HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – In an Old West, high noon Sunday showdown, Carmelo Anthony will take dead aim at Kevin Durant‘s three consecutive scoring titles.
The New York Knicks are in Oklahoma City today (1 p.m. ET, ABC) to take on the Thunder. Both teams have important agendas. The Knicks (49-26), riding an 11-game win streak, are trying to hold onto the East’s No. 2 seed and OKC (56-20), 33-5 at home, wants to solidify the top spot in the West.
The juicier, made-for-TV plot line, however, is the individual battle between two of the game’s great gunslingers: KD and Melo. They’re locked in an incredibly close race for the league’s scoring title by less than a tenth-of-a-point separating the two All-Stars. KD’s lead has slowly been clipped in recent weeks with Melo’s massive upswing highlighted by the past three games as he’s put up 50, 40 and 41 points.
Durant needed a 34-point effort in a big road win Friday at Indiana to keep his lead. At this moment, Durant leads the league at 28.4 ppg. Melo is at 28.3 — when taken the extra digit, it’s really 28.37 to 28.32.
No player has won four consecutive scoring titles since Michael Jordan rattled off seven in a row from 1986-93. Yet Durant,who has played 14 more games than Anthony this season and has been by far the more efficient scorer, doesn’t seem to be all that interested in earning No. 4 in just his sixth season in the league.
“He can have it,” Durant said Thursday when asked about the scoring title and Sunday’s head-to-head game with Anthony. Durant went so far as to say he’s rooting for Anthony.
After all, for all the amazing scoring games Melo has put together over his 10-year career, he’s never won the league scoring title.
“I really wanted my first one,” Durant said.
With the way Anthony’s been lighting up the league, it certainly would appear that he wants his first one, too.
OKLAHOMA CITY – With 90 points in his last two games, Carmelo Anthony is a making a hard charge at Kevin Durant, who can become the first player to win fourconsecutive scoring titles since Michael Jordan won seven in a row 20 years ago.
Entering tonight’s Oklahoma City Thunder game against the San Antonio Spurs (10:30 p.m. ET, TNT), Durant leads the league at 28.3 ppg. The sizzling Anthony has climbed to 28.1.
How does Durant feel about this little development?
“He can have it,” Durant said flatly after OKC’s Thursday morning shootaround.
In the nine games that Anthony has played since missing three in a row and six of eight with a bothersome right knee, he’s been lethal, averaging 31.4 ppg and shooting 48.1 percent overall and 40 percent from 3-point range. To no coincidence, the Knicks are riding a 10-game winning streak.
“I mean the stuff he’s doing right now, every time he touches the ball it looks like it’s going to go in,” Durant said. “He’s having a nice run right now and his confidence is high. I’m sure he’s going to take over. If it happens, cool.”
Anthony’s scoring blitz is even more spectacular over the last five games: 33.6 ppg, 52.5 percent from the floor and 52.4 percent from beyond the arc. He poured in 50 Tuesday against the Heat without LeBron James (fourth in scoring at 26.9 ppg) and Dwyane Wade, and followed up with 40 Wednesday night against Atlanta.
OKC and New York both have eight games left. Thunder coach Scott Brooks has already said he has no plans to rest his starters down the stretch as they battle San Antonio for the West’s No. 1 seed. The Knicks are locked in a struggle for the East’s No. 2 seed with the Indiana Pacers.
“I coached Carmelo for three years (as an assistant coach at Denver), that’s probably not something that he wants,” Brooks said of the scoring title, which would be the first of Anthony’s 10-year career. “He wants the championship just as much as KD does. But it is exciting. It’s always exciting when you get down to the last week of the season — who gets the scoring title, who gets the rebounding title? Those are minor things. Kevin’s worried about the big picture.
“But, it would be cool; definitely would be a great opportunity to be his age and have it four straight years.”
It would be historic.
Durant can win four scoring titles in his first six seasons and before he turns 25 (which he will in September). He’s already the first to capture three consecutive scoring titles since Jordan did it in his return from baseball from 1995-98. Only Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain can claim scoring titles in more than three consecutive seasons. Chamberlain also won it seven times from 1959-66.
“Don’t get me wrong, I never want to take stuff like that for granted, but if it happens, it happens,” Durant said. “I’m just going to play my game. I’m not going to force it too much and think about it too much and try to get it. But if it’s meant to be then it will happen.”
Durant is also shooting for a most enviable double-double of sorts as the first player ever to win the scoring title and join the exclusive 50-40-90 club — 50 percent shooting from the field, 40 percent from 3-point range and 90 percent from the arc (Larry Bird, Mark Price, Reggie Miller, Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki are the others and Bird and Nash are the only ones to do it multiple times).
A down tick in Durant’s scoring and shooting since the All-Star break — 26.1 ppg, 47 percent overall and 35.1 percent on 3s — recently put him in jeopardy of dipping below the first two thresholds. But he’s gained a bit of wiggle room over the last six games while averaging 27.8 ppg on 51.4 percent shooting and 52.9 percent from beyond the arc. Entering tonight’s game, Durant’s percentages line up like this: 50.5, 41 and 90.8.
