Posts Tagged ‘Nets’

Heat’s margin of error has vanished

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: LeBron James did his usual work for the Miami Heat in a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – With the start of the playoffs just 10 days away, I never expected to be questioning the Miami Heat.

Normally, you’ve earned the benefit of all doubt when you smash your way to three straight Finals, win back-to-back titles and prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you are capable of handling any challenge thrown your way on the road to that sort of success.

And yet I cannot get the words of TNT’s Steve Kerr out of my head. He was the first to fire off a warning about the perils of the sort of journey the Heat are on, the taxing nature of not only chasing a three-peat, but the exhausting grind of playing to the final day of the NBA season four years in a row. It’s a grueling process that has worn down the best of the best before, so why shouldn’t it do the same to the Heat?

“There’s a reason these teams don’t do it,” Kerr said in September. “Emotionally, it’s just exhausting to keep doing it year after year, particularly when you have to deal with everything Miami has to deal with on a daily basis, just the constant critiquing and scrutiny on the team, and then you factor in the injuries with Wade and Bosh and their health. I don’t think Miami will get out of the East this year.”

Even if they get out of the East (which I think they will), their margin of error in The Finals — which was razor-thin last season — has vanished. They were on the ropes against the San Antonio Spurs, 30 seconds away from going down in Game 6 before they found the magic needed to survive that game and the energy to finish the Spurs off in Game 7.

It’s asking too much for the Heat to muster that sort of energy and effort again … especially after they’ve already spent a considerable amount of energy and effort dominating the way they have for four seasons running.

This Heat team, the one where LeBron James does the nightly heavy lifting while Chris Bosh does his part and Dwyane Wade helps (when he’s healthy and feeling good enough to suit up) reminds me of the 2011 group that lost to the Dallas Mavericks in The Finals.

It’s a game-to-game thing with the Heat now. Things appear to be fine after a win against a contender from the Eastern or Western Conference, while a loss to a contender starts the chorus of concern all over again. We’ll see it again in the next 48 hours. Losing to Memphis Wednesday night raised all the same red flags about the Heat’s ability to answer the bell against a desperate team. But a win Friday night (7:30 ET, NBA TV) in their fourth and final battle of this regular season against the Indiana Pacers will silence the cynics — at least for a few hours.

A year ago, the Heat were in the midst of a stunning finish to the regular season that saw them win 27 straight games as they chased the Lakers’ NBA-record 33-game win streak. No one had any doubts that they were ready for the playoffs, ready to handle the rigors of winning back-to-back titles and solidifying their status as the league’s preeminent force.

These days, each outing offers more and more signs of decay. It’s a natural erosion that comes with the Heat pounding the rock every night since James, Wade and Bosh joined forces. You don’t have to be a Heat hater to see it either. You simply have to watch, study and give an honest assessment of what we’re seeing out of Miami as the regular season ends.

The same way Heat coach Erik Spoelstra and Israel Gutierrez of ESPN.com did after that loss to the Grizzlies:

The other somewhat troubling sign Wednesday was how quickly the offense went from free-flowing with great ball movement in the first half to a stagnant, LeBron-or-nothing affair that played very much into Memphis’ hands.

James happened to keep Miami in the game because he had his jumper going. But the entire offense came to a standstill on several possessions, leading to forced drives into traffic and easily convertible turnovers.

“It’s something you always have to stay conscious of,” Spoelstra said. “Even as beautifully as we move the ball sometimes, it’s a game you have to work at. You have to do it under duress, when the defense steps up their pressure, which they did.”

LeBron says he would rather play the ball-movement game and keep his teammates involved. But when he’s got it going, he can also take the offense out of rhythm when calling his own number.

“That is a fine balance in this league,” Spoelstra said. “Because he, along with Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant, they’re the best end-of-possession, bail-you-out options for the offense.

“But that can’t be your offense, and we understand that.”

Ultimately, this comes down to Wade. Will he be able to navigate a healthy path and play at an elite level long enough during the postseason to give the Heat that extra playoff edge they’ve had their last two playoff runs?

Because asking LeBron to carry the load without that help this time around might not be feasible.

Flipping that Heat playoff switch is not an option, either. Not when the margin of error has vanished before the postseason has even started.


VIDEO: A desperate Grizzlies team was too much for LeBron James and the Heat

Time for 5 players to step up in playoffs

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

Everybody feels the pressure in the playoffs. No more long six-month regular seasons to work out the kinks and to solve all the problems. No more roller coaster rides of peaks and valleys.

Each player is expected to bring their full energy, their best effort every night as elimination and another long summer looms.

But for different players and for different reasons, the glare of the spotlight is even brighter as their reputations and the expectations carry a heavier burden.

Here are five players who’ll really feel the heat to step up and deliver big in the playoffs:


VIDEO: Dwight Howard talks about his love for the game

Dwight Howard, Rockets — That 800-pound gorilla has been sitting on his back since July when he opted to dump the royal pedigree of the Lakers and move to Texas. Not only was Houston a better fit basketball-wise, with a young All-Star teammate James Harden waiting as a partner, but Houston, for all its heat and humidity, was a place where the media glare is not so hot. That is, until Game 1 of the playoffs when the ball goes up and Howard is expected to be the inside-dominating, rim-protecting workhorse that pulled Orlando’s wagon to the cusp of a championship in 2009. Can it really have been five years? Since that time, the similarly scrutinized LeBron James has been to The Finals three times and won back-to-back titles. While Howard has been happy, content, healthy and has led the Rockets into the top half of the tough Western Conference bracket through the regular season, now the real work begins. Will the happy-go-lucky persona that has resurfaced translate to the grit and grind and intense scrutiny of the playoffs? Will those improved free throws — all things are relative — fall when he’s being fouled intentionally and there’s a series on the line? This is his 10th NBA season, eighth as an All-Star, yet there is so much still to prove.

 


VIDEO: Paul George discusses the Pacers’ struggles

Paul George, Pacers — There’s no better up close witness and authority than James, who had this to say after George went by him like rolling thunder on his way to a slam dunk in Game 2 of last year’s Eastern Conference finals: “He is going to be a great player for a long time.” There has been little reason for anyone to change that opinion during George’s fourth NBA season and second as an All-Star. The question is will he be able to step up and score abundantly and consistently enough to get the Pacers all the way to The Finals? After all, this is an Indiana team that does not exactly pile up points and, having gotten very little out of the midseason acquisitions of Evan Turner and Andrew Bynum, will be challenged to put the ball into the hoop every time out. George forced his way into many of the MVP conversations early in the season with his raised level of play. He is also willing and able to take on the defensive challenge of matching up against the likes of James. But since the All-Star break when the fast-starting Pacers began to at least scrape against — if not run head-on into — the wall, George has not delivered consistently. Maybe it’s the physical toll. Or maybe his concentration drifts. But since the All-Star break, George has shot 50 percent only five times in 26 games and popped in 30 points just twice. Assuming that additional offense is not going to arrive out of thin air in Indy, he’ll have to get back to the production he show during the first half of the season for the Pacers to reach their stated goals.

 


VIDEO: LaMarucs Aldridge explains what Portland has to do down the stretch

LaMarcus Aldridge, Trail Blazers – The question over the past several years has been whether the Blazers can put a good enough team around Aldridge to make him want to re-sign and stay to take them to the next level. But then the other side of the coin is whether the high-scoring slick forward is the one who can get them there. It’s been three years now since Brandon Roy was the main cog in the machine, Greg Oden was still a hope and Aldridge was the up-and-comer. While he’s cracked through the ceiling to become a member of the Western Conference All-Star team, it’s also true that he’s done most of his best work in the first half of seasons and faded at the finish, just like the Blazers as a whole. The old knock remains that L.A. is content to shoot turnaround jumpers rather than working to get to the hoop. He usually responds to the criticism for a time when it gets sharpest, then reverts to form and goes back to shooting jumpers. While Damian Lillard, another All-Star in the starting lineup, can hold his own among the class of elite point guards in the West, Nicolas Batum teases with his sporadic nights of all-around brilliance and Robin Lopez provides a solid defensive anchor in the middle, any success in the playoffs will require Aldridge to stand and deliver.

 


VIDEO: Are the Clippers a serious playoff threat?

