Posts Tagged ‘Mike Budenholzer’

Hawks at crossroads with roster

ATLANTA — Mike Budenholzer didn’t want to talk about it in the immediate aftermath of a second straight season-ending sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Al Horford wanted a little bit of time as well, the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent wanted at least a day to process his thoughts about the Atlanta Hawks’ season and his future, before making any public comments.

It’s understandable. The wounds of the way the Hawks were dismantled this time were still fresh.

But another day or two won’t change the facts. As good as these Hawks have been the past two seasons under Budenholzer, the coach and president of basketball operations, they’re simply not good enough to deal with the Eastern Conference standard-bearer.

The Hawks are at a crossroads with their current roster and nowhere is that more apparent than with Horford, who will command a five-year, maximum salary on the open market this summer. Horford’s arrival as the No. 3 pick in the 2007 NBA Draft signaled a transformative time for the Hawks, at the time one of the league’s perennial doormat franchises.

They own the longest playoff streak in the Eastern Conference with nine consecutive trips, second only to the San Antonio Spurs. Yet they are no closer to reaching a championship level right now than they were after Horford’s rookie season, when they pushed the eventual champion Boston Celtics to seven games in a first-round series.

Continuity has been the hallmark for the Hawks, since before Budenholzer took over, with Horford as the centerpiece. He’s an All-Star with an impeccable work ethic and a sterling reputation off the court. But he’s played out of position, at center, for majority of his nine seasons and would likely have to continue to do so if he stays here in Atlanta.

So do you retool or rebuild, with a decision on Horford providing an opportunity go in whichever direction Budenholzer chooses?

“Our season just ended minutes ago,” Budenholzer said. “At the appropriate time, we’ll sit down and we’ll discuss. I know we feel strongly about our group. We have a great group to work with player-wise, coaching and front office…at the appropriate time, we’ll take a look and we’ll discuss all those things. We love our group.”

Loving your group doesn’t change the bottom line. They’ve only been able to go so far as presently constituted. Even with an accomplished group led by Horford and fellow All-Star Paul Millsap, who re-signed with the Hawks last summer, aging veteran shooting guard Kyle Korver and point guard Jeff Teague, there is a ceiling with this group that doesn’t suggest that a great leap in production is looming. Kent Bazemore stepped into a starting role this season and shined, setting himself up for a nice payday of his own this summer as an unrestricted free agent.

So Budenholzer and his front office staff have ask themselves some hard questions about what they have to work with going forward. Is this a core group capable of escaping the logjam of teams behind Cleveland in the conference playoff chase? Do you stick with Teague at point guard or go with the younger and streakier Dennis Schroder? And if they’ve lacked a true go-to-guy, a bona fide superstar to lean on at crunch time, is this the summer to scrap the current program and chase a big name like Kevin Durant, the prize of this summer’s free agent crop?

Horford talked passionately about his love for the Hawks, the city and its fans and the way he and his family have been embraced from the start. You don’t dig in the way he has, serve as an agent of change for nearly a decade, and not develop deep ties.

“It means a lot,” Horford said of his affinity for Atlanta. “I’ve set up here with my family. We all live here. We live here in the summer. We live here year-round. I’m very grateful for all the people here. They have taken me in from the very first day, even though I was a Gator. They loved me. I really love the city.”

Love has nothing to do with the business of free agency, for either side.

But he’ll have suitors from around the league this summer, some that will no doubt offer the opportunity for him to shift roles and operate in his natural position.

He won’t be able to do that in Atlanta as long as Millsap is entrenched at power forward. The Hawks need a significant upgrade in size, scoring and someone to control the action at crunch time. The system they’ve used the past three seasons has worked well, sharing the load amongst a quality group of veteran players.

But as the Hawks have learned so painfully well at the hands of a deeper and much more star-filled Cleveland team the past two seasons, you can only go so far with the “system.”

Morning shootaround — May 5

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Waiters: ‘One guy can’t beat us’ | Carroll says Lowry must ‘man up’ now | Report: Celtics in pursuit of Butler | Hawks shell-shocked by barrage of 3s | Report: Bickerstaff pulls out of consideration for Rockets’ job | Vogel awaits fate today

No. 1: Waiters says Aldridge alone can’t be Thunder — The San Antonio Spurs are more than getting their money’s worth out of free-agent addition LaMarcus Aldridge in the Western Conference semifinals. The newest Spur has been on fire in the series, averaging 39.5 points and shooting 75 percent in the first two games of the series. But to Oklahoma City Thunder guard Dion Waiters, the numbers that matter are 1 and 1. That’s the state of the series despite Aldridge’s heroics and, to Waiters, things are looking down for the Spurs as a team if Aldridge continues to sizzle. ESPN.com’s Royce Young has more:

“One man can’t beat you,” Thunder guard Dion Waiters said Wednesday. “So we’re fine with that. If they want to continue to get out of their offense and throw the ball down there to him, we’re fine with that. One guy can’t beat us, no matter how much he scores.”

“We’ve just got to make adjustments, try to make it tough on him,” Waiters said. “He’s a great player in this league, an All-Star. He’s going to make shots. He’s playing tremendous right now. But we’re fine with one guy just beating us. We’re fine with that. At the end of the day, Serge [Ibaka] and Steven [Adams] got to continue to do what they’ve been doing, but guys are going to make shots in the NBA and as long as they’re not running the offense and dropping it down to them, we’re living with that.”

Aldridge was asked by reporters in San Antonio if he’s putting pressure on himself to not cool down after his two big games in the series.

“I’m just playing basketball. I’m not trying to go do it [have a huge game],” he said. “You know, honestly, I didn’t think that I’d do it again after the first game. It’s just I’m going with the flow of the game out there.”

The Thunder primarily stuck with single coverage on Aldridge, with coach Billy Donovan saying they were mostly happy with the defense on the Spurs power forward. In the series, Aldridge is 17-of-26 on contested shots.