The long and lanky Durant is the far more efficient scorer compared to Anthony. Durant has played in 13 more games, yet has taken eight fewer total shots than Anthony (1,322 to 1,330) — about four fewer attempts per game — and has made 78 more (668 to 590).
Anthony’s 44.4 percent overall shooting this season is a notch below his career average (45.5 percent), but his 37.8 percent from 3-point range would tie for the second-highest mark of his career.
HANG TIME, Texas – Never underestimate Mark Cuban’s knack for attracting attention. And who could blame him if the idea was to draw it away from his underperforming team that is ironically keeping a team of barbers on hold at the same time they’re about to cut off their string of consecutive playoff appearances at 12 years?
Should the Mavericks draft Brittney Griner?
Let cranky Geno Auriemma be outraged and throw bricks. Let former greats of the women’s game Nancy Lieberman and Ann Meyers Drysdale offer their words encouragement to the Baylor star. Let Griner give even the most outrageous hope and dreams to any little girl who has ever dribbled a basketball.
Let’s face it. The Mavs selecting Griner wouldn’t be the first unusual pick in the history of the NBA draft. And before you snicker, remember that somebody took Pervis Ellison, Greg Oden, Kwame Brown and Michael Olowokandi No. 1. Here’s a reminder of a few others off-beat choices down through the years:
JIM BROWN (Syracuse Nationals, 1957 ) – The Nats didn’t have to reach outside the city limits to take a flyer on the guy who would become perhaps the greatest player in NFL history. Brown played four college sports — football, basketball, lacrosse and track — at Syracuse. He even averaged 15 points a game for the basketball team in his sophomore year. But even though there was little doubt that Brown was bound for a career on the gridiron, the Nats made him a ninth-round pick.
Other notables in draft: “Hot Rod” Hundley (No. 1 overall by Cincinnati, traded to Minneapolis); Sam Jones (No. 8 by Boston).
FRANK HOWARD (Philadelphia Warriors, 1958) – It wasn’t just his physical stature at 6-foot-8, 275 pounds that caught the attention of the Warriors in the third round. He could really play and was an All-American in basketball at Ohio State. But baseball was Howard’s first love and he signed with the Dodgers and had a 15-year career in the majors, hitting 382 home runs with 1,119 RBIs.
Other notables in the draft: Elgin Baylor (No. 1 overall by Minneapolis); Hal Greer (No. 13 by Syracuse).
BUBBA SMITH (Baltimore Bullets, 1967) — Long before he became known for playing the role of Moses Hightower in the Police Academy movies and starring in Miller Lite commercials, the 6-foot-7 Smith was an All-American defensive end at Michigan State. His height attracted the attention of the Bullets in the 11th round of the NBA draft, but Smith was the No. 1 overall pick of the NFL Colts and a champion in Super Bowl V.
Other notables in the draft: Earl Monroe (No. 2 overall by Baltimore); Walt Frazier (No. 5 by New York).
BOB BEAMON (Phoenix Suns, 1969) – Who could blame the Suns for taking a flying leap? After all, they were coming off a 16-66 record in their expansion season in the league and Beamon had just shattered the world long jump record by more than a foot at the Mexico City Olympics. Beamon had grown up playing street ball in New York, but was strictly a track and field athlete in college at Texas-El Paso. The Suns picked him in the 15th round of the draft, but he went back to school and graduated with a sociology degree from Adelphi University.
DENISE LONG (San Francisco Warriors, 1969) — The 18 year old out of Union-Whitten High in Iowa was the first woman ever drafted in the NBA, taken in the 13th round. She had averaged 69.6 points and had a single game high of 111 points in her senior year. NBA commissioner Walter Kennedy voided the pick, calling it a publicity stunt by Warriors owner Franklin Mieuli and also noted that high school players weren’t eligible at the time. Mieuli brought Long and other female players in to play before Warriors home games.
Other notables in the draft: Lew Alcindor (No. 1 overall by Milwaukee); JoJo White (No. 9 by Boston); Mack Calvin (187th by L.A. Lakers).
DAVE WINFIELD (Atlanta Hawks, 1973) – It wasn’t just the Hawks who were trying to get their talons on one of the greatest all-around college athletes ever with their fifth-round pick. He was also drafted by the Utah Stars of the ABA and the Minnesota Vikings of the NFL, but went to baseball when the San Diego Padres chose him as a pitcher. In college at Minnesota, Bill Musselman once called him the best rebounder he ever coached. But Winfield did quite well in baseball, a 12-time All-Star with 465 career homers.
Other notables in the draft: Doug Collins (No. 1 overall by Philadelphia); Kermit Washington (No. 5 by L.A. Lakers).
BRUCE JENNER (Kansas City Kings, 1977) — Before face lifts and the Kardashians, there was a time when Jenner was known as the “world’s greatest athlete” after taking the gold medal in the decathlon at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal and the Kings made him a seventh-round draft pick. He never played in college and the closest Jenner ever got to basketball stardom was when he sank a shot during the singing of YMCA in the 1980 movie Can’t Stop the Music, which starred the Village People.