Blake Griffin, Clippers — Four years into his NBA career, he’s a four-time All-Star and still only 25 years old. He’s become far less than just the sergeant at arms of Lob City, working on his mid-range jumper and the defense that had been rightly criticized in the past. New coach Doc Rivers has demanded more out of Griffin and he’s delivered, especially during the long stretch when Chris Paul was sidelined by a separated shoulder and the Clippers could have plummeted in the Western Conference playoff race and lost home court advantage in the first round. Now the challenge will be to maintain his level of improved play and concentration into the postseason. In the 2011-12 season, Griffin dropped from 20.7 points and 10.9 rebounds per game to 19.1 and 6.9 in the playoffs. In 2012-13, he went from 18.8 and 8.3 to 13.2 and 5.5. Now even though he’s got a much improved DeAndre Jordan playing with him in the middle and Paul still orchestrating the attack as the game’s best ball handler, it is a raised level of play that’s expected and required to make the Clippers real challengers for the conference crown.

 


VIDEO: Nets poised to make noise in playoffs

Deron Williams, Nets — It’s easy — too easy — to pick on Joe Johnson and what’s left of that insane six-year, $119 million contract that he got from Atlanta and that the Nets are still paying and say he’s got to live up to it. For one, it was never going to happen. For another, Nets owner Mikhail Prokorov can probably find the loose change in his sofa cushions to pay it off and not break a sweat. On the other hand, the Nets forked over $98 million to Williams in the expectation that he would be the centerpiece to the championship construction project in Brooklyn. For all the moves that general manager Billy King did to add Johnson, trade for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce and to sign Andrei Kirilenko, it was all predicated on Williams being the All-Star performer who was considered to be at the very top of the point guard class before everything blew up in Utah. After he started another season underperforming and underachieving due to ankle problems and eventually asking out of the starting lineup, Williams has come back since the All-Star break to lead the Nets back as they’ve made their charge up through the standings. But Prokorov did not endorse the highest payroll in the league to get the No. 5 — or even No. 4 — seed in the Eastern Conference. Williams is the one charged with the task of making sure there isn’t another first-round playoff flameout, especially at the hands of another undermanned Bulls team. There’s much to prove here.

Morning Shootaround — March 24


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 23

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Woodson takes blame, Knicks postseason hopes on the brink | Bryant confident as ever Lakers will get back to the top | Heat defensive focus lags, struggles continue | Thunder will contend as long as Westbrook’s knee holds up

No. 1: Woodson shoulders blame as Knicks fall to Cavs, postseason hopes hang in the balance – Done in by Jarrett Jack. Is that the epitaph that will be written on this season for the New York Knicks? After Cleveland’s veteran point guard, filling in for All-Star Kyrie Irving, shredded them late to snap their eight-game win streak, it’s a legitimate question. Knicks coach Mike Woodson took the blame, a noble endeavor considering he was going to get his fair share anyway. But the Knicks’ postseason hopes hang in the balance every night and losses to the likes of the Cavaliers destroy the cause, as Ian Begley of ESPNNewYork.com points out::

Atlanta lost on Sunday afternoon, so the Knicks knew exactly what was at stake when they took the court on Sunday evening. That made the loss to the Cavs all the more catastrophic.

“We didn’t handle our business,” Woodson said, “and I’ve got to take full responsibility for that.”

“It’s tough,” Carmelo Anthony said. “We should’ve won this game. We gave it away. They earned it. They beat us.”

The Knicks were up 15 at the half but allowed Cleveland to score nine straight to start the third quarter.

“I thought we came out a little flat,” Anthony said.

Anthony led the Knicks with 32 points but went cold late, missing 11 of his last 13 shots and all five in the fourth quarter.

The Knicks as a whole went 5-for-18 in the fourth and missed 11-of-15 3-pointers in the second half.

“They were just scrapping more, I think,” J.R. Smith said. “They were more hungry than us in the second half. … It’s a huge opportunity lost, one we can’t afford. But we can’t get it back. Just got to go out there on the road and win some games. Hopefully, [the Hawks] keep losing.”

That’s what the Knicks have been left with in this roller-coaster season: hoping the eighth-place Hawks can continue to give away their lead.

For what feels like the 30th time this season, the Knicks failed to do that. And it leaves Woodson and his team in a difficult spot. According to Elias Sports Bureau, just one team in the past 30 years has overcome a deficit of more than four games with 14 games or fewer to play in the regular season to make the playoffs.


VIDEO: Sunday’s top 10 plays

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No. 2: Kobe in touch with Jim Buss, confident Lakers will get back to winning ways – Whatever he lacks in good health Kobe Bryant more than makes up for in unabashed confidence in himself and the Los Angeles Lakers resilience. This despicable season will be forgotten, as soon as he can get back to health and as soon as Jim Buss and the rest of the Lakers’ front office brass finish their franchise makeover. These tough times, Bryant insisted during an interview with ESPN’s sports business ace Darren Rovell, will not last. He did, however, acknowledge that things are going to be different without Dr. Jerry Buss around to fix the Lakers’ issues:

Bryant, who signed a two-year, $48.5 million extension with the team in November to lock up his 19th and 20th seasons in L.A., reiterated his message of urgency to Buss to return to the top as soon as possible.

“This organization is just not going to go [down],” Bryant said. “It’s not going to take a nose dive. But I think we need to accelerate it a little bit for selfish reasons, because I want to win and I want to win next season. So, it’s kind of getting them going now as opposed to two years from now.”

Despite already airing his concerns about what direction the Lakers might be heading, Bryant said his faith is as strong as ever in the Lakers’ ability to bounce back to contender status.

“Extremely confident,” Bryant said. “That was one of my concerns [when he re-signed] and they assured me, ‘This is fair for you for everything you’ve done for the franchise and will continue to do while being able to construct a team that is going to contend for a championship here over the next couple of years.’”

Bryant also responded to Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban‘s assertion that “I don’t know if the Lakers will ever be the Lakers,” because of the absence of longtime owner Dr. Jerry Buss, who died last year.

“It will be different,” Bryant said. “You can’t lead the way [Dr. Buss] did. Because Jeanie is different. Jimmy, who is running basketball operations, is different.

“So they have to find their rhythm and get in sync with each other and figure out exactly what their leadership style is going to be. It’s nearly impossible to try to separate basketball operations from the business standpoint so you got to kind of get in sync that with that and have one voice that is leading that charge. But once that happens, the idea might take shape. But you can’t look at what Dr. Buss did and say, ‘I’m going to try replicate that,’ and be exactly what he was. That’s just not going to happen.”


VIDEO:
Mavericks guard Monta Ellis was a flash against the Nets Sunday

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No. 3: LeBron and Spoelstra point to lagging Heat defense as their struggles continue Bellyaching about your team’s energy, effort and championship focus in the wake of seven losses in your last 11 games is not a shocker, not even for the Miami Heat. But it’s good to get some specifics. And the Heat, fresh off of yet another head-scratching defeat (Saturday night in New Orleans), provided plenty. And it’s all about their defense, which has been uncharacteristically porous of late. That’s something everyone, from coach Erik Spoelstra and LeBron James and Chris Bosh, in the Heat camp can agree on. Ira Winderman of the Sun-Sentinel highlights the particulars:

    “We’re not accustomed to this type of play, these types of standards, particularly on the defensive end,” coach Erik Spoelstra said before giving his team Sunday off in advance of Monday’s visit by the Portland Trail Blazers to AmericanAirlines Arena. “And if we want to change, we have to look inward. Every single one of us, including the staff, including the players, have to make changes.”

Forward LeBron James said the Heat are failing on the defensive end both individually and collectively.

“First of all,” he said, “you have to guard your man, and rely on help second. But when you break down, you’re going to have to rely on the help, and we’re not getting both.

“First of all, guys are not playing their man. And guys get beat, which you will be, which will happen in this league, because there’s great players, the help comes. We’re not doing anything.”

Factor in the Heat’s longstanding rebound issues and the defensive pressure has been unrelenting.

“Sometimes we get stops and we don’t get a rebound. Sometimes we don’t get stops,” forward Udonis Haslem said. “It’s a lot of different things. At this point, we’ve got to put it all together, we’ve got to get stops and rebounds. We can’t get a stop and then give up an offensive rebound and get another 24 [seconds on defense].

“We’ve got to guard the ball, and then when the ball gets in the paint, we’ve got to step up, we’ve got to contest. Shot goes up, we’ve got to box out both bigs and got to get it and go.”

The frustration has shown on the court and in the locker room.

“Defensively, we can’t stop a nosebleed,” center Chris Bosh said. “No good blitz, the pick and roll coverage, one-on-one defense, everything is bad.”


