Posts Tagged ‘Monta Ellis’

Free-Agent Barometer: Boom or Bust

Back in the hot fun of summertime, when there seem to be more dollars available than grains of sand, every free-agent signing is made to feel like a day at the beach.

Now, as we approach halfway mark of the season, it’s time to take the temperature:

GLOWING


VIDEO: Relive Dwight Howard’s signing with the Houston Rockets

Dwight Howard, Rockets — There are times when he is too passive and does not demand the ball enough from all of the inexperienced hands in the Houston lineup. But a healthy, happy Howard has been everything the Rockets hoped for when they forked over $88.5 million to lure him away from the Lakers. There is a bounce to his step and joy to his game that had been missing since the 2008-09 season in Orlando. With him in the middle and playing off James Harden, the Rockets are on track to eventually becoming a championship contender.

Andre Iguodala, Warriors — Don’t try to pigeonhole him or stick on a label as an elite defender or a greyhound that thrives in the transition game. He is simply a wonderful all around player that can do whatever is necessary in any situation. He was the spark that lifted the Nuggets a year ago to a franchise-best 57 wins and he’s moved to Golden State to become a difference-maker for the Warriors. For all of the (deserving) All-Star accolades to Stephen Curry and attention paid to Klay Thompson, Iguodala is the one that makes this fun and entertaining team truly dangerous.

Paul Millsap, Hawks — When it finally came time for the Hawks to cut the cord with Josh Smith, they went for his polar opposite. Not at all flamboyant, never trying to things outside his job description, Millsap comes to work every night and never leaves his team feeling shortchanged. His two-year, $19 million contract might have been the best free-agent bargain of the summer and he’s fit right in perfectly on the frontline in Atlanta. He’s blue-collar ways in the low post and on the boards has been needed even more since Atlanta lost Al Horford for the season.

Al Jefferson, Bobcats — One thing rookie coach Steve Clifford knew was that for the Bobcats to pick themselves up from their semi-permanent residence on the Eastern Conference floor, they needed a low-post presence to get some hard-fought points in the paint. He suffered an ankle injury in training camp and started slow, but once Jefferson got his legs under him, he’s averaged 16.8 points and 10 rebounds. It’s no coincidence that Charlotte (16 wins) is a sure bet to surpass last season’s 21-win campaign.


VIDEO: NBA Action catches up with Mavericks guard Monta Ellis

Monta Ellis, Mavericks — We won’t go as far as Dallas owner Mark Cuban to say that the jury is still out on whether Ellis or Howard is the free-agent catch of the season. After all, we’re pretty sure Cuban would make a 1-for-1 swap right now. As coach of the Warriors years ago, ex-Mavs coach Don Nelson called Ellis selfish. But the once shot-happy Ellis has reined some of his tendencies and found a comfortable home in Dallas. He’s averaging 5.8 apg and his upbeat production is keeping the Mavs alive in the West playoff race.

Kevin Martin, Timberwolves — Every team he’s played on throughout a 10-year NBA career has gotten efficiency and production. He’s one of those players who can give you 20 points a game on a minimum number of shots due to a knack for drawing free throws. There have been many things lacking for Minnesota during another underachieving run, but Martin has come through with the kind of numbers — 19.3 points per game — that were expected.

SUNBURNED


VIDEO: The Beat crew discusses where Andrew Bynum may end up next

Andrew Bynum, CavaliersSigning him to a two-year, $24 million contract (that was only half-guaranteed in Season 1) was supposed to make it a no-brainer for the Cavs. Of course, the no brain place continues to be between Bynum’s ears as he quickly alienated teammates, the coaching staff and the entire organization. He had a pair of 20-point games with 13 and 10 rebounds. But his biggest positive effect was as a payroll-slashing trade chip that eventually brought in Luol Deng.

Josh Smith, Pistons — Don’t let Joe Dumars near your piggy bank. Four years ago, the general manager wasted a Brinks truck full of money to bring in Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva and put the Pistons into a deep hole. This time Dumars dug deeper with his idea that he could give $54 million for four years to Smith and put him into a super-sized front line with Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. Smith has clashed with coach Maurice Cheeks, found himself sitting on the bench at the end of games and still takes bad shots at a high rate. Is anybody surprised?

Chris Kaman, Lakers — The money spent by the Lakers — $3.2 million, one year — could probably have been scraped up out of the sofa cushions in the luxury suites at Staples Center. But no matter how you slice it, the thought that Kaman was going to return to L.A. and help the Lakers in their most trying season was laughable in hindsight. Kaman has never found a way into the rotation, has frequently expressed his displeasure with coach Mike D’Antoni and now spends more time lobbing verbal bombs in frustration than tracking down rebounds or shooting.

IN THE SHADE

Tyreke Evans, Pelicans — With Jrue Holiday out of the lineup indefinitely with a stress fracture in his leg and the team still reportedly trying to trade Eric Gordon, this would be the time when Evans can step up and really shine. He’s been far from a bust and doggedly fought to keep himself in the Pelicans’ lineup despite the fact that he keeps reinsuring a sprained left ankle. But that $44 million, four-year contract raises expectations for more than 12.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game. At this point, the jury is still out.

Knicks Win Again And Hope Floats


VIDEO: Balanced Knicks attack leads to 92-80 win over Dallas

DALLAS – They’re alive! Left for dead, a thumping pulse has been detected in the New York Knicks and the submarining Atlantic Division. Hide your women and children!

In the final days of 2013, the Knicks left Toronto dragging another L around their limp necks, a battered and beaten bunch. A few days later they boarded a plane bound for 2014 and the impossible Texas Triangle road trip that would swallow them up for good. Oh no, not these Knickerbockers, who picked a fine time to reveal a beating heart.

“We have lots of veterans on this team, got a couple of young guys that we depend on, but we don’t have to talk about things, man,” forward Kenyon Martin said. “We know when we’re not playing well, we know when we’re not giving the maximum effort each and every night. That’s what it’s about, man, guys looking in the mirror.”

They stunned the Spurs. Nearly shocked the Rockets, and probably should have. And then on a bone-cold Sunday night in Dallas, the Knicks, even playing without Tyson Chandler, too ill to stay on the court just minutes into the game, went nearly wire-to-wire to trip the Mavericks.

