Posts Tagged ‘Mike Conley’

Grizzlies deserve praise for grit, grind and playoff perseverance

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: Grizzlies scratch out a crucial win against the Suns

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — You’ll have to forgive the Memphis Grizzlies for scoffing at the idea of a short NBA regular season.

For a team that suffered through a tumultuous 15-19 start to 2013-14 after making the 2013 Western Conference finals, the Grizzlies 34-14 finish (which includes Monday night’s playoff-clinching win over the Phoenix Suns) is a testament to the power of the grit-and-grind movement the that has been cultivated in Memphis the past few seasons.

We counted them out early, there’s no shame in admitting it now.

But they persevered, kept the playoffs in their sights and battled their way through for that final playoff spot. The Suns are being praised for fighting their way into the playoff mix in a season that most of us assumed would end exactly where it did … in the lottery. It’s the way the Suns went about their business, though, that captivated the basketball-loving public.

This season, they were surprising, exciting and as entertaining to watch as any team in the league. Even though it goes against everything I believe in, this is one of those rare times where I would advocate a change to the traditional playoff structure, if only to watch the Suns play four or five more games.

Jeff Hornacek will get the love he deserves in the Coach of the Year balloting, just as Goran Dragic and Gerald Green will get their due during awards season. Their accomplishments will be appreciated in the end.


VIDEO: Zach Randolph talks after the Grizz top the Suns in Phoenix

The Grizzlies, whose style isn’t nearly as pleasing to the flash-and-dash crowd, are just as worthy of our attention. So while it’s fine to bemoan the Suns just narrowly missing out on the postseason, we should spend just as much time heading into the postseason appreciating the fine work of new coach Dave Joerger as well as Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Tony AllenCourtney Lee, Mike Miller and the rest of Memphis’ relentless crew.

“This is a culmination of not just this week or not just March or April, this is a culmination of everything we’ve been through since December,” Joerger said after the clinching win over the Suns. “For these guys, it’s a happy locker room, a relieved locker room and just a bunch of very proud guys with great chemistry.”

A Grizzlies front office that was second-guessed repeatedly (here and beyond) throughout the course of this season for replacing Lionel Hollins with Joerger (and other decisions) should be feeling good that their calculated risks paid off.

In a business notorious for the what-have-you-done-lately belief to determine a franchise’s success, the Grizzlies’ brass went against the grain and proved the haters wrong. They beat back every theory that said they shouldn’t finish the season with a playoff bid, and that includes the in-house data model constructed by vice president of basketball operations John Hollinger 

The folks who should be really worried about the Grizzlies grinding their way into the postseason live in San Antonio and Oklahoma City. The Spurs and Thunder are the ones who’ll have to deal with Randolph, Gasol, Allen and Conley by the weekend. They’ll be someone else’s headache in a few days and that’s an issue that every other team in the Western Conference playoff mix would admit to not wanting to deal with.

“No one wants to play Memphis in the first round,” an assistant coach for a Western Conference team told me weeks ago, long before the final spot was locked up. “With Z-Bo and Gasol you’re going to get your big men beat up right away. That’s not a good look for anybody. They’re attacking you in the middle and with that physical style. You have to survive them in a playoff series.”

The Grizzlies have added weapons this year in Miller and Lee, guys who can stretch the floor in ways the Grizzlies have not been able to in the recent past. Had Gasol not missed 22 games with injury, there’s no telling how high the Grizzlies might have finished in the standings.

With everyone healthy and the Grizzlies’ collective playoff experience, there isn’t a more dangerous team in the entire postseason landscape. They might not be the darlings that the Suns were all season, but the Grizzlies are certainly the sort of team anyone should be able to appreciate this time of year.


VIDEO: Zach Randolph scores 32 in the playoff-clinching win over the Suns

Morning shootaround — March 29



VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 28

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Beverley tears miniscus | LeBron wowed by mega-baseball contract | Not just L.A. on Love’s mind | Curry buries the Grizzlies | Wolves eye Hoiberg

No. 1: Rockets point guard out indefinitely — Houston Rockets starting point guard Patrick Beverley, the man who collided with Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook and tore his meniscus in last year’s first-round playoff series, is out indefinitely after tearing the meniscus in his right knee Thursday against Philadelphia. The Rockets will now have to make do without their top perimeter defender. Our own Fran Blinebury details how Beverley’s absence will affect Houston’s title aspirations:

For a team that has ridden the All-Star exploits of James Harden and Dwight Howard to the No. 4 spot in the Western Conference playoff race, Beverley plays a critical role.

The 25-year-old Chicago native who was drafted and cut by Heat, then toiled overseas in Russia, puts significant bite into the face of the Rockets’ defense.

Jeremy Lin can step back into the starting lineup and give the Rockets offense, but he is not the tenacious, in-your-face type defender that the Rockets will need in the playoffs to go against elite level point guards such as Westbrook, Tony Parker, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, Stephen Curry and Mike Conley.

While Lin is flashy and creative and can fill up the basket with points when he gets on a roll, it is the just plain down-to-earth toughness of Beverley that often stands out, especially in a backcourt where Harden does not especially like to play defense.
Coach Kevin McHale said it would be 7-10 days before the Rockets would know a timetable for Beverley’s return.

Beverley has played in 53 of the Rockets’ 71 games, missing time with a hand injury. He has averaged 9.9 points in 31.3 minutes while taking over the starting role from Lin this season, but it’s that defensive bite and overall toughness that the Rockets would miss most. Sometimes it’s the littlest pieces of the puzzle that are hardest to replace.

***

No. 2: LeBron would take Cabrera deal — Major League Baseball does not have a salary cap and that means some mighty contracts never even imagined in the NBA become reality. Detroit Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera was the latest example Friday when he inked a contract that will pay him $292 million over the next 10 years. It makes LeBron James‘ $19 million this season seem like charitable donation. ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst puts it into context:

“I said ‘wow,’ ” James said before the Miami Heat played the Detroit Pistons on Friday. “I wish we (the NBA) didn’t have a salary cap.”

James will earn $19 million this season with the Heat, tied with teammate Chris Bosh for the ninth-highest in the NBA as part of a six-year, $109 million deal he signed in 2010.

“He’s the best player in baseball, and the best players in each sport should be rewarded,” James said. “It’d be nice to sign a 10-year deal worth $300 million.”

James earns about $40 million per year off the floor in endorsements, most of that coming from his deal with Nike, which reportedly is worth $19 million per year.

***

No. 3: Not only L.A. on Love’s mind? — If Timberwolves double-double machine Kevin Love, set to become a free agent in 2015, makes it clear to management he won’t re-sign, Minnesota president Flip Saunders might be forced to look for a trade. The former UCLA Bruin has long been rumored to be headed for the Lakers, but Los Angeles might not be the only big city suitable to arguably the game’s top stretch power forward. ESPNLA.com’s Dave McMenamin has more:

After the league endured the “Dwightmare” and “Melodrama,” get ready for “Lovesick.”

The six-year veteran, only 25 years old, is the apple of just about every team set to have cap space in the summer of 2015’s eye.

Timberwolves president Flip Saunders will do everything he can to keep Love, who is fourth in the league in scoring at 26.3 points per game and third in rebounding at 12.6 per game this season. And Minnesota will have the advantage of being able to offer a five-year extension, versus a four-year deal from any other team.

