Posts Tagged ‘Nic Batum’

Spain And France Still Battling … On Twitter!

VIDEO: Spain and France served up an instant classic in Thursday’s EuroBasket semifinal

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Apparently, an overtime thriller in a EuroBasket semifinal wasn’t enough for certain members of the Spanish and French national teams. Hours after Pau Gasol led Spain to a rousing comeback win over Nic Batum, Tony Parker and the host nation team, members of their respective camps turned to Twitter to continue the fight after Thursday’s game.

Both Ricky Rubio and Rudy Gobert lobbed shots (nothing vicious) back and forth in an intense rivalry that stretches back years, highlighted in the last year by a French upset of Spain on their home soil in last year’s FIBA World Cup and now Spain’s return of serve today.

Spain locked up their spot in next summer’s Rio Olympics with the win. France will have to earn a spot in a FIBA qualifying tournament in 2016. In the meantime, we need the players on both sides to, uh … keep it classy.


Morning Shootaround — July 30

VIDEO: Members of Team Africa and Team World have arrived in Johannesburg


Ujiri leads the charge in Africa | Veteran point guard Miller joins Timberwolves | Matthews: Trail Blazers ‘never made an offer’

No. 1: Ujiri leads the charge in Africa — Toronto Raptors GM Masai Ujiri is at the forefront of the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders initiative in Africa. It’s more than just an obligation from the Ujiri, it’s a passion project years in the making. Our very own Shaun Powell is on the ground in Johannesburg and captured the essence of Ujiri’s mission to serve as an ambassador for the game, and sports in general, on his native continent:

For anyone who might ask why the general manager of the Toronto Raptors is spending his summer threatening to go hoarse half a world away, well, you must know this about Masai Ujiri. When he’s in charge of an NBA franchise, he’s in his element, because his peers find him very astute and a few years ago voted him the game’s top executive. But when he’s developing basketball and teaching life skills to children and young adults in Africa, he’s in his homeland and his own skin, and there is no greater reward or satisfaction or privilege. When and if he wins his first NBA title, that might pull equal to this.


He was in Senegal last week, holding basketball clinics through his foundation, Giants of Africa. Next up: Stops in Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda and also Nigeria, his birthplace. He’ll spend three weeks on this side of the Atlantic with the hope of discovering the next Dikembe Mutombo from these clinics, but would gladly settle for the next surgeon.

This weekend is unique and special because here on Saturday the NBA will stage an exhibition game for the first time in Africa, and the participating NBA players and coaches are warming up by serving as clinic counselors.

One is Chris Paul, and the cheers he gets from campers are the loudest, but even an eight-time All-Star knows he’s not the star of the home team, not on this soil.

Ujiri ricochets from one group of campers to another like a blind bumblebee, carrying an air horn that blows when one session ends and another begins. After five non-stop hours of this he is asked if he’s tired, and no, he’s just amused at the question. Who gets tired from doing their passion?

“I look at these kids and they remind me of me of when I was a young kid,” he says. “I see me through them. All they need is a chance.”

It all runs with precision at this clinic, how the students are disciplined and determined, how their enthusiasm rubs off on the NBA players and coaches, how Ujiri’s vision seems so … right. As Ujiri gave pointers, a Hall of Famer who’s also the pioneer of African basketball stood off to the side, shaking his head, astonished at the spectacle and the man in charge.

“Masai has a lot of passion for this, and helping Africa year after year speaks about the person he is,” says Hakeem Olajuwon. “He is a prince. That’s what he is.”


No. 2: Veteran point guard Miller joins Timberwolves — Kevin Garnett won’t be the only “old head” in the Minnesota Timberwolves’ locker room this season. He’ll have some company in the form of veteran point guard Andre Miller, who agreed to a one-year deal to join the renaissance KG, Flip Saunders and Ricky Rubio are trying to engineer with one of the league’s youngest rosters. Miller’s role is more than just that of an adviser, though, writes Kent Youngblood of the Star Tribune:

It was less than two weeks ago that Flip Saunders, Wolves president of basketball operations, said his team might be in the market for a veteran point guard.

He has arrived.

A source confirmed a report that Wolves had come to an agreement on a one-year contract with veteran Andre Miller, who visited the Wolves on Wednesday.

It marks an evolution in Saunders’ thinking. Immediately after moving up to draft former Apple Valley star Tyus Jones late in the first round of the draft, Saunders sounded like he might be happy with Jones as Ricky Rubio’s backup. But the fact that Rubio is coming off ankle surgery and Jones is a rookie ultimately changed Saunders’ mind.

“You don’t want to put the pressure on the young guys so much,” Saunders said two weeks ago. “Hey, listen, we’re always looking to upgrade. It could happen.”

And it did. Miller, 39, is nearing the end of a long career, but his experience should help both Rubio and Jones while giving the Wolves some peace of mind. Originally drafted with the eighth overall pick in the 1999 draft by Cleveland, the 6-2 Miller has averaged 12.8 points and 6.7 assists over 16 seasons while playing for seven teams. Last season between 81 games in Sacramento and Washington, Miller averaged 4.4 points and 3.5 assists per game.


No. 3: Matthews: Trail Blazers ‘never made an offer’: — There is no need for an autopsy on Wes Matthews‘ exit from Portland via free agency. He’s a Dallas Maverick now and apparently for good reason. Matthews told Jason Quick of the Oregonian that the Trail Blazers never made an offer to keep him, allowing the injured free agent to take the offer from the Mavericks and move on after being an integral part of the operation in Rip City.:

He had hoped he could return to the city that had embraced him, to the team with players he considered brothers, to the franchise where he grew into one of the NBA’s most well-rounded and respected shooting guards.

But in the end, after five seasons, the feeling was not mutual. He was greeted with silence. No phone call. No text messages. The Blazers never made an offer.

“I was pissed off,” Matthews said. “I felt disrespected.”