“As far as this trip goes, we have gotten out of that [dark] place,” said Carmelo Anthony, who had 15 points in the first quarter and finished with 19 in the 92-80 victory. “You can see guys doing things that as a team, as individuals we haven’t been doing all season long. It’s showing out there on the basketball court on both ends. Guys are starting to communicate more, talk more and have fun. That’s the most important thing.”

Where has this been the last two months? Don’t ask. The question is can it last?

“It’s a new year man. We’re getting bodies back,” said Martin, who fought through a tender ankle to hit 7-of-8 shots for 14 points and grabbed six boards. “If we can get everybody on the court at once that’d be a great thing.”

Mavs coach Rick Carlisle came away so impressed with the Knicks’ play in Texas that he rose up, unprompted, and strongly backed Mike Woodson and the work he’s done through an injury spat and speculation about his job.

“I marvel at the job he’s doing with this team right now given the circumstances, given all the ridiculous rumors about his job security and all the nonsense that’s being stirred up in the that media cesspool in New York City,” Carlisle said. “This is a man who’s one of the top coaches in the league, and a man of great integrity and substance. He proved that tonight. They easily could have swept this road trip. This is supposedly a team that’s dysfunctional. He’s got a great touch with that team.”

The Knicks even picked up a game on the suddenly smoking Toronto Raptors, who ascended a game above .500 and put a scare into the Heat on Sunday before being turned away. New York’s record remains unsightly, yet the win to get to 11-22 also closed the division gap to 5.5 games and to just 2.5 games behind the reeling Pistons for the final playoff spot.

But they’re not the only Atlantic squad suddenly doing work in 2014. Since the calendar changed, the NBA’s JV division has gone 9-5 with Boston racking up three of the losses. Philadelphia’s 3-0; Brooklyn’s 2-0; New York and Toronto are each 2-1. Collectively this past week they’ve taken down the West’s top three teams — Oklahoma City, San Antonio and Portland. Dallas makes four of the West’s top eight.

The Knicks, still down guards Raymond Felton and Pablo Prigioni, did it Friday with a collective team effort and good defense, holding Dallas to 41.0 percent shooting. Anthony had five assists, seven rebounds and a hustle block of Mavs forward Shawn Marion. Andrea Bargnani had 13 points and six rebounds. Amar’e Stoudemire had 11 points and seven rebounds. Tim Hardaway Jr. was 4-for-6 from the floor with 10 points. Iman Shumpert, a scoring machine in the first two games of the trip, made life tough on Monta Ellis and saved five of his nine points for crunch time with Dallas trying to make a run. With Anthony being doubled, Shumpert made a pretty drive past Dirk Nowitzki and then canned a big 3-pointer to ice it.

“Right now you can just see the way that guys are responding, playing,” Anthony said. “It seems like guys are having fun. We just want to build on that game by game and see what happens.”

With a tough schedule ahead that includes Miami, Phoenix, Indiana and the Clippers among their next seven games, it won’t take long to find out if the Knicks’ fight will extend beyond an inspiring trip through Texas.

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

Mavs’ Offense Clearly Improved, But Defense Can’t Find Its Footing


VIDEO: Tim Duncan and the Spurs topple the Mavs in Dallas

DALLAS – When the Dallas Mavericks were putting together a championship season, they played very good defense. All five players worked on a string, each movement was made in sync.

During the regular season, the 2010-11 Mavs ranked seventh in the league in defensive efficiency (102.3 points per 100 possessions). With Tyson Chandler defending the paint, a heady and still-capable Jason Kidd locking down opponents late in games and a spry Shawn Marion taking on all comers, Dallas took out LaMarcus Aldridge, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and LeBron James.

But as that title team has been stripped, the defense (revealed by its defensive efficiency) has eroded: 8th in 2011-12 to 20th last season to 23rd now. As not altogether unexpected, Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon rank as the worst defensive backcourt in the league. The up-and-down Samuel Dalembert is the best option to man the middle. The backups are undersized reserves Brandan Wright, a lanky, 6-foot-10 offensive-minded player who missed the first 23 games with a shoulder injury, and 6-foot-7 ground-bound scrapper DeJuan Blair, who actually seized the starting job for a couple of weeks. Marion, 35, is a step slower, but is still asked to switch onto point guards out of necessity.

This challenged defensive mix threatens to exclude a mostly entertaining offensive product from postseason play.

“It’s almost been pretty consistent throughout the year,” Dirk Nowitzki said. “There might be one or two instances  I remember that we didn’t score enough to win down the stretch, but other than that, all the other losses, it’s giving up too many points. We gave up 116 again [Thursday], almost 30-point quarters across the board. It’s tough. It puts a lot of pressure on our offense.”

Dallas’ offense can be very good. Yet in the high-powered West, the Mavs’ 103.9 ppg ranks just sixth-best. Their offensive rating of 105.8 (points scored per 100 possessions) ranks seventh. Combine it with the turnstile defense and Dallas’ net rating of 0.9 (the difference in a team’s offensive and defensive rating) leaves it ninth among the 15 squads.

The only other Western Conference team currently occupying a playoff spot (or even above .500) despite a defensive efficiency in the bottom 15 of the league is the one with the league’s best record: the Portland Trail Blazers (at 104.5, just one spot better than Dallas at 22nd). How can that be? The Blazers boast the No. 1 offense — no team makes more 3-pointers per game — and they’re No. 5 in rebounding percentage. Not only can’t Dallas stop anybody, but it also sits 26th in the latter category.

“It’s team defense that has to happen for us to get over the hump and we know that,” sixth man Vince Carter said. “We have to get stops and rebound. We’ve understood that since Day 1 coming into training camp. We just have to get better at it.”

In Thursday’s 116-107 loss to San Antonio, the Mavs (16-13 and eighth in the West) surrendered more than 110 points for the ninth time. In its last four games, Dallas has scored 108.5 ppg, yet is 1-3 because it allowed 113.0 ppg. The Spurs shot 49.3 percent and other than a late two-minute stand that got Dallas back in the game, San Antonio had its way.

“It’s easy to look at our roster and nitpick our challenges,” Carlisle said. “We’ve got age, we’ve got some size issues, we’ve got this, that and the other. If you want to make a laundry list, it’s not hard to make a list. But my job is to be a problem-solver and not a problem-identifier.”

