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Morning shootaround — Jan. 25


VIDEO: The Fast Break — Jan. 24

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Lue was right pick to replace Blatt | Tony Parker is ready for Steph Curry duty | Kings’ rise fueled by Boogie, Rondo and defense | Raptors on a roll

No. 1: Lue was right pick to replace Blatt — The Cleveland Cavaliers fell flat in Tyronn Lue‘s debut as head coach. But the collective confidence in Lue as David Blatt‘s replacement remains strong after his first weekend on the job, even if he is still searching for his first win as the man in charge. Lue didn’t mince his words about the Cavaliers’ shortcomings after they lost to Chicago Saturday night and his refusal to do anything but shoot everyone straight, LeBron James and the rest of the locker room included, is what makes him the right fit. Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com explains:

As it became apparent to Cavs management over the past month that the team was not responding to Blatt with the coach-player dynamic expected in what was supposed to be a championship culture, Lue was the clear choice as a replacement. Had the team made a coaching change last summer, a league source told ESPN.com, there would have been heavy consideration for Tom Thibodeau. But 41 games into the season, after witnessing Lue continue to straddle the nearly impossible line of being a loyal assistant to Blatt while growing organic connections to the team’s stars, management felt there was no one else more qualified to take the team where it wanted to go.

“Man, he’s a gamer,” said James Jones. “Ty lives and breathes this game.”

Jones is one of six players on the Cavs’ roster with more than 10 years of NBA experience. Lue carved out an 11-year NBA career himself as a journeyman point guard, averaging 8.5 points and 3.1 assists while playing for seven teams.

Jones was the player charged with gathering the players on their off day to the Cavs’ practice facility on Friday to inform them of the coaching decision. Rather than make 14 phone calls to spread the news, Griffin told Jones and knew he would take care of it. “He’s a magician like that,” Griffin said. Within 45 minutes, 13 players reported to Independence, Ohio, to hear about the franchise’s change of fate (one unidentified player did not make it, as he left his phone in his car while he was inside his house).

Lue retired from playing in 2009, so those half dozen Cavs veterans had all competed against him at one time or another. He and Richard Jefferson, in fact, were teammates for a season in Milwaukee.

“He’s extremely detail-oriented,” Jones said. “He can tell you anything and everything about every player he played against. He’s perceptive. And I think that’s why he was able to be successful in all the various situations he was in. Good teams, bad teams, leadership role, major minutes, support [role], as an assistant coach and as an associate head coach. So, I just know that, even when you talk about his personal life, nothing is more important than the game. And that’s what’s so respected about him.”

While Lue was far from a star, never averaging more than 13.5 points in a season, his path was star-crossed. He was teammates with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal with the Los Angeles Lakers and was coached by Phil Jackson. He played alongside Michael Jordan for His Airness’ final two seasons in Washington. He later teamed with the likes of Tracy McGrady, Dirk Nowitzki and Dwight Howard.

He always had an ability to relate to the marquee guys, even when they were on the other side. Maybe it was because they saw Lue across from them — listed generously at 6-foot, 175 pounds — with his passion being really the only thing fueling his place in the league, and it made them want to work harder to get the most out of the physical attributes and skills bestowed upon them.

LeBron James was one of those opponents who couldn’t help but gravitate to Lue. “We’ve been friends since I was 17 years old,” James said.

And Lue’s Forrest Gump-like path through the league the past two decades has given the Cavs faith he’ll be equipped to handle his current challenge in Cleveland.

“There’s nothing that he hasn’t seen,” James said. “He’s played for Phil Jackson, he’s coached with Doc [Rivers], he’s been all over, so he has experience. We put our trust in him now.”

***

No. 2: Tony Parker is ready for Steph Curry duty — It’s the matchup we’ve all been waiting for, the San Antonio Spurs visiting the Golden State Warriors tonight at Oracle Arena (10:30 p.m. ET, NBA TV). It’s also the individual battle Tony Parker can’t wait to dive into, his tilt with the NBA’s reigning MVP and frontrunner for a second straight trophy, Stephen Curry. Parker knows the challenge is daunting, but that’s why he’ll get some assistance, writes Jeff McDonald of the Express News:

At some point in Monday’s ballyhooed matchup at Oracle Arena, Stephen Curry will rise up and launch from somewhere south of Santa Clara, and Parker will be powerless to stop it.

Parker confirmed Sunday what most expected. He will draw the black bean assignment of guarding the NBA’s most lethal scorer. He hopes to have help.

“They won’t leave me (on Curry) by myself,” Parker said after the Spurs’ hour-long practice at the University of San Francisco. “Obviously it takes a whole team to slow him down.”

Parker is enjoying what coach Gregg Popovich calls his best defensive season, but expecting the 33-year-old to be anything more than a speed bump in Curry’s path is asking a big much.

The NBA’s reigning MVP, Curry is averaging a league-leading 30.1 points, shooting 45.1 percent of his 3-pointer and unleashing nearly 20 field goal tries per game.

“He’s the ultimate test,” Parker said. “He’s playing his best basketball. He’s the best player in the league.”

The Spurs, you might have heard, have a pretty decent defender in Kawhi Leonard. Last season’s NBA Defensive Player of the Year said he expects to see a little time on Curry, but mentioned Draymond Green and even 7-foot center Andrew Bogut as potential assignments.

However Popovich opts to defend the Warriors on Monday, expect him to leave a few tricks up his sleeve for future meetings, particularly a potential playoff matchup.

“Pop always has some stuff that he keeps for the playoffs,” Parker said. “(Monday) will be one of those games where maybe you’ll see a little different stuff. Overall, we’re pretty much going to do the same stuff we’ve been doing.”

***

No. 3: Kings’ rise fueled by Boogie, Rondo, defense — The same three things that, according to most pundits, could prove to be the downfall for the Sacramento Kings this season are same things that have fueled their current five-game win streak and rise into the top eight of the Western Conference playoff mix. DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins, Rajon Rondo and their team defense were all considered the Kings’ biggest problem at one point or another earlier this season. But not now, per Jason Jones of the Sacramento Bee, not with the Kings looking like they have sprouted playoff legs just in time for the midseason push:

The mood surrounding the Kings has been upbeat lately, and for good reason.

Sacramento has won a season-high five games in a row.

DeMarcus Cousins has been brilliant over that span, averaging 32.6 points and 14.8 rebounds.

But the Kings’ improved defense might be a bigger key to the streak than Cousins’ dominance.

The defense has been bad for much of the season.

The Kings allow the most points per game (107.2) in the NBA and rank 20th in opponents’ field-goal percentage (.454).

During the five-game winning streak, Sacramento has held opponents to 96.4 points per game and 40.1 percent shooting.

No one would call the Kings an elite defensive unit this season, but as long as they progress from the worst in the league, they like their chances most nights.

“We’ve picked it up,” Cousins said. “I still think we could do better, honestly.”

What’s changed? Besides Cousins playing like a superstar, rookie center Willie Cauley-Stein has started the last five games and injected a defensive spark.