“We’re making him take the shots that we want, and he’s just making them,” Adams said. “That’s the only thing that’s kind of bumming us out right now. … We’re making him take similar shots [as in the past] and he’s just making all of them. And it sucks.”

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Ignoring inbounds techniques would be out of bounds for Hawks

CLEVELAND – Inbounds plays are the green beans of NBA games, not all that interesting until the day they suddenly line up on your dinner plate and dance like the Rockettes in a Christmas spectacular.

At that point, they demand your attention, in much the way they have on consecutive nights this week in conference semifinal games in San Antonio Monday and in Toronto Tuesday.

So it was a legit question for players and coaches still participating, such as Atlanta’s Mike Budenholzer, to identify proper execution, some pitfalls to avoid and so on from the world of Xs & Os.

“I’m assuming you’re talking a little bit about the OKC-San Antonio one?” Budenholzer said.

Well, yeah, considering that the Thunder’s inbounds attempt with 13.5 seconds left in Game 1 surprised even longtime NBA insiders with the number of things that went wrong and were uncalled in OKC’s 98-97 victory. From defender Manu Ginobili‘s toe touching the sideline for what should have been a delay of game call to inbounder Dion Waiters‘ thoroughly unexpected forearm to Ginobili’s chest to clear space, the play and the game’s subsequent final seconds generated an epic “Last 2 Minutes” report from the NBA and were chaotic from start to confounding finish.

Precisely what a team doesn’t want happening in the playoffs, when every possession allegedly is treasured.

“It’s definitely something you work on in practice,” Budenholzer said after Atlanta’s shootaround Wednesday in advance of Game 2 against Cleveland (8 p.m. ET, TNT). “There’s subtleties for the inbounder, things that can hopefully help him find the right guy. You want great spacing, hopefully guys who are coming hard to the ball.

“But that inbound position, I’ll just tell you, it is not an easy spot. But we practice it, we drill it, we work on it. It happens a lot during the season so you get a lot of in-game reps too.”

In Miami’s overtime victory Tuesday, Luol Deng had turnovers twice in the fourth quarter on inbounds plays. First he ran along the baseline when it wasn’t permitted, then he miscalculated on a toss intended for Dwyane Wade. “If we would have lost – that would have been a bad one,” Deng said.

“It’s tough, man,” Hawks forward Paul Millsap said. “It’s a lot of pressure on that inbounding guy. Teams are doing a better job of guarding the play and putting pressure on that guy. You’ve got to make good decisions. But it’s very important, obviously. It can cost you a game.”

Atlanta assistant coach Kenny Atkinson was hired by the Brooklyn Nets in mid-April and will become their coach once the Hawks’ playoff run ends.

He said the Hawks spend considerable time — especially in the playoffs — on both executing and defending sideline and baseline inbounds plays. Atkinson said he thinks many NBA teams eventually will designate a coach for such “special teams” situations, not unlike the NFL. Most already have go-to guys to be their designated inbounders in crucial moments.

“Last year, [center] Pero Antic was almost like our ‘long snapper’ [another NFL specialty],” Atkinson said. “He’d sit there the whole game and we’d put him in with four seconds left because he was big and he was an excellent passer. He could just look over the defender.”

Patience and a thorough knowledge of the circumstances are key. “Your first priority is to read your options. You’re the quarterback,” Millsap said. “Take your options one read at a time. If nothing’s there, don’t force it. If you have timeouts, use ’em. But the worst thing you can do is turn it over in a situation like that.”

And the flip side? “If you make ’em use a timeout or force a turnover, force it to a guy they don’t want to give it to, I think you’ve done your job,” Millsap said.

Some teams put a big man on the ball to crowd the inbounder’s view. Others may drop off him to double-team elsewhere. The defense, generally speaking, can’t often count on the man with the ball to break the inbounds plane and forearm the nearest opponent.

Coaches, meanwhile, can’t always count on their inbounders to know every rule, in terms of what they can and cannot do.

“I would say we are confident,” Budenholzer said. “Yet life never ceases to amaze us.”

Nets pick Atkinson as new coach

The rebuilding, reconfiguring, resurrecting of the Nets takes the next step with the move to name Hawks assistant coach Kenny Atkinson as the new head coach in Brooklyn.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports first reported the news and the Nets made it official on Sunday that Atkinson signed a multi-year contract.

“We are thrilled to announce Kenny Atkinson as our new head coach and to welcome him and his family to Brooklyn,” said Nets general manager Sean Marks in a statement by the team. “Kenny’s years of NBA coaching experience working under successful head coaches such as Mike Budenholzer and Mike D’Antoni have provided him with the foundation and experience we were looking for in a head coach. We believe that Kenny’s core principles, leadership, communication skills and exceptional background in player development make him an ideal fit for the culture we are building in Brooklyn.”

Atkinson currently serves as an assistant coach for the Atlanta Hawks and will continue in this capacity until the conclusion of Atlanta’s postseason. With respect to the Hawks and their playoff schedule, a press conference to formally introduce Atkinson will be held on a date that has yet to be determined.

“I’d like to extend a personal welcome to Kenny and wish all of us success as we begin a new era at the Brooklyn Nets,” said Nets Owner Mikhail Prokhorov. “Aside from his tremendous skills and experience, he has the mindset we need to build a winning team day by day, step by step. Together, we can do great things.”

Atkinson has spent the past four seasons with the Hawks and became Budenholzer’s top assistant two years ago when Quin Snyder left to take over as head coach in Utah.

“I’m very happy for Kenny and excited that he’s earned the opportunity to be a head coach,” said Budenholzer. “His competitiveness, knowledge and feel for the game, and passion for player development are all at a high level and will serve him well as a head coach. With him and Sean in place, the Nets have a very strong foundation to build on.”

An upbeat personality and a history of specializing in player development are key traits for Atkinson. He and the 40-year-old Marks, also in his first season on the job, will have plenty of heavy lifting to do in getting the Nets up off the bottom of the standings. The Nets finished this season 21-61 under Lionel Hollins and interim coach Tony Brown.