But if Love makes it clear that he has no intention to re-up with the Wolves, Saunders will be forced to shop Love or risk seeing him walk for nothing in return.

Which is where the Lakers come in.

Love’s ties to L.A. are undeniable. He went to college at UCLA. His father, Stan, played for the Lakers — and coincidentally was on the 1974-75 team, a.k.a. the worst team in Lakers history up until this season, so his son could help make up for that. And Love was born in Santa Monica, to boot.

“You know, my parents live there and they had me there,” Love said of L.A., after his Wolves beat the Lakers for the third time in four tries to win the season series Friday. “It’s not my fault. So, I don’t really care about that right now. I just go out there and play and don’t think about it.”

While Love downplayed his interest, the Lakers clearly could use a player of Love’s caliber to jump-start their rebuilding process. Especially with Kobe Bryant recently putting the screws to management to turn things around as soon as possible so he can contend for another championship in the twilight of his career.

ESPN.com’s Marc Stein reported Friday the Lakers would be willing to trade their upcoming pick in the heralded NBA draft — likely to be in the top half of the lottery — to land Love.

While Minnesota could certainly decide to go that route and hit the restart button, there is no assurance that the Lakers are truly Love’s most desired destination.

A source familiar with Love’s thinking told ESPNLosAngeles.com that it’s not just L.A. that is appealing to Love; he’s enamored with the idea of being “big time in a big city,” and that list of potential places he’d seek includes New York and Chicago, as well.

Love himself told GQ in February that his situation in Minnesota might be better than L.A. could offer anyway.

***

No. 4: Curry’s 33 fends off Grizzlies — The Golden State Warriors were minutes away from the No. 6 seed they’ve held for the majority of the season slipping away to the visiting and hard-charging Memphis Grizzlies. Then Stephen Curry came to the rescue yet again. The All-Star swished a 3-pointer and dropped in a scoop shot as the Warriors, playing without forward David Lee and center Andrew Bogut, who left the game in the first quarter, closed out the Grizzlies with a 14-0 run in the 109-103 win. It sent the Grizzlies from the verge of the 6-seed to No. 8. Diamond Leung of the Oakland Tribune was there:

“We’ll never quit and understand we have the weapons to pack a heavy punch at any given time,” Curry said.

Coach Mark Jackson demanded that Curry have the ball in crunch time, and the star guard delivered with the go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:21 left and a subsequent scoop shot to pad the lead. Memphis could not muster a response, missing its final seven shots.

Marreese Speights added 15 points and eight rebounds in his first start with the Warriors while replacing an injured David Lee (right hamstring strain). The Warriors were still able to grab a 43-33 rebounding edge without their top two rebounders for most of the game, pleasing Jackson with the way his team competed in difficult circumstances.

Bogut was injured after getting kneed and ran the court with an obvious limp before checking out of the game for good with 7:59 left in the first quarter. He did not return and was scheduled to undergo an MRI exam Saturday, according to Jackson.

Jermaine O’Neal had 10 points and six rebounds in 34 hard-fought minutes. Also off the bench, Draymond Green had 12 points and nine rebounds, hitting two 3-pointers in the fourth quarter and providing strong defense on Memphis leading scorer Zach Randolph.

“There’s a guy that came into this league, and people probably said, ‘Why is he shooting threes? He should stop shooting threes,’ ” Jackson said. “And he’s winning ballgames with us, knocking down shots and making huge plays on the defensive end. The guy is a tremendous warrior.”

The Warriors would have taken a tumble down the standings with a loss but instead kept pace with the rest of the Western Conference and remained 1½ games ahead of No. 7 seed Phoenix. The win also evened up the season series 2-2 with Memphis, which dropped to No. 8 with the loss.

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No. 5: A return to the Timberwolves? — Speculation is growing that Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman will invoke his right to opt out of his contract this summer. If he does, the franchise is expected to go after one of its former executives and current Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg. ESPN.com’s Marc Stein provides the background:

If Adelman indeed walks away this time, at 67, there are two natural courses for the Wolves to pursue.

The obvious response is [Flip] Saunders, part-owner as well as team prez, heading downstairs to reclaim his old floor seat to see if he can be the guy who finally brings a halt to the league’s longest postseason drought, which dates to the Wolves’ 2004 Western Conference finals team coached by Saunders.

But that might be too obvious.

There have been no clear-cut signals that Saunders is prepared to leave the executive suite to return to coaching.

There is also another textbook candidate out there for Minnesota to chase with long-standing Wolves ties: Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg.

Widely regarded as the most NBA-ready college coach in the game, Hoiberg was a Wolves executive for four years before leaving the pros to coach the Cyclones. It should be noted that Saunders is close with Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, as well, but the rumbles out of Sota are getting louder that the Wolves are going to court Hoiberg hard if they, as expected, have an opening.

An opening, rather, that Saunders declines to fill himself.

And all of that makes Friday one of the more pertinent days left on the 2013-14 calendar for long-suffering Wolves fans.

That’s because Hoiberg will be coaching Iowa State against UConn in a Sweet 16 game at Madison Square Garden … and because Saunders will be there watching.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Lakers make (the wrong kind of) history again in epic loss … Anthony Davis leaves game in first quarter with a left ankle injuryVince Carter thinks he’s earned the right to re-sign with DallasKevin Durant scores 29 and streak creeps closer to overtaking Michael Jordan … TNT analyst Steve Kerr is the frontrunner to coach the Knicks under Phil JacksonShane Battier reiterates that he will retire after this seasonDirk Nowitzki‘s mentor and personal coach believes he has three or four high-level seasons left.

Grizzlies showing their playoff teeth

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: The Grizzlies storm back in Salt Lake City to topple the Jazz

This is the way you always expect Grizzlies to look. Big and scary with sharp teeth and claws.

Dangerous, too.

Pity the poor team in the upper half of the contentious Western Conference bracket that wakes up on the eve of the playoffs to find Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph lumbering hungrily into their campsite.

At just the right time, in just the right way, the Memphis blues have given way to a more ominous sound. Think more of Darth Vader‘s “Imperial March”.

That should frighten everyone from San Antonio to Oklahoma City to Los Angeles to Houston.

“Oh, you really don’t want to run into Memphis in the first round of the playoffs,” said ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy. “Not with the style they play that is so different from most other teams these days, grinding it out and beating you up. Not with Randolph and Gasol on their games. They’re a bear.”

OK, pun appreciated.

It was, of course, no joke when the Grizzlies opened the season looking like they were in competition with the Lakers in a nose-dive competition to the bottom. Not with Gasol and eventually Tony Allen hobbled. Not when everyone in the locker room and on the court was trying to get adjusted to the coaching change and the style tweaks from Lionel Hollins to Dave Joerger. There were rumors that Randolph was on the trading block.

Back then, the Grizzlies dug themselves a hole in the standings as deep as the No. 12 spot, yet now are at No. 7 and quite possibly climbing higher. They are just one game behind No. 6 Golden State and 1 1/2 games behind No. 5 Portland.

After last night’s 91-87 win at Utah, the Grizzlies have the best record (28-9) in the NBA since Jan. 10 and are positioning themselves maybe even make a return trip to the West finals.