LUSIA HARRIS (New Orleans Jazz, 1977) – Here’s the real forerunner to Griner. A 6-foot-3 pioneer of the women’s game who led Delta State to three consecutive national titles, Harris was the second female ever drafted by an NBA team when the Jazz made her a seventh-round pick. Just imagine the show if she had been given a chance to team up with Pete Maravich in the backcourt. Harris showed little interest in her selection and declined a tryout invitation from the Jazz. It was later revealed that she was pregnant at the time.
Other notables in the draft: Bernard King (No. 7 overall by New York Nets); Jack Sikma (No. 8 by Seattle).
TONY GWYNN (San Diego Clippers, 1981) — After he set the San Diego State assist records for a game, season and career, he was hardly a reach for the Clippers in the 10th round of the draft. Gwynn said that dribbling strengthened his wrists and helped with bat speed and his on-court quickness made him a better base-runner. It all added up to a Hall of Fame baseball career with 3,141 hits and eight N.L. batting titles.
YASUTAKA OKAYAMA (Golden State Warriors,1981) — Tallest player ever drafted by an NBA team? Not Yao Ming or Gheorge Muresan or Manute Bol. Try Okayama, who was 7-foot-8. He earned a second degree black belt in judo in his native Japan and began playing basketball at age 18 at Osaka University of Commerce. Okayama attended the University of Portland (Ore.), but did not play there. He was a member of the Japanese national team from 1979 to 1986. He never signed with the Warriors or attended a camp.
Other notables in the draft: Mark Aguirre (No. 1 overall by Dallas); Isiah Thomas (No. 2 by Detroit).
CARL LEWIS (Chicago Bulls, 1984) — It might have been the year when Michael Jordan earned his first gold medal, but Lewis was definitely the biggest star of the L.A. Olympics, tying Jesse Owens’ record of four track and field gold medals. Though he never played basketball in high school or college, a West Coast scout recommended drafting Lewis in the 10th round because he was “the best athlete available.” That same year the Dallas Cowboys drafted him in the 12th round as a wide receiver. Lewis stayed with sprinting and the long jump to become arguably the greatest track and field athlete ever.
Other notables in the draft: Hakeem Olajuwon (No. 1 overall by Houston); Michael Jordan (No. 3 by Chicago); Charles Barkley (No. 5 by Philadelphia); John Stockton (No. 16 by Utah).
HANG TIME, Texas — Whether it’s Friday night in Charlotte, Saturday at home against the Sixers or even Game 1 of the first round of the playoffs, LeBron James will be coming back to a different game than he left.
More rough, more tough, more down in the dirt, use-everything-but-the-kitchen sink.
Because it worked in Chicago. Because it’s the only thing that put James on the wrong end of a scoreboard since Feb. 1.
Because the rest of the NBA is desperate.
If it wasn’t already with his third MVP, the 2012 NBA title and an Olympic gold medal, the 27-game winning streak stamped this as LeBron’s time, an era of contentment, fulfillment and waltzing up and down basketball courts to music that only he can hear.
When it got to the level where Danny Ainge was taking shots at his toughness and Pat Riley was responding quite earthily, then the point had already been made. Opposing defenses might as well be shooting spitballs at a battleship.
The only other answer, of course, is to bring him down by any means, which was the path taken by Kirk Hinrich and Taj Gibson.
James’ response was predictable, a variation of “How Dare They?” that was really no different from the indignant reactions of Michael Jordan when he was soaring above the game.
The irony and hypocrisy is that it was none other than Riley as the Designer Don of the Knicks in the 1990s who built on the Detroit Bad Boys approach and did as much as anybody to have enforcers Charles Oakley, Larry Johnson, Patrick Ewing and friends try to take a piece out of Jordan when they couldn’t stop him.
Everybody now will poke and prod and push and shove and flat out body slam James to throw off his shot or throw him out his comfort zone.
“We know what’s coming now,” said Miami teammate Shane Battier. “We know that’s Eastern Conference basketball, especially in the playoffs. Teams are going to try to make it a game without spacing, without pace and we’re going to try to do the opposite. We’re going to create a bunch of space and try to create tempo. That’s our strength.
“We know that every other team is going to view that Chicago game as some kind of blueprint maybe. That’s OK. We can play any style of basketball that’s required and I’m pretty sure LeBron can handle himself.”
In the end, that’s all that matters, how James handles himself. When opponents tried to body up Jordan, it only stiffened his own resolve. When anybody took him down to the floor with a bit of extra flourish, Jordan usually got back up and made them pay with a bit of extra mustard mixed with venom.
It is a different game now, one where it’s almost impossible to impede a player on the perimeter without setting off the kind of alarm sounds that accompany airport metal detectors. It’s why point guards have never thrived more at any time in the history of the league than today. The rules have been tweaked and rewritten to put less emphasis on brute strength and more on speed and skill.
The dilemma is that James, at 6-foot-8, 260, has the brute strength to overpower while giving up none of the speed and skill. Until somebody finds a way to put a muscle or two on Kevin Durant, LeBron is a cut above, in a class by himself.