Morning shootaround — Feb. 14


VIDEO: Top 10 Plays from All-Star Saturday Night

NEWS OF THE MORNING

LaVine, Gordon wow in Dunk Contest | Hack-A-Gone? | Splash Brother vs. Splash Brother | Horford embraces uncertain future

No. 1:  LaVine, Gordon wow in Dunk Contest For years, the Verizon Slam Dunk was All-Star Weekend’s marquee event. The electricity surrounding the event may have waned in recent years. But last season, Timberwolves rookie Zach LaVine gave it a jolt of excitement, notching his first win. And Saturday night in Toronto, a couple of 20 year olds, LaVine and Magic forward Aaron Gordon, took turns making jaws drop, posting alternating perfect scores in the contest’s final round until LaVine was ultimately able to grab the win in arguably the greatest dunk contest in All-Star Weekend history. And as Lang Whitaker writes, with the contest on the line, LaVine went to the free-throw line

High expectations? No problem.

After bringing the Dunk Contest back to prominence one year ago with a series of electrifying dunks, Minnesota’s Zach LaVine picked up where he left off, with help from Orlando’s Aaron Gordon.

And with the Verizon Slam Dunk on the line, Zach LaVine went to the free throw line. Well, almost.

With a through-the-legs dunk from just inside the charity stripes, Zach LaVine earned his fifth score of 50 on the night, making him the 2016 NBA dunk champ. The 20-year-old LaVine became the first back-to-back winner since Nate Robinson in 2009 and 2010.

Going against Magic forward Aaron Gordon in the contest finals, LaVine and Gordon got locked into a heavyweight bout where they traded incredible body blows. After the contest, LaVine said, “We should share the trophy, because [Gordon] did some stuff I’ve never seen before.”

To begin the final round, Gordon completed a dunk with an unbelievable degree of difficulty, snatching the ball from Orlando Magic mascot Stuff — who was spinning on a hoverboard — and throwing down a twisting dunk. This earned a 50. LaVine countered by throwing himself an alley-oop and floating through the air for a one-handed finish, earning another 50.

Gordon then again used Stuff, this time clearing the mascot with his rear end while passing the ball below for a lefty finish. That earned another 50, putting the pressure on LaVine.

LaVine responded coolly, with a windmill from just inside the free throw line, for another 50. This marked the first time in Dunk Contest history the final round saw four scores of 50.

They didn’t stop. In the first dunk-off, Gordon enlisted teammate Elfrid Payton to throw an alley-oop off the side of the backboard. Gordon caught the ball and completed a reverse dunk while flying through the air. 50. LaVine responded by throwing an alley-oop to himself from the baseline, catching the ball and passing it through his legs for a reverse dunk. This earned another 50.

On the second dunk-off, Gordon ran along the baseline and did a two-handed double-pump reverse reminiscent of Dominique Wilkins. Gordon scored a 47. To win it, LaVine went back to the free throw line.

***

No. 2: Hack-A-Gone? A Q&A with the Commissioner of the NBA has become a staple of All-Star Saturday Night, and last night Adam Silver faced the assembled media to address several topics. As Steve Aschburner writes, among the many topics addressed, one change Silver is clearly looking to implement is an end to the Hack-A- intentional fouling that has become en vogue around the NBA lately …

If the Hack-A-Whomever strategy currently raising such a ruckus in some NBA precincts is actually something you like, take solace: It’s going to be with us, extending the real time of games, disrupting any sense of flow and showcasing a whole lot of bricked free throws, at least through the end of the 2016 playoffs.

If, though, you believe in the tactic as a coach’s best friend — something to encourage bad foul shooters to improve, lest they look silly and cost their teams victories — those guys had better get in the gym soon and practice their form, release and follow-through fast.

Change almost certainly is coming, based on NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s comments Saturday in the annual state-of-the-league All-Star news conference.

Silver, addressing and fielding questions from reporters before the skills, slam dunk and 3-point shooting contests at Air Canada Centre, reiterated what he has said on several recent occasion. “I’m beginning to feel that a change needs to be made,” Silver said, citing conversations he has had with broadcast partners, sentiment expressed in fan data and feedback from players, GMs and owners.

As for coaches, Silver said “Clearly our coaches who are smart and using very complex analytics believe it is benefiting them.”

But changing the rules wouldn’t be pursued to make life tougher on the league’s coaches, any more than it would be done to let the most frequent targets of the tactic — notoriously poor free-throw shooters such as DeAndre Jordan (.423 free-throw percentage), Andre Drummond (.351), Dwight Howard (.532) and a handful of others — off the hook. It would be a decision driven more by the NBA product as entertainment, not merely athletic competition.

Silver did share that, when the league’s competition committee discussed the strategy last summer, it sought data from an additional season before making a recommendation. That data so far? “We’re seeing the Hack-a-Shaq strategy used at roughly a five-and-a-half-times greater rate than it was used last season,” the commissioner reported.

That’s a lot of standing around, stoppages in play and, for folks viewing from the stands or on TV at home, a procession of finely tuned, multi-millionaire athletes failing at one of basketball’s fundamental skills. That’s not a good look for anyone involved.

Interestingly, Silver said that there is no consensus among the practice’s critics what remedy should be pursued. Treat the entire game like the final two minutes, when fouls away from the play equal one free throw and retained possession? Come up with something more stringent to snuff even the temptation to hack a targeted player intentionally?

Silver said he would want to have a specific alternative to propose. And even then, that sort of change would need the approval of two-thirds of the league’s members (20 of the 30 teams).

“So we’re nowhere near that point where we’re even starting to count heads,” Silver said. This summer would be the soonest, he indicated.