VIDEO: Check out the Kevin Love Show from Sunday, starring … Kevin Love!

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No. 4:Thunder’s title hopes rest on Westbrook’s knee – Miami and Indiana aren’t the only places where championship hopes are in doubt these days. Folks in Oklahoma are also wondering just how fragile their title aspirations are in the wake of yet another knee scare from All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook. Even with MVP frontrunner Kevin Durant destroying the competition night after night, the Thunder’s confidence is tied directly to the health of Westbrook and that knee. It’s a dangerous way for an entire state and fan base to live. But it’s the only way they, according to Barry Tramel of the Oklahoman:

Nobody in our state slept well Friday night. Starting with Scotty Brooks, Sam Presti, Westbrook’s clothier, Rumble, that woman who screams “Russellllllllllllllllllllllll” during his foul shots and most everyone with a cable or satellite dish in every hamlet from Tuskahoma to Tonkawa.

For about 20 hours or so over the weekend, we all wondered if Russell Westbrook’s knee was tore up again. Westbrook limped off the court in Toronto on Friday, and the wind was replaced by “aarghs!” and “gulps” sweeping down the plain.

Of course, now word is that Westbrook is OK and might even play either Monday night (Denver in OKC) or Tuesday night (at Dallas). Whew. That was close.

Thunderland knows the feeling of life without Westbrook. Knows it all too well. And it stinks. When Westbrook went down with a torn meniscus in the Houston series last playoffs, the Thunder scraped by the Rockets, then was bullied by the Grizzlies in a five-game series defeat. When Westbrook has sat out periodically this season, the Thunder has mostly struggled, save for a magical 10-game winning streak in January during which OKC was the league’s best team.

Westbrook’s latest scare is reason to ask this question. Is the Thunder better prepared to play without him this season than last season? If Westbrook limps off in some game soon, or in the middle of a playoff series, is the Thunder better-equipped to survive?

Depends on what survival means. Win the NBA championship? No. Not going to happen without Westbrook riding shotgun.

But go deeper in the playoffs? Win a tough West semifinal? At least challenge the Spurs or the Clippers or whoever emerges as the Western Conference elite? Yes.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: This is a different Raptors team than you are used to, one that is rising to the late-season challenge … Andre Miller finally clears the air about what went down in Denver … No one is doing it better these days than the bench mob from Phoenix … Kobe Bryant announces his partnership in a new business … Rockets big man Dwight Howard is practicing but remains “day-to-day” with that tender ankle … The surprising comeback for Steve Nash has already hit yet another injury snag

ICYMI of the Night: Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins wants you to know that this is his world and the rest of the big men in the league are just living in it …


VIDEO: DeMarcus Cousins goes hard for his 32 points and 12 rebounds

Morning Shootaround — Feb. 24


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Feb. 23

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Kobe on Collins and courage “domino” effect | Oden’s makes waves, first start for Heat | Clippers finally get what they need … win over the Thunder | Wizards turn to veterns for help down the stretch | A “shoe war” over Lillard?

No. 1: Kobe insists Collins courage will have domnio effect – Making history surely wasn’t on the mind of Jason Collins Sunday night, as he became the first openly gay athlete to suit up and play in one of the four major American sports. All Collins, of the Brooklyn Nets, was trying to do was earn his 10-day contract keep and help his team win. Whether he likes it or now, though, Collins is taking groundbreaking steps that will generate what Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant called a courage domino effect across the landscape. Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports explains:

“His impact [Sunday night] is greater than what people think,” Bryant told Yahoo Sports before the game. “You look at it from the context of having the first openly gay player. But they missed the domino effect that it has way beyond sports.”

Collins, now in his 13th season, was a free agent at the time of his announcement and the Nets were the first team to sign him. Bryant said his initial reaction to Collins signing with Brooklyn was, “It’s great. Let’s hoop.”

Along with having an impact on the gay and sports communities, Bryant says the news teaches the youth “it’s OK to be yourself” and will motivate people from all walks of life.

“It’s fantastic. It sets an incredible precedent,” said Bryant, who is currently out of the Lakers’ lineup indefinitely with a knee injury. “I think the most important part about it, what I’ve learned on the issue is that one person coming out is showing this type of courage that gives others that same type of courage.

“It’s dealing with a lot of issues for kids who are afraid to be themselves. Afraid to be themselves because of the peer pressure that comes with it. A lot of these kids have depression issues or they’re being teased from other kids for being different. You wind up seeing a lot of suicides, kids injuring themselves and getting hooked on things that they should not be hooked on.”

On the impact of Collins’ first game, Bryant said: “There is a kid out there who … is going to say, ‘Jason gave me strength in dark moments to be brave. He gave me courage to step up and accept myself for who I am despite what others might be saying or the public pressures. He gave me strength and bravery to be myself.’”

Collins, who was scoreless in 10-plus minutes of action, said in response to Bryant’s praise, “That’s along the same lines of what I would say to every other professional athlete. … Realize that there is support there waiting for you. That’s the only thing I can say about encouraging people to be their true self.”


VIDEO: Jason Collins waxes on his season debut with the Brooklyn Nets

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No. 2: Greg Oden’s first start for Heat (sans LeBron) ends with a win – Greg Oden made some news of his own Sunday, earning his first start for the Miami Heat in their win over the Chicago Bulls. The former No. 1 overall pick reached yet another milestone in his long journey back from what once appeared to be career-ending knee injuries. His start came without LeBron James in uniform, the Heat superstar sat out with that broken nose suffered against the Oklahoma City Thunder last week. But this day was about Oden and his milestone, writes Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald:

Oden’s big-picture perspective is unwavering.

He’s just happy to be here.

“For me, each game getting better and walking off healthy — they’re all milestones to me,” said Oden, who is attempting to revive his career after a series of knee injuries. “It has been a long road, so every one is a good one for me.”

Sunday might have been the best of all. He started his first game since December 2009 and played nearly 13 minutes in Miami’s victory. During his brief time in the game, Oden matched up against Bulls center Joakim Noah and had five points and five rebounds.

“He’s an active player for someone that big,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “He makes multiple efforts, he gives you extra possessions and he’s very intelligent, so he has a pretty good grasp of what we want and how we want to play already.”

With LeBron James out with a broken nose, Spoelstra went to Oden for his size inside against the Bulls and also to keep the Heat’s second unit somewhat intact. Chicago is one of the league’s most aggressive rebounding teams and it showed early. The Bulls held a 32-19 rebounding advantage after the first half.

“We knew the minutes would be short for Greg still — 10 to 12 minutes — so we figure that [it would] be best to get him in that starting lineup,” Spoelstra said. “We get to keep our rotations somewhat similar.”

Oden said he could have played more than 13 minutes, which is a positive sign for the Heat. He is expected to be an important piece in the playoffs, especially against teams such as the Bulls and Indiana Pacers, which feature big frontcourts.

On a contending team for the first time in his career, Oden is following the lead of his more experienced teammates and Oden’s health is returning just in time for the Heat’s playoff push.

“They’ve all been through this before,” Oden said. “This is one of my first times going through this. This is that push you’ve got to get for first place. That’s what we are aiming for right now the next push is going to be when the playoffs come.”

***

No. 3: Clippers finally get that much-needed win over The Thunder – The Los Angeles Clippers fancy themselves a championship team, as do the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Clippers, though, needed a win over the Thunder, on the road, to legitimize their claim. And they finally got that Sunday, solving their Thunder issue on the big stage and sending a message that they are indeed going to be a part of the power mix in the Western Conference playoff chase. As Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times reports, it was long overdue:

The Clippers needed this.

A 125-117 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder at Chesapeake Energy Arena on Sunday carried restorative powers for a Clippers team had been unsuccessful against the NBA’s elite on the road.

The Thunder owned the league’s best record — until the Clippers’ victory took their opponent down a peg to 43-14, percentage points behind Indiana (42-13).

The Clippers won with all five starters scoring in double figures. Jamal Crawford led the way with 36 points, but Matt Barnes (24 points, seven rebounds), Blake Griffin (20 points, seven rebounds, six assists), DeAndre Jordan (18 points, 12 rebounds) and Chris Paul (18 points, 12 assists, eight rebounds) all played significant roles.

“It’s definitely a good win for us,” said Paul, who played despite a sprained right thumb. “We were on the plane [Saturday] flying here and we were just talking about how we hadn’t beat any good teams on the road, and this would be the perfect time to start.”