Being so talented makes him singular and makes him a target and in the history of stars in any sport that does not make him special. The other guys don’t come to praise you, but to chop you down.
It’s a fact of life and complaining about a lack of whistles from referees or retaliating with a bull rush at Carlos Boozer will not stop it, only let them know that they’ve gotten under your skin.
Jordan channeled his anger into a raging fury that was belied by that photogenic smile that launched a thousand ad campaigns. Oh yes, we all wanted to be like Mike. But never ever forget that Mike, when provoked, could be a very bad man with a ball in his grip.
“We’re aware of what everybody’s game plan is against us,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “They want to prevent layups and dunks and highlight plays at all costs. That can mean hard fouls. We know that.”
Battier views from across the court and across the locker room and sees an awesome physical specimen and a supremely talented player who is finally at peace with who he is.
“I’m pretty sure,” he said, “that LeBron is ready for anything.”
He’ll have to be, since now the plan and the game is going to change.
SAN ANTONIO — To most Americans “Remember the Alamo” is a famous battle cry they learned in middle school.
For the Heat, it might simply be something they’re trying to do.
With the shortened lockout schedule wiping out their trip to San Antonio last season and coach Gregg Popovich letting the air out of a marquee showdown four months ago, tonight’s game (NBA TV, pregame 6:30 p.m.) at the AT&T Center will be the first meeting between the key players of the NBA’s top two teams in more than 14 months and the first trip to the Alamo City by Miami’s Big Three since March 4, 2011.
Manu Ginobili is already a scratch from the Spurs’ lineup after suffering a hamstring injury in the first quarter of Friday night’s win over the Clippers.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has indicated that since his team’s 27-game win streak has been snapped, he’ll be looking to get some rest for his key players before the playoffs begin in three weeks. He sat out starting point guard Mario Chalmers on Friday night against the Hornets.
But first, it’s likely that a pair of No. 1 seeds in each conference — clearly the two best teams in the league this season — will have most of their frontline stars on the court to circle, jab and try to deliver the kind of meaningful blow that might still be felt if the Spurs and Heat meet up again in the NBA Finals.
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh vs. Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, minus Ginobili still carries the knockout punch feel of a heavyweight fight in the most anticipated regular season game in San Antonio in years.
“We haven’t played each other a lot,” Wade told reporters after Friday night’s win in New Orleans. “And that’s the Eastern and Western Conference, you don’t get a chance to see each other a lot until hopefully you meet at the end of June.”
“They play with a higher pace and a higher energy level at home,” said forward Shane Battier. “It’s a tough place. But it’ll be a good challenge for us.”
What’s at stake officially is still the race for the overall best record in the league and home-court advantage all the way through the playoffs. Miami’s 57-15 record is two games better than San Antonio, but a Spurs win would slice that in half, give them a 1-1 split of the season series and the tie-breaker (record against the opposite conference) should they eventually meet up with the Larry O’Brien Trophy on the line.
“You play all year trying to get home-court advantage,” said Popovich, “because that’s where you always feel most comfortable. But having said that, you don’t win championships without being able to win on the road.”
You’d be lucky to get the stoic Spurs, always a reflection of their never-let-them-see-you-sweat coach, to even admit they knew the Heat were next up on the schedule.
It’s the approach taken by second-year forward Kawhi Leonard, who’ll draw the main assignment of guarding James, who is likely on his way to a fourth MVP award, which would put him in the select company of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six), Michael Jordan (five), Bill Russell (five) and Wilt Chamberlain (four).
“I don’t think nothing of it, really,” said the 21-year-old Leonard. “It’s how I’ve been playing my whole life, guarding the best player on the other team.”
Of course, the first Heat-Spurs stirred up more than its share of controversy, debate and repercussion back on Nov. 29 when Popovich showed his disdain for the NBA schedule-maker by having Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and Danny Green fly straight home from Orlando and miss the last stop (and a back-to-back) at the end of a six-game road trip at Miami. It had been a much anticipated and highly promoted national TV game on TNT. The club was fined $250,000 and reprimanded by commissioner David Stern for the stunt and yet a collection of Spurs understudies pushed the Heat stars to the limit in a 105-100 loss.
“People say, ‘Oh, he’s resting them,’ but it’s not about rest,” said Popovich. “It’s about being as healthy as possible at the end of the year.
“Not playing that fourth game in five nights, if you’ve got Tim Duncan’s knee and you’re at his age, might make him more ready to go at the end of the year. At lot of guys play 40-plus minutes to win now. We’re more concerned with later.”
While Miami is 2-22 all-time at the AT&T Center and took a 125-95 beating on Mar. 4, 2011 in the only other visit to San Antonio since the James-Wade-Bosh trinity was formed, it is more curiosity and honing their own game that is on the minds of the Heat.
“It’s always good to play the best and play against the best,” James said. “It’ll be an opportunity for us. We just want to get better. The game Sunday doesn’t define our season or how we go from there. We just want to continue to move forward.”
Perhaps to a historic June rematch that would be as memorable as the Alamo.