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No. 3: Splash Brother vs. Splash Brother It was no big surprise last season in Brooklyn when Stephen Curry managed to win the Foot Locker Three-Point Contest; after all, he was midway through an MVP season and establishing himself as one of the greatest shooters in NBA history. Last night in Toronto, when it came time for Curry to defend his title, he posted a fine performance, making the final round, until his Splash Brother and Warriors backcourt ‘mate Klay Thompson was able to get hot and edge Curry. As Sekou Smith writes, if there was any questions left about the league’s best-shooting backcourt, those doubts were officially laid to rest night

For the second straight year, one of the Golden State Warriors’ Splash Brothers walked off the All-Star Saturday night stage as the champion of the Foot Locker Three-Point Contest.

But it wasn’t defending champion and NBA three-point king Stephen Curry. This time it was teammate Klay Thompson taking home top honors in a competition that, by the final round, looked like something the Warriors might do at the end of every practice.

It marks the first time in Three-Point Contest history that different players from the same team have won it in consecutive seasons.

“Back-to-back years for Splash Brothers, it’s pretty cool,” Thompson said.

Thompson saved his best for last, finishing with 27 points in the final round to conquer one of the deepest fields in the history of the competition, a group that includes some of the best long-range shooters in the game today and perhaps ever.

“He definitely shot well tonight,” Curry said. “I still think I can hold my own in the competition, but the way that he finished off that second round was amazing. So trust me, the pressure of knowing what number he had to hit and making five out of five was fun to watch.”

Curry collected 23 points in his final round, but was on his feet cheering with the rest of the contestants as Thompson drained shot after shot on his final rack. Phoenix Suns rookie Devin Booker, the youngest player in the league, finished third after netting 16 points in the final round.

***

No. 4: Horford embraces uncertain future All-Star Weekend is traditionally something of a swap shop for trade rumors, and with his contract expiring this summer, All-Star Atlanta Hawks center Al Horford hasn’t been immune from hearing his name. But considering the trade rumors and that he was swimming in the Caribbean when he got the last-minute call to get to Toronto, stat, as Sam Amick writes, Horford says he’s thrilled to be in Toronto and taking everything day by day

It’s no secret that the Hawks have been exploring trade options that include Horford, but that doesn’t mean the four-time All-Star’s days in Atlanta are necessarily done. The relationship between the player and the team that drafted him third overall in 2007 remains strong, with nine seasons of history between them and a dynamic between Horford and president of basketball operations/coach Mike Budenholzer that could still lead to him re-signing this summer. And yes, it should be noted, the Hawks are well aware that retaining a talent like Horford in today’s NBA will come with an enormous price tag not only because of his talents but because the league’s salary cap is about to spike from $70 million to $89 million next season (and $108 million in 2017-18). He would earn approximately $25 in his first season.

But the 31-24 Hawks, like any team that isn’t playing to its anticipated level, must consider all options this time of year. They are also known to be engaging in trade discussions relating to point guard Jeff Teague, who is less of a flight risk than Horford because he has one year left on his contract ($8 million). The New York Knicks and Utah Jazz, to name a few, could be serious suitors for Teague in the coming days.

The Boston Celtics are widely believed to be a potential fit as a Horford trade partner, but the real level of interest from general manager Danny Ainge remains to be seen in the coming days. And while Horford continues to speak positively about the city and his situation, there’s an inherent uncertainty to this process that always acts as the driving force.

“I’m very happy in Atlanta,” Horford said when asked if the Hawks had reason to be concerned that he might leave. “I’ve said it repeatedly. I love the city. My family, we all live in Atlanta, we stay there in the offseason, so my focus is just to keep playing and taking it day by day and, right now, it’s to enjoy this weekend. … Just taking it day by day. That’s the only thing I can do. We really can’t worry about three or four months from now.”

Especially when a welcome All-Star berth comes your way.

While Horford wasn’t selected to the team initially, he was given the nod on Friday when Miami Heat forward Chris Bosh unexpectedly pulled out because of a calf strain. Horford was vacationing with his family near Cancun, Mexico, when he got the call.

“I had my phone off (and) I was in the water,” said Horford, who is averaging 15.3 points and 6.9 rebounds this season. “I was doing my morning swim out there, and I got the call (around 9:30 am).

“I’m so excited to be here, man. Words don’t describe it. Being here in this city, in Toronto. I remember last year looking at it, and I was like, ‘It’s going to be in Toronto, I would love to be a part of that,’ because, you know, the fans here are so lively and just being around these guys and it happens to be Kobe’s last All-Star. It’s kind of a big deal, and for me to be a part of this I’m very grateful.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Carmelo Anthony says he’s not getting tradedKarl-Anthony Towns struck a blow for bigs in the Skills Challenge … If you haven’t heard, it’s really, really cold in Toronto this weekend … The Indiana Pacers are eyeing a future All-Star Weekend bidJimmer Fredette was named MVP of the D-League All-Star GameKevin Hart tied Draymond Green in their own three-point shootout.

Kobe, Curry lead in initial All-Star voting returns

HANG TIME HQ — The All-Star Game may be heading north of the border this season, but in the initial voting returns, the West is winning.

The first voting results for the 2016 All-Star Game, to be held in Toronto, were announced today, and Lakers guard Kobe Bryant has a commanding lead in overall totals. Bryant has 719,235 votes in the initial returns, the most of any NBA player. Bryant, who announced earlier this season that this will be his final NBA campaign, is on track to make his 18th All-Star appearance.

The second-leading vote-getter early on is Golden State’s Stephen Curry, who has 510,202 votes. Curry was last season’s leading vote-getter, and went on to win the NBA MVP award as his Warriors won the NBA Championship. This season, the Warriors have gotten off to an epic start, winning 27 of their first 28 games. His teammates Klay Thompson (4th) and Andre Iguodala (7th) are among the West’s leading guards, and Draymond Green (5th) and Harrison Barnes (14th) are among the West’s leading forwards.