That change came after the Kings’ last loss, Jan. 13 against New Orleans, when defensive intensity was lacking most of the night.

“I can give credit to Willie,” Cousins said. “He’s come in and, as a rookie, changed the whole identity of our team. That’s huge, especially for a rookie. So it just shows his impact on this team, and he does so many things for us that don’t show up on paper.”

The Kings have held their last three opponents under 100 points, and perhaps their most impressive win during the streak, a 91-88 victory Thursday over Atlanta, showed they can win when their high-paced offense is not clicking.

Scrappy teams that slowed the Kings’ offense have given them fits for most of the season.

In the Atlanta game, and even in Saturday’s win over Indiana, the Kings made critical stops late, as there appears to be more pride on defense lately.

“Not only Willie, but I feel like everybody’s picked up the defensive identity, and it’s helping us win games right now,” Cousins said. “So we’ve just got to keep going.”

***

No. 4: Raptors on a roll — They haven’t partied like this in Toronto in over a decade. But there is no denying coach Dwane Casey‘s team right now, not after they’ve piled up their best run during his tenure and sit just one game shy of the franchise’s best win streak since they won nine straight in 2002. They’re doing it with a deep roster filled with seasoned pros who all know their roles. Doug Smith of the Toronto Star provides the details:

Most nights it’s one guy or maybe two who have produced while others have struggled and the inconsistency of the Toronto Raptors’ bench has been a thing every now and then, even though the team has survived well enough.

But on a night when four guys have it going at the same time, it’s all fun and good times and easy baskets and stops.

Smiles all around.

Getting 51 points off the bench — the highest production by substitutes this season — the Raptors rolled to an easy 112-94 victory Sunday over the Los Angeles Clippers.

It is Toronto’s eighth win in a row and an impressive thumping of a quality opponent.

The Raptors can equal an all-time franchise high on Tuesday against Washington with a ninth straight win.

And if the team’s four backups — Cory Joseph, Terrence Ross, Patrick Patterson and Bismack Biyombo — play then as they played Sunday, Toronto will be hard to beat.

“I think (Sunday night) was probably one of our best games collectively as a second unit,” Patterson said.

Now settled into a consistent rotation after dealing with a series of injuries that muddled things, a successful routine is developing.

“There’s no uncertainty,” Patterson said. “So you know when you’re coming in, you know when you’re coming out and you know how much effort you can give, you know where your shots are going to come, you know the focus you have to have.

“If there’s uncertainty there’s a lack of energy, a lack of confidence, you tend to get frustrated so now that you know when you’re coming in, when you’re coming out, who you’re going to be in the game with, everyone’s just more comfortable out there.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Four serious candidates have emerged for the Nets’ GM job, including Bryan Colangelo and Danny Ferry … Stephen Curry has his mind on the Spurs for tonight’s clash of NBA titans, but as you might imagine. the Charlotte native had a few other things on his mind Sunday with his Panthers advancing to Super Bowl 50 in nearby Santa Clara … No surprise here, the “young Lakers” are getting schooled by the opposition this seasonSnow Way! Brooklyn stuns Oklahoma City to cap off wild blizzard weekend … Jazz point guard Trey Burke is thriving in a reserve role … The Detroit Pistons are struggling on defense, with deficiencies in both effort and communication

Bach, longtime standout as NBA assistant coach, dies at 91

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Coach John Bach (front row, 7th from left) was a trusted assistant in the Chicago Bulls’ first three-peat teams.

John Bach lasted long enough, worked hard enough and cut a wide enough swath through basketball and life at so many levels that most who knew him knew only parts of his story. Few had the endurance to witness the entirety of his life well-lived.

Bach, 91, died early Monday in Chicago after battling cancer and other ailments. The longtime NBA coach spent 16 of his 19 seasons as an assistant coach (Golden State, Chicago, Charlotte, Washington, Detroit) and served as the Warriors’ coach from 1983-86.

The Bulls’ Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations, John Paxson, issued a statement Monday via that read, in part, about Bach: “Johnny was a true treasure in the world of basketball. He was the classic ‘old school’ coach who came to work each and every day with energy and enthusiasm for the game he loved. His zest for life and basketball were unparalleled.”

Bach was 55 by the time he drew his first NBA paycheck, working the equivalent of two or three careers prior to that in college basketball and in the U.S. military.

“Everyone has a different experience to talk about with John, because he did so much in so many different places,” said P.J. Carlesimo, former NBA and NCAA coach working now as an ESPN game analyst. “You talk to Kevin [Calabro, NBA broadcaster], he knows him from Golden State. So many people know him from Chicago. With Doug Collins, it’s the [1972] Olympic team. For me it was at Fordham. People don’t remember everything he did. And there were 10 others – Navy, Penn State.

“He touched so many people. Delightful guy. He was just always extremely kind to me when I first came in the league. The ultimate gentleman. People loved him.”

While Bach’s profile rarely thrust him into the spotlight, especially with modern NBA fans, the breadth of his work put him in contact with countless notable figures across generations. Bach was 64 when he joined the Chicago Bulls as a member of Collins’ coaching staff and later, with Phil Jackson, helped that team with Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant win its first three-peat of championships.

“He encouraged me, worked with me and really helped me to mold my game,” Jordan was quoted Monday in the Chicago Tribune. “Without him, I don’t know that we would’ve won our first three championships. He was more than a coach to me. He was a great friend. I am deeply saddened to hear of his passing.”

And yet, when Golden State won the Larry O’Brien Trophy last June, Bach’s influence was on the Warriors’ championship season through his work with coach Steve Kerr and defensive guru Ron Adams.

“What an incredible life he led,” Kerr told NBA.com Monday after his team’s shootaround in Cleveland, where the Warriors face the Cavaliers in a Finals rematch (TNT, 8 p.m. ET). “He was [Navy pilot] in World War II. That experience shaped him in a lot of ways – he used a lot of military references in his coaching style. And what stands out is how colorful a character he was. He had an incredible way of going through the scouting report and describing opponents.”

Kerr got to Chicago in time for Bach’s sixth final season there, before he moved on to assist the Hornets, Pistons, Wizards and Bulls again.

“He was the Bulls’ defensive architect,” Kerr said. “But I think he was the guy who dubbed Scottie, Michael and Horace the ‘Dobermans.’ The other thing that stands out was his style. His hair was always slicked back. He liked bolo ties. Cowboy boots. Leather jackets. He was a real, one-of-a-kind character.”

Adams would often next to Bach on team flights while both men were members of Scott Skiles‘ staff in Chicago.

“I spent many a delightful hour with that man – listening,” Adams said. “He told me his life story several times over and it was fascinating. But the amazing thing about him was, let’s say the game was in 1932 and he was jumping center, he could tell you who he jumped against and who the other eight guys were on the floor.”

Fact is, few remember that Bach was a pro player, appearing in 34 games for the Boston Celtics in the old Basketball Association of American [BAA], the precursor of the NBA. Here are some of the other stops in Bach’s long, winding road, from a 2012 NBA.com story on him – and his worthiness for Naismith Hall of Fame consideration that still hasn’t come:

An archetype of the Greatest Generation, he served six years in the U.S. Navy during and after World War II; his lost his twin brother Neil, a pilot, in 1944 and their father succumbed to war-related setbacks soon after it ended.