Salt Lake City was the first stop on a critical five-game road trip that will also go through Golden State, Portland, Denver and Minnesota and go a long way toward determining where the Grizzlies wind up in the playoff chase.

“It’s the biggest trip of the year,” point guard Mike Conley told Ron Tillery of the Memphis Commercial Appeal. “It’s going to test us a lot mentally and physically. We don’t overlook anybody. We just have to play our basketball and worry about making the plays we make, and not adjusting to what other teams do. We’re going to be ready for battle.”

Playing the Grizzlies of recent vintage has always been like a fight, with the scratch marks, bruises and scars left behind as proof. With Gasol now healthy and back in the middle to offer serious rim protection, the Grizzlies boast the No. 2-rated defense in the league since his return on Jan. 14. With Allen back and scrapping out on the wing, they are Grizzlies who can take a game — and an opponent — in their paws and squeeze the life out of them.

Memphis has won 11 of last 14 games with the only losses coming on the road at Miami, Brooklyn and Toronto. The Grizzlies have been taking care of business at home in the “Grind House,” defeating the teams they’re supposed to and outright devouring the awful ones.

“It shows our focus is at an all-time high,” Conley said. “Playing against good teams over the last few weeks has got our minds in a playoff mode and our sense of urgency back. We’re playing with a higher standard.”

While the return of Gasol has been credited the most for turning the season around and getting them back to their old snarling defensive ways, the Grizzlies are also are somewhat different and better on the offensive end. Memphis still ranks dead last in 3-point shots attempted and made, but the Grizzlies’ success rate from behind the arc (35.6) has crept closer to the middle of the pack (18th). Their overall field goal percentage (46.3) ranks eighth, making offense less of the teeth-gnashing affair it has been. The additions of Mike Miller, Courtney Lee and Jon Leuer have provided much needed outside shooting and given Conley more options to direct the ball. Miller hit three key jumpers, including a pair of 3-pointers, in the comeback at Utah.

And then there is Conley, who continues to get overlooked among a crowded Western Conference crop of point guards when the spots on the All-Star teams are handed out. He’s upped his scoring to a career-best 17.1 points as he continues to hand out an average half dozen assists each game. His PER (20.1) is just outside the top 25 in the league. He’s grown steadily through seven NBA seasons to become a veteran leader of an offense and concentrating less on making steals to play solid team defense at the other end.

Toss in a bench that also has Ed Davis and Kosta Koufos and the Grizzlies have a deeper, more balanced roster than even the team that went on the long playoff run a year ago.

For a season that could have gone over the edge, the Grizzlies have pulled themselves back up to the level of real threat in the playoffs to one of the so-called elite teams at the top.

“This is a crucial stretch of the season,” said Randolph at the start of the trip. “These five games can determine where we end up.”

And which team in the West gets a big and unexpected headache in the first round.


VIDEO: Inside Stuff’s crew talks about the Grizzlies’ comeback in the standings

Morning Shootaround — Feb. 1


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 31

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Conley goes down in Grizzlies win | Pacers to sign Bynum | Bulls getting calls about Gibson | Irving taking responsibility?

No. 1: Conley goes down in Grizzlies win — The Memphis Grizzlies have won 10 of their last 11 games and have the league’s best defense since Marc Gasol’s return. But they lost starting point guard Mike Conley to a sprained ankle in Friday’s win in Minnesota. They should be OK without him against the Bucks on Saturday, but they visit Oklahoma City on Monday and have a huge game against eighth-place Dallas on Wednesday. Ronald Tillery of the Memphis Commercial Appeal has the story from Minneapolis:

Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley sat in the trainer’s room rather than at a station alongside his teammates in the visitor’s locker room.

He wore a walking boot Friday night after the Grizzlies’ 94-90 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves in the Target Center. Conley, who also had crutches near his side, hobbled home after the Griz polished off a sweep of their three-game road trip that included wins at Sacramento and Portland.

However, a trek that got Memphis to within a half-game of Dallas for the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoff standings hardly ended on a happy note.

Conley didn’t look or sound as if playing Saturday night against the Milwaukee Bucks in FedExForum would be an option. He might need several games off given the severity of his sprained ankle.

“I turned it pretty good,” Conley said. “It’s tough for me to put weight on it now. (Saturday) is looking real iffy. We still have a lot of games ahead of us. We obviously want to finish out these last several games before the all-star break with some momentum. We’ll see how long this will take.”

***

No. 2: Pacers to sign Bynum — It’s been over three weeks since the Chicago Bulls waived Andrew Bynum. And it looks like he finally has a new home. ESPN‘s Brian Windhorst tweeted Friday night that the Indiana Pacers plan on signing Bynum, though a deal is not yet in place. The Indianapolis Star‘s Candace Buckner first reported that Bynum and his agent were in town to talk to the Pacers:

Free agent center Andrew Bynum and his agent are in Indianapolis.

Bynum has been a free agent since being released by the Chicago Bulls on Jan. 7 after a trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers. According to earlier reports, the Indiana Pacers were one of several teams to reach out to Bynum.

Bynum’s agent David Lee told The Indianapolis Star that he and Bynum were in town. According to Lee, Bynum and the Pacers have not reached a contractual agreement.

“(Bynum) has not signed as yet,” Lee said on Friday night.

Bynum, the 7-foot mercurial center, played in only 24 games this season, averaging 8.4 points on 41.9 percent shooting for the Cavaliers. Bynum missed all of the 2012-13 season with knee problems and last March underwent surgery on both knees. Besides his health, Bynum’s commitment has also been called into question.

***

No. 3: Bulls getting calls about Gibson — The trade deadline is less than three weeks away and chatter is starting to pick up. The Chicago Bulls already made a major move (sending Luol Deng to Cleveland), but would need to make another one if their ultimate goal is to add another star (like Carmelo Anthony) this summer. Shedding Taj Gibson‘s salary (and waiving Carlos Boozer via the amnesty clause in July) would give them the cap space for a max free agent. And other teams would certainly be interested in Gibson’s services. Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times reports that the Bulls have received calls about Gibson and what they do with him will be a clear sign of the direction they’re looking to go:

And while Hinrich and Mike Dunleavy have been churning in the trade rumor mill for more than a month, Taj Gibson’s name is the one that is picking up, and could determine how serious the Bulls are in clearing space for a max contract to land the likes of a Carmelo Anthony or LeBron James.

According to a source, the Lakers, Wizards and Bobcats have each inquired about Gibson, but they were preliminary talks in which the Bulls did not like the return.

If they do move Gibson, however, it will definitely signify how determined the Bulls are to give Derrick Rose a second superstar to play along with.

With Carlos Boozer and his 2014-15 $16.8 million contract likely amnestied this summer, moving Gibson is all but a necessity if the Bulls want to stay under the luxury tax and add a max deal. Gibson will make $8 million next season, $8.5 in the 2015-16 season, and $8.95 in his final year of the deal.

While Anthony told the Sun-Times this week that he hasn’t put any thought into joining the Bulls, there are basketball executives who think differently, as ESPN reported on Thursday.

But to land Anthony or James, it will cost the Bulls Gibson, and is a growing possibility in the next three weeks.