He believed he was a viable option for teams, even as he continued to rehabilitate a ruptured left Achilles tendon suffered in March. In the days leading up to free agency, Matthews’ camp released video to ESPN showing him jogging in place, utilizing lateral movement and shooting jumpers. He was, he wanted the league to know, ahead of the eight-month recovery time estimated by doctors.

A story also leaked that Matthews expected negotiations to start at $15 million a season, or almost $8 million more than he made last year.

It was a ghastly number for the Blazers, even though they could technically afford him. Paul Allen is the richest owner in sports, but after a lost era during which he paid more than a combined $100 million to Brandon Roy and Greg Oden, only to see their knee injuries become chronic, Allen was wary of paying top dollar to a player coming off a serious injury.

The only chance the Blazers would pursue Matthews, top executive Neil Olshey later explained, was if free agent LaMarcus Aldridge chose to return, maintaining Portland as a playoff-caliber team. When Aldridge chose San Antonio, the Blazers decided to rebuild. Paying big money to a 29-year-old shooting guard coming off major surgery didn’t make long-term sense.

“I was angry,” Matthews said, “but I also realize that this is a business.”

He figured there would be trying times, with harsh realities, after he suffered his injury during the third quarter of a March 5 game against Dallas. Achilles injuries not only test one’s body, they challenge the mind.

He didn’t expect one challenge to come from the team to which he gave so much of his heart, so much of his sweat. Portland’s silence meant he was losing the greatest comfort of his career: a stable starting lineup, an adoring fan base and a rising profile.


SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Chuck Hayes is headed back to Houston on a partially guaranteed one-year deal … Tyus Jones, the hometown kid, is leading the summer caravan for the Minnesota Timberwolves … A couple of Trail Blazers are going a bit Hollywood this summer … Amir Johnson was convinced Celtics fans would love him before he joined the team

Morning shootaround — Jan. 11

VIDEO: Highlights of the games played Jan. 10


Will the Nets move Lopez? | Break up the Sixers | Boston’s drafty future | Amundson joins elite club

No. 1: Will the Nets move Lopez? — Last night’s 98-93 loss to the Detroit Pistons dropped the Brooklyn Nets to 16-21 on the season. And while their NYC neighbor the New York Knicks are in full-on rebuilding mode, the Nets are trying to battle through injuries and still make the playoffs. But as Alex Raskin points out in the Wall Street Journal, the Nets may be open to trading All-Star center Brook Lopez, which could be their best hope of strengthening the roster as the playoffs loom…

Only now, with the Nets’ playoff hopes clinging to a thinning backcourt, the time may finally be right. The emergence of second-year center Mason Plumlee has relegated him to the bench, and not because Lopez has played particularly poorly.

Despite undergoing right-foot and left-ankle surgery over the off-season, Lopez appears to be healthy, even after some December back issues. In fact, Lopez has played two of his better games in recent memory over the last two weeks, scoring 29 points in a spot start against Chicago on Dec. 30 and a 22-point performance in Monday’s loss to Dallas in which he briefly outscored the Mavericks, 18-17.

And on Friday, Lopez played well for the most part, scoring 18 points and hitting a game-tying hook shot with 25 seconds left. However, Hollins did pull Lopez in favor of backup Jerome Jordan for a significant portion of the fourth.

They might be motivated sellers, but the Nets still think Lopez could fetch valuable players in a trade, according to one league source. His history of foot problems notwithstanding, the biggest issue in moving Lopez ahead of the Feb. 19 trade deadline has nothing to do with his health.

Rather, it’s the $16.7 million Lopez is owed next season, since trading him would normally mean taking back a significant amount of salary.

The Nets, according to multiple sources, are willing to deal Lopez, but they are against taking on expensive or lengthy deals in order to do so.

Instead, the Nets are looking to accomplish the rare feat of shedding a bit of salary while remaining competitive in the East, where sub-.500 teams will have a chance to earn a seventh seed. (The Nets are currently in seventh place).


No. 2: Break up the Sixers — The Philadelphia 76ers began this season with a historic 17-game losing streak. Everyone knew the Sixers were rebuilding, but nobody thought they would be as catastrophically bad as they were at the start of the season. But since that streak, the Sixers have gone 7-12, and yesterday’s win over the Pacers was their second in a row and makes wins in three of their four games. As Keith Pompey writes in the Inquirer, the Sixers are gaining confidence by the day…

The Sixers take a 7-29 record into their home matchup Tuesday against the Eastern Conference-leading Atlanta Hawks. Saturday’s win enabled the Sixers to post wins on consecutive nights for the first time since road victories over the Denver Nuggets and Sacramento Kings on Jan. 1 and 2, 2014.

The Pacers dropped to 15-24.

“This win definitely takes a bad taste out of our mouth,” Nerlens Noel said about the start to the season. “We feel good about the position we are in now and the progress we’ve made.

“We are proving to people that we are a team that is going to fight hard every night.”

Noel had six points, nine rebounds, and a game-high five blocks. Michael Carter-Williams, a second-year point guard, finished with 15 points to go with nine assists. Backup point guard Tony Wroten led the Sixers with 20 points and nine assists.

West had a game-high 28 points and nine rebounds.

“This win definitely builds confidence,” Carter-Williams said. “For us to be in games and to come up clutch in clutch moments is great.”


No. 3: Boston’s drafty future — The Celtics have been in rebuilding mode going on two years now, and as part of that project, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has been stockpiling future draft picks as he trades away veteran players. Their latest move, swapping Jeff Green, just adds picks to the war chest. And while they continue playing games with a roster whittled by attrition, looming in the future is a remarkable wealth of picks. Brian Robb of has a look at what’s ahead

The Celtics would reportedly acquire a future first round pick and Tayshaun Prince in exchange for Green, if the current deal holds. Boston’s small forward was pulled off the floor before Friday night’s loss to the Indiana Pacers and could be dealt as soon as Monday, the earliest any trade can become official.