After returning to Fordham for his senior year and degree, considering a career in law, Bach was signed by the Celtics for the 1948-49 season. Cut before his second year, he returned to Fordham, almost accidentally accepting the coaching gig and staying for 18 years. Then it was Penn State for 10, during which he earned the Olympic spot in ’72 with a shot at coaching the 1976 team in Montreal.

The controversy and heartbreak for the U.S. squad in Munich, however, briefly put Bach out of basketball completely. He needed to step away, so at 53, he spent a year flying planes for Piper Aircraft and considered a pilot’s career with Allegheny Airlines. But the coach in him reared up, and his friend Pete Newell recommended him for a job on the Golden State bench.

Bach took over for Al Attles twice, first in 1979-80 and then, full-time, in 1983. This was during the Warriors’ Joe Barry Carroll years – he went 95-172 before being relieved of his duties. That’s when Bulls GM Jerry Krause called, adding Bach to Doug Collins’ staff; Collins, of course, was the shooter who scored what would have been the winning free throws in that ’72 gold medal game, if not for the re-re-rerun final three seconds.

“Johnny means the world to me,” Collins told Bulls.com last year. “His tough exterior belies an incredible tender heart. He always has been there for me and his wisdom, knowledge, guidance and understanding has been a guiding light.”

Bach survived Collins’ firing, taking over defensive duties under Jackson. Having him and [Tex] Winter on that team’s bench, Jackson said, was “a lesson in the history of basketball with two men who were there for just about everything.”

Bach might have gotten himself sideways with Bulls management when he forgave Pippen for his notorious 1.8-seconds playoff breach (refusing to re-enter a game because he wouldn’t get the final shot) at a time when the bosses were ready to trade Pippen. But he coached again at Collins’ side in Detroit and in Washington, where he was on hand to see Jordan’s 30,000th NBA point.

[VP John] Paxson brought Bach back to the Bulls in 2003, and his work with the young players – not just defensively, but in discipline and philosophy – was much valued.

For Dallas coach Rick Carlisle, president of the National Basketball Coaches Association, Bach’s generosity was evident from the start.

“As someone who has a great respect for the history of the game, I’d known of Johnny Bach long before I ever played in the NBA,” Carlisle told NBA.com. “When I got hired [by New Jersey] as an assistant coach in the fall of 1989, the first assignment I got from Bill Fitch was to scout the Celtics and the Lakers in Boston. I walked into the Garden and there on the scouting row, the first guy that greeted me was Johnny. He stood up, put out his hand and said, ‘Welcome to the business.’

“I’ll never forget that moment just because of the respect I had for him.”

After leaving the Bulls again in 2006, Bach continued to reside in Chicago with his wife, Mary. He spent time helping out local high school programs, stayed in touch with coaching colleagues throughout basketball and even displayed his work as a painter at a suburban art gallery.

Services are scheduled for Wednesday morning, with the two NBA teams he impacted most prominently – the Warriors and the Bulls – set to play that night at United Center (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET).

Morning shootaround — Jan. 15


VIDEO: Highlights from games played Jan. 14

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Bryant to Warriors: ‘Make history’ | Perkins, Davis lament state of Pelicans | Butler puts in epic performance in Philly

No. 1: Bryant encourages Warriors to go ‘make history’ — With their victory last night over the Los Angeles Lakers, the Golden State Warriors improved to 37-3. That start matches the mark the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls had through 40 games when they won an NBA-record 72 games. After the win, Lakers star Kobe Bryant, who played against the dominant players (Michael Jordan in the 1990s and Stephen Curry today) encouraged Golden State’s stars to push for the 73-win mark, writes Baxter Holmes of ESPN.com:

Before Kobe Bryant left the Oracle Arena court for the final time Thursday night, the Los Angeles Lakers icon was greeted by a trio of Golden State Warriors who have been terrorizing the rest of the league lately.

Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green all surrounded Bryant and chatted him up following their team’s 116-98 win over Bryant and the Lakers.

“You guys have got to go ahead and make history,” Bryant told Curry.

“I got to chase you,” Curry replied, a response that Bryant said he too would have used.

“Damn right,” Bryant told Curry. “Absolutely. Come and get it.”

Bryant also signed a pair of his game-worn sneakers for Green.

The message Bryant wrote: “Make history.”

A passing of the torch? Perhaps.

“I think so,” Bryant said. “It’s their time. It’s their time. It’s their time to step up and play and see how many championships they can win, see how many gold medals they can win. I had my run. Now it’s important for them to carry it forward.”

But the Warriors heard Bryant’s message loud and clear.

“He told us to chase history, so we’re going to try to chase it now like he did in his career,” Curry said. “He paved the way.”

***

(more…)

Morning shootaround — Jan. 11


VIDEO: The Fast Break: January 10

NEWS OF THE MORNING

The call for Cal to save the Nets | LeBron survives pregame plunk, lifts Cavaliers | Warriors stealing glances at all-time record | Lillard backs up his words with actions in win over Thunder

No. 1: The call for Cal to save the Nets — For what seems like the umpteenth time, there is a NBA coaching opening with John Calipari‘s name written all over it. With Lionel Hollins out as coach in Brooklyn (and Billy King reassigned within the organization), Calipari’s name has surfaced immediately as a possible replacement, even though he has routinely denied in any interest in leaving Kentucky. That won’t stop the rumblings about Cal being the right name for the job, writes Frank Isola of the New York Daily News:

The Brooklyn Nets will undoubtedly make the celebrity hire here because the team’s Russian owner, Mikhail Prokhorov, simply wouldn’t have it any other way.

That’s why John Calipari goes right to the top of any and all searches when you have a desperate billionaire who is looking to make a big splash calling the shots. Do the names James Dolan and Phil Jackson ring a bell?

Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé, who thinks he’s John Wooden because he once coached his daughter’s fifth-grade team to a championship, was ready to offer Calipari everything last summer before Coach Cal decided to return to Kentucky and wait for something better/more lucrative to come along.

Now it’s Prokhorov’s turn. Prokhorov woke up Sunday, looked at his terrible club and with his deep accent essentially mumbled: “I must break you.”

Billy King, the general manager, was reassigned while head coach Lionel Hollins was canned.

You don’t blow up your organization six weeks before the trading deadline unless you have a plan in place, right? Only Prokhorov, Nets CEO Brett Yormark and Dmitry Razumov, the owner’s right-hand man behind the Iron Curtain, know for sure.

Calipari is the primary target, according to several sources close to the Nets and Calipari. It will take a lot to get him, which means power and money, perhaps even a small piece of ownership. Remember, Cal’s not the desperate one here.

Calipari has been down this road before with the Nets and knows he’ll have to hire a smart general manager to handle the day-to-day business. The job requires heaving lifting. The Nets are in a complete rebuild without many assets.

