Posts Tagged ‘Nicolas Batum’

Numbers preview: Rockets-Blazers

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com


VIDEO: Inside Stuff: Court Vision

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – At the midway point of the season, the Portland Trail Blazers were just a game behind the San Antonio Spurs for the top spot in the Western Conference.

The Blazers went 23-18 from then on, winning nine of their last 10 games. But that wasn’t good enough to even secure home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. The Houston Rockets went 25-11 to close the season and edge Portland for the 4 seed.

This is a matchup of two of the top five offenses in the league and two franchises that have just one playoff series win in the last 13 years.

Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

Houston Rockets (54-28)

Pace: 98.8 (5)
OffRtg: 108.6 (4)
DefRtg: 103.1 (12)
NetRtg: +5.5 (5)

Overall: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
vs. Portland: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups

Rockets notes:

Portland Trail Blazers (54-28)

Pace: 97.5 (10)
OffRtg: 108.3 (5)
DefRtg: 104.7 (16)
NetRtg: +3.5 (8)

Overall: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
vs. Houston: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups

Blazers notes:

The matchup

Season series: Rockets won 3-1 (2-0 in Houston)
Pace: 100.2
HOU OffRtg: 114.6 (2nd vs. POR)
POR OffRtg: 105.0 (10th vs. HOU)

Matchup notes:

West Reserves: Injuries Make It Tricky

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

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

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

Start with injuries to Paul and Lakers star Kobe Bryant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE BACKCOURT

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

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

THE FRONTCOURT

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

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

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

THE WILD CARDS

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

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

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

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

Durant Buries Blazers, Makes MVP Case


VIDEO: Durant scores 46 to lead Thunder past Trail Blazers

OKLAHOMA CITY – They’re piling on the Kevin Durant MVP bandwagon now as it barrels through Western Conference contenders with reckless abandon. Its latest victim, the Portland Trail Blazers, was left to dust off a 46-point onslaught and doff its cap as it rode out of town.

“The guy is the best player in the world right now. What can you say about him?” said Blazers forward Nicolas Batum, a salty defender who fended off the pain of a broken left middle finger better than he could Durant, the league’s runaway leading scorer halfway through the season. “When you watch him on TV, like, he is the best. When you guard him in the game, sometimes you have two guys on him and he makes the shot anyway.

“He’s the MVP. He’s the MVP,” Batum repeated, fiddling with his aching finger. “I mean, six years I have been in this league I have never seen a [performance] like that. Six years.”

Durant’s hot zone is the entire court. He blistered Portland for 11 points in the final 3:23, including a terrific drive through traffic and consecutive 3-point daggers from the top of the arc to give him six long balls on seven attempts. The Blazers’ 95-90 lead went up in smoke as did their lead in the Northwest Division. The Thunder (32-10), clamping down with an underrated or under-appreciated or simply under-talked-about defense, pulled out the 105-97 victory for their fourth consecutive win after briefly regrouping following Russell Westbrook‘s latest setback after Christmas.

They’ve knocked down Golden State, Houston, an improving Sacramento squad and now the Blazers (31-11).

Set up Wednesday night in San Antonio are the Spurs (8 p.m. ET, ESPN) with first place in the West on the line.

And as if anybody needs reminding about the Thunder’s potential, that bespectacled, young fellow wearing skinny jeans and a form-fitting sport coat cheering on the Thunder bench will eventually return.

For now, Durant is putting together a run for the ages. Since Westbrook was lost to a third knee surgery, Durant has padded a resume that today has him atop the MVP race he’s run a strong second for several years to LeBron James. Tuesday’s ultra-efficient 46 points came on 17 made baskets on 25 attempts.

But then that’s becoming old news, too. When he put 54 on the Warriors he did it on 19-for-28 shooting. He only needs a couple percentage points from the free throw line to again be in 50-40-90 territory.

“I’m not just being biased, he’s at an MVP-type level,” teammate Kendrick Perkins said. “Right now, if you had to give an award away today you’d have to give it to Kevin Durant.”