Cleveland’s LeBron James leads the Eastern Conference with 357,937 votes, while his former Miami Heat teammate Dwyane Wade trails James by roughly 57,000 votes. Indiana’s Paul George (283,785), who missed most of last season after a compound leg fracture, trails only James among Eastern Conference forwards. Detroit’s Andre Drummond (148,278), averaging 18.2 ppg and 16.1 rpg, and who has never made an All-Star appearance, is currently in third place.

The 2015 Eastern Conference All-Star roster was dominated by the Atlanta Hawks, who sent coach Mike Budenholzer as well as four players (Al Horford, Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague). In the initial returns this season, only Millsap is among the Eastern Conference leaders, 13th among forwards with 10,501 votes.

The 65th NBA All-Star Game will be held on Sunday, Feb. 14 at Air Canada Centre in Toronto. TNT will televise the All-Star Game in the U.S. for the 14th consecutive year.

NBA All-Star Voting 2016 presented by Verizon is an all-digital program that gives fans everywhere the opportunity to vote for their favorite players as starters for the All-Star Game. New to the voting program this year, fans can cast their daily votes directly through Google Search on their desktop, tablet and mobile devices. They can also vote on NBA.com, through the NBA App (available on Android and iOS), SMS text and social media networks including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, as well as via Sina Weibo and Tencent Microblogs in China.

Morning Shootaround — Dec. 25


VIDEO: LeBron James on the Christmas Day matchup with Golden State

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Cavs not poking the bear | Bulls’ tandem not matching up | Sixers get Smith back | Hawks looking at big picture

No. 1: Cavs not poking the bear — There are a few teams around the league that have challenged the Golden State Warriors with their words more than they’ve challenged them on the basketball court. And it’s clear that some bulletin board material has kept the Warriors motivated through a 27-1 start. The Cleveland Cavaliers are the first title contender that Golden State is facing this season, but they won’t provide the champs any more motivation than that. ESPN‘s Brian Windhorst writes how LeBron James and the Cavs have kept their words to a minimum in anticipation of Friday’s marquee matchup…

James has lightly touched on references to the Warriors this season as he has tried to inspire his teammates at times.

“We lost in the Finals, we didn’t win,” James said after a loss in mid-November as the Warriors were racing out to a 24-0 start. “And the team that beat us looks more hungry than we are, so it shouldn’t be that way.”

But since then, James has avoided most references to the defending champions. If he has talked more about it to his team in meetings, it has stayed private. When asked how closely he watches the Warriors, as reporters probe for hints of obsession, James said he watches all games, and because he plays in the East he often watches Western teams, including the Warriors, after his team’s games are over. In other words, James is passing on offering up red meat.

In the days leading up to the trip to the San Francisco Bay Area, James and his teammates have gone full cliché when it comes to this anticipated game, even with Irving returning from his knee injury in time to make the Cavs whole again for the first time since April. The same goes for coach David Blatt.

“There’s a lot of good teams in the league,” Blatt said. “Certainly, Golden State is one of the best teams, but they’re not all we talk about. You really can’t afford spending too much time thinking about what other teams are doing in the league.”

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No. 2: Bulls’ tandem not matching up — When you’re discussing the best backcourts in the NBA, the Chicago Bulls’ duo of Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler has name recognition, but not much substantive evidence in a case for inclusion. Butler is one of the best two-way wings in the league, but Rose has struggled in his third season back since originally blowing out his knee. Rose has the fourth-worst effective field goal percentage among 209 players who have attempted at least 150 shots this season and his free throw rate is at a career low. Our Steve Aschburner goes deeper into the contrast between the Bulls’ “star” tandem and the one they’re facing on Christmas…

Then there is Chicago’s Butler and Rose, who ought to be a hybrid of Golden State’s backcourt stars and OKC’s nasty pair. One’s a former MVP, the other is an All-Star. They’re both capable of initiating offense and getting hot enough to carry a team through games, even for weeks.

But the two have taken turns more than they’ve meshed. Rose established himself before Butler arrived, then slipped into the background due to injuries. Meanwhile, Butler filled the Bulls’ void, providing as one of the NBA’s best two-way wing players what they were missing from their formerly explosive point guard.

Now that they’re both in the rotation and relatively healthy, fans at United Center have seen more chafing and dysfunction than chemistry and synchronicity. Butler recently called out new bench boss Fred Hoiberg for not coaching “hard enough,” with insiders suggesting he had Rose in mind as one of those cut too much slack. Rose, meanwhile, continues to get called out by pretty much everybody in Chicago for not being the player he once was, whether the surgeries themselves or a wariness of contact are to blame.

Durant and Westbrook are the best duo these days and, arguably, the best ever. When you look at their numbers in the seasons they’ve shared — 28.4 ppg, 7.3 rpg and 3.7 apg for Durant, 27.3, 6.9 and 3.5 for Westbrook in their eight seasons as teammates — a pretty good case can be made that they’re as dangerous as, or more so than, West and Baylor. Those two Lakers greats put up similarly staggering numbers across 11 seasons together: West 27.8, 6.1 and 6.2 to Baylor’s 26.7, 12.4 and 4.4

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No. 3: Sixers get Smith back — The first transaction of the Jerry Colangelo era in Philadelphia was the fixing of a mistake made earlier this year. On Thursday, the Sixers, desperate for help at point guard, traded two second round picks to New Orleans for Ish Smith, who Philly didn’t re-sign this summer. The Pelicans had signed Smith the day before the season started and, with their backcourt finally looking healthy, managed to turn that desperation signing into a couple of assets. Tom Moore of The Intelligencer has the story from the Sixers’ side…

It appears Jerry Colangelo has made his first moves since joining the 76ers.

The new Sixers’ chairman of basketball operations seemed to be the driving force behind trading a pair of second-round picks to the Pelicans in exchange for point guard Ish Smith, who played with the Sixers last season and is a favorite of Nerlens Noel.

To make room for Smith on the 15-man roster, the Sixers waived guard Tony Wroten.