The disastrous trade with the Celtics will haunt this franchise for a decade. Boston owns the Nets’ first-round pick in 2016 and 2018 and has the option to swap first-round picks in 2017. The Nets will have to start rebuilding through free agency and if we know one thing about Calipari it’s that he can recruit his designer suit off.

Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski digs into exactly what it might cost to get Calipari to Brooklyn, which surely will not come cheap if he’s right:

For the $123.2 million in luxury tax that Prokhorov has paid out, he’ll be toasted on the verandas and yachts of rival owners who’ve bathed in his wayward excesses. They pocketed his millions, pilfered his picks and beat the Nets senseless.

Prokhorov has drained his franchise’s natural resources – unloading seven first-round and 11 second-round picks in the five-plus years of deposed general manager Billy King’s regime. The Nets have no present, no future, no identity. They’re too impatient to hire an accomplished NBA GM and slowly, surely work themselves out of this ditch.

As much as anything, that’s why Nets CEO Brett Yormark is determined to repackage John Calipari as a franchise savior. The Nets couldn’t get star players to sell tickets and TV ratings, so he wants to try a star college coach. Again.

Yormark is pushing Prokhorov to reach back to the Nets’ Jersey roots, dust off a failed ’90s experiment and sell it as something sparkling and new. Twenty years ago, the Nets stunned everyone with a five-year, $15 million contract for the UMass coach. For Calipari to consider the Nets – and, yes, the Sacramento Kings, too – league sources tell Yahoo Sports that the teams have been informed of his asking price: 10 years, $120 million.

When Calipari spoke with minority ownership in Sacramento last spring, he told them that it would take an offer of $11 million-plus a year to get his attention, league sources said. Calipari turned down a 10-year, $80 million-plus offer with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2014, because he wouldn’t leave Kentucky with only an incremental raise on what is now an $8 million to $9 million annual package on campus.

Cleveland’s offer has become a baseline for Calipari’s contractual demands: He wants the 10 years and now the $12 million a year that Phil Jackson makes to run the Knicks.

Calipari’s sell will be this: As his old Kentucky stars – DeMarcus Cousins (2018), John Wall (2019) – become free agents, he’ll have the Nets positioned to sign them. His former players have largely kept excellent relationships with him, but there are those close to them who say that most of his ex-stars remain reluctant to committing to 82 games a year of Cal’s abrasive style. It wore out players fast in the 1990s in New Jersey, and Calipari would need to bring a different disposition to the NBA and prove that he’s willing to treat NBA players like men, not teenagers.

Around Calipari, there are some who prefer him to take the Kings job, because there’s more of an infrastructure in place. Brooklyn has been left in shambles, with immense limitations on reshaping the roster. Nevertheless, New York is New York, and Calipari has never stopped thinking about redeeming himself in the pros. His enshrinement into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in September makes it even easier to justify the years of NBA losing that will likely prelude a turnaround, because he no longer needs to keep shining that résumé for Springfield.

For Calipari, the perfect scenario will be engaging the Kings and Nets in a bidding war. In that instance, Prokhorov could be hard to beat. So now, there promises to be two parallel searches for the Brooklyn Nets’ next GM and coach: one that includes traditional candidates; and one that is the dance with Calipari. There were cringes within the Nets over the PR ramifications, but ownership plans to use King as a consultant on the search process.

Between now and the end of the college basketball season, Calipari will issue his typical denials on a return to the NBA, but talks will be ongoing and the leveraging intense. Calipari has always wanted back in the NBA, and the Nets give him a chance for everything he wants: the money, the power, the geography.

***

No. 2: LeBron survives pregame plunk, lifts Cavaliers — LeBron James took a ball to the face during his pregame warm up routine before Sunday’s game against Philadelphia. He got the last laugh, though, finishing with a season-high tying 37 points and saving his best for the finish in the Cavaliers’ win. Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com explains:

Perhaps the signs were there during pregame warmups, as an errant pass plunked James in the face, leading to chuckles on social media.

The Cavaliers just didn’t look like themselves, far from the East’s best.

There were a few different chances to stretch the lead and turn the outcome into a laugher, just as they had done during the first two stops of the current six-game road trip.

But the plucky 76ers kept fighting.

In the NBA, though, fight and determination only take a team so far. Oftentimes having a four-time MVP, a player capable of single-handedly taking control, can erase an otherwise frustrating night.

That’s what James did, putting on a show for the near-sellout crowd in Philadelphia.

With the Cavs’ clinging to a two-point lead, 81-79, Cavs head coach David Blatt put his star back in the game.

James, who has traded the new-school “dab” celebration and his familiar “Silencer” for the mid-90’s “Raise the Roof,” lifted his team to victory before heading to Texas for a tough three-game stretch.

A 22-foot jumper ignited a 14-0 run, pushing the Cavaliers’ lead to a game-high 16 points past the midway point of the final period. James scored 12 of the 14 points during that stretch and did it in a variety of ways. There were pull-up jumpers, three-points bombs and circus layups.

James finished with 37 points, tying his season-high total, on 15-of-22 from the field. He also added nine assists, seven rebounds and two steals in 37 minutes. As James was scorching, the rest of his teammates were struggling, showing frustration on a cold shooting night.

James could sense it and took it upon himself to change it.

“I was able to get enough of a break to get a little energy,” James said after the game. “I understand when I go back into the game I have to make plays. They needed me to put the ball in the hole tonight, especially in the fourth quarter.”

***

No. 3: Warriors stealing glances at all-time record — The Golden State Warriors can’t help themselves. Even with the San Antonio Spurs hot on their trail and plenty of potential roadblocks between them and history, they refuse to be intimidated by the thought of chasing a 73-win season. They remain on pace to top the 72-win mark set by Michael Jordan and the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls. With a win over the Miami Heat tonight they’d be halfway there, writes Carl Steward of the Bay Area News Group:

With so many team and individual milestones to keep track of, it was easy to overlook that the Warriors’ 35th victory of the season put them halfway to 70 wins after just 37 games.

Another victory against the Miami Heat on Monday night at Oracle Arena will put them halfway to 72, the NBA regular-season record established by Chicago Bulls in 1995-96.

So is it OK to start talking about chasing the record yet? After all, the Warriors need to go “only” 38-7 the rest of the way to finish 73-9 and break the mark.

After Game 37 a year ago, the Warriors were 31-6, and they went 36-9 from there. That’s not far off from 38-7, so if nothing else, they are making it more plausible with each victory.

The Warriors will begrudgingly talk about the record if asked. But they still don’t really like thinking about it and won’t for a while.

“People ask us after games what it feels like to be whatever our record is at that point, and you get reminded where we are,” Stephen Curry said after the Warriors beat the Sacramento Kings on Saturday night. “But when we’re out there on the floor, we’re not playing like if we lose, we’ll be off the pace. There’s no pressure when we’re out there, so that’s a good feeling.”

The pressure is certain to mount if the Warriors continue to stay ahead of the Bulls’ pace, but that will be difficult in itself. Michael Jordan and Co. were 34-3 after 37 games and would win seven in a row from there to go 41-3 before their fourth loss. They did not lose in the entire month of January that season, going 14-0.