***

No. 4: Irving taking responsibility? — There’s been talk this week about Kyrie Irving being unhappy in Cleveland, with coach Mike Brown and with the roster the Cavs have built around the 2011 No. 1 pick. But of course, Irving’s unwillingness to play defense and lack of leadership are two of the reasons the Cavs are 16-30 right now. So it was good to hear him seemingly accept some responsibility for his team’s struggles on Friday, as Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal writes:

Kyrie Irving conceded this season has been more difficult than he imagined, he’s upset so much attention has been placed on his contract and he admitted he doesn’t always have all the answers to what is plaguing the Cavaliers this season.

“I needed this. It was more or less a wake-up call,” Irving told the Beacon Journal following practice Friday. “I got away with so much my first two years. It wasn’t a breeze, but everything came easy. This is the first year where every single night it’s going to be a challenge. That’s one of the things I’m getting used to and I’ve accepted.”

Irving came under fire throughout the week, particularly after a Beacon Journal story last Sunday questioning the progress he’s made this season, followed by an ESPN report Thursday that Irving wants out of Cleveland.

“Everybody has all these rumors and stories they’re coming out with and it’s all based on me,” Irving said. “It’s not really about me. It’s about the team and what we’re going through as a team together. Obviously, some things will be put on me and I take responsibility for that, but all that extra stuff that comes with it. … It’s the business. I understand that. But that’s one of the things I wish I could change. It’s definitely not about me, it’s about my teammates and what we can accomplish.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Nate Robinson had ACL surgery on Friday, which means that the Nuggets need to figure out what they’re doing with Andre MillerKyle Korver has declined the NBA’s invitation to the Foot Locker Three-Point Contest … Wesley Matthews would go, thoughRajon Rondo likes the idea of being a free agentKemba Walker suffered a setback in his return from a sprained ankle … and Lance Stephenson says he’s “mad” about not being selected as an All-Star.

ICYMI of The Night: Terrence Ross looks ready to defend his dunk title:


VIDEO: Play of the Day: Terrence Ross takes flight and posterizes Kenneth Faried.

Morning Shootaround — Jan. 29


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 27

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Grizz continue to find their way | Davis boosts his All-Star hopes | LeBron wants to talk with Silver | Shumpert injures shoulder in Knicks’ win

No. 1: Grizz get back into their grinding groove — If you gave up on Memphis a few weeks or months ago after their slow-out-of-the-gate start to the season, you may want to start tuning in to their games again. As our own Fran Blinebury pointed out yesterday, Memphis is getting back to its “Grindhouse” ways. That was plenty apparent last night as the Grizz marched into Portland and handed the Blazers, who boast the league’s fifth-best home record, a resounding 98-81 defeat. Ronald Tillery of The Commercial-Appeal has more on Memphis continued rise:

The Grizzlies didn’t yield a point for the first two minutes, 20 seconds of their game Tuesday night, and the defensive chokehold just got tighter and tighter.

Memphis held the NBA’s highest scoring team well below its average and started a three-game road trip with a 98-81 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers in the Moda Center.

The Trail Blazers (33-13) entered the game putting up 109 points on 45.5 percent shooting per contest. But the Griz (23-20) held the Blazers to a season-low point total on just 34.5 percent shooting.

“Our confidence is back,” Griz point guard Mike Conley said. “We believe we’re a good team. We believe we can beat anybody. We kind of lost that. But everybody feels comfortable again and we’re playing hard.”

About four minutes into the fourth quarter, Portland’s television play-by-play announcer pointed out that the Blazers scored on back-to-back possessions just six times in the game.

The Griz simply kept the Blazers misfiring on the perimeter, and contested every shot in the lane. Portland missed its first 12 three-point attempts and was shooting 36 percent through three quarters while Memphis took an 81-58 lead into the final frame.

“We’re just starting to click,” Griz coach Dave Joerger said. “The cement hasn’t really dried.”

The Griz are certainly making an imprint. They’ve won three straight games and eight of the last nine. Memphis also ended Portland’s five-game home winning streak.

Since center Marc Gasol returned from a left MCL sprain, the Griz are 6-1 and have allowed 85 points per game.

“We were playing like ‘When is Marc coming back?’ as opposed to just playing basketball to the best of our ability and see what happens,” Griz forward Tayshaun Prince said. “But now that we have Marc back you can see a different comfort zone with our team. A lot of guys are playing at a high level. More importantly, we’re playing together.”

***

No. 2: Pelicans’ Davis boosts his All-Star resumeKevin Durant, Blake Griffin and Kevin Love have the starting gigs nailed down for the Western Conference All-Star squad. Picking the guys who back them up? That’s something that isn’t easy, especially considering the frontcourt/power forward/center depth there is in the West. One such name that’s been bandied about for a bench spot is the New Orleans Pelicans’ uber-forward Anthony Davis. He didn’t do anything to hurt his reserve bid last night, writes John Reid of The Times Picayune, after a dominating performance against the Cavs:

With time running out to impress enough of the league’s coaches to earn a selection as a reserve in the Feb. 16 NBA All-Star Game in New Orleans, Pelicans forward Anthony Davis didn’t miss another opportunity to make his case.Davis dominated with eight blocks and 30 points to help Pelicans rout the Cleveland Cavaliers 100-89 on Tuesday night at Quicken Loans Arena. It was the third 30-point performance of Davis’ career. Davis dislocated his left index finger in the monstrous effort but doesn’t expect to miss playing time….

“I’m just trying to get better each and every day,” Davis said. “My teammates did a great job of getting me the ball and giving me a chance to score. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Davis, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft, has totaled 27 blocks and averaged 21.8 points in the past five games. He relied on his arsenal of shots — from quick pull-up jumpers to dunks — and didn’t miss many attempts. He made 12 of 18 of shots and had 24 points after three quarters.

Some of Davis’ dominant play came against rookie Anthony Bennett, the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s draft. He played extended minutes for the first time and scored a season-high 15 points. But Davis overshadowed his effort.

“He’s a very talented individual,” Cavs guard Kyrie Irving said of Davis. “He kind of messes up your rotations just because he can space (the floor) so well and he plays the game the right way.

“Coach (Williams) did a heck of a job running continuity plays for him and he was catching it in rhythm and knocking down shots. You have to give credit to a good performance by him.”


VIDEO: Anthony Davis runs wild as the Pelicans take down the Cavs

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No. 3: LeBron wants to talk with new commish Silver — The NBA is just a few weeks away from the official retirement of David Stern (which, if you haven’t read our David Aldridge’s oral history of his career, you’re missing out) and from Adam Silver taking over as the NBA’s new boss. Silver will of course become infinitely more busy than he already is and one superstar is already hoping to earmark some time to talk with him once he officially takes office, writes Sam Amick of USA Today:

The Miami Heat star said Tuesday that he’s in the process of making a wish list of sorts that he will eventually share with Silver, the deputy commissioner who began with the league more than 20 years ago and who has held his current position (as well as Chief Operating Officer) since 2006.

“Um, I’m making (a list),” James said. “I don’t know if I want to make it public knowledge right now, but hopefully I can sit down with the Commish – the soon to be Commish – and just throw out some ideas where I feel like the league can be better, and hopefully he has some ideas for me to see on my part.”

James, who said he planned to schedule a formal meeting with Silver, lauded Stern for the job he has done and gave Silver a warm welcome.