The Clippers lost here earlier this season. They also have lost at San Antonio, Miami, Indiana and Portland, teams that rank among the best in the league.

The Clippers have won at Houston, but that was only one win against five road losses against the top teams.

Now the Clippers have a victory against a Thunder team that has lost only five games at home all season. They also have their first win since the All-Star game, after stumbling out of the break with losses to San Antonio and at Memphis.

“It was a very important win, especially having dropped our last two,” Griffin said. “This win was big for us. We haven’t really made a statement on the road. We’ve won some games, but we haven’t won big games. So it was terrific for us.”


VIDEO: Doc Rivers talks about the Clippers’ big win in OKC

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No. 4: Wizards turns to veterans for help down the stretch – Trades and injuries have a way of opening doors for NBA veterans this time of year and the Washington Wizards are not different. After their work on deadline day, the Wizards had a new point guard in Andre Miller and an opening for a few minutes for guys like Al Harrington and Kevin Seraphin. An injury to Nene created even more space for those two veterans and they answered the call for Randy Wittman‘s team. Michael Lee of The Washington Post with the details:

Kevin Seraphin couldn’t get overly concerned when he saw Nene crumple to the ground in pain, then hop off the court and through the tunnel toward the Wizards’ locker room on his good, right leg. Coach Randy Wittman called on Seraphin immediately after Nene went down with what the team is calling a sprained left knee in the third quarter of the Wizards’ 96-83 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday. Seraphin had to be ready.

“Yeah. I saw him leave, but when we’re in the game, we have to be focused on the game,” Seraphin said.

The Wizards (28-28) were only up by three points at the time of Nene’s departure and they have typically become flimsy when their most gifted big man is unable to finish a game. Washington squandered a 10-point fourth-quarter lead when Nene was ejected with roughly three minutes left in Oklahoma City, lost in overtime to Milwaukee when Nene strained his right Achilles’ tendon, and suffered a controversial defeat in Houston after Nene fouled out late in the fourth quarter.

After Luol Deng completed a three-point play to bring the Cavaliers within 73-72 with 93 seconds left in the third quarter, the Wizards were once again in danger of letting a winnable game get away from them. Then, Wittman put veteran Al Harrington on the floor and he made two huge shots – a driving layup and a three-pointer – to send the Wizards into the fourth period with a six-point lead.

“I was just looking for an opportunity. I was ready, obviously, the situation with Nene allowed me to do a little more,” Harrington said. “It’s tough. He’s been playing some great basketball, so that was tough to see. Hopefully we can get him back sooner than later, but guys got to step up. I think we got enough guys that can do that.”

Harrington didn’t score for the rest of the game. But Seraphin came through with two huge, 10-foot jump hooks to push the Wizards ahead 82-74 early in the fourth quarter.

“He’s capable of doing that,” Wittman said of Seraphin. “The more he simplifies his game the better. Sometimes he likes to trick people, and we got to get him just to be simple. That’s his move and he does it very well. Big couple of shots he hit.”

Harrington finished with two rebounds and an assist and tried to extend the lead but missed a three-pointer and Wittman replaced him with Marcin Gortat. “I thought Al gave us a big lift in the second half. He was panting like a dog out there but we got to continue to get him rounded into shape,” Wittman said of Harrington, who played just 31 seconds the night before against New Orleans as Nene matched his career high with 30 points.

***

No. 5: It’s gotta be the shoes for Portland’s Lillard – Portland All-Star point guard Damian Lillard made waves with his busy schedule during All-Star Weekend. There could be more waves on the horizon where he is concerned, courtesy of a budding tug of war over his shoe company. It’s been a while since a battle between shoe giants made noise in the NBA, but Lillard’s story is about to get interesting as Adidas and Nike get ready to tussle over the young star. Chris Haynes of CSNNW.com provides the minutiae:

Lillard, 23, has a profitable rookie shoe endorsement deal with adidas, though that could change abruptly due to clever language in his contract.

Being that he took home the 2012-13 NBA Rookie of the Year award, became an NBA All-Star and reached other unique incentive clauses in his first two seasons, Lillard will be able to opt out of his shoe contract at the end of the basketball season and either renegotiate a more lucrative deal with adidas, or open negotiations with Nike, Brand Jordan, Reebok or Under Armor, league sources informed CSNNW.com.

Another source that’s vastly briefed on Lillard’s situation added, “There’s no doubt about it, he’s opting out.”

Rival shoe companies have been well-versed on the matter for months and are expected to make competitive offers, but CSNNW.com is told that Nike stands the best chance of luring Lillard away from adidas.

Adidas is in no position to lose their accomplished young standout point guard.

Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose is currently viewed as the basketball face of adidas. However, his string of knee injuries in addition to the fact that he has only participated in 49 games in three seasons has adidas apprehensive he can remain the company’s headliner.

In 2012, Rose signed a multiyear deal in the upwards of $200 million.

Lillard hasn’t missed a game in his one and half years as a professional and the way in which he carries himself on and off the court is without glitch if a company seeks to market him as the face of a national corporation.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Sunday proved to be a great day/night for quite a few players from around the league. that lists include Kevin DurantJamal CrawfordGoran DragicRudy GayDanny Granger is still MIA for the Sixers on the practice court. The buyout has to be negotiated if he plans on moving on without suiting up in Philly … The Commissioner speaks on openly gay pro athletes … Harvey Araton of The New York Times weighs in on Collins, too, and the impact he can have going forward

ICYMI(s) of The Night: Thomas Robinson showed up and showed out for the Trail Blazers in so many ways …


VIDEO: The Thomas Robinson affair folks

Collins And Nets Breaking Barriers

VIDEO: Jason Collins signs with the Nets

Less than two months ago when they were 10-21 following a New Year’s Eve thumping, one might have believed there was a better chance of seeing an openly gay athlete in a NBA game than seeing Brooklyn in the playoffs.

Now Jason Collins and the Nets will try to break down barriers together.

By signing the 35-year-old 7-footer to a 10-day contract, it could be said the No. 8 seeded team is clawing desperately to hold onto the last playoff spot in the moribund Eastern Conference.

“The decision to sign Jason was a basketball decision,” Nets general manager Billy King said in the statement. “We needed to increase our depth inside, and with his experience and size, we felt he was the right choice for a 10-day contract.”

And maybe if this were 10 or 20 years from now, that’s all it would be, a line of agate type in the transactions column.

For now though, it is one giant leap for sportskind, if only because it is the official opening of the societal and cultural closet door.

“Jason told us that his goal was to earn another contract with an NBA team,” said commissioner Adam Silver. “Today, I want to commend him on achieving his goal. I know everyone in the NBA family is excited for him and proud that our league fosters an inclusive and respectful environment.”

Athlete Ally ambassador and Denver Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried said: “With Jason Collins signing with the Nets today, I believe our world as professional athletes will open up and become less ignorant of gay male athletes playing and more accepting and embracing of the whole situation.”

It was back in April of last year when Collins revealed himself in Sports Illustrated to become the first openly gay male athlete in one of the four major American sports.

That announcement brought praise from President Obama, an invitation to the State of the Union address and a much higher profile than Collins had ever achieved with a 12-year NBA career in which he averaged just 3.6 points and 3.8 rebounds per game. Yet it didn’t bring a training camp invitation from any of the 30 NBA clubs.

In the meantime, University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam jumped into the headlines with his announcement that he is gay. Coming from the SEC co-defensive player of the year ahead of the NFL draft and from a 24-year-old at the start of his pro career, Sam’s revelation was immediately considered much more a test of tolerance in the testosterone filled air of sports, even if it had been met with a collective shrug in his own college locker room last fall.

“We would accept it greatly and it shouldn’t be a problem, man,” Nets guard Joe Johnson told reporters last week. “We’ve got a veteran group and I think everybody is pretty comfortable in their own skin. It’s about what he can do to help us out there on that court. That’s what it’s about.”

Point guard Deron Williams said if Collins’ addition would help the team, he’s in favor.

“I think it’s definitely going to be a media circus just because of the situation,” Williams said. “But I think with the type of team that we have, veterans who have played with him before and know him, it shouldn’t be a problem.”

The Nets, in fact, are probably the most logical and comfortable fit for Collins. For one, team owner Mikhail Prokorov campaigned for gay rights during his presidential bid in Russia. What’s more, veterans Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are former teammates of Collins and Pierce was his most ardent backer when Collins came out last spring. Coach Jason Kidd also played alongside Collins with the Nets and will surely help foster an inclusive attitude.