The Warriors would rather not know the specifics.

“We understand what the big goal is, but in the moment, we just try to play well and do what we do, and hopefully that means we’ll get wins,” said Curry. “You hope to bottle up those emotions as you go through the season, because you can’t fast-forward to April and think about if we’re going to be within striking distance of the record or whatever.

“We want to be healthy and we want to be playing well, and if we have an opportunity at the end of the season to go get it, we should go get it, because that’s a huge record most people thought could never be broken. So we’ll talk about that when we get closer. But for now, let’s stay in the moment and play free, play our game and have fun doing it.”

***

No. 4: Lillard backs up his words with actions in win over Thunder — A day after declaring his intentions for the franchise and the city of Portland, Damian Lillard backed up his words with decisive and explosive actions to lead the Trail Blazers past Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder. It was a vintage performance from one of the league’s most dynamic players. It also reinforced Lillard’s message, his vow to carry the team and city on his back, if need be, as they scratch and claw their way back to respectability. It was “Lillard Time” when it mattered most against the Thunder, writes Mike Richman of the Oregonian:

You have seen “Lillard Time” before. But not quite like this.

Damian Lillard scored 17 of his 31 points in the final 3:07 of the game, connecting on five three-pointers to power the Trail Blazers to a 115-110 comeback victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder Sunday night at the Moda Center.

“That was quite a performance by Dame in those two minutes,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “We were battling the whole game and he came up big. I mean, he hit five threes in two minutes. You don’t see that very often.”

While Lillard was spectacular, dropping long-range step backs with defenders right in his face and adding a familiar tap of his wrist in the process, the Blazers pulled out the win on the defensive end.

Lillard hit back-to-back threes to cut a seven-point Thunder lead to 107-104 with 2:11 left. After Thunder big man Steven Adams split two free throws, Allen Crabbe got in on the long range assault, hitting a three-pointer from the wing to cut the lead to one.

Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook pushed the lead back to three with two free throws, only to have Lillard tie the game at 110-all with a deep three-pointer right over the outstretched arm of Westbrook.

The Blazers defense backed up Lillard’s firepower. Al-Farouq Aminu came away with a key steal, tipping a pass from Thunder big man Serge Ibaka that led to a transition opportunity for the Blazers. Lillard, who had already made four three-pointers in the quarter, didn’t wait long to get another shot up, quickly hoisting a three-pointer from the right wing to put Portland up 113-110 with just over a minute remaining.

“It’s like that sometimes. When you see the ball go in a few times and then the team is defending you the way we defended and you just keep getting it back,” Lillard said. “You get a stop and you keep getting the ball back. I just wanted to ride it out and I was able to do it tonight.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: John Wall is doing his best to strike a balance while grinding through an injury-riddled season for the Washington Wizards … Spurs veteran David West had a special rooting interest in the Army All-American bowl over the weekend in San Antonio … Tired Jazz whip brutal Lakers, who worked without Kobe Bryant for the seventh time this seasonLuke Walton has fond memories of playing in Sacramento, dating all the way back to his high school days … The Detroit Pistons are eyeballing a top four spot in the Eastern Conference standings and all that comes with itZach Randolph and the Grizzlies keep it grimy and rolling at home

Hang Time Podcast (Episode 222) Featuring Greg Anthony

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — The Commissioner has spoken.

He believes Kobe Bryant belongs on center stage at NBA All-Star Weekend next month in Toronto. And judging by the returns from the All-Star balloting, the fans not only agree with Adam Silver, they plan on making sure it happens.

They’ll get no argument from us. We also believe that 20 years of stellar service, on and off the court, as one of the league’s global ambassadors deserves the royal treatment at Kobe’s final All-Star Game appearance.

NBA TV analyst Greg Anthony is on board with that plan as well. He agrees that the All-Time greats deserve to go out the right way, especially during All-Star Weekend, the same way Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan did before Kobe.

Anthony joins us on Episode 222 of The Hang Time Podcast, our first show for 2016, where we also discuss the plight of Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver and his millennial problems, the state of affairs around the league, the playoff picture in the Eastern and Western Conferences.

We try to make sense of it all on the first installment of The Hang Time Podcast for this calendar year.

LISTEN HERE:

As always, we welcome your feedback. You can follow the entire crew, including the Hang Time Podcast, co-hosts Sekou Smith of NBA.com, Lang Whitaker of NBA.com’s All-Ball Blog and renaissance man Rick Fox of NBA TV, as well as our new super producer Gregg (just like Popovich) Waigand.

– To download the podcast, click here. To subscribe via iTunes, click here, or get the xml feed if you want to subscribe some other, less iTunes-y way.

***


VIDEO: Kobe Bryant’s highlights against the Boston Celtics from his storied career

Morning Shootaround — Dec. 29


VIDEO: The Fast Break: Dec. 28

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Jordan pays tribute to Kobe | Cavs right ship with team meeting | Spurs find ways to win | Report: Burks opts for surgery

No. 1: Jordan pays tribute to Kobe Kobe Bryant is in his 20th season as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, so its easy to forget that Bryant was actually drafted by the Charlotte Hornets, and later traded to the Lakers. Bryant returned to Charlotte last night on his farewell tour for his final game in the Queen City, and while Hornets owner Michael Jordan couldn’t make it in person, the Hornets welcomed Kobe with a video message from Jordan before the game. As ESPN’s Baxter Holmes writes, Kobe appreciated the tribute…

Bryant said he spoke with Jordan on Sunday and knew the video would be shown.

“It was awesome. It was awesome,” Bryant said. “He and I — as he said in the video — we talk pretty often. But it was pretty funny to see some of the reactions of my teammates. I was sitting next to Julius Randle before the game. He was like, ‘Yo, that’s amazing!’ I was like, ‘What?’ [He said] ‘That was Michael Jordan!'”

Bryant added, “We talk fairly often. I know he’s enjoying a little vacation time. I told him I was a little jealous. He said, ‘You’ll be here soon enough.'”

While Jordan transitioned into an ownership role for an NBA team, Bryant said he doesn’t expect to follow the same path.

“No, he and I differ entirely when it comes to that,” Bryant said. “He’s a mathematician. He loves math. He loves numbers, loves dealing with numbers. I don’t. I could care less. I suck at math. So from that perspective, I’m not going to be looking at cap numbers and all that other stuff. I just have no interest in it.”

Bryant again was warmly received by a road crowd that chanted his name at numerous points throughout the game, including when the buzzer sounded.

“It’s been like that every city, fortunately,” he said. “Here it’s a little bit different because this is the city that drafted me, so my journey started here. As brief as it was, it still started here. That has a little more value to it.”

But perhaps no stop means as much — or carries as much personal history for Bryant and his team — as the stop Wednesday, when Bryant will play his final game in Boston against the archrival Celtics, a team Bryant faced twice in the Finals. The Lakers lost in 2008, then won in 2010.