We’re past the point now where the Heat can slip on their noise-canceling headphones and pretend the only beats they hear have been downloaded according to personal taste.
After 105-103 in Boston on Monday night, the drums are pounding louder than the “1812 Overture” all over the basketball world.
The Heat’s 23rd consecutive victory pushed them past the anomaly that was the 2008 Rockets and at very least tiptoes them across the threshold and inches them into the throne room with royalty.
Wilt, West and Goodrich. LeBron, Wade and Bosh. That’s a Hall of Fame red carpet that’s rolled out between them.
Make no mistake. It is all no more than a hollowed-out log if they aren’t standing under a shower of confetti and holding up the Larry O’Brien Trophy in June. Because that’s why you play the game. It is fine for the contrarian Jeff Van Gundy and stat geek Daryl Morey to point out that these serpentine win streaks that stretch from one month into the next are almost as rare as unicorns and therefore technically more difficult to achieve than championships.
But let me know the next time somebody hangs a win streak banner from the rafters or hands out rings for consecutive regular-season wins.
As Magic Johnson said: “I’ll take the diamonds.”
Heat upcoming schedule
Still, there is no denying that what is happening here is special. Even the usual facade of the ‘”We’re-above-it-all” Heat is slipping to reveal the emotion that’s building like the lava dome under a volcano.
A week ago, those in the Miami locker room still insisted that nobody was thinking about a double-digit win streak or rushing to flip ahead several pages in the record book. But a look at the expressions and the emotions that showed on the Heat faces in the fourth quarter at the TD Garden on Monday night showed just how much has changed. They were down 13 with eight minutes to play. Rather than appear defeated, the Heat were defiant.
It is prudent to note that they are just over 2/3 of the way from the record of 33 held by the 1971-72 Lakers. If the Heat were an individual player chasing Wilt’s 100-point game, they would have 69. Impressive, but still a long way off. Yet stepping over the flotsam of the Houston team that couldn’t even win a first-round playoff series in 2008 clears a path toward their own unique place in the game.
“It means a lot,” James said. “I am a historian of the game. I know the history of the game. I know almost all the teams that have come through the ranks. To be sitting in second place right now, with so much that this game has given to our fans and everything, for us to be there, doing it the way we want to do it, it means a lot.”
Back in the summer of 2010, in the aftermath of “The Decision,” James was ridiculed for ticking off the number of championships that the Heat could win — “not one … not two … not three … not four … not five … not six … not seven …”
But now that they’ve got the first title, and it seems reasonable to think there’s another in the pipeline, this could be their once-in-a-slam-dunking-lifetime opportunity to put an indelible stamp and stake a place in the NBA’s pantheon.
While Michael Jordan’s Bulls won six championships, it is the 1996 team that set a regular season record of 72-10 that stands above them all. The 1967 Sixers, led by Chamberlain, won a then-record 68 regular-season games and made their mark by ending the eight-year reign of Bill Russell’s Celtics. The 1983 Sixers vaulted from an overpowering 68-14 regular season to the pinnacle behind Moses Malone’s “Fo’, fo’, fo’ “ proclamation that they nearly fulfilled by running through the playoffs with a 12-1 record. And, of course, the Lakers ran off their 33-0 streak early in the 1971-72 season, won a then-record 69 games and made their claim as the all-time best team by closing the deal on the championship.
A singular achievement. That’s where the Heat are now, fully engaged and fully aware that this is now the stuff of legacy. It is what James and Wade and Bosh came together to do.
“We’re aware, and it’s a special opportunity that we have with this group,” said coach Erik Spoelstra. “And you don’t want to take it for granted. You want to treat every day as a special opportunity to be with this group, to share these moments together, but more importantly to take a step closer to going after our goal. And every day that we improve puts us in a better position in a quest where nothing is guaranteed for anybody.”
It is almost a living, breathing creature inside the locker room, one they’ve fed and fueled. It forces the Heat to look at themselves differently.
DALLAS – With 15 games to go Kevin Durant remains positioned to capture a fourth consecutive scoring title and could join the ultra-select 50-40-90 club.
His margin for error, however, is slim on both counts.
After recovering from a slow start Sunday to score 31 points on 10-for-19 shooting (2-for-5 on 3-pointers) in a 107-101 win at Dallas, the Oklahoma City Thunder superstar has put together four consecutive games of 50-percent-or-better shooting. That’s critical to Durant’s quest to shoot 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3-point range and 90 percent from the free throw line, especially since his overall field-goal percentage and 3-point percentage have slipped since the All-Star break.
Durant is attempting to become just the sixth player in NBA history to accomplish a 50-40-90 season. But Durant is shooting 45.3 percent from the floor (105-for-232) and just 33.3 percent (17-for-51) from beyond the arc in the 14 games since the All-Star break. He’s maintained his free throw shooting, hitting 91.7 percent (122-for-133).
(It should be noted that while his scoring — 24.9 ppg — and shooting percentages have dipped since the All-Star break, Durant has averaged 8.9 rpg and 5.1 apg, both better than his season averages.)