“I think (Silver) is great,” James said. “The opportunities I’ve had to be around him as he’s been the assistant commish, he’s been amazing. He’s easy to talk to. He’s someone that understands the business, who understands what the game of basketball means to everyone – the owners, the players, the coaches, everyone. Everyone included, the whole pie. I’m looking forward to him. I’m excited for him, and best of luck to him. Hopefully he can get 30 years in too like David was able to get. Who knows what his 30 years can do for the game.”

As for the changes he envisions and may seek, he hinted that they are minor.

“We don’t need major change,” James said. “This game has grown from just being in America to over almost 300 countries right now…But the game can always be bigger. There’s a lot of people who love the game who are not able to watch the game, so I feel we can broadcast it in more countries as well and continue to inspire people that want to play the game, who love the game. It’s the greatest game in the world to me. Obviously I’m biased, because I’m in it, but you know the things that we’re able to do out on the floor to inspire people is unbelievable.”

***

No. 4: Knicks’ Shumpert suffers shoulder injuryNew York got some good news during last night’s win over the Celtics as power forward Kenyon Martin returned to the lineup after missing five games with an ankle injury. But just four minutes into the Boston game, the Knicks saw guard Iman Shumpert suffer a shoulder injury and leave the game. How long Shumpert will be out for remains unknown, writes Ian Bagley of ESPNNewYork.com:

Knicks guard Iman Shumpert suffered a sprained right shoulder in the first quarter of Tuesday’s game against the Boston Celtics and did not return.The severity of the injury was unclear.

Coach Mike Woodson said after the Knicks’ 114-88 win that he wasn’t sure how long Shumpert would be out for.

Shumpert dealt with shoulder soreness in training camp but has remained relatively healthy throughout the season, playing in every game.

If Shumpert were out for an extended period, J.R. Smith or Tim Hardaway Jr. would likely replace him in the lineup.

In other injury news, veteran Knicks forward Kenyon Martin returned after missing five games with a left ankle injury and re-sprained the ankle in the first half. Martin had earlier aggravated the injury against the Indiana Pacers on Jan. 16.

“Just overuse,” the 36-year-old Martin said. “Been going every day and playing a lot of minutes. Just needed a break. Not one thing happened. Just been fighting through it, fighting through it, fighting through it, and the body lets you know. So at my age, you got to listen.”

Martin limped to the locker room late in the second quarter. The Knicks said he was available to return.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Great teaser/snippet for Rick Fox‘s upcoming interview with Phil Jackson on GameTime (Jan. 30, 6 p.m. ET), where the coaching legend talks about Dwight Howard’s game, the state of the Lakers and much, much moreScott Brooks is coaching the West All-Star team for the second time in his career … Is Pistons owner Tom Gores to blame for Detroit’s roster woes? One columnist sure thinks so … Interesting look at how the Most Improved Player voting/winners have been doled out the last few years … If Rajon Rondo signs an extension with the Celtics, what might it look like long term for the team? … The Kings revealed the first renderings for their new arena that’s being built

ICYMI of The Night: We’re still thawing out here at Shootaround Central (aka Atlanta), but this nice hustle play from John Wall to race back and swat Steph Curry warms our hearts…:


VIDEO: John Wall hustles back to deny Steph Curry’s layup attempt

Gasol, Lee Put Grizzlies Back In Race


VIDEO: Grizzlies sweep back-to-back games over Rockets

In a pair of back-to-back games over the weekend, Dwight Howard got the message. With a couple of pushes, some shoves, an elbow or two in the small of his back, even a try at a wrestling takedown.

Marc Gasol is back. And so, it seems, are the Grizzlies as a factor in the Western Conference playoff race.

While there is still plenty of ground for Gasol to cover to get back to form after missing 1 1/2 months and 23 games with a sprained MCL, things are finally getting into shape in Memphis.

With consecutive wins over Howard and the Rockets, the Grizzlies are now just two games out of the No. 8 spot in the playoff race as they start a quick three-game road trip tonight in Portland (10 ET, League Pass) and continues through Sacramento and Minnesota.

Since the start of 2014, the Grizzlies have won nine of 12 games, are 5-1 since Gasol returned to the lineup on Jan. 14 and 7-2 since they acquired Courtney Lee from Boston.

Gasol, of course, gives the Grizzlies back their physicality and ruggedness on the interior by teaming with Zach Randolph. He and Z-Bo are able to protect the rim as effectively as any tandem of bigs in the league and score in the low post. In addition, Gasol’s role of traffic cop and his passing ability opens things up on the perimeter.

That’s an area where Lee has helped. Though Memphis still ranks at the bottom of the league in 3-pointers taken and made, shooting guard Lee has provided another option on the wing and has been effective.

“I’ve been super comfortable from day one,” he said. “When I came in the coaches told me to play my game and shots have been falling. Everybody that’s playing is on the same page of playing the right way.”

Lee is shooting 55.6 from the field since joining the Grizzlies and sunk his teeth in on defense. In the back-to-back set against the Rockets, he kept James Harden in check.

“Courtney’s been a big addition for us,” said point guard Mike Conley. “He adds some scoring, he adds some defense, athleticism. He has a high basketball IQ and he’s been able to pick up things fairly quickly. I think that’s what’s helped us these last couple of weeks.

“Courtney was a huge, huge piece. People overlook him. But it’s key that he’s able to stretch the court for us. With me, him, Mike Miller out there, it gives Zach and Marc more space. Having a lot of guys that could space the court, we didn’t have that going on before. And he can definitely lock up defensively.”

Even through their struggles this season, the Grizzlies have been able to make the most of road trips. Before Gasol injured his knee, they swept a four-game November swing against the Lakers, Kings, Clippers and Warriors. Then with Gasol out, they began turning things around at the start of the new year by taking two out of three at Phoenix, Denver and Detroit.

That’s when Ed Davis and James Johnson became part of the rotation and significant contributors with Gasol, Tony Allen and Quincy Pondexter sidelined by injury. Pondexter (broken bone in foot) is lost for the season and Allen (ligament damage hand) is getting closer to returning.

The question for coach Dave Joerger is what he’ll do with the starting lineup when Allen is ready. There is no question that the Grizzlies would like to have his grinding defense back, but Lee has been a big addition. The solution might be to let Allen come off the bench until he’s fully back in game shape, then slide him into the 3-spot to replace Tayshaun Prince, keeping Lee’s offense on the floor.

“Our confidence is high,” Lee said. “We feel good about what’s going on and how we’re playing. It seems like time will only make us better.”

Currently sitting at 22-20, the task that might have looked a bit daunting a month ago now seems within reach. To reach the 45-win level it took to grab the No. 8 seed in the West a year ago, Memphis would have to finish up 23-17 and neither the No. 7 seed Suns or No. 8 Mavericks seem capable of putting up an insurmountable roadblock. So if a healthy bunch of Grizzlies can claw in at the bottom, it could mean somebody in the upper half of the contentious playoff bracket is in for a bruising first-round fight against a team that advanced to the conference finals last season.

“It definitely is there for us to take advantage,” Conley said. “We still have a lot of the season left. We understood once Marc got hurt, if we could just keep this thing afloat, keep us close and somewhat in the picture, then we he got back we would be able to make a run. Now we’re in position. We have a long way to go, but I’d say we’re happy now with where we’re at.”

