnes, who truly emerged during the playoffs, can provide everything the blue-collar Landry delivered only with advanced skills in every facet, especially with his burgeoning offensive arsenal. Barnes could discover some very favorable matchups off the bench. Speights, more accurately, will be expected to fill Landry’s role. The Warriors also bring back impressive frontcourt youngsters Draymond Green and Festus Ezeli, who should benefit from the presence of the steady veteran O’Neal.

INDIANA PACERS

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Loses: F Tyler Hansbrough, F Jeff Pendergraph

Additions: F Chris Copeland, G C.J. Watson, G Donald Sloan, F Solomon Hill (draft pick)

Why they’re better: The wild card here is forward Danny Granger, who missed all but five games last season with a left knee injury but will be back. With Paul George emerging as a star, Granger could find himself as the Pacers’ sixth man — imagine that. A better bench might have pushed Indiana past Miami in the East finals. The Pacers were one of six teams whose bench averaged fewer than 80 mpg, and they ranked 29th in scoring. The veteran Watson should stabilize a backcourt that had no consistent answer (D.J. Augustin) coming off the bench last season. Watson is a solid veteran who rarely turns the ball over — less than one a game in 19.0 mpg last season with Brooklyn — and is the type of team-first player president of basketball operations Larry Bird wants for coach Frank Vogel. And then there’s the unexpected feather in Bird’s cap — forward Chris Copeland. The 29-year-old late-bloomer provided the Knicks with energetic play off the bench and surprising accuracy from beyond the arc (59-for-140, 42.1 percent). The 6-foot-8, 235-pounder gives Indy a rugged backup for David West and weakens a rival.

BROOKLYN NETS

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Loses: G C.J. Watson, G Keith Bogans, G MarShon Brooks, F Kris Humphries

Additions: G Jason Terry, G Shaun Livingston, G D.J. White, F Andrei Kirilenko, C/F Mason Plumlee (draft pick)

Why they’re better: While a pudgy Deron Williams hobbled about on bum ankles for the first couple of months last season, the Nets’ bench carried the team, so they were no slouches to begin with. But when you add Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the starting lineup, that turns rebounding machine Reggie Evans and offensive weapon Andray Blatche into reserves and instantly improves that group. Terry remains a dangerous streak shooter even after a down season in Boston. The 6-foot-7 Livingston has quietly resurrected his career and should find a home backing up D-Will, who played like an All-Star in the second half of last season. The coup was snagging Kirilenko, who signed for $3.18 million after opting out of his $10-million deal with Minnesota. Kirilenko is always a nagging injury away from missing handfuls of games at a time, but the 6-foot-9 countryman of Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov is a do-it-all stat-sheet-filler. He is a sneaky offensive presence on the baseline and a rangy defender the Nets can use against Carmelo Anthony and other rival scoring threats.

Howard To Houston Is A Two-Fisted Gut Punch For Mavs

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – If the Los Angeles Lakers recoiled at the sobering prospect of dealing Dwight Howard to an already rising divisional foe, imagine the steam clouds that spewed from the ears of Mark Cuban as if his head was an erupting Mount Vesuvius when he learned the big man had agreed to join the aspiring Houston Rockets.

Cuban seemed to take the news in stride Friday afternoon when the Dallas Mavericks’ owner was notified that his team was out of the running for the summer’s most coveted free agent. At the time, he said he was not told with which team Howard would sign.

“Got word we are out of the DH sweepstakes,” Cuban wrote in an email to various media outlets. “We gave it a shot and it didn’t work out. It was truly an experience. At some point I will post our video and presentation we made.”

The Rockets, Golden State Warriors and the incumbent Los Angeles Lakers remained in play. But only a short time later, USA Today, followed by TNT’s David Aldridge confirmed that Howard will leave the Lakers and join the Mavs’ Southwest division rival.

This one will deeply burn the Mavs, now two-time losers trying to lure a big-name free agent to pair with a now 35-year-old Dirk Nowitzki.

All the while Cuban controversially, yet strategically was dismantling his 2011 championship club in anticipation of re-building a contender by creating cap space to lure a superstar (or two) under the guidelines of the new collective bargaining agreement, his in-division, in-state rival in southeast Texas was scheming just the same.