His overall field-goal percentage is most vulnerable. A couple of 6-for-19 nights like he had last month against Chicago could ruin his chances.
“I hope so,” Durant said Sunday when asked if he thinks he’s snapping out of this mini-slump. “The Utah game (23 points on 7-for-13 shooting, but 2-for-7 at halftime) was the same way. [Sunday's] game was the same way. I just got to stick with it. I think I have to be aggressive to start the game. If I do that it gets me in a rhythm a little bit earlier and I have to be able to make shots.”
Against the Mavs, Durant had 12 points on 3-for-9 shooting after three quarters. Then he took over in the fourth with 19 points on 7-for-11 shooting, doing damage with one-on-one brilliance by starting at the top of the circle and beating his man and double-teams.
“I thought at some point in the game he kind of got frustrated a little bit and it was good that he was able to turn it around and just work harder and get some baskets,” Thunder guard Thabo Sefolosha said of Durant. “That was great on him. He showed maturity on his part.”
As for Durant’s pursuit to become the first player to win four consecutive scoring titles since Michael Jordan won seven in a row from 1986-93, his two closest challengers, Carmelo Anthony (sore right knee) and Kobe Bryant (sprained left ankle) are both holding steady, injured and out of action.
Durant leads the league at 28.3 ppg. Anthony, who is unlikely to play for a third consecutive game tonight at Utah, is second at 27.5. Bryant, who missed his first full game of the season on Sunday and isn’t expected to play tonight at Phoenix, is at 27.1. LeBron James (26.5) and Durant’s former teammate James Harden (26.3) are playing, but each would need a monumental closing kick to catch Durant, who despite his scoring slowdown, has still topped 30 points three times in 10 games this month.
And he showed once again Sunday night at Dallas that just because his first three quarters don’t go great, there’s always the final 12 minutes to get it right.
“The fourth quarter, coach [Scott Brooks] always tell me it’s my time,” Durant said. “I just have to come through.”
HANG TIME, Texas — So Kobe Bryant walked the walk, even if it was with a limp.
After crumbling in a heap two nights earlier with a badly sprained left ankle in Atlanta, the Black Mamba showed up in Indianapolis wearing a look of determination.
And his big boy pants.
After all, since he’d spent time this season giving hints, prods, urges and lectures to Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard about playing through pain, how could he not at least hobble out onto the court and try.
He did for 12 minutes, four shots and no points.
But doesn’t he at least get an assist for inspiring his teammates to deliver what some of them called their best game of the season by beating the Pacers?
“What I told them was ‘I don’t know how much I have, but whatever I have I’m going to give you.’ That’s all my message was to them,” he said.
The Lakers’ reserves, humiliated two nights earlier in Atlanta by a 46-16 margin, snapped back with Blake’s season-high 18 points and seven assists. Jamison had 17 points, combining with Blake to make nine of 14 three-point attempts.
Howard shook off a slow start to finish with 20 points and 12 rebounds, and World Peace had 19 points.
The Lakers held Indiana to 37.4% shooting, probably the stat of the game, if not Bryant experiencing only the 15th scoreless game of his career. Whatever. He tried.
He sat on the bench in the second half with an electro-stim machine in his hands, its wires disappearing into his left sock.
“It was really stiff. Just continued to swell,” he said. “I couldn’t put any weight on it so I had to call it a night.”
Bryant says he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to play at home on Sunday against the Kings or even the next two games against the punching bag Suns and Wizards. But watching him remain on the bench in uniform, getting treatment on his ankle all through Friday night’s game at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse, wouldn’t we all be surprised to see him sitting?
Not that he just sat there watching the rest of the Lakers take on the Pacers. He was constantly offering words of encouragement and suggestions. At one point he even horned in on coach Mike D’Antoni and used a whiteboard to show Howard where the Pacers were sending their double-teams and how to defeat them.
“Mike has got a million things going on in his head, and Steve and Dwight are all out there in the moment. It’s tough to really see all those things,” Bryant said. “I could see them from the sideline.”
Was Bryant auditioning for D’Antoni’s job?
“I guess,” the Lakers coach said dryly. “I don’t know if he wants that or not.”
What Bryant wants, as much as just another win, is to enhance a legacy that is already the stuff of legend and has few goals left to reach. There is clearly that one more championship that would tie him with Michael Jordan and that may or may not be realistic in a season that has seen the Lakers underachieve right from the start.
But as he pursues Jordan, he knows all of the historic high points of the legend, the so-called “flu game” at Utah during The Finals, all of the other times when Jordan simply would not let his own body stop him from achieving.
Bryant knows that pulling this season back from the brink, getting the Lakers into the playoffs and at least giving them a puncher’s chance to deliver a surprise knockout against one of the top seeds, would only gild his reputation further.
Gasol will likely return in the next few days from the foot injury that has kept him out since early February and that will give the Lakers a lift. But nothing will light their fire like the inferno inside of Bryant.
Don’t just do as I say, but do as I do.
That’s the message Kobe delivered without even having to say a word, just wearing his big boy pants.