Carlisle said it’s the media’s job to identify problems. This one can be seen a mile away. The Ellis-Calderon pairing, as praiseworthy as it has been as an efficient and effective tandem with Nowitzki, is a sieve defensively. Opposing point guards tear them apart. That’s not so much a surprise, but it is a critical problem that lacks an identifiable answer — at least until guard Devin Harris can finally provide support once he returns from a season-long toe injury.

Among guards that have played at least 20 games and average at least 28.0 mpg, only New Orleans’ Eric Gordon (107.9) owns a worse defensive rating than Calderon (107.3) and Ellis (107.0). The Lakers’ Steve Blake (106.3) and Jodie Meeks (105.8) are the only other tandem to rank among the bottom 10.

Ellis logs 36.8 mpg. When he’s on the floor, Dallas’ defensive rating swells to 107.0. When he’s off the floor, it drops to 98.2. The numbers are similar for Calderon, who averages 31.1 mpg: 107.3 when he’s on the floor and 100.9 when he’s off.

“We’ve got to get it done with the lineup we’ve got,” said Nowitzki, whose on/off defensive rating is rather impressive. “I feel like we have a better team than we’ve had the last two years. I feel we’re letting some games slip away here and there and that’s going to hurt our playoff chances. But, I still think we have enough to make a push at the playoffs.”

Everybody knows from where that push must come.


VIDEO: Shawn Marion talks after the Mavs’ loss to the Spurs

Blogtable: Offseason Hits And Misses

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


Down with divisions | Missing in Golden State | Offseason hits and misses



VIDEO: Monta Ellis’ nails game-winner vs. Blazers

Which offseason acquisition has been awesome? Which not so much?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.comKevin Martin is doing precisely what Minnesota needed and sought, and doing it so well that he’s rejuvenated as a player too. You’d have thought a spot with the contending Thunder team might have brought out the best in Martin but the starts and minutes he’s getting with the Timberwolves, under familiar coach Rick Adelman, have him thriving (22.7 ppg, 6.5 FTA). Worst? Gotta give a group stink-bomb award here to the Brooklyn Nets’ not-so-big four of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry and Andrei Kirilenko for reasons — injuries, yes, but worse — that have been chronicled ad nauseam.

Dwight Howard (Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE)

Dwight Howard (Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE)

Fran Blinebury, NBA.comDwight Howard has made the Rockets a force, if not yet a true contender. The Rockets are still feeling their way along, have not yet found a consistent rhythm or plan of attack. Yet Howard is doing what he’s supposed to do in the middle, second in the league in rebounding and Houston is still 15-7 with much room for improvement. Runners-up: Andre Iguodala and Robin LopezOn the downside, Kevin Garnett: 6 points per game, 36 percent shooting. And I’m not sure there is a “yet.” Enough said.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.comHard to argue with Eric Bledsoe in Phoenix. The Suns are 12-9 — who saw that coming? — and he’s averaging 18.6 ppg and 6.2 apg. Pretty heady stuff for Chris Paul‘s former backup. At the other end, here’s a two-for-one: Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. The good news is that it can’t get any worse. Right?

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.comBest job: Dwight Howard, followed by Kevin Martin, Monta Ellis and Marco Belinelli in some order. Most people will want to put a helmet on Howard no matter what, but the production cannot be denied. Also, I’m not ready to put Michael Carter-Williams in the conversation yet, but I could see adding him at the end of the list if this production continues and his shot gets a little better (which everyone knew would be an issue). MCW is putting up some numbers that rank among all players, not just rookies. Not coming through: Kevin Garnett over Paul Pierce. No, wait. Pierce over Garnett. Let’s just make it a field entry. Boston to Brooklyn doesn’t seem like brutal travel, but they got completely lost along the way.

John Schuhmann, NBA.comDwight Howard is doing the best job. He’s not the same player he was in his Orlando heyday, but he’s still the best player among those who changed teams this summer and is still making an impact for the Rockets, who are among the most improved teams on both ends of the floor. I’m not including rookies for the second part (Hello, Anthony Bennett!), so Jared Dudley is my choice. I don’t know how your 3-point percentage can go from 39 percent to 32 percent when you go from playing for the Suns to playing alongside Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, but Dudley’s has. And he’s not making much of an impact elsewhere. The Clippers have been better both offensively and defensively with him on the bench.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: Monta Ellis is getting the job done in Dallas. There is no doubt about it. He might have been the last big name free-agent to get his deal done, but he’s been far more productive than most of his critics imagined he’d be in a system that demands much more defensively than he was used to giving in either Golden State or Milwaukee. He’s not a candidate for the All-Defensive Team or anything, but he’s making strides. And he’s taken a ton of pressure off of Dirk Nowitzki at this critical stage in his career. Kudos to the Mavericks for taking the risk and cashing in … early on here. Injuries have prevented Al Jefferson from making the impact I thought he would in Charlotte. But that’s a good thing, in a roundabout way, because that means a solid team could get even more from the big man who was supposed to provide that low-post threat and presence on a nightly basis. Big Al hasn’t come through in that way just yet. He can, however, and probably will as the season progresses. And that’s a great thing for the Bobcats, who need to keep their early-season playoff groove going in the wilted Eastern Conference.

Paul Pierce

Paul Pierce (Rocky Widner/NBAE)

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball blog: It’s funny that you don’t hear that much talk about him, at least like we did last season, but Dwight Howard has been pretty great for the Rockets. He’s scoring 17 a game, grabbing 13.2 rebounds per game, and the Rockets are 15-7 overall. More relevantly, we don’t have to listen to endless rumors about what the future holds for Dwight. As for a guy we’re still waiting to break out, Andrea Bargnani has been pretty disappointing in New York I don’t think anyone expected him to come in and turn into Wilt Chamberlain, but I expected more than 14 and 5 per game.

Stefanos Triantafyllos, NBA Greece: I really like how Brandon Jennings is playing right now. He has paired wonderfully with Rodney Stuckey in the Pistons’ backcourt and has already made an impact as the team features in the 6th spot of the East. I am between him and Dwight Howard, who has regained his dominance in the key. As for “Superman,” the most interesting number is “22″. Out of 22. Meaning that he has played in all of the Rockets’ games. When he is healthy he can be an instant game-changer. As for the player who has not come through yet, I have to go with Paul Pierce, who is struggling with career-lows in points and field-goal percentage.