As a result of these trades, the Celtics added a few new selections to their incredible stockpile of draft picks over the next several years. Here’s a list of what picks the Celtics are likely to own as the focus turns to the future.

2015: 2 first-round picks; 3 second-round picks
2016: 4 first-round picks; 4 second-round picks
2017: 1 first-round pick; 2 second-round picks
2018: 2 first-round picks; 1 second-round pick
2019: 2 first-round picks; 1 second-round pick

All in all, the Celtics are likely to own 11 first-round picks and 11 second-round picks over the next five NBA Drafts once the Green deal becomes official. With the trade deadline still more than a month away, Danny Ainge still has plenty of time to add to this stockpile, as he prepares for plenty of wheeling and dealing this offseason.


No. 4: Amundson joins elite club — When the Knicks traded J.R. Smith to the Cavaliers, they received veteran center Louis Amundson in return. After waiving Amundson, they re-signed him to a 10-day contract which, as ESPN’s Marc Stein points out, puts Amundson in select company: Amundson is one of a dozen players to play for at least 10 different teams…

Below are the only 12 players in league history to have played for at least 10 different teams:

12 teams: Chucky Brown, Jim Jackson, Tony Massenburg and Joe Smith.
11 teams: Mike James and Kevin Ollie.
10 teams: Lou Amundson, Earl Boykins, Mark Bryant, Drew Gooden, Damon Jones and Aaron Williams.

Of those, only Amundson and Washington’s Gooden are active, although veteran guard Mike James is on the hunt for potentially his 12th different NBA employer if he can land a D-League call-up. James, 39, is currently playing for the Texas Legends in the D-League.

Amundson is still only 32 years old, which means he theoretically has plenty of time to add to his total of teams and potentially become the NBA’s first 13-team player. But he’s not the youngest player to get to 10 teams. That would be current Cleveland Cavaliers assistant coach Damon Jones, who was just 29 when he hit the 10-team mark before spending the next three seasons in Cleveland and then returning to Milwaukee to finish his career.

Amundson’s 358 career regular-season games, though, are by far the fewest of anyone on the list. His longest stay in one spot in terms of games played was Phoenix, where he played 155 games over two full seasons. His travels around the league include a two-minute stint in Utah, three minutes with the Bulls spread over two stops and his 12-game cameo with the Cavs this season. Those travels technically do not include the Sacramento Kings, who were the first NBA team to sign him out of UNLV but let Amundson go before the start of the 2006-07 regular season.


SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: During yesterday’s Dallas/Clippers game, longtime referee Joey Crawford went down with a knee injury. They finished playing the game with just two referees … LeBron James helped the Ohio State football team get free headphones, which is not an NCAA violationKevin Seraphin joined Nic Batum in wearing a t-shirt to pay tribute to the French attack victims …

Batum speaks Blazers’ winning language

By Fran Blinebury,

VIDEO: Portland’s Nic Batum breaks down what went right for him and his team in Game 4

PORTLAND, Ore.Pourquoi pas?

Why not?

That was the question that Nicolas Batum floated in the locker room as the rising water reached the Blazers’ chins in the last few days. It didn’t take a French-English translator to read the numbers. No team in NBA playoff history has ever climbed out of an 0-3 hole to advance. It’s just never been done.

Doesn’t mean it can’t.

Pourquoi pas?

“Like we said, ‘Why not us?’ ” Batum said. “We know it’s going to be tough. It won’t be easy. Especially against this team, the San Antonio Spurs. Like we always say, just take one game at a time.”

For a night, the Blazers were not overcome by the Spurs machine on Monday. For a night, the Blazers were themselves again, streaking from end to end up and down the court, attacking the basket, jumping and scrambling for every ball that was on the floor or up for grabs.

When it was over, 103-92 might have meant nothing more than the Blazers avoiding the indignity of suffering a sweep. Or it could have been the type of effort that starts something special.

This was the kind of game and the kind of situation that Batum has been working toward for six NBA seasons. It is, ironically, the kind of game for which the Spurs’ Tony Parker has been helping him prepare.

Parker first saw Batum back in 2007 when he starred at the Nike Hoop Summit for young prospects. He reached out and a relationship began, one that has grown. Like Batum, Parker was a 19-year-old when he entered the NBA and he wanted to pass on his knowledge to his French countryman.

They talked and become close friends. Parker taught. Batum watched and listened.

The knock on the door came late at night on the eve of the EuroBasket finals last summer. Parker came to tell Batum that he needed him to step up for Team France in the championship game against Lithuania. The next day Batum delivered with 18 points, six rebounds and two steals as France won its first title.

The next knock came Monday night with the Blazers at the doorstep of elimination. Parker had dominated the first three games of this series with his shooting, his scoring, his leading of the Spurs. The long and angular Batum drew the assignment of guarding Parker from the opening tip.

Parker didn’t own the first quarter and set the pace, as he did in the first three games. He wasn’t able to turn every corner easily and get to every spot that he wanted. With Batum all over him, Parker finished with a series low 14 points and one assist on 6-for-12 shooting.

“I tried to slow him down,” Batum said. “I was just doing my job.”

Meanwhile Batum scored 14 points and grabbed 14 rebounds, the first playoff double-double of his career. He also dealt out eight assists.

“I’m happy for him. He’s playing great,” Parker said. “He’s trying to do everything he can out there. I have to great him credit for a great game.

“He did a good job. I had the shots that I wanted. But he was great tonight. He was everywhere.”

The plan is for Batum to take over the mantle of leadership on the French national team, a seamless handoff from Parker, who will turn 32 in four days.