“To each his own,” Pierce said back in April. “It’s probably going to open the door to many more. There’s so many professional athletes, there’s so many human beings, that are scared … because of the exposure of sports and what people might think about it. But I think what he did was a great thing, just to kind of open the door for other athletes who probably now are going to have the courage to come out.”

There has already, of course, been an outcry from some on social media that it is all a story manufactured and overblown for a player whose career has been marginal at best. No one is interested, they say and post and tweet. Yet the fact they have read and posted and tweeted is the clearest contradiction of themselves.

Collins has put himself in the spotlight. However, the Nets also deserve credit for looking past any potential distractions to help shoulder the burden and make history.

Heat All-Star guard Dwyane Wade got the news and summed up what matters on the court about Collins: “One thing I know about him is he fouled very hard. …Welcome back.”

For a chance to pull on the jersey, to lace up the sneakers, to try to help get the once forlorn Nets into the playoffs, smashing one previously unthinkable notion at a time.

Time To Step It Up For The Stretch Run


VIDEO: Carmelo Anthony talks about the challenges facing the Knicks

Now that the slam dunking, 3-point shooting and other wretched excess of NBA All-Star weekend is in the rearview mirror, even those of us who aren’t 7-footers can stand on our tip-toes and see the playoffs from here.

There’s jockeying the standings to be done: Races for the No. 1 seeding in both the Eastern and Western Conference, the long-shot hopefuls trying to sneak in at the No. 8 spot and the down-to-the-wire elbowing for home-court advantage in the first round.

While Kobe Bryant continues driving himself to make it back onto the court this season because, well, he’s Kobe Bryant, there are a handful of other players and teams who need to step up their games coming down the homestretch:

Deron Williams — After a slow start a year ago, Williams found his stride and finished strong, averaging 22 points and 10 assists per game in the second half of the season. While the Nets have picked themselves out of the bottom of the garbage heap of the East to climb into the No. 7 spot in the standings thanks to Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett finally starting to come around, the most expensive roster in the league isn’t going anywhere in the playoffs if Williams can’t bounce back again and lead them. Is it the ankles? Is it the lack of confidence that he has mentioned? Or is he simply at the end of the line as an elite level point guard in his ninth season? Williams has scored 20 points just once since Jan. 4 and has only two games of handing out double-digit assists in 2014. He was even challenged to a 1-on-1 duel by coach Jason Kidd at a recent practice to try to light a spark.

Carmelo Anthony — He doesn’t show an interest in defense and, yes, he can turn Knicks games into a circus where he’s in the center ring and everyone else watches him hog the spotlight and the ball. Yet if it weren’t for Anthony carrying the offensive load, New York would be buried deeper in the standings. His PER of 24.61 is the second best of his career. Even at 20-32, the Knicks are within striking range in the East and Anthony is going to have to find a way to lift up his teammates — and save the job of coach Mike Woodson — rather than just outshine them before going into his summer of free agency. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt if J.R. Smith stopped his clown show and got back to playing basketball at least part time.

Timberwolves — The clock is ticking. Not just on another season when the Wolves were supposed become a playoff team that is slipping away. It could — and should — be ticking loudly on the end of Kevin Love in Minnesota. Two more seasons until Mr. Double-Double can fly out of the icy north to a landing some place where they actually do more than just talk about making the playoffs. Healthy again, Love is back to putting up big numbers. Yes, he’s faltered at times down the stretch as the Wolves have lost a ton of close games. But it really is a case of not having a supporting cast around him that has shown much inclination for improvement. That’s you, Ricky Rubio. Reports have said G.M. Flip Saunders is willing to trade anybody on the roster except Love in an attempt to keep him in Minnesota. But as another year comes off the calendar, you have to wonder if it isn’t already too late.

Manu Ginobili — Sidelined since the end of the January with a strained hamstring, the San Antonio firecracker is scheduled to jump back into the lineup this week. He’s not on this list due to underperforming but for how much the Spurs need him back in their lineup to get the fire burning again. Tony Parker got a chance to get a head start on his All-Star break because he has simply looked worn out this season after going all the way to The Finals last June and then playing for the French national team in EuroBasket. Tim Duncan is showing more and more of his age at times and there are rumors that he is thinking of retiring at the end of the season. The Spurs have played miserably against the top contenders in the West — just a single win over a Clippers lineup without Chris Paul. They need Ginobili to come back strong and healthy and durable to be considered real playoff contenders again.

Andre Iguodala — When the Warriors brought him in from Denver, the belief was that he’d upgrade the roster at both ends of the floor. They figured he’d be the slashing, penetrating force of the past, adding another scoring option and helping Stephen Curry distribute the ball and being a solid wing defender. While he’s helped move the ball and been solid on defense, the problem has been a lack of offensive production. He’s scoring just 9.6 points per game, the lowest since his rookie season in Philly. The Warriors don’t need him to challenge Curry or Klay Thompson as a big gun every night, but occasional flashes of firepower will be necessary if the team hopes to climb out of the No. 8 spot in the West and reach the preseason goal of a top four finish. Iguodala has scored 20 points only once since the opening week of the season.

Morning Shootaround — Jan. 27


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 26

NEWS OF THE MORNING

No place for ‘Melo in LA? | KG and Pierce; the return | Wounded Wall will rise from USAB snub | Heat ready for season to crank up

No. 1: Lakers cool on recruiting ‘Melo? – Kobe Bryant has already declared himself out of the Carmelo Anthony recruiting sweepstakes, choosing the role of big brother instead.  He tried the recruiter hat with Dwight Howard last season and it didn’t work. But Bryant wasn’t the issue then and he’s not now for the Lakers. That responsibility belongs to Mike D’Antoni, the Lakers’ coach whose rough relationship with Howard (and now Anthony) could have a negative impact on the thinking of the coveted free agent. D’Antoni, who coached Anthony with the Knicks, is taking a similarly hands off approach where the soon-to-be free agent is concerned. Marc Berman of the New York Post explains (D’Antoni also offers up some support for his successor) :

When asked if he got a chance to see Anthony, D’Antoni said after the 110-103 loss, “I said hi to him. He said hi to me. What do you want us to be, pen pals or something? We’re fine.’’

D’Antoni was short in his praise of Anthony’s 62-point Friday record-setter and wanted no part of a question regarding Anthony’s future.

“I watched clips, it looked like he was making baskets,’’ D’Antoni said. “He’s got that ability. If he’d played the whole game he probably would’ve had about 80. Obviously scoring talent he does not lack.’’

D’Antoni, however, thought Anthony never bought into the spread-the-wealth, speed-ball attack that earned him the offensive genius label in Phoenix. It seems farfetched Anthony, a free agent this summer, and D’Antoni would make the perfect marriage in Los Angeles. But you never say never.

Asked about Anthony’s free-agent future, D’Antoni demurred: “I’m good. I just want to drink my water and watch a little basketball.’’

D’Antoni defended Knicks coach Mike Woodson, who has been on shaky ground. Woodson replaced D’Antoni late in the 2011-12 season. Fans that year chanted “We Want Wood-son.” Now they chant “Fi-re Wood-son.’’

“Woody does a great job,’’ D’Antoni said. “They’ve had injuries, it’s a tough league, and some years it doesn’t go well. [But] they have a lot more basketball to play, and they win two or three in a row they’ll be in second place in the East, so they’ll be fine. It’s a great organization, I enjoyed my four years here, but you’ve got to win. Everything is going to be questioned. It should be.’’

***

No. 2: Celtics honor KG and Pierce in their return – Credit Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce for keeping their composure during an emotional return to Boston Sunday. They held it together during an intense and relentless stream of praise from the fans and folks in TD Garden and around the city of Boston. Not every city maintains the bond with its former sports superstars. And now KG and Pierce understand what it must have been like for the Boston sports heroes that came (and left) before them. Chris Forsberg of ESPNBoston.com has more from the emotional return for two-thirds of Boston’s Big 3:

Suggesting his return to Boston was tougher than his first trip back to Minnesota, where he started his NBA odyssey, Garnett detailed his ride on an emotional roller coaster while back at TD Garden on Sunday. But he stressed that, even without Gino, the video tribute and the fans’ reaction exceeded even his wildest expectations for coming back.

“This was over the top,” Garnett said. Later he added, “What comes to mind is unbelievable, I didn’t expect anything like that for myself. It shows the first-class type of organization that this is and the appreciation from this organization for you. And I couldn’t put it into words.