Karan Madhok, NBA India: Over in Dallas, Monta Ellis is turning heads and breaking ankles as he seems to be as comfortable as he has ever been in his career. Ellis is putting up his most efficient season in years, meshing in well with his new coach and teammates. He is averaging team highs in points, assists, and steals, and has the Mavericks off to a respectable start. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the Celtics-turned-Nets Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, who – after all the hoopla – have had a nightmare start to the season and need to get their bearings soon to help their new team get back to winning ways.

Philipp Dornhegge, NBA Deutschland: Apart from Iguodala, who meshed perfectly with the Warriors’ core from the start, I love the jobs that Nate Robinson and Paul Millsap are doing. Both have clear job profiles that fit their style of play, and they execute the gameplan to perfection. Monta Ellis, Kevin Martin and J.J. Redick also deserve to be mentioned. On the negative side, I think Josh Smith is the front-runner with Tyreke Evans a close second. The Pistons’ roster just doesn’t fit together very nicely, and Evans’ start in New Orleans has been derailed by injury.

Rubio Has Cleared Physical, Mental Hurdles From ACL Injury


VIDEO: Ricky Rubio’s no-look reverse bounce pass to Kevin Love is the assist of the night

DALLAS – Ricky Rubio is in his third NBA season. Yet in terms of games played, he’s not even a season-and-a-half into his expectation-laden career.

In a 112-106 win over the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday night, Rubio played in his 116th career game since joining the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2011 from his native Spain. His rookie season was first shortened by the lockout and then short-circuited by an ACL tear in his left knee. His recovery delayed his debut last season until Dec. 15, and it would take several more months to gain back the trust in his knee with the long and ugly scar that is ever so remindful of the agony he endured.

Now Rubio is back, all the way back. The doubts and fears certainly still creep into his thoughts now and then, but the magical point guard has figured out how to at least make the emotional scars disappear.

“It’s a big injury and you always think about it even if you don’t want to,” Rubio said after scoring 12 points with seven assists in a desperately needed road win. “I think I have to forget it already and just feel confident out there playing hard, going and running 100 percent. So I feel good.”

He looked good, too, with a beautiful baseline drive for his only two points of the fourth quarter to give the Timberwolves a 98-92 lead with 4:35 to go. He was at his creative best a couple minutes later in a late shot-clock situation. Working at the top of the arc, Rubio beat his defender, Monta Ellis, and as he got deeper into the lane, Rubio made a no-look, behind-the-back pass that split Ellis and the helping Dirk Nowitzki to Kevin Love. Love got off the 3-pointer just before the buzzer for a 106-96 lead with 1:55 to play.

“I saw Dirk was behind me and I was afraid of a blocked shot,” Rubio said. “I knew he was there. I got kind of lucky and he [Love] made it and it was a huge play.”

Still, there is work to be done for the 23-year-old Spaniard. He is averaging 33.1 mpg, very close to the per-game average during the 41 games of his rookie season. Also, however, nearly identical to his rookie mark is his field-goal percentage. Rubio is shooting just 35.8 percent from the floor, but the encouraging news is his 38.2-percent accuracy from beyond the arc, easily a career best.

He was just 1-for-5 from back there against Dallas, but it was a big one, putting Minnesota back in front, 69-68 in the third quarter as the Mavs had just taken the lead with a 27-14 run.

“I feel confident,” Rubio said of his shot following a 4-for-12 night. “I’m practicing in that area. I know I have to improve, I feel like I have to improve in all the areas. I just keep working hard and trusting myself.”

Coach Rick Adelman continues to preach patience, a quality that can unfairly be in short supply when Rubio’s young career is not looked through the proper lens of his early misfortune.

“He’s still playing as hard as he did before [the injury], he competes all the time, so I think that’s passed,” Adelman said of Rubio playing through mental barriers of the recovery process as he did for most of last season. “It’s just he needs experience. He’s a young player. He’s only played, combine both years, maybe one season — and half of that he was hurt. So he’s just very young.”

Rooks Burke, Larkin Thankful To Be Healthy Again


VIDEO: Trey Burke talks after his home debut with the Jazz

DALLAS – Even for a couple of positive thinkers, there seemed little to be thankful for soon after Shane Larkin felt his ankle pop and Trey Burke crushed his finger.

A couple of eager, 21-year-old first-round point guards ready to storm into their NBA careers instead made forced pit stops onto the injured list. Larkin, the 18th pick out of Miami by the Dallas Mavericks, broke his right ankle as he planted for a dunk during a summer practice. Surgery was mandatory. Summer League ended before it started. Training camp? Preseason? Start of the regular season? Pipe dreams.

“At that point, the first reaction is to be negative,” Larkin said. “I worked so hard to get here and we have four point point guards on the roster and now I’m going to be at the back of the pack.”

The Utah Jazz traded up to nab Burke at No. 9 and planned all along for the national college player of the year to run their squad from the jump. In his third preseason game, Burke tried to make a pass off the pick-and-roll as he had thousands of times before, but this time the quick hand of an NBA defender got in the way and collided with his right index finger. Crack!

He would next check into an operating room.

“There was nothing I could do,” said Burke, the catalyst in Michigan’s run to the NCAA title game. “I was disappointed and frustrated, but I knew I had to keep my conditioning up and learn from the sideline. I didn’t know how long I was going to be out so it was disappointing for me because I really hadn’t had an injury like this since middle school.”

As their rookie campaigns reach Thanksgiving, the familiar foes from their AAU days — Burke from Columbus, Ohio, and Larkin from Cincinnati — are both thankful to be playing again. Each has had a slow start shooting and has played less instinctual than either would like, but that’s how it goes jumping stone-cold into a season in progress, robbed of so much practice time and game experience.

“I practiced four times and he threw me out there against Philly,” Larkin said, referring to Mavs coach Rick Carlisle.

Thrown into the fire


VIDEO: Trey Burke finishes strong at the basket against the Bulls

As complete a player as there was last season in college, Burke is four games into his NBA career and has started the last two. His first home start Tuesday, a desperately needed overtime win for the 2-14 Jazz over the Bulls, was one to remember: 14 points, four assists and six rebounds while making key plays. He logged a career-high 34 minutes.

“It all comes down to confidence really, not putting too much pressure on myself and going out there and just playing,” Burke said last week. “I know the sets, I know where guys are supposed to be. I know what works for us and what doesn’t, so I think it’s just about picking and choosing my spots, not putting too much pressure on myself and not forcing things.”