“I think he has all the skill-set to become the leader of that team,” Parker told The Oregonian. “He’s been winning everything with the young generation, the junior national team, under-20, they won everything, same thing we did with Boris (Diaw). The main goal for him has been to do the same thing as our generation, me and Boris and Ronny Turiaf. I think when I retire, he’ll be 28, 29, his best years to try to keep winning with the national team. I know he’s looking forward to it and I think the next step is to try to be an All-Star in this league and try to be a leader.”

Parker knocked one night and told Batum he was needed. Now, Batum is answering again.

No team ever has come back from 0-3.

Pourquoi pas?

VIDEO: Spurs-Blazers Game 4 recap, May 12, 2014

24-Second thoughts — May 12

By Sekou Smith,

VIDEO: LeBron talks about his crazy, 49-point night in a win over the Brooklyn Nets

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — LeBron James. Paul Pierce.

Their careers have been intertwined for years. They’ve been at this, the sniping and swiping on and off the floor, for years now.

So, there’s no better way to dive into Game 4 of the Miami Heat-Brooklyn Nets Eastern Conference semifinal than through the eyes, hearts and minds of the main two combatants in a series filled with feisty competitors and at-times, larger-than-life personalities.

“What I try to do in this locker room and with my teammates is just try to give them belief — that we can beat this team,” Pierce said after the Nets’ Game 3 win that included 15 makes from beyond the 3-point line for the home team at the Barclays Center. “They’re not unbeatable. You’ve got to have that mental [approach] if you’re trying to get over that mountain that you’re trying to climb.”

LeBron’s response was what you’d expect from a man who has had to go through Pierce and his Boston Celtics while starring in both Cleveland and later Miami, to reach the top of the heap in the conference and the league.

“Words don’t win the game, you’ve got to go out and play,” LeBron said. “Why should there be a fear factor, it’s just basketball? We’re not trying to win a war here, it’s just basketball. We’re all grown men, who cares about who is fearing who? We’ve never been a team that talks, we don’t get into that. We’ve never been a bulletin board team. We just want to play the right way and give ourselves a chance to win.”

Game 4 @ Barclays, bring it on …

24 — No one gets it in like the venerable Ray Allen!

Ray Allen of the @miamiheat, early to prepare for #HEATvNETS Game 4 @nbaontnt. #nbastyle

A photo posted by NBA (@nba) on

Deron Williams, however, has his own designs on how to prepare for the biggest game of the Nets’ season …

Deron Williams of the @brooklynnets prepares for #HEATvNETS Game 4 @nbaontnt.

A photo posted by NBA (@nba) on

Good to know Shaq and the TNT crew are already warmed up as well …


A photo posted by DR. SHAQUILLE O'NEAL Ed.D. (@shaq) on

23 — Alan Anderson gets tangled up with LeBron and the real playoff MVP (double technical fouls) makes an early appearance tonight …

22 — This is as much a mind game for both sides as it is a basketball game …

21 — These two have rolled together before a time or two …

Denzel Washington & Spike Lee, courtside for #HEATvNETS Game 4 @nbaontnt.

A photo posted by NBA (@nba) on

20 — Just turn to TNT and watch playoff hoops!

19 — “AK-47 is the tool!”


NO Mo (Williams) again in Portland …

18 — “Watch what I do to these jokers in the last six minutes.”

LeBrooklyn James is getting whatever he wants out here. Going hard in the paint. Killing it in transition. Facilitating. He’s giving us the whole experience right now. Had 13 points in the final six minutes of the second quarter. Uh, Ballin’ … in #AttackMode …

BTW, Paul Pierce can’t handle the truth tonight …

–Another dispatch from Portland — 

Oh, and Extra Big Ups to Craig Sager!!!!!!!!!!!

17 — Sooner rather than later …

And yet the Nets are right where they want to be, down 65-63 with 7:01 to play in the third and KG acting like it’s 2004 or something. Rebound on one end, tip dunk on the other to cap a 7-0 Nets run! #weaintdoneyet

16 — “Six minutes, six minutes” …

This LeBron and the Miracles thing is not going to work the deeper the Heat go into these playoffs. #justsayin

15 — Pierce with the dunk for the Nets lead right on cue …

And D. Will with the steal on Birdman and the put back …

14 — The #Truth has shown up for the Nets at crunch time. Now the battle with LeBron is really on …

— Just so we’re clear: 22 of LeBron’s 48 points have come in the paint …

VIDEO: Welcome to the drama that is the Sterlings and the Los Angeles Clippers Dick Parsons

— Sterling foolishness on CNN elicits a prompt response from NBA Commissioner Adam Silver …

13 — Third time’s the charm for Bosh. After two misses from deep he nails the one that matters. #corner3 for 97-94 Heat lead. The Nets’ comeback play …

LeBron finishes his ridiculous night with a playoff career-high tying 49 points …

12 — Thanks for taking the high road Magic!

11 — Another head-scratcher to ponder while we enjoy the Spurs’ reserves go toe-to-toe with the Trail Blazers early in the night cap …

10  Still nothing official from New York and the coaching search …

9 — Raise your hand if you love watching Will “Buckets” Barton crank it up, Patty Mills style, when he tears those Rip City warm ups off. He’s got 22 points in 31 minutes in this series through halftime of Game 4 …

8 — Damien Lillard will not go down without a fight (and a few highlights) …

VIDEO: Damian Lillard throws it down over The Big Fundamental!

7 — They won the game, and then raided the New Jack Swing closet for this #NBAStyle pic after it was over …

Postgame #NBAPlayoffs #NBAStyle

A photo posted by NBA (@nba) on

6 — LaMarcus Aldridge worked the Houston Rockets over. Dwight Howard. Omer Asik, Terrence Jones and whoever else was unlucky enough to draw the assignment of guarding him in that series. But the LA that dominated that series has vanished against the Spurs. Tiago Splitter, that’s right Tiago Splitter, has done the job defensively …

His partner in low-post crime has been, as the kids say, on one tonight. Robin Lopez = ballin’ …

5 — It’s Batum Time! He’s shoving his countrymen Tony Parker and Boris Diaw aside as he tries to keep the Trail Blazers’ season alive with 4-point plays and anything else he can muster …

4 — #putthebroomsaway?