“Paul and I were joking before the game, who was going to tear up and drop a tear. I had lumps in my throat. I kept them under control and I focused as much as I could on the game and not take away from it. But, man, this was over the top. I couldn’t put that into words.”

Boston fans delivered an extended standing ovation when Garnett and Pierce were the final two Nets players announced during pregame introductions. With 2:25 to play in the first quarter, the arena hushed in anticipation of what was about to come.

Then came a roar at the mere sight of a green No. 5 flashed on the screen. Garnett’s tribute opened with a clip from “SportsCenter” detailing the trade that delivered him to Boston from the Timberwolves. After a clip of the Big Three holding up their jerseys at Garnett’s introduction, highlights from his Boston tenure rolled, including his bloodied head during a game against the Lakers in 2011, his in-game pushups versus Miami from 2012, and a wild montage of chest pounds and emphatic fist pumps. The video closed with Garnett kneeling to kiss the parquet floor and him screaming, “Anything is possible!” after the Celtics’ Game 6 victory over the Lakers delivered Banner 17 in 2008.

As the crowd delivered another standing ovation, the camera cut to a banner with retired jersey numbers with a couple open spots at the bottom — spots that eventually will house Garnett’s No. 5 and Pierce’s No. 34. But Garnett was already back in the huddle at that point, barking at teammates while trying to power through his emotions.

The cameras cut back to Garnett as play resumed on the court and, after a couple of deep breaths, Garnett smiled and appeared to tell teammates he had been on the verge of losing it.

In the days leading up to Sunday’s game, Garnett pledged to keep his focus on the game and he lived up to that promise. The Celtics rallied in the fourth quarter, trimming a 12-point deficit to three, and had a chance to tie the game with less than 30 seconds to play. With Rondo dribbling in a late-clock situation, Garnett cheated off his man to double the ball and managed to intercept a pass intended for Brandon Bass.

The 37-year-old Garnett, 18-plus years of NBA mileage on his tires, had 70 feet to cover, but he outraced Jeff Green and Chris Johnson before delivering a layup that essentially sealed Brooklyn’s 85-79 triumph, capping a perfect trip back to Boston.

“It took me two days to get the layup up; I thought I was going to get caught, but I got it still — put the ball in front of me, and I got the layup,” Garnett said. “Like Paul said, I’m glad we came here and got a win. A lot of distraction, but they were good distractions.

“It felt good to be showered and for the city to show their appreciation [and] the organization, man. You give yourself. People always say that players can be too loyal. I don’t believe that. A city like Boston is worth it and tonight’s the epitome of all that.”



VIDEO: Garnett and Pierce on their emotional return to Boston

***

No. 3: Wall will use USA Basketball snub as motivation – John Wall‘s Olympic dreams are fading. The Wizards point guard did not make the cut on USA Basketball’s roster for 2014-16, a 28-man that includes his backcourt mate Bradley Beal. Granted, Beal is a shooting guard and a specialist in one area that the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team can never have enough of for international competition. Wall, meanwhile, is one of the many talented point guard options the USAB brass had to choose from. The fallout from this snub, however, could very well work in the Wizards’ favor. Michael Lee of the Washington Post tries to make sense of it all:

Wall is the one of two American-born No. 1 overall picks in the past 11 years not to receive an invitation to Team USA. The other former top pick left out of the mix is Greg Oden, who is back in the NBA after missing the previous four seasons with chronic knee problems. LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Derrick Rose, Blake Griffin, Kyrie Irving and Anthony Davis were included.

“I been through it before. The main thing for me is try to be professional. I went out there and played. I did it the right way,” Wall said of his experiences with Team USA minicamp. “I just use it as more motivation. It’s nothing I could do. It’s nothing I can say, and I don’t want nobody to babysit me or try to make it work for me. They made their list, they made their decision and that’s what they’re happy with, and I just have to look past that. It’s more motivation because I didn’t make McDonald’s game. I wasn’t national player of the year. I wasn’t rookie of the year. So those are just tabs I keep to motivate myself to prove people wrong.”

The Wizards gave Wall a five-year, $80 million maximum extension last summer, solidifying his standing as the foundation of the franchise’s efforts to get back to respectability. In his fourth season, Wall has been producing the best numbers of his career with averages of 20.0 points, 8.5 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.9 steals. He finished a distant third in all-star fan balloting for Eastern Conference guards but is expected to be chosen by the coaches as a reserve with the Wizards positioned to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

Wall is having a better season than some of the point guards on the list, but despite his slow-but-steady improvement, he lacks the skill as a consistent shooter that is a necessity for international basketball. Beal, however, is a noted marksman who has connected on 42.3 percent of his three-point attempts this season and could be more of a threat with a shorter international three-point line.

Team USA only invited three other shooting guards in James Harden, Gordon Hayward and Klay Thompson but has been known to use two point guards on the floor at the same time.

“A lot of these guys can go either way. Like LeBron can play” point guard, Beal said with a laugh. “It really doesn’t matter, so I just have to be able to come in and show what I’ve got. It’s totally different than the NBA.”

***

No. 4: Heat just getting started on the 2013-14 season? – So playtime is over now for the Miami Heat. Dwyane Wade came back for Sunday’s Finals rematch and win over the San Antonio Spurs. Chris Bosh made up for his woes against the Spurs during The Finals with a huge effort and the Heat looked energized and much more like the outfit that is chasing a third straight title and fourth straight trip to The Finals, where the Spurs could once again await them. Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com dissects the Heat’s season and where they stand going forward:

After weeks of clearly struggling with motivation, the Heat are about to have plenty of it put before them. Sunday’s strong 113-101 victory over the San Antonio Spurs kicked off a stretch where the Heat will play teams with winning records in seven of 10 games. Not by accident, eight of their next 12 games are on national television.

More importantly, Sunday was also the first day the Heat had their full roster since the start of the season. Though they’re hardly alone in that distinction, with the league ravaged by injuries to stars, the Heat had a rather large variable in play because of the recent appearance that Greg Oden could end up being a factor at their weakest position.

The Heat have been rapped across the knuckles recently for what has been dubbed a “malaise” as they’ve swallowed nine losses against teams with losing records. What that fails to recognize is that the Heat were actually two games better this season through 43 games than they were last season. There were plenty of “what the?” games in the first few months last season as they struggled to get traction after winning the 2012 title.

It was last season in their 44th game when they truly got serious, after a losing road trip. It started Super Bowl weekend and they eventually reeled off 27 wins in a row and found a rhythm that carried them to another title.

It’s Super Bowl week again and the Heat have those several reasons to start getting serious, including a 2-4 road trip that ended grimly last week. Forget about another one of those crazy winning streaks (though the current one is at three and counting) but it wasn’t hard to miss how the Heat seemed to start to depress the gas against the Spurs.

Leading by 29 points at one point before the gap closed in garbage time, they delivered one of their most impressive performances of the season and their first quality win of the new year. It wasn’t a sterling defensive performance — those have been particularly elusive for the Heat this season and what they are really looking for — but there was no missing their increased intensity.

“They came with their A-game,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said.


VIDEO: The Game Time crew unveils their Sunday Feast

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: We didn’t mean to snub Stephen Curry and the Warriors, who knocked off the Portland Trail Blazers in an exciting Grammy night show which also served as a homecoming for the heir apparent of Oakland’s point guard legacy … Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle is doing his due diligence to pump Dirk Nowitzki up as an All-Star reserve … New Orleans Pelicans big man Anthony Davis is content to let his play do the talking for him … Nuggets point guard Nate Robinson is operating behind enemy lines this week as an unabashed fan of his hometown Seattle Seahawks

ICYMI of The Night: Between the highlights and the narration of Beau Estes, the Top 10 Plays is a must-watch and must-listen on a daily basis. Sunday’s Top 10 plays is no different. Watch the players shine and enjoy Beau’s soundtrack while you do it:


VIDEO: Check out Sunday’s Top 10 plays, the best highlights and delivery in the business

20 Teams Dream Big On MLK Day


VIDEO: GameTime’s crew previews all of the MLK Day action

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – More than Christmas or even All-Star weekend, the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday provides the NBA a platform to showcase some of the best players and teams the league has to offer. Stars young and old, championship teams and those aspiring to join those ranks … they’ll all be on display Monday.