Slick and cat-quick, Larkin played in his sixth game Wednesday and it was his best yet with seven points, six assists and no turnovers while garnering clutch fourth-quarter minutes among the 17 he played. It took just two games for him to unseat fellow rookie Gal Mekel as the primary backup behind starting point guard Jose Calderon. Veteran Devin Harris (toe surgery) is expected to make his season debut some time before Christmas, adding more intrigue in the battle for minutes.

“It’s been tough,” the 5-foot-11 Larkin said last Friday after the Mavs held on to beat Burke and the Jazz in Dallas. “Just getting back into the rhythm of everything and making the correct reads off the pick-and-roll and just my whole overall game, it’s just not all the way back yet.

“Trey had an advantage of playing in Summer League and a little in preseason before he broke his finger. But he’s doing well out there. It’s just a matter of him getting back in his rhythm as well because he’s been out four or six weeks. So both of us just getting back to our rhythm and playing how we played in college — that’s why our teams drafted us.”

Bad breaks


VIDEO: Shane Larkin discusses his solid performance against the Warriors

Just weeks after being drafted, the Mavs’ Summer League team was days removed from departing for Las Vegas. For the final five minutes of that July 12 practice, Mavs assistant coach Monte Mathis wanted to run one last full-speed, full-court drill. Larkin made a steal, went coast-to-coast, planted on his right foot to go up for a dunk as he has thousands of times before and – pop!

“I thought it was a really, really, really bad sprain because when it happened I heard the pop, but I got up and I walked to the training room and my ankle didn’t swell up,” Larkin said. “But then I put ice on it and after I took the ice off it just started swelling and then I knew something was wrong.

“They took me to the team doctor, got X-rays, got an MRI, found out it was broken, had surgery four days later. They said the force on my ankle was like a car crash.”

Burke had a tough introduction at Summer League in Orlando and also through his first couple of preseason games. In the first quarter of that third game on Oct. 12 against the Clippers, his right index got bent in a way it is not intended.

“At first I thought it was dislocated. I tried to pop it back in place and go back out and play,” Burke said. “But it didn’t feel right. I had an X-ray at halftime and you could see there was a break.”

Reduced to spectators following their surgeries, both players reverted back to being students, doing all they could to soak up their respective playbooks, learn the play calls and the tendencies and personalities of their new teammates while watching them grind out practice after practice.

“Honestly, you want to be out there with your teammates,” Burke said. “It was an unfortunate break, but It was just something where I had to see the game from a different perspective, find ways to learn from the sideline. I was on the bench, as then with Johnny [Lucas III] coming in here and showing me different things on the film; I was watching other good point guards, looking at their pace and things like that. I think that all helped me out and gave me a better understanding of how I want to play for this team and how I want to make plays for this team.”

Larkin would be watching practice when either Carlisle or an assistant coach would turn and point at him.

“Coach would throw a question at me like, ‘Hey rook, what do we do here?’ and I’d have to know the correct answer,” Larkin said. “That’s kind of the way they built trust in me because I knew what was going on.”

And now the rest of the season

Larkin’s minutes off the bench have been fairly steady, and at times have come in key situations. But he also got the pine treatment two games ago after some sloppy play and logged barely four minutes. Carlisle, though, clearly wants to utilize his change-of-pace quickness at both ends of the floor on a mostly veteran team that needs dashes of speed. Larkin is averaging 3.7 ppg and 2.2 apg in 12.6 mpg.

“I’ve started making some drives to the basket and my confidence is getting back,” Larkin said. “So it’s just a process of keep building every single game to get back to where I want to be and where coach wants me to be as a player.”

Burke, averaging 8.5 ppg, 3.0 apg and 3.5 rpg in 21.5 mpg (a figure likely to rise in a hurry), has the more daunting and less forgiving task, running a team in total rebuild and that was 1-11 when he was cleared to play. Still, Burke said he relishes the challenge.

“Honestly, it reminds me of my freshman year at Michigan. Obviously this is another level, this is the pros and the best players in the world, but I had to go right into Michigan and learn right away,” Burke said. “I had to jump right in, play that starting position and I had to learn quickly.

“I think with the vets on the this team are doing a good job of sheltering me, letting me know what’s right and what’s wrong. They trust me so with their trust that gives me more confidence out there.”

Fans will be seeing more of Burke and Larkin, two eager point guards who got an early lesson that good health in the NBA is always something for which to be thankful.

Nuggets’ Lawson Thriving With New Coach Shaw In Charge


VIDEO: Lawson’s double-double carries Nuggets over Mavs

DALLAS – After the Denver Nuggets surprisingly fired George Karl and hired Brian Shaw, everybody pondered the coming limitations lightning-quick point guard Ty Lawson would encounter outside of a structure-less offense rather than the untapped possibilities of playing within one.

“I knew that everybody thought that I can’t play in a system where it’s come down and run a play,” Lawson told NBA.com on Monday night following his fourth double-double of the young season. “But I can.”

Can he ever.

“He’s an All-Star,” assessed Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, who watched Lawson slice his defense in consecutive games Saturday and Monday for 39 points and 20 assists. “He and [Tony] Parker are probably the two best paint penetration guys in basketball, and so it’s a big problem, it’s a huge problem. His speed is always in play and he’s shooting high 30s [percent] from 3. So if you lay way off of him he pulls up and shoots it.”

Fears that the 5-foot-11 speedster would be stripped of his identity and his brilliant ability to blow by defenders and attack the rim would be compromised by Shaw’s plan for a more traditional, playoff-tested approach to offense have gone unfounded. After an 0-3 start that included losses to streaking Portland and San Antonio, Denver has won three in a row, seven of 10 and moved above .500 (7-6) for the first time this season after Monday’s 110-96 win at Dallas.

“There’s obviously some differences in the way that George Karl played and the way that our team is playing, but we still want to run and try to take the first available shot,” Shaw said. “I think early on he was a little frustrated because my emphasis was on we have to play inside-out and get the ball inside and create penetration that way. But I think he’s picked and found his spots and he has a green light.”

Initially no one could be quite sure how the rookie head coach would go about implementing — and even Shaw was vague in the buildup to training camp – a more conventional, inside-out approach with a team built for speed. One assumption was that the Indiana assistant the past two seasons would try to ram the Triangle he learned in Los Angeles under Phil Jackson into the square hole that was a team that ran like thoroughbreds and didn’t boast a big-bodied, reliable low-post scorer.