Tuesday’s 46 marked the fourth time in the last 10 games he’s scored at least 46. He’s also hit 48, twice. He’s scored more than 30 in the last eight games, the longest such streak of his career. In the last 14 games without his superstar buddy at the point, Durant has averaged 36.5 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 5.6 apg and just 2.9 turnovers in 38.1 mpg. He’s coming off being named the West’s Player of the Week and has already been named the conference’s Player of the Month for the first two months.

Durant, classically and predictably, downplayed his brilliance and praised teammates for doing the hard work to set him up to finish things off.

“You know Perkins giving his body up for me, Serge [Ibaka] is giving his body up, Nick [Collison] and Steven [Adams] , our bigs are doing a great job of getting me open and, like I always say, it’s on me to finish,” Durant said. “So I have to put in the work before and after practice, shootarounds, in order for me to make those shots. My teammates do a great job of setting me up. It’s far more than just me; it’s a small part actually. What I do is more so plays coach [Scott Brooks] calls and the screens being set and the passes being sent. I think the end result is just on me, just trusting in the work and believing in the work to knock those shots down.”

Most impressive is Durant, who also had five rebounds and four assists, is forcing nothing. Everything is coming within the offense. At the half, Jackson had 12 shot attempts to Durant’s 11. Ibaka had nine. Jeremy Lamb had six. Durant scored 15 points in 12 minutes of the first quarter; five points in five minutes in the second; 12 points in 12 minutes in the third; and 14 in nine minutes in the fourth.

“MVP performance,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “I mean, to score 46 points on 25 shots, 6-for-7 from 3s; I think he got two of his shots blocked. I mean it was a remarkable performance. He made shots when they mattered, he took his time, he didn’t force it, he just took what was there and made some great shots.”

For much of the game, Stotts’ own star, LaMarcus Aldridge, went punch-for-punch with Durant, finishing with 29 points and 16 rebounds, but Thunder center Kendrick Perkins held him to 1-for-8 in the fourth quarter. Maybe the Blazers, who won in OKC on New Year’s Eve with a late comeback, simply ran out of gas playing a third game in four nights and the second of a back-to-back.

Even so, the Thunder took the game and again sounded the alarm that they are a team in every sense of the word — deep, together, defensive and determined. Durant is a monster and a title run is going to require a full-throttle Westbrook, a reality that now only seems a matter of time, but this is arguably the most complete team of the Thunder era.

It is, inarguably, the most ferocious defensive team in the Western  Conference. In the final moments of the Thunder win, Ibaka collected blocks four and five on the same possession. The much-maligned Perkins made a crucial block, got a late steal and buried a 14-foot baseline jumper for a 99-95 lead with 1:36 left.

“I just like our approach to the game,” Durant said. “We’re just playing hard. We’re moving the basketball. We missed some shots, but that happens. We’re just playing for each other. We just have to stick together no matter what. Defensively, I think we’re doing a good job of using our length. They hit some 3s and tough shots on us, but we haven’t gotten down on ourselves, we haven’t felt sorry for ourselves, we just kept playing and tonight is another case.”


VIDEO: The Starters discuss Kevin Durant’s MVP chances

Batum Says He’s Earned All-Star Nod


VIDEO: Nicolas Batum has 14 points, 10 rebounds and a career-high 14 assists

DALLAS – Portland Trail Blazers do-it-all small forward Nicolas Batum readily admits that pal Tony Parker remains France’s No. 1 NBA heartthrob. Perhaps that gap will narrow a bit if Batum is selected to his first Western Conference All-Star team, an honor he says he would relish and, in all honesty, deserves.

NBA All-Star 2014His team’s 31-9 record, and his advanced stats suggest he is right.

“I look at all the small forwards in the West,” Batum told NBA.com Saturday night prior to putting up 21 points on 8-for-11 shooting with seven assists in a blowout win at Dallas. “You know, KD [Kevin Durant], 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.”