3 — Good to see Lillard bounce back like this. A sweep and individual struggles would have disrupted his wicked rise …

#RipCityReserves doing their part to make sure this season doesn’t end tonight. Buckets Barton and T-Rob playing wtih crazy energy on both ends …

2 — Spurs,

Put the brooms away please.


Buckets Barton

1 — Another double-header Wednesday, courtesy Nic and friends …

VIDEO: Will Bartton goes coast-to-coast and finishes with the layup

Rockets need to find Harden to find way

By Fran Blinebury,

VIDEO: Blazers take commanding lead with 112-105 win in Game 2

HOUSTON — Since James Harden already has the beard, it might be time to add the big plastic nose and large glasses to complete the disguise.

Then again, he’s already doing a good job of going incognito against the Blazers.

If the Rockets are going to climb out of the 0-2 hole against the Trail Blazers, first they’ll need to put a lasso or handcuffs on LaMarcus Aldridge.

But just as important, they’ll have to find a way to get their two-time All-Star guard (and leading scorer) to put the ball into the basket.

Through the first two games of the playoffs, Harden has made just 14 of 47 shots (29.8 percent) from the field and looked very rarely and very little like the attack-the-basket, 3-point shooting scourge of the regular season.

In the Rockets’ 122-120 overtime loss in Game 1, Harden shot just 8-for-28 and followed it up in the 112-105 Game 2 loss by hitting just 6 of 19. It is his worst two-game shooting stretch of the season.

“I’m not worried about my offense,” Harden said. “It’s basketball. You’re gonna miss shots. It’s basketball, like I said.”

It is a game where sometimes shots roll off the rim that usually go in and it is a game that occasionally comes with ebbs and flows.

Nic Batum and Wesley Matthews are shadowing him whenever he touches the ball and the Blazers’ defense is sagging into the paint to cut off his drives. That’s made Harden look like anything but the cool, confident, high-scoring star he usually is in Houston’s attacking offense. He was over-dribbling. He often looked unsure whether to pull up for a jumper or to make his way toward the hoop.

“I don’t know how much is us and how much is him missing shots,” said Matthews. “But we’ll take it either way. I don’t really care.”

The Rockets have to care if they’re going to resuscitate their suddenly flagging hopes in the next two games in Portland. Because even with Dwight Howard rumbling to 25 of his 32 points in the first half of Game 2 by dominating around the basket, Houston’s offense needs Harden to present more of a problem for the Blazers. He needs to be forcing the pace in the open court, taking advantage of his speed and innate ability to absorb contact and finish plays.

VIDEO: James Harden talks after the Rockets’ Game 2 loss

Harden averaged 9.1 free throws per game during the regular season, but got to the line twice in Game 2.

Of course, the trouble could be the tendency of defenses to tighten down and generally lock up in the playoffs.

The most troubling concern for the Rockets is that it could be a trend more than just a blip. In the last three playoff series in which Harden has played, he shot 18-for-47 (38.2 percent) against Miami in the 2012 Finals, 45-for-115 (39.1 percent) a year ago in the first round against Oklahoma City and now, this.

For the most part, Harden didn’t want to talk about his own troubles, preferring to change the topic time and again to the Rockets’ own defense.

“When shots are not falling, it’s tough,” Harden said when pressed. “They’re running their offense. They’re milking the clock and we gotta go back down and go against their set defense.

“Like I said, they’re a very long team. They’re a very good defensive team. But for the most part, we just gotta get stops.”

Yet they still have to get their leading scorer to put the ball into the basket with some level of real proficiency.

“We don’t have our same flow, our same mojo that we had, throughout the season,” he said. “We don’t have our same swag where we go out there and just play and have fun with. So we gotta get that back. We got to get our own swag back.”

Starting with their top gun.

Blazers needing a big boost from Aldridge’s return to lineup

By Sekou Smith,

VIDEO: This all-access look inside the Portland Trail Blazers sheds some light on their season

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Stare at it long enough and you’ll get dizzy.

Those Western Conference standings that saw the Portland Trail Blazers among the best of the best for the better part of this season have suddenly flipped. Instead of tapering their way into the playoffs, the Blazers in the same boat as the Memphis Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks — sweating out their playoff prospects each night.

Not long ago, the reverse was true. LaMarcus Aldridge was playing at an MVP level. Damian Lillard was dazzling as he avoided the dreaded sophomore slump. Swingmen Wes Matthews and Nic Batum were shooting the lights out as underrated starters. Center Robin Lopez was the surprise pickup of the offseason.

Now, the Blazers are in a pressure-packed race to the finish.

And they know it. The sense of urgency surrounding this team is palpable with just 10 games left. The Blazers are the only team in the Western Conference playoff mix playing sub-.500 basketball (3-7) over their last 10 games. My colleague, Fran Blinebury, was spot on when he insisted that the Blazers are letting their season slip away during this post-All-Star swoon.

They need a lift in the worst way heading into tonight’s game against Atlanta at Philips Arena (7:30 ET, League Pass), losers of three straight games and nine of their last 13. Portland hopes to get a big lift in the form of Aldridge, who missed the past seven games with a lower back injury. The chances of him returning to his MVP form from earlier this season are slim. But at least they’ll have him back as the conduit to an offense that has been among the league’s best all season.

Even that doesn’t guarantee the Blazers will survive a wicked and rugged Western Conference playoff chase that is as good as it’s been in years. There’s no sense in examining the good or bad times now. There’s only these final 10 games and the need to get back into a playoff gear.

“You have to understand it for what it is,” Lillard said. “When you’re hot, you know you’re playing well but you have to stay focused. And when you hit that bump in the road and you lose some games, and we’re struggling right now, you have to stick with it. We have to keep grinding and keep playing. And that’s where we’re at right now. We had that high moment. We knew some adversity was going to come. And it’s come. We just have to keep playing and stick together.”