West Reserves: Injuries Make It Tricky

VIDEO: Debating the West All-Star reserves, Part 1

The big news is Golden State point guard and first-time All-Star Stephen Curry beat out the Los Angeles Clippers’ Chris Paul in the fan vote and Kevin Love, despite the Timberwolves’ struggles, surged passed Dwight Howard to give the Western Conference two new starters.

Now get set for big controversy: picking the seven reserves for the 63rd All-Star Game on Feb. 16 in New Orleans.

Start with injuries to Paul and Lakers star Kobe Bryant.

Despite playing only six games this season, Bryant was voted by the fans to start alongside Curry. Bryant said Thursday that someone else should play, but he also said he could play a couple minutes — if he’s able. (If he’s not, new commissioner Adam Silver will name a replacement.)

Paul is a different story. On Wednesday, Paul said he would like to play if he is able to return from a separated right shoulder that was expected to keep him out about six weeks. He sustained the injury on Jan. 3.

That makes things a bit complicated for the Western Conference coaches who will select the seven reserves. If healthy, Paul, an MVP candidate before being injured, is an automatic selection. Unsure if Paul, last year’s All-Star Game MVP, will be back in time, coaches might go ahead and select him, then allow for a commissioner’s replacement if he can’t play.

If Bryant can’t play,  an additional spot for a deserving backcourt player will open among a very crowded field of candidates, and introduce another new starter to the mix, possibly James Harden.

Frontcourt selections also won’t come without controversy. Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin join Love as the starters. Howard, who was second in voting after the third returns two weeks ago, will certainly be selected as a reserve, leaving two open spots.

Coaches will select two backcourt players, three frontcourt players and two wild cards. Some might call it Mission Impossible. (For John Schuhmann’s look at the East, click here.)

THE BACKCOURT

Let’s just go ahead and rattle off the candidates: Paul, Harden, Damian Lillard, Tony Parker, Klay Thompson, Mike Conley, Goran Dragic and perhaps even Monta Ellis. (Imagine if Russell Westbrook was healthy.) He’d be an automatic selection, forcing  someone else off the roster. Fact is there will deserving players who won‘t get the call.

My picks: Paul and Harden. Harden is the league’s fifth-leading scorer and also averages 5.4 apg and 4.9 rpg on a contending team. Paul is averaging 19.6 ppg and his 11.2 apg is a league-best by two full assists. He’s a magician, plain and simple.

THE FRONTCOURT

Like point guard, the power forward position in the West could practically fill out an entire All-Star squad, so the process of elimination is going to be tough. Look at all the deserving big boys: Howard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan, David Lee, Serge Ibaka and center DeMarcus Cousins (and Marc Gasol, an All-Star last year, but injured for much of the first half isn’t even in the discussion). Do-it-all small forward Nicolas Batum must be in the discussion.

My picks: Aldridge, Howard and Nowitzki. Aldridge (24.2 ppg, 11.6 rpg) is having a monstrous season for a top team. Howard is averaging 18.6 ppg, 12.6 rpg and 1.8 bpg. Nowitzki was the hard choice, but he’s averaging more than 21 ppg and has surged up the NBA’s all-time scoring list to No. 13 while keeping the Mavs in the playoff hunt.

VIDEO: Debating the West All-Star reserves, Part 2

THE WILD CARDS

Coaches will chose two players regardless of position. Some coaches might use this spot to balance the roster and others might just pick the two most deserving players. Either way, this could take some time for coaches to figure out because of the number of good choices.

This is also where the injuries to Bryant and Paul make it difficult. If both were out, I would suggest Harden will start and Parker would take Harden’s spot as a reserve. Paul’s absence would allow Lillard to take his spot. My wild cards would then be guard Dragic of the Suns and power forward Anthony Davis of the hometown Pelicans.

However, since I believe the coaches will select Paul, and Bryant is a starter as of now, the above scenario is not applicable.

My picks: Parker and Lillard. It’s impossible to understate Parker’s value to the Spurs. He’s averaging 18.4 ppg and 6.3 apg and is shooting an incredible 51.6 percent. Lillard is fearless in the clutch and is draining 3-pointers at a record pace.

Continuity Now A Strength For USA Basketball

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – USA Basketball announced its pool of 28 players that will make up the rosters for the 2014 World Cup of Basketball in Spain and the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. The roster, which includes 11 of the 12 players from the 2012 Olympic gold medalists (Kobe Bryant is the only exception), can be seen below.

Some things to know about the roster:

  • Note the word “initial” in the press release. Names could certainly be added to the roster between now and 2016. Players get hurt and have things that come up and keep them from participating. Also, there are no rookies or college kids on the list, and USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo may want to bring a couple of young guys into the fold down the line.
  • Kevin Durant and Kevin Love have committed to play this summer in Spain.
  • The lack of continuity and stability were the USA’s weaknesses from 1998-2006, but have been strengths over the last several years. Even when the U.S. went to Turkey in 2010 with a new roster, the coaching staff was taking part in its fourth international competition and had a system in place. That coach Mike Krzyzewski is back for another run and so many players continue coming back is huge.
  • If the U.S. doesn’t win the World Cup later this year, they will have to participate in the FIBA Americas tournament in 2015 to qualify for the Olympics. After winning the Olympics in 2008, the World Championship in 2010, and the Olympics again in 2012, the U.S. has skipped the FIBA Americas tournament in 2009, ’11 and ’13.
  • If a player isn’t in the pool, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Colangelo and Krzyzewski didn’t want him. It’s possible that they asked and he declined.
  • Exactly half of the 28 players have experience in a major international competition. Blake Griffin was on the 2012 Olympic Team, but suffered a knee injury in training camp and was replaced by Anthony Davis. Colangelo often speaks of players earning “equity” with the program, so guys that have been on the roster before certainly have an advantage over those who haven’t.
  • Players’ NBA positions are listed below, but those aren’t necessarily their positions with the U.S. Team, which typically plays just one big man at a time and often has two point guards on the floor. LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony are power forwards, Love is a center, and Russell Westbrook is sometimes a small forward. The team wants to play fast and aggressive, especially on defense.
  • In 2008, ’10 and ’12, the team carried just three true bigs on the roster. There are 10 in the pool, including four with Olympic gold medals.
  • In addition to Bryant, active players with an Olympic or World Championship gold medal who are not in the pool: Chauncey Billups (2010), Carlos Boozer (2008), Chris Bosh (2008), Rudy Gay (2010), Eric Gordon (2010), Danny Granger (2010), Tayshaun Prince (2008) and Dwyane Wade (2008).
  • As noted by AP writer Brian Mahoney, the pool includes each of the top-10 scorers in the NBA. Also, Nos. 12 and 13.
  • Players who were at last summer’s mini-camp that aren’t on the roster: Ryan Anderson, Harrison Barnes, Mike Conley, DeMar DeRozan, Derrick Favors, Jrue Holiday, DeAndre Jordan, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Ty Lawson, Greg Monroe, Chandler Parsons, Dion Waiters, Kemba Walker, John Wall and Tyler Zeller. It’s a testament to how deep the point guard position is that Conley, Holiday, Lawson and Wall aren’t in the pool. Rockets beat writer Jonathan Feigen tweeted Wednesday that Parsons was not happy about his exclusion.
  • The field for the 2014 World Cup of Basketball can be seen here. The four wildcard teams (there were 15 applicants) will be announced on Saturday, Feb. 1. Spain, playing at home, is obviously the U.S. Team’s biggest threat.