In his sixth season, the soft-spoken Frenchman is quietly having a sensational season playing on the league’s most potent offense. He’s averaging 13.4 ppg, scoring in a variety of ways, and posting career bests in rebounds (6.8 rpg) and assists (5.6 apg). His 46.1 field-goal percentage pales only to his second season in 2009-10 when he shot 51.9 percent, but played in only 37 games. He is shooting 36.3 percent from beyond the arc. His lanky frame and long arms help make him a sturdy defender who often checks the opponent’s top scorer.

On any given night, the 6-foot-8 Batum will post double-digit points or double-digit rebounds or double-digit assists. On some nights he might do it in two of the three categories, if not all three. He owns two triple-doubles this season, plus one points-rebounds double-double and one rebounds-assist double-double. On many nights he flirts with — at least — a double-double of some variety.

As for the All-Star Game, the West’s frontcourt is crowded with contenders, but the majority are power forwards such as Aldridge, Kevin Love, David Lee, Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan and Anthony Davis, as well as center DeMarcus Cousins.

Delving into the advanced stats reveals Batum’s all-around value to the Blazers as well as his worthiness for a coveted All-Star spot. Here’s how he ranks among the league’s forwards in key categories:

> 1st: In offensive rating (113.5 points team scores per 100 possessions with Batum on the floor)

> 4th: In net rating (10.2, the difference between offensive and defensive rating) behind his teammate Aldridge, Indiana’s David West and Golden State’s Lee)

> 4th: In true shooting percentage (59.2 percent, adjusted to include the value of 3-pointers and free throws) behind Miami’s LeBron James, Oklahoma City’s Durant and Toronto’s Amir Johnson

> 4th: In effective field-goal percentage (55.5 percent, adjusted for 3-pointers being 1.5 times more valuable than 2-pointers) behind James, Johnson and Houston’s Chandler Parsons

> 3rd: In assist percentage (21.9 percent, percent of teammates’ field goals that the player assisted) behind James and Durant

> 5th: Among small forwards in rebound percentage (10.3, percentage of total rebounds a player obtains while on the court) behind New York’s Carmelo Anthony, Dallas’ Shawn Marion, James and Durant

Not too shabby.

Here’s Batum in his own words:

NBA.com: You are a unique player in that you can fill up the stat sheet in a variety of ways. Is there a player you modeled your game after?

NB: When I grew up, my favorite player was Scottie Pippen. He was a guy that could do everything on the court, on offense and defense, and that’s what I love to do. I love to rebound, I love to assist, I love to score points, I love to play defense. I love to do everything on the court, so that’s what I try to do every night.

NBA.com: You said you would be happy to back up Durant on the West All-Star team. Do you believe you have earned the right to do so this season?

NB: I think so. I mean we’re winning, so if we’re winning games — we’re top three in the NBA — we should get at least two guys. I don’t think we’re going to get three guys, but Damian [Lillard] and L.A. will make it for sure.

NBA.com: Do you go into a game with an idea if you will attack as a scorer or facilitator?

NB: It depends on the flow of the game. When I come in and I see like is it going to be Damian’s night or Wesley [Matthews]? I don’t know if I’m going to have a triple-double every night, but if I can do it, I will do it.

NBA.com: So your goal every game is to shoot for a triple-double?

NB: Yeah. if I get like a 14 [points], 10 rebounds, 11 assists, that’s my kind of night. I don’t think I can average a triple-double, I’m not saying that, but I am the type of guy that can do the 14, 8 and 7 every night.

NBA.com: Why do you think more players aren’t as adept in filling up the stat sheet in a variety of ways?

NB: The system we do have helps me to do that. I know all the players I have around me. I know where they are, I watch a lot of video and I know who I am. I just know and read the game situation what I have to do. If I get 10 assists tonight, I get 10 assists. If I get 15, 20 points, that’s what I’m going to try to do. I just adjust my game to the other guys and the coach [Terry Stotts] told me that this season I am going to be the key to success.

NBA.com: It seems a good number of observers are waiting for the Blazers to flatten out a bit after such a first half of the season, or are still not yet ready to declare this team “for real.” Is this team built to continue at its current pace and challenge for the No. 1 spot in the West?