“Love-hate fest sort of thing,” he said of what he is expecting from the crowd. “I’m bringing my family down because my kids have never even been to Boston. They’ve never even been to Boston. I’m looking forward to them getting a chance to see the city a little bit and then just experience the green. It’s just a different green. I want them to be able to see that.”

Bryant also said he misses playing the villain, which meant being booed at road arenas.

“Yeah. It was just so natural to me for so many years,” he said. “It became something that just felt comfortable. It felt a little awkward at first, to be honest with you, to get this praise, but I’m glad they didn’t do this many, many years ago because it’s like kryptonite. It would’ve taken away all my energy and all my strength because I relied a lot on being the villain. Sometimes, the best way to beat the villain is to give them a hug.”


VIDEO: Jordan Honors Kobe

***

(more…)

Globetrotters legend Meadowlark Lemon, 83, dies


VIDEO: Globetrotters legend Meadowlark Lemon on the competitiveness of Michael Jordan

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Meadowlark Lemon, who starred for the Harlem Globetrotters for more than two decades, died Sunday at 83, his wife Cynthia Lemon confirmed to The New York Times.

Known affectionately as the “Clown Prince of Basketball,” Lemon spent 26 years as the ringmaster for the Globetrotters, dazzling crowds with his trick shots and comedic antics for the barnstorming road show that captivated and entertained audiences worldwide.

Lemon’s website says he played in a staggering 16,000 games and in 100 countries with the Globetrotters, making him an international star and an American institution. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003.

“Meadowlark was the most sensational, awesome, incredible basketball player I’ve ever seen,” NBA great and Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain said in a television interview before he died in 1999. “People would say it would be Dr. J or even Jordan. For me, it would be Meadowlark Lemon.”

A world-class athlete and entertainer, Lemon was also a motivational speaker, author and ordained minister. Both his name and his patented hook shot became signature trademarks for the Globetrotters.  He joined them in 1954 and became an international ambassador for the game of basketball, playing up to 10 games per week and before 2 million paying customers around the world a year.

“To my fans across the globe, thank you for the memories,” Lemon wrote on his website. “I cherish the memories as much as you do! I continue to travel the globe to stay actively connected with you, my fans, through various events, personal appearances, speaking engagements and more. It’s the joy that counts in life, and the times spent with my fans are the memories that will live forever. I want you to always remember that life’s most meaningless statistic is the halftime score, and as far as I’m concerned it’s always half-time. I wish you joy, my friends. In the great game of life, Trust Your Next Shot.”

Morning Shootaround — Dec. 26


VIDEO: Top plays from Christmas Day games

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Warriors beat Cavs, believe they can play even better | James wants clarity from Cavaliers | Rockets leave coal for Spurs | Kobe surprised at huge lead in early All-Star voting

No. 1: Warriors beat Cavs, believe they can play even better You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone, even the most rabid Warriors fan, who truly thinks the Warriors have underperformed this season. After all, after last night’s 89-83 win against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the highly anticipated NBA Finals rematch, the Warriors moved to a ridiculous 28-1 on the season, which included a 24-game winning streak. That is, it’s hard to find criticism unless you talk to the actual Warriors players themselves, as our Scott Howard-Cooper did, where you find that the Warriors believe despite all the W’s, they aren’t playing all that great and still have room to grow

“Look,” center Andrew Bogut said, “we haven’t played great the last 10 games. That’s something that we’ve addressed in this locker room.”

“I don’t think we’ve played well,” power forward Draymond Green said. “Even tonight. We did some good things, but I still don’t think we’ve played well.”

“I’m really impressed with our defense the last two games,” interim coach Luke Walton said. “Before that, our defense was struggling.”

Help is on the way, if only the Warriors can hold it together another couple weeks and avoid the all-out panic that will come if they slump all the way to, say, 75-win pace and only break the single-season record by three games as opposed to the current tracking to 79 victories. Good news is on the horizon for a change.

Coach Steve Kerr, out since the early days of training camp while recovering from the effects of two back surgeries in the offseason, is nearing a return. He stepped in for an ill Walton to run practice Tuesday, the interim to the interim, watched the Cleveland game from the coaches’ office in Oracle and plans to accompany the team on the Dallas-Houston back-to-back that begins Wednesday while Walton continues to lead. While the Warriors continue to avoid targeting a return date, the increased activity raises the possibility Kerr could be back as soon as Jan. 2 against the Nuggets in Oakland.

Forward Harrison Barnes, out the last 12 games with a sprained left ankle, was in some of the scrimmage Tuesday and Thursday participated in three-on-three drills with the team. Being listed as doubtful for Friday showed there was at least the thought he could play against the Cavaliers, so Monday against the Kings at Oracle or the two games in Texas are all possibilities.

The next week or two, depending on the actual return dates and how long Barnes will need to work back into game shape, could become an eventful time in the season of a defending champion, and that just doesn’t happen very often in early-January. Golden State will be whole again, assuming no one else gets hurt in the meantime, with Barnes an important piece as the starting small forward and also one of the triggers to the successful small-ball lineup when he moves to power forward.

It would have been impossible on opening night to imagine the Warriors would stand at 28-1 under any circumstances, let alone 28-1 with a coach younger than several players around the league and stepping in with two previous seasons as an assistant, with a concussion costing Bogut six games and Barnes’ absence. Now imagine the Warriors at 28-1 and thinking they will start to play better in the future.

“Maybe a little bit,” Bogut said.

Maybe more than a little bit.

“There’s part of it that [makes me mad] and there’s part of it that makes me very, very happy,” Green said. “I think we’ve got a lot of improving to do, and we will.”

Mad because the Warriors are not happy with how they have played lately. The happy: “Because what are we? Twenty-eight and one? You’re 28-1 and you’re not near playing well, that’s exciting. We know we know how to get to that point and we know we’ll reach that point. And when we do, I think that’s trouble because if we’re 28-1 and we’re not playing well, imagine where we are. That’s why it excites me.

***

No. 2: James wants clarity from Cavaliers Meanwhile, the Warriors’ vanquished Christmas Day foe, the Cleveland Cavaliers, drop to 19-8. That’s still good enough for the lead in the Eastern Conference, but with the Cavs getting more players back from injury and healthy, including Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert, the Cavs have more options available than ever before. And after the loss to the Warriors, as Cleveland.com’s Joe Vardon writes, LeBron James would like to see the Cavs discover a rhythm going forward

After the Cavs lost 89-83 to the defending champion Warriors on Golden State’s home court, where it’s now won 32 in a row during the regular season, dating back to last year, James repeatedly mentioned the lack of continuity the Cavs had on the court and suggested that at least some of it had to do with David Blatt‘s rotation.

“It’s going to take some time to get back into rhythm, and all of us, not just the players, but everyone, to get back in rhythm,” James said.

The lineups and the newness need some context, and what James said about them was nothing like the cool attitude he directed toward Blatt at times last season.

In fact, James didn’t name his coach specifically on Friday, but the bottom line was James called for Blatt and his staff to gain perhaps a clearer sense of who they want to play, and when, now that the entire team is healthy.