Aldridge, one of the veteran leaders on this team, was adamant about the tough times coming at some point. He didn’t know that they’d come at his expense, with the injuries. He knew they would be a part of the Blazers’ season, though. They always do.

“I’ve seen it before, we had one of those good teams back in the day and injuries hit,” he said. “You have one guy go down and you have a good team, and one injury to the wrong guy or somebody not being right can definitely change your season. That’s why earlier in the season I was stressing taking care of our business while we were hot and winning as many games as we could so we’d have that cushion when we needed it later in the season and guys were beat up. We’re not a lock for the playoffs now, but if we take care of our business, we should make it.”

VIDEO: Things looked good for the Blazers before the All-Star break

They certainly aren’t acting panicked. Thursday morning’s shootaround concluded with the requisite long-distance shooting contest (which was won by Thomas Robinson), an event you’d expect to see from a team confident it can hold onto the West’s No. 5 spot it occupies.

Looks, however, can sometimes be deceiving. Aldridge and Lillard know exactly what’s at stake as the leaders of this team. Portland coach Terry Stotts does, too. Adding extra pressure, though, makes no sense.

While Aldridge prides himself on analyzing every detail, Stotts has kept an even keel all season, digesting the highs and lows the same way.

But even he recognized there would be some upheaval at the All-Star break, when injuries set in and the rotation had to be tweaked accordingly.

“We’ve had to change how we’ve been playing,” he said. “LaMarcus has been in and out of the lineup. Joel Freeland, who was a big part of the rotation, got hurt right before the All-Star game. That was part of it. Integrating some other guys, C.J. McCollum got healthy right around then, so we had to integrate him. A big part of our success was how well we’d been playing offensively. We’ve improved defensively the last 25 games. Our defensive numbers have improved but offensively, for whatever reason … players are so good in this league that offensively, you have to trust that will work out for you. But right now, getting LA back, there was a little bit of a transition period getting back and we have to go through that. Time’s getting short, everybody knows that we have 10 games left, and we have to take care of business.”

No one knows that better than Aldridge, who has watched the Blazers bog down in his absence from the rotation.

“I definitely had a chance to watch,” he said. “But it’s not the same when you’re not out there. I’m not trying to be arrogant, but our offense just doesn’t flow the same when I’m not out there. It flows a little bit different when I’m out there. It’s hard to assess it when I’m not out there. I think everybody is looking in the mirror right now trying to figure out what the can do better.”

Lillard, who has endured an education on being opponents’ No. 1 defensive target in Aldridge’s absence, is convinced that the Blazers aren’t rattled.

“The confidence definitely is not shattered,” he said. “There’s just a different pressure in the West. You can’t just be good, you have to be outstanding. We’ve got 45 wins and the Clippers have 50 wins and the Thunder 52 and they’re top three in the West. They have five more wins, seven more wins than we do and we could drop out of the playoffs mix if we don’t handle our business. I think that speaks for itself. Six through nine in the West would all be third in the East. That says it all. We just can’t get caught up in what everybody else is saying about us. What matters is if we’re going to stay locked in and take care of our business until the very end.”

At this rate, it could take until the very end for the Blazers to lock down the playoff spot that looked like a sure thing just months ago.

VIDEO: Terry Stotts talks about his team’s struggles after a loss to Orlando

It’s Still Heat And Everyone Else

VIDEO: Chris Bosh’s game-winning 3-pointer sinks the Blazers

Dwyane Wade flips a behind-the-back pass with a move that is slicker than anything on a South Beach dance floor and Chris Bosh lets fly a 3-pointer that would have sailed over the top of a palm tree.

Bosh’s game-winner did not just serve as the deciding margin in the most entertaining NBA game of the season to date, but as another difference between the two-time defending champs and everybody else.

The Heat have it figured out.

Even with the Trail Blazers rising to the challenge against a full-throated home crowd. Even with LaMarcus Aldridge showing why he belongs in the MVP conversation. Even with Wesley Matthews lighting it up. Even with LeBron James left to only play the role of world’s roughest, toughest cheerleader.

As we prepare to flip the pages another calendar year, the one thing that doesn’t change is Miami’s ability to survive and thrive. Is it myopia or jealousy or sheer boredom that keeps running new contenders up the flagpole and ignoring the resolve and sheer talent of the Heat’s Big Three?

This is, after all, why Pat Riley went to such great lengths to put them in the same uniforms, so that they wouldn’t ever be forced to rely on just one of them?

Here was yet another season that began with yet another set of questions about Wade’s knees and Bosh’s guts and whether James was already peeking ahead to next summer and a chance to return to the Cleveland. And here they are looking like anything but a trio that is ready to surrender its championship grip or prevailing aura.

The standings may show the Heat currently with the fourth-best record in the league, behind the Pacers, Thunder and Blazers and yet you can have the entire field of 29 teams as long as I get to keep Miami.

The Pacers are a fierce and committed blend of burgeoning youth and smart veterans who have made it their goal to finish with the best regular season record and grab home-court advantage all the way through the playoffs into late June. Paul George is an MVP-in-waiting, only the year(s) in question, Roy Hibbert brings the inside bulk and power of a road grader and the rest of the Pacers lineup is filled with weapons.

Yet after beating Miami in Indy on Dec. 10, they let a 15-point lead slip away eight nights later in a rematch, even on a night when James and Mario Chalmers were jawing at each other on the sidelines.

The Thunder were in the spring of 2012, and are still, supposed to be rising young challengers whose games swell with growth and confidence each season. But it’s that swelling in Russell Westbrook’s right knee that has now once more required surgery and could stop OKC from ever reaching its full potential. With James Harden in Houston, they don’t have the three-way luxury of the Heat lineup, and the 2013 playoffs demonstrated that as good as he is, Kevin Durant likely can’t finish the job himself.