A total of 10 games from across the country will highlight a day of celebration of both the game and the Dream Big mantra of not only Dr. King but also the league. What to watch for during the MLK Day hoops smorgasbord, the official halfway mark of the regular season:

Dallas vs. Cleveland, 1 p.m. ET (League Pass)

The skinny: The Cavaliers are feeling good after a 3-2 road trip and look to take advantage of a Mavericks team still smarting from getting blown out by Portland Saturday night. Luol Deng has infused the Cavaliers with a new energy, much like what Monta Ellis has done all season for Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks. That loss to Portland was a wake-up call for Rick Carlisle’s team, a group riding high after winning four-of-five prior to that humiliating defeat. “We regressed. The first three quarters are beyond embarrassing,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle told the team’s official website. “We weren’t playing together. We weren’t helping each other. Do that against a quality team … and they’re going to make you pay a heavy price.”

L.A. Clippers vs. Detroit, 1 p.m. ET (League Pass)

The skinny: Losses to the league’s elite have left a cloud over the Clippers’ season to this point. They look like a championship team on paper and when everything is clicking (and when everyone, Chris Paul specifically, is healthy). The Clippers are 0-5 on the road this season against the league’s top five teams, and while this game against the Pistons doesn’t provide a similar test, Clippers coach and Senior VP of basketball operations Doc Rivers is constantly evaluating his crew. “I like our team,” Rivers told ESPNLosAngeles.com. “That doesn’t mean we won’t make changes. We’re not looking to make changes, but we’re always looking just like every other team. I like our team right now. If the season ended and we had the group we have right now, I like how we look. Obviously, I’d add Chris Paul to that group — but other than that I like our team a lot.”

Toronto vs. Charlotte, 2 p.m. ET, (League Pass)

The skinny: Playoff dreams in Charlotte this season have a lot to do with Kemba Walker and how well the point guard plays at what is the league’s deepest and most difficult position. If you don’t believe it just look at what Kyle Lowry has meant to the Raptors during their post-Rudy Gay-trade renaissance. So with the news that Walker will miss the next 10-14 days with a second-degree sprain of his left ankle, the Bobcats need Ramon Sessions to step up in a major way to keep the playoff vibes alive. The Raptors, meanwhile, are 6-4 in their last 10 games and can continue their momentum with another big road win.

Philadelphia vs. Washington, 2 p.m. ET (League Pass)

The skinny: The Wizards are trying desperately to reach the .500 mark, for both tangible and symbolic reasons. The break even mark gives them a chance to climb above .500 as they continue their playoff chase. And getting above that mark allows them to think about themselves in a different light, as they continue to work through the inconsistencies that have plagued their season. They haven’t had a winning record since starting the 2009-10 season 2-1. “Somebody just needs to not tell us our record and we’ll just go out and play,” shooting guard Bradley Beal said. “Every time they tell us ‘.500,’ we just pressure ourselves too much and end up not showing up.” Wizards point guard John Wall and his Sixers counterpart Michael Carter-Williams better show up for their showdown.

Brooklyn vs. New York, 2:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)

The skinny: There’s no shortage of subplots in this Battle of the Boroughs. Both Knicks coach Mike Woodson and Nets coach Jason Kidd have survived all of the turmoil of the early season and, courtesy of a feeble Eastern Conference playoff field, remain in the thick of the hunt for postseason positions. The Knicks are still dealing with myriad injury issues, not to mention the ongoing J.R. Smith drama. The Nets just want a little payback after the Knicks beat the starch out of them in their last meeting (a 113-83 rout on Dec. 5). “We definitely do,” Nets point guard Shaun Livingston told ESPNNewYork.com. “They came in and beat us pretty well at our place. We have to take that upon ourselves and take it personally. We’ve got to come and compete.”


VIDEO: Pacers big man Roy Hibbert encourages the children at an Indianapolis elementary to Dream Big

New Orleans vs. Memphis, 5 p.m. ET (NBA TV)

The skinny: The Grizzlies five-game win streak is tied with the Portland Trail Blazers for the best current run in the league. The surge couldn’t have come at a better time for a team that has been bolstered by the return of All-Star center Marc Gasol. He will do his best to help take advantage of an injury-plagued Pelicans team that doesn’t know if it’s coming or going. Even with Anthony Davis playing out of his mind, the Pelicans cannot find a groove. Davis is averaging 22.4 points and 11.1 rebounds during the Pelicans’ eight-game skid, both above his season averages. But he needs help if the Pelicans are going to avoid sliding all the way down the ladder in the Western Conference. “It’s adversity,” Davis said. “We have to learn how to deal with it.”

Miami vs. Atlanta, 5:30 p.m. ET (League Pass)

The skinny: The best way for the Heat to shake out of their recent funk is to continue to find inspiration wherever they can. For LeBron James, it’s watching his biggest rival and good friend, Thunder star Kevin Durant, who has been on a tear of late.  The unfortunate recipient of LeBron’s wrath could end up being the Hawks. Because Durant has raised the bar, even for a LeBron. “I do a lot of checking and seeing what guys have done overnight,” James told ESPN.com’s Heat Index of keeping up with the performances of other players. “After every game, I always go … and see what guys did. I didn’t have to look too far to see what K.D. did last night. As soon as I looked at my phone, a family member of mine said, ‘K.D. had 54, you only had 21. You stink.’ So, there it is.”

L.A. Lakers vs. Chicago, 8 p.m. ET (League Pass)

The skinny: It’s tough to get excited about these two teams squaring off when their best players are wearing designer suits instead of uniforms. It’s a good thing the Lakers and Bulls have learned how to operate without Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose, respectively. To their credit, the Lakers enter the game riding the wave, however slight it might be, of a two-game win streak. That’s a good way to hit the halfway mark of the season for team that has to feel like it’s endured 82-games worth of tumult already. “We just have a lot of injuries and a lot of stuff,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said after Sunday’s win over the Raptors. “We got some guys who are improving and we’re not as good as we’d like to be, obviously this last stretch really knocked us for a loop, but our whole goal is to get back and win one at a time and play well, just get better, keep our energy up and our spirits up and see if we can have a good second half.”

Portland vs. Houston, 8 p.m. ET (TNT)

The skinny: It’s funny the way things work out sometimes in the NBA. The Trail Blazers are every bit of the elite, title-contending team most of the pundits predicted the Rockets would be last summer when they landed Dwight Howard in free agency. The Blazers have done it all season with a steady mix of LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard and arguably the most underrated supporting cast in the league. It won’t be that way for long if it’s up to Nic Batum, who told our very own Jeff Caplan that he believe he’s an All-Star. “You know, KD, is way up there, so can’t reach him he’s so far. But the West has to take a small forward after KD; I think it should be me. The West is crazy. I talked about it with Tony Parker two nights ago — I had dinner with him — that in the West, for a bench, to pick seven guys is pretty tough. KD is going to start at small forward, but I know if I get a chance to be on the bench to be a backup to KD, I would be very happy to do it.”

Indiana vs. Golden State, 10:30 p.m. ET (TNT)

The skinny: Paul George‘s 360 dunk has been the talk of the basketball world the past 24 hours and rightfully so. But that one dunk shouldn’t overshadow what is a most appropriate nightcap of a monster day of hoops. We get the most consistent team in the Eastern Conference and perhaps the league against arguably the most exciting team, though not the most consistent, in the league. George, Steph Curry, Lance Stephenson and Klay Thompson will provide the offensive fireworks. But the fellas up front on both sides love to mix it up (David West‘s pockets are $15,000 lighter after he was fined for that elbow to the jaw of the Clippers’ Blake Griffin). Keep an eye on West, Roy Hibbert and Ian Mahinmi of the Pacers and Andrew Bogut, David Lee and HT fave Draymond Green of the Warriors. They’ll wage their own battle during the game.


VIDEO: Pacers star Paul George leads the top 10 dunks of the week

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

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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.”

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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

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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

Morning Shootaround — Jan. 6


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 5

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Nets get good news on Lopez | Cavs have no deals for Bynum | Report: Nuggets trying to deal Miller | Report: Barbosa set for 10-day with Suns | Wade is back … to back

No. 1: Nets get good news on Lopez surgery – Not only are the Brooklyn Nets winning games in 2014, but the reeling franchise got some good news about Brook Lopez after he had surgery this weekend on his right foot. He’s still done for the season, but at least there is light at the end of the injury-filled tunnel for the Nets’ big man, according to Mitch Abramson of the New York Daily News:

For once, the Nets received a bit of good medical news when it comes to an injury. Nets center Brook Lopez underwent successful surgery to fix a fractured fifth metatarsal of his right foot on Saturday morning, and Nets general manager Billy King expects Lopez back for offseason workouts this summer, fully recovered. A second procedure — a first metatarsal osteotomy — was also completed on Saturday to “unload and protect the injured area” and to reposition the bone to lessen the strain and reduce the chance for another injury, according to a press release put out by the Nets. Lopez, who was injured on Dec. 20 at Philly, is out for the remainder of the season.