Daryl Morey, the gambling Houston Rockets’ general manager, set in motion a number of trades and transactions over the last two years to ultimately acquire players, cap space and other assets that would position the Rockets to strike when opportunities arose, to swing for the fences through both trades and free agency.

The Rockets should give Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti a tip of the cap for making this behemoth agreement possible. Before the start of last season, the Thunder’s salary-cap-strapped GM dealt rising star James Harden to Houston as Morey dipped into his collection of assets. Harden became an All-Star and delivered the Rockets back into the playoffs. Now Morey has Howard, too, his longtime target.

Aside from the Lakers, who practically begged Howard to re-sign, no team will find this harder to swallow than Dallas. The scenario of Howard to Houston was always the Mavs’ worst nightmare, leaving the franchise third in pecking order in its own state behind the Rockets and the ever-resilient San Antonio Spurs.

The Warriors cleared out cap space Friday and added another top-flight free agent in Andre Iguodala – a Mavs target in the case they whiffed on Howard — to a young and talented roster that challenged the Spurs in the second round. Golden State won’t be too disappointed in not landing Howard. They were always a long-shot in this race and even without Howard they look to be putting together something special.

The Atlanta Hawks, flush with cap space, never seemed to elevate their hopes too high that Howard would reverse his long-held thinking and decide to play in his hometown. General manager Danny Ferry will now attempt to piece together the best team he possibly can for new coach Mike Budenholzer.

This was Strike Two for Dallas. A year ago, it chased native son Deron Williams, but was rebuffed. It signed a slew of players to one-year deals to keep their free-agent “powder dry” — as president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson is fond of saying — and to go after Howard or Chris Paul this summer.

Williams’ Nets now have the look of a contender after general manager Billy King pulled off the stunning trade that brings Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn. CP3 got Doc Rivers and is staying put and now the Rockets with Howard will vault into the top four or five in the West with Warriors, CP3’s Clippers, the Thunder and the reigning West champion Spurs.

And Houston might not be done. They have long been reported to seek Atlanta free agent power forward Josh Smith, a childhood buddy of Howard, who’s reluctance to join the Mavs leaves the franchise reeling. Two seasons ago they were swept out of the first round by the Thunder and this season failed to make the playoffs for the first time in 13 seasons.

Nowitzki, understanding his years are numbered, has repeatedly called this a “big offseason for us.”

Yet on the roster at this moment with him is Shawn Marion, 35, Vince Carter, 36, two 2012 second-round draft picks Jae Crowder and Bernard James, plus 2013 first-round pick Shane Larkin and newly signed Israeli guard Gal Mekel. 

As Howard’s drama dragged on, Dallas missed out on other free-agent targets, most notable Iguodala. The Clippers re-signed role player Matt Barnes and on Thursday center Al Jefferson signed a lucrative deal with the Charlotte Bobcats.

So where do Cuban and the Mavs go from here?

Dallas, 41-41 last season with Nowitzki playing in only 53 games after preseason knee surgery, has glaring holes at point guard, shooting guard and center. They can seek a trade but possess few assets to entice a team into dealing a player of stature. They learned that quickly in reported talks with Boston for Rajon Rondo.

Cuban said after the season that he doesn’t want to go through another year of one-year contracts, preferring to find players that are core-worthy. Now he and Nelson must decide if, for instance, still available guards Monta Ellis, Mo Williams or Jarrett Jack are building-block players they want to commit years and dollars to at the risk of cutting into cap space for next summer. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant and Zach Randolph, among others, could be on the market.

But the Mavs have twice seen what a crapshoot that strategy can be.

Clips Want To Harness Emotions, Limit T’s

LOS ANGELES – There’s plenty at stake for the Los Angeles Clippers as they begin a second consecutive postseason for only the second time in their 29-year history in the city.

For the first time, the franchise has a 50-win season and a Pacific Division crown. They have one All-Star, Blake Griffin, locked up under contract and another, Chris Paul, who they hope will sign this summer to stay long-term. Finally, this notoriously cheap and irrelevant organization is slowly finding a small spot in the city’s heart.