NB: We had a tough stretch at the end of December, beginning of January, like we lost four games out of six. But we knew we were going to go through tough times. The good thing on this team is we are, OK, we lost those four games, but we got back on track, we regrouped, we stayed together and now we’ve got a five-game winning streak. We know that this is the first time we’ve done this. OKC has been there, San Antonio’s been there. Last year we only had 33 wins and were like 11 or 12 in the West and now we are like No. 2 and we will be No. 1 if we win [Saturday]. So after 40 games people might be surprised or expect us to fall down, but we know who we are. We know what we’ve done to be in this position so far, so we are going to try to do the same thing.

Trail Blazers Answering The Questions


VIDEO: Blazers hold off Spurs in battle of West titans

With four losses in six games from the end of the old year through the first week of the new one, it was easy and popular to say that reality might finally be taking a bite out of the Trail Blazers. Losing to the lowly likes of New Orleans, Philadelphia and Sacramento will do that.

There were questions about Portland’s 3-point happy offensive attack, ability to engage in elite level defense, to have the kind of tough inner stuff that marks the true contenders.

It was one thing to snap out of the funk with a couple of home wins over the Celtics and Cavaliers. It is quite another to deliver against the upper crust.

The Blazers’ road trip to San Antonio, Dallas, Houston and Oklahoma City is nothing but hard, crusty competition, four games in five nights against nothing but Western Conference playoff teams.

So it was satisfying and maybe revealing that the Blazers took the opener against the No. 1 seeded Spurs. They followed that Saturday night with an easy 127-111 win over the Mavericks, behind 30 points from LaMarcus Aldridge.

“To beat the best team in the West on their floor, that sticks out,” said coach Terry Stotts. “Like I said, we showed a lot of resolve at both ends of the floor…I thought we showed our mettle.”

It was more than the usual bundle of points from Aldridge, Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews and more than another night in triple-double neighborhood by Nicolas Batum. It was a game than could have gotten away from the Blazers after coach Gregg Popovich’s ejection that lit a fire under Manu Ginobili that lit a Spurs charge to a 78-77 lead.

If there was a time when the Blazers’ resolve and mental toughness was going to be pushed to the limit, this was it. The fact that letting it slip away could have set a bad tone for the start of the grueling road trip only made the situation more urgent.

It was a time for poise over panic, and the Blazers delivered.

Their recent slippage notwithstanding, the truth is Portland has been coming up big against the elite teams all season. The win over the Spurs gives them a 6-1 record against the top five teams in the Western Conference.

Going into tonight’s back-to-back game at Dallas (8:30 ET, League Pass), the Blazers are just one-half game behind the Spurs for the top spot in the conference and it’s even possible that with a strong finish to the trip, Stotts could be in the running to coach the Western Conference All-Stars in the Feb. 16 All-Star Game.

“We have a pretty good record right now,” Matthews said. “We’re beating teams that are upper echelon, home and road. We just got to keep our heads down and stay humble and know that we can compete with anybody. We’re not getting too full of ourselves. We’re sticking with the process.”

The trip continues at Dallas, Houston and OKC with a chance for the Blazers to provide their answer to any questions.

If Wins Matter, Is Kevin Love Still An All-Star Slam Dunk?


VIDEO: Kevin Love talks about dealing with tough stretches on ‘Inside Stuff’

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – This post might embolden a pitch-forked mob to burn my basketball-writing credentials at the stake, but here goes: Don’t chalk up Kevin Love as an automatic Western Conference All-Star reserve just yet. Not as long as the West coaches who will select those reserves stick to the notion that winning matters.

NBA All-Star 2014Here’s Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle three years ago when asked if Tim Duncan deserved to be selected despite averaging career lows in points and rebounds in the first half of the 2010-11 season: “Those guys are 37-4 or something. You’ve got to take a strong look at that. That’s meaningful, that Duncan is on a team that’s winning every game. That’s a big deal, and it should be.”

Duncan made the squad at the expense of statistically better options that included Love (later picked as an injury replacement for Yao Ming), LaMarcus Aldridge and Zach Randolph. Coaches will again have to take a strong look at Duncan, 37, when they cast their votes (selections will be announced on Jan. 30).