Charles Barkley has an old friend he introduces to players headed for the other side of their prime.
His name is Father Time and Father Time plays a mean brand of ball, as unstoppable as Barkley in the day backing his big backside in the low block. Father Time, Barkley says, eventually shoves his pointy posterior into every career, superstar to scrub, and doesn’t let up till its all over. Just wait on him.
Even you, Kobe Bryant.
“Seventeen years of my career,” Bryant stated recently, boldly asked whether age and mileage are starting to show, “if there’s anything about me that says I’m going to allow you guys to see me slow up, it’s silly.”
Bryant is, at age 34 and 17 seasons in, boxing out Father Time like nobody’s business. He’s challenging Kevin Durant, 24, and Carmelo Anthony, 28, for the scoring title. His 27.8 scoring average is right at last season’s average, and is two points better than his career average and is a hair higher than the average of LeBron James, 28, the runaway MVP candidate. Entering Saturday’s games, Bryant trailed only Durant in total points — by 15.
But enough about those rubber-legged whippersnappers. Bryant’s point total this season — 1,752 and counting — is well ahead of pace to become the highest total ever by a player 34 or older and in at least his 15th season. Bryant needs 344 points, another 13 games or so at his current clip, to surpass the king of the geriatric category, Karl Malone, who poured in an all-time best 2,095 points as a 36-year-old, 15-year vet.
Bryant’s season currently ranks fourth all-time under the 34-and-15 parameter. Malone holds the top two spots (also 2000-01, scoring 1,878 points at 37, 16th season) and three of the top four (also 1,788 points in 2001-02 at 38, 17th season). Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 1985-86 season ranks third with 1,846 points at 38 in his 17th season.
Bryant on Friday night posted 41 points in a sensational clutch performance that began the Lakers’ final 20-game playoff push with a wild overtime win against the Toronto Raptors, a team he once popped for 81. He’s now gone for 40 or more in consecutive games and three times in the last eight games, a span in which he’s averaged 35.9 points and shot 55.6 percent (99-for-178) overall and 47.8 percent (22-for-46) from 3-point range.
It’s led to a new Twitter hashtag for Bryant — #vino — as in gets better with age. He will add to his remarkable point total Sunday afternoon in nationally televised game against the Chicago Bulls (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC).
Yet it’s not only Bryant’s scoring that’s up. Across the board he’s having a season that makes younger men weep: Facilitator mode has resulted in 5.7 apg, his highest since 2004-05; 5.4 rpg, a tick above his career average; 47.5 field-goal percentage, best of his career; and 34.3 percent from beyond the arc, his highest percentage in four seasons and above his career average.
In spite of a basketball odometer that reads 1,444 career games — regular season and playoffs — and 53,432 total minutes, Bryant’s stats suggest that he’s still evolving?
“He’s playing probably at as good a level as I’ve seen anybody play this year,” said Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks, who watches Durant and Russell Westbrook light it up nightly. “His ability to attack the paint, I mean, he seems to have two or three dunks every game now.”
Maybe it’s the German platelet-rich-plasma treatment from 2011. Probably it’s his determination and an inhuman pain threshold that hasn’t allowed him to miss more than nine games in any one season over the last eight. It pulled him back onto the floor in Oklahoma City Tuesday night after jarring his right elbow so badly early in the first quarter that he had to leave the game for treatment and was deemed by the team’s training staff to be “questionable” to return. They should know the Mamba better than that.
Minutes later he checked back in and scored 30, nearly rallying L.A. all the way out of a big hole against the Thunder.
Two nights later at New Orleans he had 42 points, 12 assists and seven rebounds, and this time he did bring the perplexing Lakers all the way back from down 25 for a critical win to their playoff quest, just like Friday night. It’s the story of this strange Lakers season: For L.A. to have a chance to beat even the league’s lesser teams, Bryant has had to be magnificent, and even then it hasn’t always been enough to lift his disappointing club.
He’s pulled the Lakers (32-31) to just a half-game out of the final playoff spot, but to secure it, it’s clear it take Kobe gone wild the rest of the way.
“It’s fun,” Bryant said. “This is what we get paid to do, is compete at a high level. I enjoy it.”
Bryant won’t find much enjoyment if he wins the scoring title but falls short of the playoffs. He’d become the first scoring champ not to make the postseason since Tracy McGrady with the Orlando Magic in 2004. McGrady was 24 when he led the league in scoring for a second consecutive season.
But what business does Bryant have challenging for a third scoring title anyway? Fact is, 30-somethings don’t win scoring titles. Michael Jordan was the last to do it at Bryant’s age. Jordan turned 35 during the 1997-98 season, his 13th in the league and last with the Bulls. He averaged 28.7 points and punctuated it with a sixth NBA championship.
Jerry West won it at 31 in 1969-70, his 10th season. Alex English turned 30 during the ’82-’83 season, his seventh in the league.
Think Bryant can’t do it again since going back-to-back in 2006 and 2007 as a relative pup of 27 and 28? Entering Saturday’s games, he trails Durant (28.5 ppg) by 0.7 points and is 0.4 points behind Anthony (28.2 ppg). All three are capable of monster finishes as their teams fight for playoff seeding.