The explosive rise of the Blazers behind Aldridge and Damian Lillard and Nic Batum has been as fun and exciting a story as any in the league this season. Yet even on a night when they drop in 11 3-pointers and out-rebound the Heat, they couldn’t close the deal.

The Spurs are still piling up wins against the lesser lights in the league, but may have permanently lost their grip on any chance for a fifth franchise championship in those fateful 28 seconds of Game 6 in The Finals.

The fretting over or knocking of Miami arises any time the Heat lose two straight games, a leftover product of the hype and expectation that greeted their coming together. But if the past three seasons should have taught anything, it is that James, Wade and Bosh are the ones who have assumed nothing and put themselves to the task.

While the Pacers, Thunder, Blazers and the rest are trying to figure it all out, the Heat have amassed what Spurs coach Gregg Popovich calls “the corporate knowledge” of what it takes to play with each other, trust each other and get the very most out of each other.

The result is an offense that is second-best in efficiency this season and a defense, rated eighth, that can close like a fist around a windpipe and choke off opponents when it’s time.

There is no doubt that, at 32, Wade’s knees require the delicate care of hothouse orchids, yet he can still bloom and take your breath away. Bosh continues to have his inner strength and his consistency questioned, but explodes for 37 points and leaves nothing untapped in Portland. James, well, simply plays the game on a planet where he is the only inhabitant.

So while everyone else around them in the NBA is wondering how Riley and team owner Micky Arison can — and whether they want to — keep the band together after next summer, the Heat keep knocking out hits and asking the only question that matters: Why not?

Morning Shootaround — Dec. 15

VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Dec. 14


Mo Williams uses Trail Blazers win as therapy | Lakers call Knicks, talk trade | Rondo won’t play until New Year | Paul talks the talk 

No. 1: Blazers’ Williams rides emotional wave in Philly — Portland guard Mo Williams had a hand in the Trail Blazers’ 3-pointer-fueled barrage against the Philadelphia 76ers. But unlike his teammates, it wasn’t all smiles for the veteran point guard. He played with a heavy heart while dealing with the loss of a loved one. That didn’t stop him from joining the party as the Blazers made a franchise-record 21 shots from deep. On a night when LaMarcus Aldridge did his usual MVP work and Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nic Batum, Dorell Wright and rookie Allen Crabbe all took part in the 3-point party, the three 3s that Williams knocked down had extra special meaning, as Joe Freeman of The Oregonian explains:

On Dec. 5, Williams’€™ uncle, Jerome Coleman, died after a lengthy fight with colon cancer. He was 63. Coleman’s funeral was Saturday morning in Mobile, Ala., and Williams wasn’€™t about to miss the chance to say goodbye to “€œUncle Roni.”€
So after the Blazers’€™ Thursday night victory over the Houston Rockets, Williams left the Moda Center and boarded a charter flight to Mobile. He didn’t sleep a wink the entire way, touching down in Mobile at 8:30 a.m. What followed was an emotional whirlwind of consoling family, attending memorials and taking part in countless talks that reminisced about “Uncle Roni,” the older brother of Williams’€™ mother.
“I’€™m just emotionally drained,” Williams said after the game. “Time will heal. Basketball will help. But you still have those times where you just can’€™t let it go. Being at the funeral, holding my grandma, holding my mom, then jumping on the flight coming here. It’€™s been a draining day.”€
The NBA allowed the Blazers to set up a charter flight for Williams so he could play Saturday, and the moment he walked into the visiting locker room — about 90 minutes before tipoff –€” his stress and sadness washed away. LaMarcus Aldridge cracked a joke at his expense as soon as he saw his teammate, and Williams smiled for seemingly the first time all day. Then he dove into his pregame routine.
There were no deep talks. No one asked for stories about the funeral. It was as if it was any other day. And it was exactly what Williams needed.
“That was kind of therapeutic for me, being around the guys,” he said. “Throughout the game, they didn’€™t beat me up with the fact that they knew I was going through something. They just treated me like they treat me every day. I needed that.”€


No. 2: Knicks fielding calls on Shumpert and Chandler? — Kyle Lowry is low-hanging fruit, as Kobe Bryant would say, when it comes to trade talks. The Los Angeles Lakers apparently have something a bit more aggressive in mind since they are now engaging the New York Knicks in discussions about two of the teams main rotation players, the seemingly always available Iman Shumpert and defensive anchor Tyson Chandler, according to ESPN’s Chris Broussard:

No trade is imminent, and sources say the Lakers’ call was more about doing their due diligence; it’s well-known Shumpert is available. The Lakers are unlikely to make a deal before the end of their current four-game trip, which concludes Tuesday night in Memphis.

But with Steve Blake, who is expected to miss at least six weeks with an elbow injury, joining point guards Steve Nash and Jordan Farmar on the injured list, the Lakers could be interested in strengthening their backcourt.

Shumpert is more of a shooting guard, but with Bryant taking on more of a playmaking role — averaging a career-high 6.7 assists while attempting fewer than nine shots a game — since returning from a torn Achilles tendon last Sunday, it’s easy to see the two playing together.

Shumpert is struggling through a disappointing season, and the Knicks have discussed trades involving him with several other teams, including the Denver Nuggets and Toronto Raptors.

Sources say the Lakers also are interested in another Knicks player — center Tyson Chandler. The Lakers did not inquire about Chandler when they called about Shumpert, but they are weighing whether to propose a Pau Gasol-for-Chandler trade, according to sources.

The Knicks are not looking to move Chandler — several teams have contacted them about him, sources said — but if a club agreed to take back struggling guard J.R. Smith, the Knicks would consider such a deal.