“For us to have a full unit, we’ve got to practice, we’ve got to play some games where we know what we want to do, what lineups we want to play out there,” James said.

“It’s an adjustment period, it’s not just going to happen – you plug a guy in there, plug two guys in there and it automatically happens,” he continued. “It’s going to be an adjustment period, but we’ll be fine. We’ll be fine toward February and March.”

This was just the second game this season that the Cavs had all 15 players available, due to season-long injuries to Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert.

That’s not Blatt’s fault, but, it was the head coach who placed James, Shumpert, J.R. Smith, Matthew Dellavedova, and Tristan Thompson on the court to start the fourth quarter. It was the first time all season they’d all been on the court at the same time.

When Irving and Kevin Love subbed in for James and Smith with 10:06 left in the quarter, the Cavs still had a lineup that had never played together. Those are just two examples.

Richard Jefferson did not play at all against the Warriors. Mo Williams logged 4:39, and James Jones, a favorite of James, played just 1:34.

James led the Cavs with 25 points and contributed nine rebounds, but shot 10-of-26 and was a brutal 4-of-9 from the foul line. He took the blame for that, saying “I wasn’t very good, inefficient, and it trickled down to everybody else.”

The Cavs’ 83 points, 31.6 percent shooting from the field and 16.7 percent shooting from 3-point range were season lows. Irving (13 points) shot 4-of-15 and Love (10 points, 18 rebounds) was 5-of-16. Cleveland assisted on just 12-of-30 baskets.

“For the first time, for a long period of time we had some different lineups out there,” James explained, talking about the woes on offense. “And against a championship team like this, it’s kind of hard to do that on the fly. We’re not making no excuses, we still got to be a lot better, still got to move the ball, got to share the ball, get it moving from side to side, but offensively we were all out of rhythm.

“You credit to their defense, for sure, and then the lack of detail.”

***

No. 3: Rockets leave coal for Spurs While the Warriors have romped through the NBA this season, the San Antonio Spurs have quietly put in work as well, and entered yesterday’s Christmas game against the Houston Rockets with a sparkling 25-5 record. Their opponent, the Houston Rockets, have struggled to find an identity, firing a coach (Kevin McHale) and getting inconsistent play from their superstars, James Harden and Dwight Howard. But on a big stage yesterday, the Rockets turned to their defense to grind out an 88-84 win over the Spurs, and as our Fran Blinebury writes, Houston got a present from their veteran reserve guard, Jason Terry

Jason Terry is long past the days of being the shiny new toy. He has stockings that have hung from chimneys far longer than some of his teammates have hung around the planet.

So even after the Rockets had spent most of the night standing toe-to-toe and going push-to-shove with the Spurs, there came a time to seal the deal and the closer had to come out of the attic.

It wasn’t just Terry’s nine points and three steals in the last 10½ minutes of the bone-jarring 88-84 victory Friday night at the Toyota Center. It was the way he did everything. Like he owned the place.

Ever since the shocking 5-10 start to the season that got coach Kevin McHale fired, the Rockets have been trying to convince everybody, including themselves, that they’re really a very good team, capable of getting back again to the Western Conference finals.

Trouble is, since the opening tip back in October, every time the Rockets have put another stake in the ground with a signature win over the Thunder, at Dallas or sweeping a pair of duels from the Clippers, they have also put a stake or a half dozen into their own foot. A combined 0-5 record against the lowly Nuggets and Nets. A whipping in Sacramento. A comeback that came up just short in Orlando.

You don’t get to call yourself a real contender until you stop pretending to show up consistently and take the job seriously every night. Dwight Howard and James Harden talk the talk.

“The Jet” puts his arms out at his sides and takes flight on the wings of drive and emotion that have carried him into a 17th NBA season.

“That’s what I’ve prided myself on, being ready, always stepping up to the moment,” Terry said. “In big moments like tonight when my team needed me most, I want to show up and be effective.”

He buried a big 3-pointer. He hit a mid-range jumper from the wing. He stepped into the San Antonio passing lanes to snatch away three balls to get the Rockets headed in the other direction.

But now, more than being the fire-starter in a big holiday event — the first time the Rockets hosted a home Christmas Day game since moving to Houston in 1971 — Terry’s task and bigger challenge will be to instill a sense of every day urgency that goes from the locker room out onto the court. Even in too many of their wins this season, the Rockets have started games lazily and had to come scrambling back from double-digit holes. Which is why this latest so-called statement win lifts their record back to just 16-15.

Harden’s pair of fourth-quarter 3-pointers were big and it’s good to know that you’ve got that arrow in your quiver, but it can’t be enough to think he’ll be able to bail you out game after game with offensive heroics. And it was Terry’s spark that ignited the flame.

Terry had been inserted into the starting lineup for the first four games after J.B. Bickerstaff took over the team. But as the team kept struggling, the interim coach began to shuffle his guards like a casino dealer until finally he turned Terry back face up in this one. In fact, the veteran has played less than 15 minutes in 11 games this season and also has six DNPs, including the previous game, which the Rockets lost at Orlando. That’s now likely to change.

“I just feel like we need him on the floor,” Bickerstaff said. “There’s times where he needs the rest, obviously. But big moments in big games, he’s one of the guys that I trust the most. I trust not only that he’ll do the right thing, but I trust that he’ll perform and then I trust that he’ll carry his teammates in a positive direction.

“You can’t speak enough about him. He’s a class guy. He’s a winner. He’s a champion. He’s a leader. He’ll sacrifice, whatever it takes to win. That’s what he does. That’s who he is. Every since I’ve known him he’s been that way.”

***

No. 4: Kobe surprised at huge lead in early All-Star voting The first 2016 All-Star voting results are in, and while there are still several more rounds to go, at least for now, Kobe Bryant has a huge lead over everyone else in the NBA, including Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. Considering Kobe’s global appeal and previously announced retirement plans, it shouldn’t come a complete surprise that fans want to see him on the NBA’s big stage one final time. But as ESPN’s Baxter Holmes writes, the numbers apparently shocked at least one person: Kobe Bryant.

Bryant has 719,235 votes — well ahead of Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry (510,202), the next-highest vote-getter, and more than twice as many as Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James (357,937).

After the Lakers’ 94-84, Christmas night loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, Bryant said he was more than a little surprised he had such a wide lead.

“Listen, I was making a little coffee run this morning, got some gas and decided to just go on Instagram and peruse,” he said, “and [I] saw the damn votes, and I was like, ‘What the hell?’ Shocked doesn’t do it justice.”

He added, “It’s exciting. What can I say? Just thankful.”

The 2016 NBA All-Star Game, to be held in Toronto, would be Bryant’s last, as he has announced his plans to retire after this season, his 20th in the NBA. His 17 All-Star selections are second all-time behind former Lakers star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who had 19. Bryant, 37, is the leading scorer in NBA All-Star history (280 points).

This year marks the first time that the 6-foot-6 Bryant is being listed as a member of the frontcourt in All-Star voting. In previous years, he has been listed as a guard. The second-highest vote-getter among Western Conference frontcourt players is Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant (349,473).