So wouldn’t it be terrible if the Clippers allowed all that to slip away by allowing their hot heads to get in the way?

“That’s been our Achilles heel all season is losing our temper and I think I kind of set the tone,” Matt Barnes said after Saturday morning’s shootaround in preparation for tonight’s Game 1 against the physical Memphis Grizzlies.

Barnes said the Clippers are ready for a tough, physical series, the kind of grinding play that can instantly flare emotions and result in quick-trigger reactions. Barnes said he hopes the referees will let them play, but L.A. can’t worry about chirping at the refs or committing silly retaliatory plays if calls aren’t going their way.

“I’ve been telling these guys it’s a whole new attitude and stop getting in so much trouble,” Barnes said. “There’s a lot at stake, but you really don’t want to give anything away, you want to make a team earn everything. That’s something we’ll probably address before the game, something we’ve already addressed, so we kind of have to police each other out there because we know we’re susceptible to that.”

The Clips are among the top teams at drawing technical fouls. Griffin tied for the second-most during the regular season with 14. Center DeAndre Jordan and Barnes both got nailed 10 times and Jamal Crawford nine times. Even Lamar Odom‘s been T’d up six times and Paul five times.

During a late March game at Dallas, Griffin picked up a T with seven seconds to go in the third quarter that allowed the Mavericks to take the lead. Then Crawford got one a minute into the fourth quarter. The Clippers went on to lose in overtime. Those kinds of shifts on a technical foul can sabotage a playoff game, and undermine a series.

So can flagrant fouls, and L.A. is no stranger to those either. Speaking of playing intelligently, Barnes leads the Clippers with three Flagrant One penalties and one Flagrant Two. And reserve forward Ryan Hollins, whose minutes might get reduced against the Grizzlies, has three Flagrant One fouls.

The Clippers matched the Lakers as the only teams with two players in the top 10 in that dubious category.

“I know nobody on this team is a bad guy, like Blake has, I don’t know how many technicals, and he’s one of the nicest guys in the league,” Jordan said. “I think it’s really just a heat-of-the-moment type of thing. We get so caught up into the game and how competitive it is and sometimes your emotions get the best of you and you may snap for two seconds.

“But those two seconds are going to cost you some points and potentially a game. So we really have to harness our emotions in this series.”

The World Reacts To Kobe’s Injury





HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – The shocking news that Kobe Bryant‘s season came to an abrupt end with a probable torn left Achilles Friday night spread through the basketball world like an emotional tidal wave.

Pundits and fans, friends and foes alike, everyone is digesting the news that even if the Lakers make the playoffs, Bryant’s work this season is done. Reactions from around the basketball universe (and beyond):

Morning Shootaround — March 29

Missed a game last night? Wondering what the latest news around the NBA is this morning? The Morning Shootaround is here to try to meet those needs and keep you up on what’s happened around the league since the day turned.

The one recap to watch: Lakers-Bucks was the more sexy game of the night, what with Milwaukee climbing out of a 13-point hole to take down the West’s most glamorous team. By contrast, the Kings-Suns game gets the award for least sexy matchup of the night (despite an awesome performance from the enigmatic DeMarcus Cousins). That leaves Pacers-Mavs as our pick this morning, a bit of a surprise if you look at the final score. We’re picking this one, though, for some off-court reasons. Namely, the Pacers’ mental toughness and circle-the-wagons approach to last night’s game (especially after they learned Danny Granger won’t be back this season). Indiana also heard Dallas’ talk of shaving their hope-to-be-.500 beards after this game, as if assuming they’d topple the East’s No. 2 team with no problem. But great performances from Paul George and Roy Hibbert showed the Pacers are as serious of a contender in the East as they have been all season.