Bryant and the Lakers are battling just to get in and that means he’s going to keep playing heavy minutes in the final 19 games. Bryant is averaging 38.3 mpg, a ludicrous amount of floor time for a player of his age and mileage. Entering Saturday’s games, only seven players average more.
Of the 10 players logging at least 38 mpg, their average age is 24.7 years with an average of 5.4 seasons in the league. None are older than 28.
To refresh, Bryant is 34 with 17.
“He’s just a determined guy,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said. “He;’s got a big heart, he’s playing hard, so, he’s unbelievable. I would like to have the luxury of being able to sit him more. You know what, I say that, but he won’t let me do it.
“He wants to play and he’s going to play so he’ll battle through it. It doesn’t matter.”
And just maybe Bryant will outrun Father Time. He continues to hint that he won’t hang around until his body won’t let him, perhaps even retiring as soon as his contract expires at the end of next season, at the ripe, old age of 35.
If he does, it just might go down as Father Time’s first defeat of all-time.
On Wednesday, they came back from a 25-point deficit to win in New Orleans, 108-102. Kobe Bryant tied the game with 1:34 left, gave the Lakers the lead a minute later, and basically sealed the game with his runaway dunk with 24 seconds left.
And on Friday, Bryant did it again, hitting three ridiculous 3-pointers at the end of regulation and then getting the game-winning dunk when Toronto stupidly sent the lumbering Aaron Gray to *double-team him on the perimeter. Rudy Gay did his part to help his opponent, taking six bad shots in the clutch and missing all six.
Side note: There was a video where Michael Jordan noted that he loved it when teams sent a big man to double-team him. As the big approached, Jordan would quickly go right around him, and basically the big would set a screen on his own teammate (the one guarding Jordan in the first place). Jordan was talking about post-ups, where he didn’t have the real estate that Bryant had on Friday. The Raptors sent Gray to guard Bryant 25 feet from the basket. Things may have been different if the more mobile Amir Johnson hadn’t fouled out, but that doesn’t excuse the decision to double with Gray.
So, since Jan. 27 L.A. is now 10-2 in games that were within five points in the last five minutes. Before that, they were 5-16.
On the opposite side of the spectrum is the Utah Jazz, the team the Lakers are trying to catch for eighth place in the West. After a painful loss in Chicago on Friday, the Jazz have dropped six of their last seven games, with four of the last five losses coming by three points or less.
Here’s a quick rundown of the excruciating way they’ve allowed the Lakers to pull within a half game in the standings…
Feb. 25 – Celtics 110, Jazz 107 (OT)
Down eight to the Celtics, the Jazz began the fourth quarter with a 13-2 run to take the lead. They defended Paul Pierce well at the end of regulation, but couldn’t stop him from scoring seven straight points in overtime. Down three with 1.2 seconds left, Randy Foye‘s 3 to tie didn’t hit anything.
March 4 – Bucks 109, Jazz 108 (OT)
This time, the Jazz were down 10 to start the fourth. They came back again, but Paul Millsap missed a free throw that could have given them a four-point lead with 15 seconds left in regulation. That opened the door for Brandon Jennings‘ game-tying three. Gordon Hayward‘s drive to win was denied by Larry Sanders and Enes Kanter‘s follow rolled off the rim at the buzzer. A costly Alec Burks turnover and a missed DeMarre Carroll free throw doomed them in overtime.
March 6 – Cavs 104, Jazz 101
The Jazz were the team to blow the fourth-quarter lead this time. They led by 12 with just over seven minutes to go and by eight after a Millsap bucket with 2:46 left. But Kyrie Irving sparked a 12-1 Cavs run, featuring a couple of ugly Utah turnovers, to finish the game.
March 8 – Bulls 89, Jazz 88
The Jazz seemingly took control with a 10-0 run to go up five in the middle of the fourth quarter, but Chicago answered right back. An Al Jefferson jumper gave Utah the lead in the final minute, but another one couldn’t seal the deal. Marco Belinelli then hit a 3 to put the Bulls up one. And though Hayward got a good look to win it, his jumper was way off.
Before this stretch, the Jazz were 19-11 in games that were within five points in the final five minutes. Now, they’re 19-15.
The Utah Jazz don’t have an open roster spot, but Misery has signed on with this team and is their most reliable clutch performer.
This time the opponent was the Chicago Bulls, their weapon of choice was a Marco Belinelli 3-pointer. But the rest? It felt exactly the same.
With reports circulating that Utah is on the verge of signing D-League standout Travis Leslie, the Jazz lost their third game on this road trip after they held leads in the final minute in all three. But after an overtime loss in Milwaukee and a missed layup in Cleveland, the storyline for the Jazz (32-30), as they struggle to remain playoff relevant, borders on the absurd.
“They didn’t draw that up,” Al Jefferson said. “That was just the ball bouncing their way.”
There’s a lot of luck involved in winning and losing close games. There’s still plenty of season left, but right now, it seems that the Jazz’s luck has run out.