“He’s cool, calm and collected,” Lawson of Shaw. “I knew he was going to try the Triangle or a variation of it and also still keep the running in our game. Late in games, that’s when we start running a lot of plays, when the shot clock’s running down, when we really need points. That’s helping us out a lot because you’re going to need that in the playoffs.”

A month into the season and Lawson is producing at career-high levels across the board: 20.7 ppg, 8.7 apg and 4.1 rpg. He’s got the coach’s green light to attack at will, but he’s also now equipped with a menu of plays to complement his impeccable freelance skills.

“We look inside first, like the first three seconds for a post-up, then it’s basically the guard’s turn,” Lawson said. “You go pick-and-roll, drag, just like Coach Karl, and if you have none of that, just get into a play real quick. And the plays — they’re unbelievable — we’ve got counters; these plays are something that I think a lot of coaches should have in their repertoire.”

Denver’s pace has actually picked up from last season, averaging 100.47 possessions per 48 minutes compared to 97.6. The Nuggets are averaging 103.6 points per 100 possessions, down a bit from last season (107.6) but still good for ninth-best in the league.

Unchanged is how Lawson makes teams pay with near-indefensible bolts to the basket. According to the new player tracking stats on NBA.com, Lawson is averaging 10.8 drives per game, second in the league behind Dallas’ Monta Ellis (11.4). And no team is averaging more points per game on drives by a player than the Nuggets on Lawson drives (13.9), a reflection of his ability to collapse defenses and dish to the open man.

“He’s always in attack mode and it’s eventually like a boxer, just punching and punching and punching non-stop,” new backcourt mate Nate Robinson said. “He just continues to punch, never gets tired, just punch, punch, punch and at the end he’s going to wear you out and wear you down, and that’s how he plays.”

The player tracking stats also reveal that Lawson ranks third behind Chris Paul and John Wall in both creating assist opportunities per game and in points created by assists per game.

“I feel like I can get in the paint on anybody and at least find somebody or get to the basket and cause confusion, cause chaos,” Lawson said. “That’s what I want to do every time I come down the court is cause chaos so where somebody has to help or I can score and get it done like that.”

Shaw’s top priority during the summer was connecting with and understanding his point guard. Rather than preach to Lawson how the offense would run, both came together with open minds about how best to run it.

“We had a lot of talks. When he first came in we talked for like an hour about what he was trying to do and I threw my ideas out there and we were just bouncing ideas of each other,” Lawson said. “Once I learn something I try to master it.”

Of having a batch of plays at his disposal, Lawson said: “It’s helping me a lot finding shooters, getting easier assists and also scoring.”

The Nuggets still aren’t whole. Center JaVale McGee is out indefinitely with a stress fracture in his shin and forward Danilo Gallinari continues to recover from ACL surgery. But slowly, a team whose general manager jumped to another team, fired its coach with more than 1,100 career victories and lost defensive-minded swingman Andre Iguodala in free agency, is coming around.

“Right now everybody’s happy,” Lawson said. “I’m happy. Everything is working out.”

Morning Shootaround — Nov. 21


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Nov. 20

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Blazers use defense to stay hot | Smith ‘panicking’ after Knicks’ latest loss | Nowitzki, Ellis spoil Howard’s night | J-Smoove makes his Atlanta return

No. 1: Blazers turn to defense to keep rolling — If you missed it yesterday, our own John Schuhmann had a tremendous breakdown piece using NBA.com/Stats that delved into the Blazers’ hot start and how formidable Portland truly is. One of the key points of the piece is how the Blazers are using a Pacers-type defensive philosophy and that seemed to be apparent last night in Milwaukee. Joe Freeman of The Oregonian has more details on the Blazers’ eighth straight win, their defense and more:

The Blazers continued their improbable early-season march Wednesday night, defeating the Milwaukee Bucks 91-82 before 11,789. It was the Blazers’ eighth consecutive win, including their sixth in a row on the road, and moved their record to 10-2.

What’s more, the victory delivered the Blazers a rare sweep of four-game trip through Boston, Toronto, Brooklyn and Milwaukee — the franchise’s first sweep of a trip at least four games long since January 2003.

And, in a change of pace, the Blazers won Wednesday with what most consider their Achilles heel: Defense.

“We didn’t really shoot the ball well,” Damian Lillard said, smirking. “So we had to do something to win the game.”

No one would mistake Wednesday’s game for a work of art, as play was sluggish and sloppy throughout. Neither team generated consistent offensive momentum and rhythm and a sparse, dormant crowd created a lifeless, uninspiring environment. But in the middle of the muck — at least in the second half — was a Blazers defense that was physical, effective and stingy.

In the second half, the Blazers limited the Bucks to 31 points, 14 field goals and 37 percent shooting, while forcing 13 turnovers. Only one Milwaukee player — reserve John Henson — scored more than five second-half points, and he had six.

The Blazers’ offense has been so good during their hot streak — ranking second overall and third in offensive efficiency in the NBA over the previous seven games — that it was bound to have a hiccup. But they had enough to win ugly against the reeling Bucks (2-8).

The national media has started to take notice of the Blazers’ sizzling start, and multiple publications and websites have poked around at this team and what it’s doing. Most have noticed the Blazers’ offense is dynamic and fun to watch, while the defense is average at best. But the team sees things differently.

“We’ve won a lot of games shooting under 45 (percent),” Matthews said. “It’s got to be something.”

The Blazers have feasted on teams with losing records this season as eight of their 10 wins have come against teams with sub-.500 records. The popular question to ask: Are the Blazers for real? The answer could surface by the end of the week.

The Blazers host the Chicago Bulls (6-3) on Friday and travel to the Golden State Warriors (8-3) on Saturday as part of a challenging home-and-away back-to-back.

“That’s going to be a huge test,” backup big man Joel Freeland said. “It’s really going to show us where we’re at. We’ve been playing great, and hopefully we can keep going with the flow and ride it into these next games.”

***

No. 2: Knicks’ Smith says he’s ‘panicking’ on court — It’s doubtful things could be going much worse for the Knicks of late as they have lost four straight games and have the third-worst record in the Eastern Conference. Last night against the East-leading Indiana Pacers, New York held the lead for much of the game, but made several mental errors down the stretch and ended up falling in OT. What’s worse is that shooting guard J.R. Smith tells ESPNNewYork.com’s Ohm Youngmisuk that he is often panicking on the court during games:

J.R. Smith said the New York Knicks are mentally “frustrated” and that he personally is panicking after they lost their fourth straight game.The Knicks’ 103-96 overtime loss to the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday was the team’s sixth in a row at Madison Square Garden.