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News of the morning

Sanders gets Bucks rolling vs. Lakers | Z-Bo, Hollins shrug off conflict talk | Cousins takes out frustrations on Suns | Clips’ Barnes wants refs’ grades public

Sanders fuels Bucks’ big victoryAs our man Steve Aschburner pointed out postgame, the big story from last night’s Lakers-Bucks game in Milwaukee was obviously the injury to Kobe Bryant. But while we’re all fretting over whether or not the Black Mamba will play in L.A.’s next game, lost in the shuffle was the play of Larry Sanders last night. He finished with a career-best 21 points and his high-energy play that has been a hallmark of his season sparked Milwaukee as it rallied from a 13-point hole. Charles F. Gardner of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel has more on Sanders and the Bucks’ big win:

The Bucks knew that somehow, some way, they had to halt a four-game slide that was putting their playoff push in reverse gear.

And they did it with a collective effort, posting a 113-103 victory that featured a career-high 21 points from center Larry Sanders and a stellar defensive performance by veteran Marquis Daniels, who had the difficult assignment to defend Bryant.

“We came out and accepted the challenge,” Daniels said. “We needed a win bad. We came out with more intensity and more energy.

“You just try to make all his shots tough and make him work for everything that he got.”

“Our attention to detail was a little better,” Bucks coach Jim Boylan said. “Larry was great, really active, did a lot of talking out there.

“We’ve been struggling lately. And when you struggle, you can get into your own little world, and that’s a bad place to go as a team. You need to be communicating; you need to be playing a collective game.

“Tonight was breaking out of that shell a little bit.”

The Bucks trailed by as many as 13 points in the second quarter but rallied within 56-53 at halftime.

Then they began to take control in the third quarter, using a 13-2 run that featured three dunks by Sanders and a three-pointer by Daniels.

The Bucks led, 82-77, after three quarters and extended the lead to 12 points in the fourth quarter.

Daniels had a key three-point play off a Monta Ellis assist as part of an 8-0 spurt to give the Bucks a 104-92 lead.

“It gets the crowd going and gets the team going,” Sanders said of his six dunks.

He exhorted the crowd in the final minute, walking over to the sideline and raising his arms to get the fans out of their seats.

“I love the crowd,” Sanders said. “I like to get them hyped, especially with the playoffs coming up. It will be good for us.”

Randolph, Hollins ignore talk of conflictDuring the Knicks’ win over the Grizzlies on Wednesday night, the New York broadcasting crew implied that there might be growing friction between Grizzlies All-Star forward Zach Randolph and his coach, Lionel Hollins. They also suggested there is a growing belief there is a wedge between the star and his coach and that dynamic is being played out on the court. Randolph and Hollins, though, refute those claims and detail their relationship further to Ronald Tillery of The Commercial-Appeal:

There is a growing belief that the Grizzlies’ veteran power forward and head coach aren’t on the same page as they prepare for a postseason run. However, both men dismissed that notion Thursday, saying there is no friction between them.

“Our relationship is fine,” Randolph said. “I respect my coach.”

“The only beef I had with Zach is he was excessively late for a shootaround that started at 4:30 p.m. (last Saturday),” Hollins said. “I told him I can’t start you and he understood. Everybody’s got their opinion about what goes on in our locker room. But only the people in there know. I haven’t had a beef with Zach and he hasn’t had one with me.”

Randolph didn’t start last Saturday against Boston because of his tardiness that day. He struggled mightily on the court this past week in games against Washington and New York.

Randolph had just one shot in the second half of a loss at Washington. He was just 1 of 3 from the field against New York.

Hollins said any correlation between Randolph’s recent poor performances and their relationship is off base because there are basketball reasons why Randolph has struggled lately.

“We’re getting him the ball,” Hollins said. “If you watch the games, we’re getting him the ball. It’s just now teams are taking him away. They’re running three people at him and he’s making passes. Other people are having to step up and try to do things. It’s just the way it is.”

Hollins did acknowledge that the Grizzlies aren’t in the best place as the regular season winds down. And his assessment had nothing to do with their fifth-place standing in the Western Conference.

“I’d like for us to be sharper mentally and more focused intensity-wise. But I understand it’s a long season. I understand that guys get tired and you go through lulls. Then, you get your energy back,” Hollins said. “I just don’t want us to get bad habits. That was one of the reasons I had practice (Thursday). I wanted to get back to practicing our habits. It wasn’t a hard workout, but it was back to technique and fundamentals offensively and defensively.”