2014-16 Men’s National Team Roster

Player Team POS Height Age NBA Exp. National team experience
LaMarcus Aldridge POR F 6-11 28 8
Carmelo Anthony NYK F 6-8 29 11 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2012
Bradley Beal WAS G 6-5 20 2
Tyson Chandler NYK C 7-1 31 13 2007, 2010, 2012
DeMarcus Cousins SAC C 6-11 23 4
Stephen Curry GSW G 6-3 25 5 2010
Anthony Davis NOP F-C 6-10 20 2 2012
Andre Drummond DET C 6-10 20 2
Kevin Durant OKC F 6-9 25 7 2010, 2012
Kenneth Faried DEN F 6-8 24 3
Paul George IND F-G 6-9 23 4
Blake Griffin LAC F 6-10 24 4
James Harden HOU G 6-5 24 5 2012
Gordon Hayward UTA G-F 6-8 23 4
Dwight Howard HOU C 6-11 28 10 2006, 2007, 2008
Andre Iguodala GSW F-G 6-6 29 10 2010, 2012
Kyrie Irving CLE G 6-3 21 3
LeBron James MIA F 6-8 29 11 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2012
Kyle Korver ATL G-F 6-7 32 11
David Lee GSW F 6-9 30 9
Kawhi Leonard SAS F-G 6-7 22 3
Damian Lillard POR G 6-3 23 2
Kevin Love MIN F-C 6-10 25 6 2010, 2012
Chris Paul LAC G 6-0 28 9 2006, 2008, 2012
Derrick Rose CHI G 6-3 25 5 2010
Klay Thompson GSW G 6-7 23 3
Russell Westbrook OKC G 6-3 25 6 2010, 2012
Deron Williams BKN G 6-3 29 9 2007, 2008, 2012

Morning Shootaround — Jan. 13


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 12

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Players only meeting works for Kings | Conley at crunch time in Memphis | Teletovic pokes LeBron | Blazers not one of the Bynum 8

No. 1: Kings players-only meeting works wonders — Three straight wins in most places isn’t worth going crazy over, not during the marathon that is an 82-game NBA season. In Sacramento, however, it’s definitely going to raise eyebrows. A players-only meeting has worked wonders for the Kings, who routed Cleveland Sunday to polish off their season-best win streak. Is this potentially a turning point for a Kings team that has dealt with adversity and distractions for months now? Time will tell. But as Jason Jones of the Sacramento Bee notes, an epic beatdown of the Cavaliers is a good place to start:

The victory margin equaled a 44-point win over Denver on Dec. 12, 1992, and trailed only a 56-point win over Philadelphia on Jan. 2, 1993 and a 58-point victory over Dallas on Dec. 29, 1992.

The Kings led by 46 points, their biggest advantage of the season, and tallied season highs in points, 3-pointers (15) and blocked shots (eight).

Defensively, the Kings (13-22) held Cleveland to 11 points in the third quarter and 30 points in the second half, both season lows by a Sacramento opponent. The 80 points were also a season low, bettering the 83 the Kings gave up against Orlando on Friday.

In the third quarter, the Cavaliers (13-24) made only four shots and shot 20 percent, both season lows for a Kings opponent.

“This young team is growing and I’m just happy to be a part of it,” Rudy Gay said. “We can become a really good team. It takes hard work and we’re working hard, and coach has been great. As long as we keep going on that same path, we should be a good team.”

The defensive numbers are what pleased coach Michael Malone. After allowing 32 points in the first quarter, the Kings began to defend better, leading to the dominant second half.

“Consistency is a word we’ve used a lot,” Malone said. “It’s something we haven’t shown we can (accomplish) most of the season, but in our last three games I think the defense has been consistent, the communication has been consistent, the effort’s been there. We had breakdowns without a doubt, but our breakdowns are happening less often at the moment, and that’s a step in the right direction.”



VIDEO: Isaiah Thomas wins his duel with Kyrie Irving and his Kings get the win

***

No. 2: Conley is the man at crunch time for Grizzlies — Whether you realize it or not, Mike Conley has become a stabilizing force for the a Memphis Grizzlies team that sorely needed one. Even with the likes of Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen on the roster, the young point guard emerged from a humbling start to his career to evolve into the sort of floor leader that pushes the pile the way he did against the Atlanta Hawks Sunday night.  Conley is on a tear right now that suggests he might be ready for even bigger and better things, writes Ronald Tillery of the Commercial Appeal:

Conley continued arguably the most productive week of his NBA career in leading the Griz with 21 points, 13 assists and four steals. He posted 30 or more points in each of the two previous games.

The Griz blew a 13-point lead with Conley on the bench. The Hawks began connecting on 3-pointers and used a 16-0 run that bridged the third and fourth quarters to wrestle away the momentum and take an 80-77 lead.

The game was tied at 77 when Conley returned to replace rookie reserve Nick Calathes with 10:38 left. About 20 seconds later, Conley whipped a pass to James Johnson out of a pick-and-roll and Johnson finished the play with an emphatic slam dunk. The basket was the start of a 16-4 run that allowed the Griz to regain the lead for good.

Conley set up Courtney Lee and Mike Miller for 3-pointers, Zach Randolph for a point-blank shot, and created his own scoring opportunities by zipping past defenders and into the paint.

“Once (the Hawks) started making a little bit of a run, from the bench, I noticed that we weren’t getting to the paint,” said Conley, who had eight points and six and six assists in the final period. “We weren’t getting to the rim, to the free throw line or making plays at the rim. It shows our aggressiveness when we are going in-and-out of the paint. We got just little bit too lax in that stage of the game. I just wanted to come in and act on that.”

Conley is averaging 27.3 points in his last three games, which have resulted in an overtime loss to San Antonio and wins over Phoenix and Atlanta.

“He has really taken responsibility, not for running the team but really as a leader for the team and defining whether we are successful or not,” [Grizzlies coach Dave] Joerger said. “He has taken the steps to say, ‘I’m going to be up front, and not pushing from within. I’m not going to be facilitating. I’m going to be out front and be a leader and those who follow will follow and those who don’t will get left behind.’ He is so much more assertive in his approach and our guys feed off of that.”

***

No. 3: Teletovic pokes the LeBron bearIn the event that the Miami Heat and Brooklyn Nets meet in the postseason (yes, still months away but work with us here), Mirza Teletovic might want to be careful with his poking of LeBron James. He’s still having a little fun at LeBron’s expense in the aftermath of their dust-up during the Nets win over the Heat last weeek in that TNT showdown. His good hard foul on LeBron, when he went around the neck to prevent an uninterrupted layup attempt, prompted plenty of bickering and back and forth about not only the foul and LeBron’s immediate reaction. Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald went so far as to suggest that LeBron’s long-term response will have an impact in the playoffs:

Teletovic went high around James’ neck, yes, but it appeared on replay that Teletovic was only trying to prevent James from completing a three-point play. Teletovic didn’t grab James, but James took exception and lunged at Teletovic following the play. Michael Beasley and others restrained James while Nets players rushed in to hold back Teletovic, who reacted to the sequence by flashing a smile.