“We’re frustrated,” Smith said of where the team is mentally, despite most saying it’s too early to panic. “Like you say, it’s too early to panic, but me personally, I’m panicking. I don’t like this.

“I don’t want to play 3-8 basketball,” Smith continued, in regard to the Knicks’ record. “I don’t want to play 50-50 basketball. If we’re going to be a championship-caliber team and call ourselves that, then we’ve gotta play like that. It can’t be no other way.”

The Knicks are 2-5 since losing Tyson Chandler to a fractured right fibula. Carmelo Anthony had 30 points and 18 rebounds, and the Knicks led by three with 9.2 seconds left. But Iman Shumpert was called for a foul on a Paul George 3-point attempt, and George (35 points) made all three free throws to force overtime.

The Knicks put forth effort Wednesday night, but it hasn’t always been there this season. And that has been frustrating for Smith.

“Lack of intensity,” Smith said. “I hate to say it, but our defense’s backbone is on Tyson and Tyson’s not here right now and we know that and he’s not going to be available for a few weeks now, so we’ve gotta step it up individually. It’s team game but individually we’ve got to take pride in guarding the ball, guarding our man. We have to enjoy stopping the other team.”

Smith, who scored 21 points but missed an open 3 with 57.1 seconds left and a tip at the end of regulation, said the Knicks can’t just talk about putting forth effort. They have to do it if they want to be a contender.

“We play too up and down,” Smith said. “When we are on the highs, we are great. When we are on the lows, we are terrible. We got to have that steady pace throughout the whole year.”


VIDEO:
J.R. Smith talks about New York’s OT loss to the Pacers

***

No. 3: Nowitzki, Ellis spoil Howard’s big nightThrough three quarters in Dallas last night, it looked like Dwight Howard was going to have the last laugh against Mavs owner Mark Cuban and Co. Cuban, who famously said this season that Howard made a mistake by not signing with Dallas over the summer, got the last laugh as his free-agent addition, Monta Ellis, and his go-to star, Dirk Nowitzki, powered the Mavs to a thrilling win, writes our own Jeff Caplan:

This was Dwight Howard‘s big night, a made-for-national-TV highlight reel. His coming-back party.

The big man couldn’t miss from the floor, flushing alley-oops at will and swooping through the lane for lefty hooks as if he invented it. He made his first 11 shots, not missing until three minutes deep into the fourth quarter. He was even on fire, as much as Howard can be on fire, from the free throw line.

Through three quarters, Ellis was putting on a show to be sure, but it was Dwight truly announcing his presence and taking names.

Until Ellis, the erratic shooting guard Cuban signed with his leftover free-agent cash, and the venerable all-timer, Dirk Nowitzki ended the party. The duo hijacked Dwight’s night with one of the great two-man performances of the season — and in recent memory — in a rousing 123-120 win, rallying all the way from 93-75 late in the third quarter when the capacity crowd actually started to file out.

In the fourth quarter it all ground to an inexplicable halt for Howard and Houston, which officially has a closing problem. It left coach Kevin McHale bleary eyed and exasperated.

Nowitzki and Ellis outscored the Rockets, 22-19 on 9-for-11 shooting. Heck, Nowitzki and Jose Calderon outscored them 21-19. Howard suddenly couldn’t buy a bucket, going 1-for-5 in the quarter, and he got stripped late by Nowitzki in the paint as everything fell apart. Harden missed shots and hopelessly chased foul calls. Chandler Parsons, 4-for-5 from beyond the arc and playing beautiful basketball with 11 assists through three quarters, didn’t take a 3 or dish a dime in the final 9:17 he played.

In the first three quarters, Houston scored 40, 28 and 33 points. Then poof. Again. Rockets fourth quarters are becoming as collapsible as a rickety lawn chair. One reason they’re now 8-5 and looking up in the standings at the surprising 8-4 Mavs.

“It’s growing pains,” Howard said afterward. “Something we have to learn from. We’re a young team. We’ve got to realize what we have in the locker room and what we can do as a team when we play the right way on both ends. We didn’t do that at the end of the game.”

***

No. 4: No tearful reunion for Hawks, J-Smoove — After recording more than 10,000 points, 1,400 blocks, 800 steals and (to the chagrin of Hawks fans) 900 3-point attempts, Josh Smith returned to Atlanta for the first time as a foe. Although Smith’s new team, the Pistons, ended up losing to the Hawks 93-85, Smith wasn’t getting overly emotional about his comeback. Our own Sekou Smith, who was around for much of J-Smoove’s rise and fall in Atlanta, has more on his return:

Wednesday night was supposed to be his moment, the first time homegrown star Josh Smith walked into Philips Arena as a member of the “other” team.

His first steps down that hallway he’d walked so many times was supposed to be cathartic, a chance for Smith to finally put his near-decade with the Hawks behind him. It was also a chance for the fans who endured that roller coaster ride from the impetuous, sky-walking teenage J-Smoove to the matured husband, father and veteran that is today’s Smith to either pay their last respects or bid him farewell in a not-so-special way.

The hype was better than the actual event itself. Smith was introduced to an equal smattering of cheers and boos, which is pretty much the way he was greeted throughout his tenure here. Few players in my years covering the league have inspired such a spirited split from the home fans, love and … hate is such a strong word, perhaps “loathe” is better, for the way they play the game.

The mixed bag is also what Smith expected, “a few cheers and a few boos,” he said. “But it’s all good.”

It certainly seems that way. There’s nothing to see here anymore. The time for holding grudges or being upset, on either side, is over. The moment has passed for Smith and for the Hawks, who chose to move on from their homegrown star in free agency this past summer when they allowed Smith to sign a four-year, $54 million contract with the Detroit Pistons without so much as making an offer to him.

Smith didn’t offer up any colorful soundbites. He noted that it was a bit surreal, the whole homecoming thing, and insisted that he wouldn’t let any of it affect him or his approach to the business at hand (his 5-for-15 shooting effort, 0-for-4 from beyond the 3-point line, much to the delight of the Hawks’ partisans in the crowd, would suggest otherwise).