Smith, a five-year NBA veteran, is averaging 8.9 points and 5.4 assists in 27 games with New Orleans this season. He’s fifth in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.42) and joins a team ranked last in turnovers.

Smith appeared in 25 games (14 starts) as a Sixer in 2014-15, averaging 12 points and 6.1 assists for Philadelphia. The team was interested in re-signing him, but he turned down more guaranteed money from other teams before eventually agreeing to a non-guaranteed league-minimum contract with the Wizards (Washington waived him).

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No. 4: Hawks looking at big picture — The Atlanta Hawks have already lost as many games between Thanksgiving and the All-Star break this season (9-5) as they did last season (36-5). They’re certainly not taking the league by storm like they did a year ago. But as our Sekou Smith writes, there’s no looking back in Atlanta and right now, the 2015-16 Hawks are beginning to find their way…

The win over Detroit marked a full circle turn for the Hawks, who couldn’t handle Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson during their surprising home loss to Stan Van Gundy’s upstart team on opening night. They handled the Pistons this time, outscoring them in the paint (56-52) and doubling them up in bench scoring (34-17), thanks in large part to Dennis Schroder’s 14 points.

“We’ve just been more consistent,” Kyle Korver said. ‘We played good in spurts in the early part of the season, quarter-to-quarter and game-by-game … but this is as close to a complete game as we’ve played in a good little while. We’re a bit more focused. We’re playing with more purpose. And we’re doing it for longer stretches.”

And yet they are still not playing with enough focus and purpose for long enough stretches to satisfy Mike Budenholzer, who insists his team still hasn’t quite put it all together.

“We’re getting closer to playing a complete game,” Budenholzer said. “I think we’re obviously getting closer to where we want to be.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Suns suspended Markieff Morris two games for Wednesday’s towel-throwing incident … Our Scott Howard-Cooper compares the Warriors to the Showtime Lakers … The final game on Friday is the final Christmas Day game for the all-time leading Christmas Day scorerThe Heat like each other … A quiet fourth quarter from Kristaps Porzingis may be a cause for concern for the KnicksThis isn’t a great time for the Bulls to be playing one of the league’s four best teams.

ICYMI: The Starters rank the top 10 plays of the season so far:


VIDEO: Top 10 2015-16 plays from The Starters

Morning Shootaround — Dec. 24


VIDEO: The Fast Break — Dec. 23

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Nowitzki moves up, Mavs get win | Suns throw in towel against Denver | Hawks starting to soar | Butler wants to lead Bulls

No. 1: Nowitzki moves up, Mavs get win Wednesday night the Dallas Mavericks visited Brooklyn, which meant the return of Deron Williams to the borough where he formerly played. But with Williams out injured, leave it to the 37-year-old Dirk Nowitzki to post a performance worthy of the Big Apple. Not only did Nowitzki pass Shaquille O’Neal for sixth all-time in scoring in the NBA, but he also hit the game-winner in overtime to give the Mavericks the victory. And as Eddie Sefko writes in the Dallas Morning News, in some ways it was business as usual for Nowitzki

“Way back when I was a skinny 20-year-old, bad haircut, bad earring, not the most confident guy,” he said, before stopping, clearly thinking about the enormity of having only five players ahead of him on the all-time scoring list.

“Sounds pretty good, huh?” he said. “It’s a dream come true.”

And the way he passed Shaquille O’Neal on Wednesday couldn’t have been more fitting. He nailed a midrange jumper early in the second quarter against Brooklyn, took congratulatory hugs from teammates and coaches, then, a couple hours later, slipped to the basket for the winning layup in a 119-118 overtime victory that the Mavericks needed a lot more than Nowitzki needed any milestone.

Along the way, the Mavericks needed a lot of help from a guy who’s only 23,607 points behind Nowitzki on the scoring list.

J.J. Barea had a career-best 32 points, including several key 3-pointers, paying big dividends for coach Rick Carlisle starting him in place of the injured Deron Williams.

“I think the coach threw me in there early to give us a little energy early and I got in a rhythm and was able to help my team out big time,” Barea said. “I wanted to get to 30 (points in a game) before I finished my career.”

But even he knew this night was not about him, even though he’s never had a better statistical night. He hit his first eight shots and finished 13-for-20 and also dished out 11 assists.

“I’ve been through all the battles with him and seen him break all kinds of records,” Barea said. “But this one is amazing.”

Nowitzki started fast with six points in the first six minutes. Early in the second quarter, he got the ball on the left wing and wasted no time, pulling up and nailing an 18-footer for the record.

“It was a special moment for me,” he said. “I saw the whole team getting up and everybody gave me a hug and I’ve obviously been blessed in this organization for a long, long time.

“There have been a lot of great players who didn’t score as many points because they were cut short by injuries. I’ve been lucky. And we got the win. It would have felt really salty flying home with a loss.”


VIDEO: Arena Link — Dirk Nowitzki

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No. 2: Suns throw in towel against Denver The current Phoenix Suns feel light years removed from just two seasons ago, when they unveiled a small ball lineup that raced through the Western Conference and nearly earned a playoff berth. These days they are in flux, with forward Markieff Morris recently assigned to the bench. Last night the Suns lost at home to an undermanned Nuggets team, as Paul Coro writes in the Arizona Republic, while Morris evoked Robert Horry … and not in a good way…

In one of their more advantageous scenarios of the season, the Suns posted another dreadful loss with play so frightful and no signs of stopping. The bow on Wednesday night’s stocking of coal came when Markieff Morris added to a season of distraction by harkening back memories of Robert Horry’s towel toss at Danny Ainge by tossing a towel toward coach Jeff Hornacek in Wednesday’s fourth quarter.

The Suns lost 104-96 at Talking Stick Resort Arena to a Denver team playing a night after losing at home to the last-place Los Angeles Lakers and was missing five players (two starters) with no backup point guard available.