No. 3: Rondo won’t play until January — There won’t be any speculation about an earlier than anticipated return date for Boston’s All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo. Now that he’s been cleared for full contact, Celtics coach Brad Stevens moved swiftly to ease the pressure on his star by announcing that he won’t play in a game until January, at the earliest. That gives Rondo a minimum of at least two and a half weeks to get himself ready for live action and potentially much more time if he doesn’t progress as the Celtics hope. But is he, as Mark Murphy of The Boston Herald examines, the missing piece for a Celtics team that has already surpassed most people’s expectations?:

And Rondo, according to Stevens, looked “pretty good.”

“Rajon is doing more and more in practice every day. He had a good trip yesterday as far as getting good news,” said the Celtics coach. “He’s on schedule to be closer, but it still seems like we’re not going to see him on the court this month. Hopefully, the beginning of January he’ll be closer.

“He’s been cleared for that in practice. He wasn’t cleared 100 percent until yesterday,” said Stevens. “But he’s done more and more, and today was the most he’s done. He looked pretty good.”

Though Stevens repeatedly has said his system is designed to fit Rondo back into the team as seamlessly as possible, the coaching staff actually has to start the implementation process.

“I haven’t thought a ton about it, because it really hasn’t presented itself,” said Stevens. “My focus is what we’re going to do on Monday, but certainly your focus is on not only getting him into it, but also how you’re going to manage everything around that.

“Certainly there’s a lot of players who play at a high level (on this team),” he said. “The key is to continue those guys playing very well, and add in another very good player.”


No. 4: Paul lives up to his own words for Clippers — It’s a bit early in the season for must-win declarations, but the Clippers’ Chris Paul doesn’t care. He’s mandating that his team step their collective game up and that starts with the man in the mirror. And that meant he had to prove his point against the Wizards, wearing them out to the tune of 38 points and 12 assists. He joined Clyde Drexler as the only player in the last 40 NBA seasons to post a 38 and 12 line while also shooting 78 percent or better (he was 10-for-13) from the floor. Drexler did it when Paul was barely out of diapers ((Nov. 13, 1990). But Paul’s point was made, writes Jovan Buha of, so much so that Doc Rivers shouldn’t have to come up with any fire and brimstone speeches now that the Clippers’ road trip is over:

Paul stood by his bold statement, scoring 38 points — the most since his 42-point performance on Halloween against the Golden State Warriors — on 11-of-14 shooting and dishing out 12 assists in the Clippers’ 113-97 victory at Verizon Center. He’s the first player since 2009 to go for 38-plus points, 12-plus assists and three-plus steals in a game, and he already has done it twice this season.

While Clippers coach Doc Rivers disagreed with the notion that the game was a must-win at shootaround, he admitted that going 3-4 against mainly sub-.500 Eastern Conference teams would be a major disappointment at any point in the season.

“I think they’re a little frustrated on this trip,” Rivers told reporters. “They think it should have gone better. It still can go well. If you win this game, 4-3 on a seven-game trip — that’s good. It’s not what we wanted. We want to win all seven of them. But you just keep plugging along.”

With the win, the Clippers finished the trip above .500 at 4-3 and are now 16-9. That isn’t necessarily where they expected to be at this point in the season, but at the very least Saturday’s win showed that if they need to win a tough road game to ease their mental psyche, they can.


SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Bulls’ Joakim Noah insists we’re going to find out what his team is about now that they are facing another round of adversityMike Woodson has grown tired of J.R. Smith’s antics, the break up can’t be far off … and make sure and take a look at Ray Allen becoming the sixth active player to join the 24,000 point club.

ICYMI: Josh McRoberts didn’t have the Dunk of the Night, that honor was bestowed upon his Bobcats teammate Jeff Taylor, but he did get loose against his former team for Saturday night’s Play of the Day …

VIDEO: Josh McRoberts shows off his bounce against his former team

Aldridge At Center Of Trail Blazers’ Attention … But For How Long?

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — For all of the excitement and trepidation that comes with rebuilding and relying on youngsters like Damian Lillard and Meyers Leonard to help revitalize the situation in Portland, there is one man, and one man only, in the middle of the mix out there.

LaMarcus Aldridge holds the key to the team’s (immediate) future. His leadership, on and off the court, will have to serve as the main catalyst for a team searching for a new identity with a new coach (Terry Stotts), new young pieces and a brand new sole headliner in the All-Star power forward.

Aldridge showed last season that he was up to task of being the front man for the franchise, taking over a role that had rested largely on the shoulders of Brandon Roy before he retired prior to the start of an abbreviated training camp. Aldridge made his first All-Team and served notice that Kevin Love and Blake Griffin would have company in their quest to claim the crown as next in line in the Western Conference’s proud power forward lineage.

Just how long Aldridge remains alone at the center of all things for the Trail Blazers, however, remains to be seen. He has quality help in HT fave Wesley Matthews and Nic Batum, two of the survivors from the latest franchise restart. Aldridge is completely healed from offseason hip surgery and eager to get this season started.

But he only has two years remaining on his current contract and at 27 at the stage of his career where his physical powers should plateau for at least the next three or four seasons. In a day and age when superstars are aligning themselves in search of championship glory, the Los Angeles Lakers will be on the season-long rock tour this year after Miami did it the previous two years and Boston before them, it’s not unreasonable to ask just how long Aldridge will want to remain the leader of a start-up band.

Our main man Kerry Eggers of the Portland Tribune broached that very subject with Aldridge as the Trail Blazers opened camp, hunting answers for very pertinent questions:

Will Aldridge stay motivated as the young, inexperienced Blazers fall out of the playoff picture sometime after the All-Star break?

Will he tire of the constant double-teams that will dog his every move in the post?

Will he get frustrated as most of his West teammates in the 2012 All-Star Game — guys such as Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Love — play into the postseason?

Might he desire a trade at some point soon?

Maybe he’ll be fine with another rebuilding team.

“I’m here,” he told me after Tuesday’s opening training-camp session. “I’m here to try to win, to try to compete, to get better every night.”