He’s focused on the Pistons  now, on making them better and on making sure he does whatever he can to enjoy the second chance he’s gotten in Detroit.

“I have to admit, it’s been humbling to play in front of those fans [in Detroit] with the way they support the home teams,” Smith said. “To play in a first-class organization that has the championship history that we have in Detroit, it’s something I had to experience to appreciate. It’s from the ownership level to the front office and coaching staff all the way down to the last man or woman in the organization. It’s just a different feel, and something that I never understood since I spent my entire career in one spot.”

The most surprising part for me, having covered Smith from his rookie season through his the trials and tribulations that preceded the Hawks’ six-year (and potentially counting, based on what we’ve seen from coach Mike Budenholzer‘s team so far) playoff run, was seeing the way the fans eased up on him from the start.

It was a pleasant surprise. One that you wish Smith’s father, Pete Smith, had been in his customary baseline seat closest to the Hawks’ bench to witness himself. He wasn’t able to do so since he was home battling off the ill effects of the flu.

It would have been nice for him to see that not everyone in this town holds his son in contempt now that everyone has moved on. I know deep down both father and son feel that Josh has never been properly appreciated for what he did to help revive the hometown franchise.

“I just hope they show my son a little love,” the elder Smith said by phone before the game. “I think he earned it, he deserves that much.”


VIDEO: Josh Smith talks about his return trip to Atlanta

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Lakers big man Pau Gasol is donating $1,000 for every point he scores Friday to the Typhoon Haiyan relief fund … The Bobcats, after last night’s win over the Nets, are looking more and more like a solid squad

ICYMI Of The Night: Pacers star Paul George got a nice chasedown block in the season-opener against the Magic and recorded another solid one last night at the expense of Iman Shumpert


VIDEO: Paul George hustles back to swat Iman Shumpert’s shot

Ellis, Dirk Spoil Dwight’s Monster Night


VIDEO: Dirk and Monta Ellis run roughshod over the Rockets in comeback win

DALLAS – This was Dwight Howard‘s big night, a made-for-national-TV highlight reel. His coming-back party.

The big man couldn’t miss from the floor, flushing alley-oops at will and swooping through the lane for lefty hooks as if he invented it. He made his first 11 shots, not missing until three minutes deep into the fourth quarter. He was even on fire, as much as Howard can be on fire, from the free throw line.

With a big lead in tow, Howard was strutting toward a season-high, which he got with 33 points on 12-for-16 shooting, and a Hack-a-Dwight-defying 9-for-13 from the stripe. The Houston Rockets were headed for a road romp, a beat down of their division-rival Dallas Mavericks, losers in the Howard sweepstakes no matter how Mavs owner Mark Cuban has tried to spin it. Again prior to Wednesday’s game, Cuban couldn’t help himself, suggesting the best deals are sometimes the ones you don’t make, and that it’s way too early to determine whether Howard or the Mavs’ new guy, Monta Ellis, will ultimately be the most impactful free-agent addition.

Through three quarters, Ellis was putting on a show to be sure, but it was Dwight truly announcing his presence and taking names.

Until Ellis, the erratic shooting guard Cuban signed with his leftover free-agent cash, and the venerable all-timer, Dirk Nowitzki ended the party. The duo hijacked Dwight’s night with one of the great two-man performances of the season — and in recent memory — in a rousing 123-120 win, rallying all the way from 93-75 late in the third quarter when the capacity crowd actually started to file out.

The Nowitzki-Ellis tally is eye-popping: 72 points on 26-for-38 shooting. Ellis, playing with a chip on his shoulder the size of Howard’s bicep, went off for a season-high 37 points on 13-for-18 shooting and eight assists. Nowitzki poured in a season-best 35 points on 13-for-20 shooting, along the way overtaking Pacers Hall-of-Famer Reggie Miller for 15th on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. It was an all-time efficient two-man binge: 4-for-9 from beyond the arc, 16-for-19 from the free throw line, 12 assists and nine rebounds.

Yet it all seemed headed for footnote status on the highlight shows as Howard’s two-handed slams would play over and over.

In the fourth quarter it all ground to an inexplicable halt for Howard and Houston, which officially has a closing problem. It left coach Kevin McHale bleary eyed and exasperated.

Nowitzki and Ellis outscored the Rockets, 22-19 on 9-for-11 shooting. Heck, Nowitzki and Jose Calderon outscored them 21-19. Howard suddenly couldn’t buy a bucket, going 1-for-5 in the quarter, and he got stripped late by Nowitzki in the paint as everything fell apart. Harden missed shots and hopelessly chased foul calls. Chandler Parsons, 4-for-5 from beyond the arc and playing beautiful basketball with 11 assists through three quarters, didn’t take a 3 or dish a dime in the final 9:17 he played.

In the first three quarters, Houston scored 40, 28 and 33 points. Then poof. Again. Rockets fourth quarters are becoming as collapsible as a rickety lawn chair. One reason they’re now 8-5 and looking up in the standings at the surprising 8-4 Mavs.

“It’s growing pains,” Howard said afterward. “Something we have to learn from. We’re a young team. We’ve got to realize what we have in the locker room and what we can do as a team when we play the right way on both ends. We didn’t do that at the end of the game.”

While early season ogling has mostly been reserved for the Portland Trail Blazers’ 10-2 start, the Mavs now quietly boast the same record through a dozen games as the mighty Los Angeles Clippers and those lovable Golden State Warriors. They’re also 6-0 at home.

Ellis, devouring the doubts of his many skeptics and especially the analytic stat-crunchers, has been remarkably efficient playing alongside Nowitzki — 23.3 ppg on 49.5 percent shooting – who is happy as all get out to tag along for the ride after slogging through last season’s offensive quicksand. It’s not lost on anyone that Ellis has a better shooting percentage than Dirk.

“We’re really just playing off of him,” Nowitzki said of his newest sidekick. “He’s been aggressive, he’s handling the ball well, but what’s been great is that he has been making plays for others. He’s making all of us better. We run a lot of screen-and-rolls for him; I don’t know how he does it, but he gets everyone involved and it’s been fun to play with him.”

On a night Dwight dominated, the Mavs had the better twosome for the four full quarters. And it’s beginning to look like something the rest of the league better take note.


VIDEO: Nowitzki talks about passing Reggie Miller on the all-time scoring list