“With this procedure, we both fixed the broken bone (fifth metatarsal) in Brook’s right foot and repositioned another bone, so that his sole of his foot will bear weight more evenly than before,” said team medical director Dr. Riley Williams, one of three doctors who were involved in the procedure.

Still, despite the positive tone of the statement by Williams, King admitted before Saturday’s game to the uncertainty involved with a surgery such as this.

“They said it was going to be a successful recovery, so I mean, we can’t sit here today on Jan. 4 and say what’s going to be when he starts playing (again),” King said. “We can’t speculate and that’s what I’m not going to do.”

“Right now, he had(the surgery), and I expect him to have a full recovery and be playing next year,” King said.


VIDEO: Take a look at Sunday’s Top 10 plays

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No. 2: Cavaliers running out of time with Bynum? – The countdown clock is ticking on the Cleveland Cavaliers and their attempts to make something of the mess that is the Andrew Bynum affair. They’ve engaged several teams (most notably the Los Angeles Lakers, for Pau Gasol) in trade talks about their disgruntled center in advance of Tuesday’s deadline, but still have nothing concrete to choose from in terms of options. They’ll obviously push it to the deadline, but there is nothing imminent, writes Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal:

Any team that acquires Bynum must waive him by Tuesday in order for him to clear waivers in time to have his salary removed from their cap, but any players the Cavs acquire will have to first pass a physical unless the team agrees to waive it.

ESPN.com reported the Cavs and Lakers were hopeful of completing a deal Sunday for Pau Gasol, but that didn’t happen. Gasol played for the Lakers on Sunday night while the two sides continue negotiating. The Lakers are insisting on assets beyond luxury tax relief, but thus far Cavs General Manager Chris Grant hasn’t budged. The Cavs are offering tax relief and little else.

One source described the talks as stalled late Sunday night, but another source said talks have been off and on throughout the negotiations. No deal is considered dead until 5 p.m. Tuesday, when the deadline is reached for Bynum to be waived for cap relief.

Bynum’s agent, David Lee, said Sunday he has been told nothing by the Cavs. Wherever Bynum is traded, his stay will be brief. He is expected to be released, since only about half of his $12 million contract is guaranteed. Any team that acquires Bynum can waive him without paying him a dollar and shed $12 million off their cap. He will then be free to sign with any team in the NBA, likely for the league minimum.

Cavs coach Mike Brown didn’t want to discuss the trade talks prior to Sunday’s game against the Pacers.

“Those are great questions for Chris,” Brown said. “I’m coaching the guys in the locker room.”

Yahoo! Sports reported Sunday the Lakers were seeking Dion Waiters as part of the trade, but a league source said Sunday the Cavs weren’t interested in parting with Waiters for what will likely be a brief rental of Gasol.

***

No. 3: Report: Nuggets actively looking to deal Miller  – In a loss to the Sixers last week, Nuggets point guard Andre Miller blew up at coach Brian Shaw during the game in a vocal outburst that was witnessed by practically everyone in attendance. As a result of that outburst, Miller was suspended by the team for detrimental conduct, but the team rescinded that move on Friday. Miller was not with the team as he was granted leave to deal with a personal issue, but it seems more and more unlikely that Miller will ever suit up for the Nuggets once he returns, writes Christopher Dempsy of The Denver Post:

Andre Miller, who was excused from all team activities for four days, won’t be part of the Nuggets for long after he returns.

The Nuggets are actively trying to trade Miller, according to a league source. If accomplished, it would be the second time Denver traded him. He was traded in 2006 in a package that brought Allen Iverson to the Nuggets.

It has been a dicey few days for Miller, who had harsh words for Nuggets coach Brian Shaw during Wednesday’s game against Philadelphia. Miller was initially suspended, but then the suspension was rescinded, in part so Miller would be able to continue getting paid during his time off.

Miller has spent all or parts of seven seasons in Denver, in two stints, this latest one starting in 2011, when Portland traded him back to the Nuggets.

***

No. 4: Report: Barbosa set for a (10-day) return to Suns  – Eric Bledsoe‘s knee sprain could be the New Year’s blessing Leandro Barbosa was hoping for as he readies to sign a 10-day contract with the Phoenix Suns, according to a report from Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic. The Suns, who remain one of the surprise teams in the league this season, need the added depth in the backcourt and are turning to a familiar face in Barbosa:

Barbosa has not played in the NBA since Feb.11, 2013, when he suffered a season-ending knee injury while playing for Boston when Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough was the assistant GM there. Barbosa was part of a later trade to Washington but the torn ACL made him just a salary-slotting part of the Jordan Crawford deal while he was at home rehabilitating in Brazil.

After going unsigned this season, Barbosa began playing for Pinheiros in Brazil to try to get his body ready for a NBA opportunity. Barbosa averaged 20.8 points, 3.1 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 1.4 steals in eight games while making half of his 3-pointers.

Barbosa is expected to join the Suns in Chicago, where they begin a five-game road trip Tuesday and where Barbosa made a game-winning shot for the Suns in 2007. The 10-day contract is pending a physical. Barbosa was recently considered by the Lakers, who later signed ex-Suns point guard Kendall Marshall.

Barbosa played the first seven of his 10 NBA seasons with Phoenix, playing a key bench role for the winningest era in franchise history. Barbosa was the 2006-07 Sixth Man Award winner, when he averaged a career-high 18.1 points per game. He averaged at least 13 points for four consecutive Suns seasons and is a 39.1 percent career 3-point shooter.

Barbosa last played with the Suns in 2009-10, when he was bench teammates with current Suns starters Goran Dragic and Channing Frye.

NBA teams can begin signing free agents to 10-day contracts Monday. Signing Barbosa will put the Suns roster at the 15-man maximum.

***

No. 5:  Wade goes back-to-back, ready for the grind? – Dwyane Wade chose the first weekend of the New Year to test himself and his knees to see if he was ready for the grind of the remainder of this NBA regular season. Wade played on back-to-back nights for the first time this season, gauging his own progress from July shock-wave knee therapy, a process that Ira Winderman of the Sun-Sentinel points out, is believed to take six months to recover from. The two-time defending champs can afford him all the time he needs (it’s easier to do with LeBron James and Chris Bosh healthy and rolling) but Wade is ready to push it now. The Heat, by the way, are 4-4 in games Wade has missed this season:

“I just want to be able to go,” he said of Sunday’s start. “I got a good workout in. It felt OK. There’s no guarantees. But there’s got to come a point where I feel comfortable with trying it. So I thought this would be a good time.” …

“It’s getting better,” he said. “I feel like it’s less sore now in the beginning of January than it was in the beginning of December.

“So, it’s all about continuing to progress. So hopefully it’s better as the months go on.”

He wound up playing 35 minutes in Sunday’s 102-97 victory, after playing 36 in Saturday’s victory over the Magic. He closed with 14 points, nine assists and four rebounds, making a pair of critical late free throws.

“He was competitive, particularly in that fourth quarter,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “His legs were live and he had to make some defensive plays at the end.”

Wade has missed eight games this season, seven as part of his knee maintenance program.

The last time Wade played both games of a back-to-back set was Nov. 15-16 against the visiting Dallas Mavericks and at the Charlotte Bobcats. He said he felt compelled to play in Charlotte because of the suspension of starting point guard Mario Chalmers due to a flagrant foul the night before. He scored just four points in that game in Charlotte.

Wade later said he regretted playing on those consecutive nights, sitting out the next two games, inactive for six days.


VIDEO: A career night for Reggie Jackson worked wonders for the Thunder

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Kobe Bryant doesn’t want your All-Star votes, and get off his lawn while you’re at it … The Warriors did their best to break the scoreboard Sunday night … Russell Westbrook speaks about his three surgeries since last spring and where he goes from here … The Colts are following the Pacers’ postseason lead in Indianapolis … The Nuggets care, they really do!

ICYMI(s) Of The Night: J.R. Smith continues his weird ways with the New York Knicks, this time checking into the game and promptly going to work on Shawn Marion‘s shoelaces. At least the Knicks won this game without Smith’s antics interrupting their flow …


VIDEO: JR Smith unties Shawn Marion’s shoes at the free throw line