That is not all that surprising any longer for a team that has gone 5-14 since Nov. 22. How the Suns fell behind by 22 points, rallied to lead by three, started each half with new lineups and lost is now of less interest than Morris’ towel toss.

Much like Horry on a 10-21 Suns team in 1997, Morris was upset about being pulled from the fourth quarter from a 12-19 Suns team. With 9:47 to play and Denver leading 84-75, Morris was taken out of the game and he threw the towel while barking at Hornacek. Hornacek picked up the towel and threw it back Morris’ way with his own upset words for him.

“He’s mad about not playing,” Hornacek said. “I look at the stat sheet. He’s a minus-13 in 12 minutes. So there, I took him out. … He thinks he’s better than that. Show me.”

Hornacek said the Suns staff will discuss possible discipline for Morris, who has created a stir since the offseason when he asked to be traded after his twin, Marcus, was dealt. Markieff did not arrive in Phoenix until it was required for training camp. He lost his starting job earlier this month.

In January, Marcus also engaged in a shouting match during a game with Hornacek. He apologized publicly and to Hornacek after the game.

“That’s between me and ‘H’ (Hornaceck),” said Markieff, who made 2 of 8 shots and had one rebound Wednesday. “It’s not for media. It’s something between me and him that happened. We’ll talk about it.”

***

No. 3: Hawks starting to soar They won 60 games a season ago, including a 19-game win streak, but thus far this season, even with a winning record, the Hawks have mostly flown under the radar. That may be changing now. Wednesday night the Hawks got their fifth win in a row with a convincing home victory over the Detroit Pistons, and the Hawks are now in second place in the Eastern Conference. As Brad Rowland writes for Peachtree Hoops, the Hawks hacked Andre Drummond and got a big night from Jeff Teague to get the win…

The game was highly competitive early on, with Detroit taking an 18-14 advantage after a 7-0 run. That momentum would not last particularly long, however, as Mike Budenholzer employed the aforementioned “Hack-a-Drummond” strategy freely from that point forward, and that seemed to turn the tide. Dennis Schröder exploded for seven straight points to end the opening quarter (11 in the period), and in a flash, the Hawks were in control.

The “big” spurt was yet to come, though, and it appeared to close the second quarter. Atlanta raced to a 26-9 run to end the half, with Jeff Teague taking things over, and he finished with 13 points, 6 assists and 5 rebounds before the break. That big run netted the Hawks a 61-45 lead, and on the defensive end, Atlanta was quite effective in holding the Pistons to just 33% shooting (27% in the second quarter) in addition to the poor free throw shooting from Drummond.

To begin the second half, the Hawks quickly increased the lead to 22 points, but the margin settled into the mid-teens for much of the remainder of the contest. In truth, Atlanta didn’t play particularly well down the stretch, including a third quarter in which they allowed 50% shooting to Detroit, but the Pistons were never able to seriously challenge on the scoreboard until the closing minutes.

Detroit managed to climb within an 8-point deficit within the final two minutes of game action, using an 11-4 run to force a timeout from Budenholzer with 1:52 left in the game. Though it wasn’t pretty, the Hawks managed to salt the game away for good using a Jeff Teague basket (that was actually a goaltend from Andre Drummond) to push the lead back to 10 with 41.1 seconds remaining and that was the end of the threat. From there, Atlanta put away a 7-point win and the winning streak reached five games in pleasing fashion.

It was a big night from Teague, and that was the biggest individual story. He has struggled, at least relatively, to this point in the season, but this may serve as a “breakout” from the 2015 All-Star, as he finished with 23 points, 9 assists and 6 rebounds while keying everything Atlanta did offensively. In support, Paul Millsap added 18 points and Al Horford chipped in with 15 points in his own right, but this night was about Teague and a strong team effort on the defensive end.

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No. 4: Butler wants to lead Bulls As the Chicago Bulls try to right the ship and find some offense to go along with their defensive prowess, reports of unrest continue. According to Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times, as the Bulls consider roster moves, some players aren’t thrilled with Jimmy Butler‘s attempts to position himself as the leader of these Bulls…

While Jimmy Butler won the self-appointed leadership role unopposed, not everyone associated with the Bulls is a supporter.

One source told the Sun-Times that there are several players that often simply laugh when told of Butler’s latest thumping-of-the-chest leadership proclamations, and while Derrick Rose seems to be completely detached from the situation, his camp is very annoyed by all things Butler these days.

A veteran that is behind the Butler push, however? Well, it just so happens to be the one player in the locker room with two championship rings.

“I don’t mind those comments,’’ big man Pau Gasol said, when asked about Butler declaring himself the leader throughout this season. “I think those comments are positive. Those comments and attitudes don’t raise my eyebrows. I think it’s good certain guys want to take ownership and say, ‘Hey let’s go.’ ‘’

Gasol said that Butler worked his way into that role of leader, and was obviously paid like it this offseason, when the Bulls gave him a five-year, $92.3 million contract extension.

“I don’t disagree with it,’’ Gasol said. “I think Jimmy is obviously one of the main guys here.’’

He’s more than that. He’s the future. His deal is guaranteed through the first four years, with a player option of $19.8 million following the 2019-20 season.

Basically, last man standing of all the veterans on the roster.

Gasol has a player option at the end of this season, and there continues to be more whispers that he’s done with the Bulls experiment, while Joakim Noah, Kirk Hinrich and Aaron Brooks each come off the books when this season comes to an end.

Rose and Taj Gibson are free agents after next season, while the Bulls own the $5.175 million option on Mike Dunleavy for the 2017-18 season.

The likes of Gibson, Noah and Gasol might not even see the end of their current contracts, as several sources indicated that the Bulls are taking calls on all three players as the trade deadline draws near.