Cousins pounds away on SunsThe Kings are one of the West’s worst squads but have shown improvement in March, going 7-7 with wins against the Bulls, Clippers and, most recently, the Warriors, during that span. The win in Golden State wasn’t without its dramatic points for the Kings, most notably being that leading scorer DeMarcus Cousins sat out the entire fourth quarter of that game as coach Keith Smart went for a defensive lineup. Cousins was back in action last night and made sure his play wasn’t an afterthought in the Kings’ win, writes Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee:

A night after being held out the final 12 minutes, DeMarcus Cousins had the option of going back in during the fourth quarter Thursday night.

He declined. There was no need for Cousins to do any more.

Cousins had his way against the undermanned Phoenix Suns. The third-year center scored a season-high 34 points to go with 14 rebounds as the Kings bullied their way to a 117-103 win at US Airways Center.

Rather than seethe over what happened against the Warriors, Cousins took his frustration out on Luis Scola, Markieff Morris, Hamed Haddadi or any other Suns player that tried to stop him.

Cousins scored 17 points and had seven rebounds in the first quarter to spark the Kings’ 38-point effort to open the game. It was the most points Phoenix allowed in a first period this season.

“It was definitely frustration,” Cousins said. “I just try to put it behind me. It’s a new day, so I just try to act like it never happened.”

Cousins showed off his overall skills in going 12 for 16 from the field and making all nine of his free throws. He also made one of his two three-point attempts.

Cousins used power against smaller players and skill and quickness against stronger players that could not match his athleticism.

“The guy has a lot of talent, and you saw everything,” Smart said. “From the three-point shot, he can do that, he shoots them in practice. The midrange, 17-, 18-foot shot. The drive to the basket from deep off the floor. Obviously his rebounding is still going to be his strong suit because that’s what he does, and he’s a very good offensive rebounder.”

Smart knew Cousins wasn’t happy about not playing in the fourth against the Warriors and liked how Cousins responded.

“The best way to handle anything you may be feeling is to go out on the floor and perform,” Smart said. “We’re all judged on the performance. And regardless of what a coach did or a player did, it’s all about your performance on the floor. And tonight he created the environment that he wanted to have success in.”

Barnes wants more transparency with refs — The Clippers are tied with the Thunder in average technical fouls per game this season with 0.8. There have been 58 technicals assessed to the Clips this season, with Blake Griffin’s 12 being the team high. And, as Dan Woike of the Orange County Register points out, most of those technicals have come after the Clippers’ players and coaches argue with officials about a call. Reserve forward Matt Barnes, though, has clear thoughts on what should happen with officials in the future:

Matt Barnes, a player who has made a career of not backing down from anyone on the court, didn’t back down from the touchy topic, calling for the leae to be more transparent with their officials.

“One I thing I will say is I know they get graded. I think their grades should be public record,” Barnes said before the Clippers’ victory over New Orleans Wednesday. “Everything we do on the court is public. Our fines, our techs, everything we do is under a microscope. And the refs are supposed to be a part of this league just like we are.

“Their grades should be public record. Everyone should be able to see.”

“It’s hard,” Barnes said. “When you’re playing as hard as you can and you’re getting beat up and nothing is being done about it, it’s frustrating.”

Multiple players agreed that the team has developed a reputation around the league for complaining about calls.

“I think we do, and if so, it’s warranted,” Barnes said. “I’ve seen the calls that have been made against us and the calls that are not made for us. Blake’s a superstar, and I see the way he gets beat up or me as a defender being aggressive and the fouls I get. It’s frustrating, but it’s something we have to play through.

“…I think the reputation, for whatever reason, is something we’re going to have to work through because we definitely don’t get calls.”

Barnes said he doesn’t hold any ill will towards officials, though.

“They’re out there doing the best job they can,” he said.

But that doesn’t change his views on whether the NBA should be more open with its reviews of their officials.

“A ref’s grade should be public record after a game just like our stats are,” Barnes said. “They’re out there, doing their job, and they’re supposed to be the best in the world just like we are. Their grades should be public record. I don’t understand why not.”

ICYMI of the night: It takes a lot for a mascot to make the cut down here, but Bango sure did get Dwight Howard good on this one … :