“Not a basketball play” was James’ constant complaint during the 2013 playoffs, especially during the series against the Chicago Bulls. Bulls center Nazr Mohammed was ejected during Game 3 for shoving James to the ground during a fast break.

For years, the postseason scouting report on James has called for opponents to rough up the MVP in the hopes of knocking him off his game.

Although hard fouls are nothing new for James, Teletovic defended himself after the game and then had a little fun with the incident on Twitter.

“It was just a foul,” Teletovic said. “I just tried to make a foul, and he was coming down the court. He shouldn’t be reacting like that. It’s just basketball.”

Teletovic then did something he might come to regret. The European needled James on Twitter when he posted a screen shot of the scuffle and wrote, “Five in a row…Go @BrooklynNets :) lol ;)” Teletovic then changed the background of his Twitter page to a large picture of the incident.

https://twitter.com/Teletovic33/status/421920903006789632


VIDEO: Mirza Teletovic and LeBron James scuffle

***

No. 4: Count the Trail Blazers out of the Andrew Bynum sweepstakes — The Andrew Bynum 8 — the reported eight teams interested in pursuing the big man’s services for the remainder of this season — does not include that surprise outfit in Portland. Chris Haynes of CSNNW.com reports that the Trail Blazers, true contenders this season in a loaded Western Conference playoff chase, have not registered any legitimate interest in Bynum:

The Portland Trail Blazers could use an extra big man on their bench, but if they did decide to make a play for one between now and the trade deadline, it won’t be for center Andrew Bynum.

CSNNW.com was informed by a well-placed league source that Portland is not one of the reported eight teams interested in Bynum. Another source backed it up saying, “Portland has not inquired” about the services of the 7-foot free agent Bynum.

This revelation isn’t much of a surprise.

There are a couple of reasons why Portland opted not to take such a risk: the concern regarding Bynum’s character and how he would fit inside a locker room that has gelled seamlessly, had to have been a huge road block. Bynum has had his share of knee problems, a road Portland is reluctant to travel down.

The other obstacle is Portland is already carrying 15, the maximum amount of players allowed on a roster. If they were thinking of adding a player such as Bynum, someone would have to be released.

And being that every Trail Blazer on the roster has a guaranteed contract for this season, if Portland did decided to waive a player to make room for a free agent, they would have to eat the contract of that released player.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Memphis basketball coach Josh Pastner claims there might be film of Wilt Chamberlain‘s 100-point game … Deron Williams will not make the trip to London with the Brooklyn Nets … Lakers on the verge of getting injured shooting guard (Xavier Henry not Kobe Bryant) back this week … Speaking of the Lakers, GM Mitch Kupchak says “taking” is never discussed in Lakerland.

ICYMI of The Night: Who, you ask, is Jeff Ayres? He would be the former Jeff Pendergraph of the San Antonio Spurs, the same man you here getting his Dunk of the Night on in a win over the Minnesota Timberwolves:


VIDEO: Ayres throws it down over the Timberwolves

Injuries Open Spots, But Picking All-Star Guards Won’t Be Easy


VIDEO: Russell Westbrook will be out until after the All-Star break

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Kobe Bryant is going to win a starting job on the Western Conference All-Star team. A second round of returns has the Lakers star well ahead in votes among the West’s legion of worthy backcourt candidates. Bryant has played in just six games and although he could return from a fractured knee in time to play in the Feb. 16 All-Star Game at New Orleans, let’s assume that he will not play.

NBA All-Star 2014Oklahoma City’s injured point guard Russell Westbrook was well on his way to a fourth consecutive selection as one of seven reserves to be picked by Western Conference coaches until Friday’s stunning announcement that he underwent a third surgery on his troubled right knee. Westbrook will not be back in time for the All-Star Game.

That leaves (potentially) two backcourt spots up for grabs.

But first, ink Chris Paul in as the starter at point guard. He’s second in fan voting and in all likelihood won’t come close to relinquishing that spot as an automatic starter. Golden State’s Stephen Curry, last season’s sympathy case as the most notable snub, is third in fan voting and should start at shooting guard.

Now comes the difficult part for the West’s coaches: There’s so many worthy point guards — just point guards — that you could select an All-Point-Guard All-Star team even without Westbrook. Check this out:

PG: Paul

SG: Curry

SF: Damian Lillard

PF: Eric Bledsoe

C: Ricky Rubio

Bench: Tony Parker, Ty LawsonMike Conley, Jrue Holiday

OK, so it takes some of imagination there, but you get the idea how deep the West is at the quarterback position. Then you’ve got the shooting guards to consider. James Harden figures to be a lock for a second consecutive selection. And what about Klay Thompson, Monta Ellis, Kevin Martin, Goran Dragic, Wesley Matthews and Jamal Crawford, who felt he got dissed last year? Even 36-year-old Manu Ginobili can make a compelling case.

There’s plenty of basketball to go before fan voting ends on Jan. 20 (the starters will be announced on Jan. 23) and until the reserves are announced soon after, so selections could become more crystallized by then. But probably not.

So of five guards to get a 2014 All-Star nod, here’s my early locks: Paul and Curry as the starters with Harden as a reserve. That leaves two spots open.

Let’s begin with the power of elimination. As strong as they’ve been, apologies to Martin, Dragic, Matthews and Crawford. Holiday was an East All-Star last year and benefited from Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose being hurt, and even though he’s a hometown Pelican, I’m not seeing it. Rubio has gone from the magician everybody wants to see up close to standing in the back of the line.

Onto the rest. This is going to be tough and there could be not one, not two, not three … but even more deserving guards taking the snub.

Here’s a brief comparison of a few of the backcourt candidates that I don’t consider to be locks (in no particular order):

>Parker, Spurs – Scoring (17.8 ppg) and assists (6.0) are down, but he’s the irreplaceable team catalyst, San Antonio is rolling and it’s hard to see him not making it

>Lillard, Blazers – As clutch as any player going, the reigning Rookie of the Year is averaging 21.1 ppg, 5.8 apg and is shooting 43.1 percent on 3s for a team that’s taken the league by storm

>Bledsoe, Suns – A fearless competitor, has meshed beautifully with Dragic while averaging 18.4 ppg, 5.9 apg, 4.3 rpg and is shooting 49.2 percent overall for arguably the most surprising team in the league

>Ellis, Mavericks – He’s turned analytics on its head, averaging an efficient 20.7 ppg — highest since 2007-08 — and 5.8 apg, and he’s as exciting swooping to the cup as anyone

>Lawson, Nuggets – He’s slowed a bit as the team has struggled recently, but still putting up 17.5 ppg, 7.9 apg and 3.4 rpg in a new, slower-tempo system

>Thompson, Warriors – The other half of the Splash Brothers, he’s scoring 19.6 ppg on 43.2 percent shooting from beyond the arc, plus 2.7 apg and 3.3 rpg.

>Conley, Grizzlies – He’s been garnering greater respect for a few seasons now and while the team has struggled, especially without fellow All-Star Marc Gasol, Conley’s averaging 17.0 ppg, a career-best, and 6.2 apg