Noah’s value has taken a hit this week with a small tear in his left shoulder, and the center told reporters on Wednesday that he is looking at a two-to-four week window now. Not the best news for a player that was starting to look like his old self.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The NBA debuted a new public service announcement campaign against gun violenceSteph Curry says he’s the best player in the worldKobe Bryant and Kevin Durant exchanged shoes after playing against each other … Mark Cuban says Rick Carlisle’s threat to trade players was a motivational moveAlan Anderson looks to be out for a few more weeks. Meanwhile, John Wall has his own set of injury issuesNik Stauskas says he’s the hardest working guy on the Sixers … The Houston Rockets are trying to help former players stay on top of their health

Bucks coach Kidd will serve 1-game suspension tonight at Orlando


VIDEO: Jason Kidd was suspended 1 game for this sequence in Wednesday’s game

Milwaukee coach Jason Kidd will not work the Bucks game at Orlando Friday night while serving a one-game suspension for “aggressively pursuing and confronting a game official,” the league announced.

Kidd’s penalty, meted out by NBA executive VP of basketball operations Kiki Vandeweghe, resulted from his technical foul and ejection at 1:49 of the fourth quarter of the Bucks’ home loss to Sacramento Wednesday. Kidd angrily confronted referee Zach Zarba and slapped the basketball out of Zarba’s hands. The play at the BMO Harris Bank Bradley Center can be viewed here.

Vandeweghe’s rationale wasn’t provided with the penalty, but Kidd probably didn’t help his case by stepping toward Zarba and being restrained by Bucks players after the technical and ejection. And the Milwaukee coach likely didn’t do himself any favors, either, by having his incident just four days after Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer was ejected for incidental contact on the court in Cleveland with referee Ben Taylor.

Budenholzer was ejected on the spot, and the NBA followed up Monday by fining him $25,000. The National Basketball Referees Association criticized the lack of a suspension, with NBRA general counsel Lee Seham‘s amping up rhetoric that prompted veteran NBA coaches Gregg Popovich and Rick Carlisle to fire back in a brief war of words.

But given past punishment of coaches who came into physical contact with referees – from Popovich’s one-game suspension for bumping Bob Delaney in 1993 to Jerry Sloan‘s seven-game suspension for a run-in with Courtney Kirkland in 2003 – many NBA referees were bothered by Budenholzer’s money-only penalty.

“They’re backing their fraternity, we’re backing ours,” one veteran official told NBA.com. “Our guys are [ticked] off. But we’re going to do our jobs.”

So whether Kidd’s suspension moves the bar for subsequent coach-referee contact on Vadeweghe’s watch or simply sets the standard for ball swatting, the league’s game officials might be more satisfied with this decision. Vandeweghe, a former All-Star forward and team executive moved up the ranks at league HQ to take over this season for longtime exec Rod Thorn as the NBA’s “top cop.” Thorn coincidentally has been serving as a consultant to the Bucks for the past two months.

Blogtable: Thoughts on Budenholzer’s fine?

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


BLOGTABLE: Slowing the Warriors? | On Budenholzer’s fine … | What you’re thankful for this season



VIDEOMike Budenholzer gets ejected from the Hawks’ game in Cleveland

> Atlanta’s Mike Budenholzer was fined $25,000 for making contact with an official. Was this punishment too much, not enough, or just right?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com Not enough. When the established penalty for physical contact with a referee is suspension – from Gregg Popovich‘s one game for bumping Bob Delaney in 1993 to Jerry Sloan‘s seven games for a run-in with Courtney Kirkland in 2003 – it’s recklessly light to only ding Budenholzer’s paycheck. The Hawks coach might come across like straight-arrow Richie Cunningham from “Happy Days”, but on NBA sidelines he can become a fire-breathing, competitive madman same as his 29 colleagues. Mostly it’s a tough precedent for new NBA top cop Kiki Vandeweghe. What happens when it’s a player next time? Or when another coach does it with a little more force? Physical stuff with refs is a line that can’t be crossed, no matter how incidental or innocent it seems. We all remember Jason Kidd‘s accidental spilled soft drink on the sideline too. Uh huh.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: I’d say it was about right. The bump may have been unintentional, but the message has to be sent that no coach can be out on the court protesting to put himself in that position. Bud has apologized to referee Ben Taylor, so you move on.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: Not nearly enough if there was an intentional bump, but enough if the contact was incidental. The NBA ruled it incidental. While not touching an official is normally a rule without blurry lines, and understandably so, players and coaches can make unintentional contact. People lose their balance or trip. Coaches do too.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com: The punishment was right, because he made contact, but he only got one technical. As for the big picture, coaches do take liberties with their spot on the floor. Far too often, they take a step or two onto the court to call a play or chastise a ref and are rarely punished. I love the old line by John Wooden: “Show me a coach who feels the need to stand and yell the whole game, and I’ll show you a team that’s not prepared.”

John Schuhmann, NBA.comJust right. Budenholzer has to be accountable for his actions, and there’s too much complaining about officiating in the league. The immediate ejection was the right call, but the bump wasn’t malicious enough that it deserved another game away from the bench.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: Just right. Perhaps it will remind some of the coaches around the league that all the bellyaching in the world does not change anything and only serves to infuriate the officials, bore the true fans of the game and take away from the beauty of a night at an arena. The whole routine has long been the theater of the absurd, if you ask me. And if it a team (like the Clippers) is not careful, fair or not, they develop an identity as a bunch of whiners. I understand barking at an official now and then. And I know there are times when a coach earns a technical foul for the greater good. But going overboard, even inadvertently, is a waste of time and costs good money.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com It was far too little. This should be a no-go, don’t-even-think-about-it area. Referees are right to be concerned by the precedent.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blogThe punishment was just. While I’m sure he would never say so publicly, my guess is that Coach Bud would probably privately concede that the collision was in at least some part born out of frustration. And I understand why: No other team has played as many games as the Hawks thus far. Commissioner Adam Silver may have managed to eliminate a lot of four games in five days stretches across the NBA schedule, but the Hawks have already had one four-in-five and are started their second four-in-five last night. The schedule will even out at some point, sure, but right now, even this early on, the Atlanta Hawks could use a break.