Clippers coach Doc Rivers said before Friday’s game that Bryant deserves a spot on the All-Star team.

“A lot of people disagree with me on that. That’s fine. I have my opinion. I think Kobe should be on the All-Star team,” Rivers said. “I don’t care if he’s a starter of if they figure out a 13th spot for him. [With] what he’s done in his career, he should be on the All-Star team, and I don’t see any debate in that. You can have one, but I’m not hearing it.”

But what if someone else were left off, such as one of Rivers’ players?

“It would be awful, but Kobe should be on the All-Star team,” Rivers said. “I think they should have a special exception and put 13 guys on if that’s the case if he wasn’t in one of the top 12 as far as voting or whatever. But I just believe he should be on it. Magic [Johnson] was on, Michael [Jordan] was on with the Wizards. I think certain guys earn that right, and unfortunately for other guys who can’t make it, they have to earn that right too.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Chicago Bulls may have turned a corner with their win over the Oklahoma City Thunder yesterday … Steph Curry doesn’t think he’s “hurting” basketball, regardless of what his former coach Mark Jackson says … Chris Bosh punctuated Miami’s win over New Orleans yesterday by talking trash to Anthony Davis down the stretchEvan Fournier has broken out of his slump in Orlando … You can ask him questions, but doesn’t have to answer them …

Dirk keeps climbing ladder of history

VIDEO: Dirk Nowitzki jumper moves him past Shaq to No. 6 in all-time scoring.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, as they say in the “Star Wars” saga, a skinny young kid in Germany used to turn on his TV to NBA games late at night and watch a hulking monster named Shaquille O’Neal outmuscle and outplay opponents and the entire league to write his name in the record books.
Now more than two decades later, Dirk Nowitzki has used the power of his step-back jumper and assorted other moves like a light saber to move past O’Neal and write his own name into the No. 6 spot on the NBA all-time scoring list.

Nowitzki took a set-up pass from J.J. Barea, turned and nailed one of his trademark high-arcing jumpers with 9:51 left in the second quarter for his 10th point of the night at Brooklyn to climb the next rung on the history ladder. That brought his career total to 28,597.

Nowitzki, who finished with 22 points, got the game-winning layup with 19.2 seconds left in overtime as the Mavericks beat the Nets, 119-118.

O’Neal, who finished his 19-year career in 2011 with 28,596 points, was just nominated for the Naismith Hall of Fame Class of 2016.

“He’s probably arguably the most dominant big man that’s ever played this game,” Nowitzki told Dwain Price of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “So yeah, it’s still kind of surreal that I’m up there among these all-time greats.”

Nowitzki is sure to follow O’Neal’s Hall of Fame path when he eventually retires, but for now is still productively enjoying his 18th NBA season with the Mavericks, taking averages of 17.3 points and 7.0 assists into the game against the Nets.

Only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain have scored more points in the history of the league than the 37-year-old forward. Nowitzki and Bryant are also the only players in the top 10 all-time ranking that have played their entire career with one team. He ranks No. 2 among active players, behind Bryant.

Nowitzki has come a long way since entering the league as the ninth pick out of Wurzburg, Germany in the 1998 draft by Milwaukee, going to Dallas in a prearranged deal and then struggling to find his footing in a rough rookie season.

But with a steady, relentless work ethic and a game that expanded the boundaries of what it was thought a 7-footer could do, Nowitzki was named an All-Star 13 times, won the MVP award in 2007 and took Dallas to the NBA Finals twice, leading the Mavs to the only championship in franchise history in 2011.

“It just speaks to how special he is, how special his career has been, the amount of work that he’s put into it, the level of which he really lives the game on a day-to-day basis,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. “All of that stuff is just so historic it’s hard to put into words. And I know Shaq is a guy that he really respects, as we all do.”

TOP 10 ALL-TIME NBA SCORERS

1 — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 38,387
2 — Karl Malone 36,928
3 — Kobe Bryant 32,897
4 — Michael Jordan 32,292
5 — Wilt Chamberlain 31,419
6 — Dirk Nowitzki 29,609
7 — Shaquille O’Neal 28,596
8 — Moses Malone 27,409
9 — Elvin Hayes 27,313
10 — Hakeem Olajuwon 26,946

TOP 10 ACTIVE SCORERS

1 — Kobe Bryant 32,897
2 — Dirk Nowitzki 29,609
3 — Tim Duncan 26,211
4 — Kevin Garnett 26,025
5 — Paul Pierce 26,010
6 — LeBron James 25,572
7 — Vince Carter 23,636
8 — Carmelo Anthony 21,533
9 — Dwyane Wade 19,293
10 — Joe Johnson 18,642

With Irving back, can Cavs finally soar?

VIDEO: Kyrie Irving is ready to return to the court.

Now that Kyrie Irving is back on the floor, can the Cavs finally discover a new “normal?”

You have to feel for the Cavs a bit. Well, sort of. Ever since LeBron James boomeranged back to Cleveland, the team he envisioned never quite took the floor. At the start of last season, the new club had to deal with transition pains caused by a new coach and the arrival of four key pieces on the rotation: LeBron, Kevin Love, JR Smith and Iman Shumpert.

And then, once the introductions were finally made two months into the season, injuries hit. Anderson Varejao was done for the year. When the playoffs began, Love was finished. Shortly after the NBA Finals began, Irving was finished.

And this season, Shumpert has dealt with injuries, which prevented him from delivering anything more than a newborn baby.

LeBron joked that it was “normal” for the Cavs to deal with being incomplete, but today was a step in the other direction when Irving declared himself fit for duty, having healed from his knee injury.

With a simple Michael Jordan-style “I’m back” tweet, Irving has changed the dynamics of the club. He gives the Cavs one more All-Star on the floor, one more scoring option, one less reason to rely so much on LeBron. The Cavs managed to go 17-7 anyway, which is scary once you think about it, how the rest of the teams in the East had their opening and none took advantage of it.

Irving will suit up Sunday against the Sixers, a great team to use as a warm up, which will give him a few days to prepare for the Christmas Day showdown against Steph Curry and the Warriors. Remember, when the Warriors took the Cavs in six games during the Finals, LeBron saluted the champs but also said he wished the Cavs were fully healthy. And that remark took a life of its own, with the Warriors feeling stung by any accusation that they were lucky. Which they were, from the standpoint of avoiding a major injury, unlike OKC and a few other contenders.

“I’m pretty (bleeping) excited,” Irving said at practice, and that pretty much sums up the feeling of his teammates.

The trick now is for the Cavs and Love in particular to mesh with Irving on the floor. In the absence of Irving, Love has played his best ball in Cleveland by far, and feels comfortable with more touches. It’ll be up to coach David Blatt to devise a way to make everyone feel productive and happy.

Irving has practiced pain-free for weeks, and it’s reasonable to suggest he’ll need a few games to get his NBA stamina back. But look: The Cavs have added a three-time All-Star who’s in the prime of his career at age 23. How can it not work?


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