Duncan’s stats — 14.7 ppg, 9.7 rpg and 1.97 bpg in 29.0 mpg — again pale next to those of his younger counterparts even though he’s essential to the Spurs sitting atop the West at 31-8.

The West’s frontcourt field is stacked. The starters, as voted by the fans (voting ends Monday), appear set: Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard and Blake Griffin (although Love was only about 17,000 votes behind Griffin for the third starting spot after last week’s third returns; Love being voted in would render this conversation moot). Coaches will select four frontcourt reserves from a deep pool that as of now includes Love, Duncan, Aldridge, Dirk Nowitzki, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and David Lee among a few others worthy of consideration (Nicolas BatumAndre Iguodala, Randolph?).

There will be quality snubs.

Love’s statistical credentials are spotless: 25.6 ppg (fourth in the league), 13.0 rpg (second), 4.0 apg (tied for first among power forwards) and 39.0 percent shooting from beyond the arc (10th overall) in 36.2 mpg. His presence, at least offensively, is essential: Minnesota’s offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) soars to 109.3 with him on the floor; without him it plummets to 93.0.

Love’s team, however, the thought-to-be playoff-ready Timberwolves, is a disheartening and seemingly unraveling group. At 18-20 they sit 11th in the West, four games out of the final playoff spot behind Nowitzki’s Mavericks. After a recent debacle of a home loss to Phoenix, Love publicly called out a pair of sulking teammates, a move that has been met with both praise and criticism.

Speaking of Nowitzki, how difficult will it be for coaches to pass on the NBA’s 13th leading all-time scorer who is averaging 21.4 ppg, is flirting with a 50-40-90 season and has his team playing mostly above expectations? Nowitzki’s 11-year All-Star run ended last season following preseason knee surgery. Aldridge and Batum have helped make the Blazers the NBA’s surprise team of the first half. An All-Star last year, Lee is averaging 19.2 ppg — shooting 52.8 percent — and 9.9 rpg on a top-five squad.

Like Love’s Wolves, Cousins’ Kings are on the wrong side of the win-loss coin, but the enigmatic center with the bad rep is having a monstrous season (one quite comparable to Love’s) — 23.4 ppg (49.6 FG%), 11.6 rpg, 1.8 spg and 1.1 bpg in 32.4 mpg. Sacramento (14-23) got off to an awful start, but has played better of late, winning six of its last 10, including wins over Miami and Portland, and have just three more losses than the Wolves.

The Kings closed that gap Wednesday with a 111-108 win at Minnesota. Cousins had 20 and 11 with five turnovers. Love had 27 and 11 with five assists. Cousins got the W.

Another intriguing point regarding Cousins’ chances for a first All-Star appearance: Last year the NBA altered the ballot, scrapping the traditional positional breakdown of guard, forward and center to simply backcourt and frontcourt to reflect the lack of true centers in today’s game. Under the old format, would not Cousins be a shoo-in as the backup center?

Love’s statistics scream All-Star. His team has been a dud. In a season in which the player field is so competitive, and if team wins are truly weighted as significant, the West coaches will be faced not with a slam dunk vote for Love, but rather embroiled in a most difficult process of elimination.

Six Worthy Below-The-Radar All-Stars

DeMar DeRozan is the Raptors' leading scorer, at more than 21 points a game (Rocky Widner/NBAE)

DeMar DeRozan is the Raptors’ leading scorer, at more than 21 points a game (Rocky Widner/NBAE)

We know the fan balloting to select the NBA All-Star Game starters is a beauty pageant more than a referendum on results.

Kobe Bryant, playing only six games this season, leading the balloting for the West backcourt and Rajon Rondo, who hasn’t played at all, ranked in the top six in the East means all that is missing is a sash and tiara.

With less than a week left in the voting for the starting lineups, it will be up to the coaches — they name the reserves — to fill in the blanks and rectify some of the slights. But there’s still more than handful of deserving players who could be left out. We’ll call them the All-Fars, as in too far under the radar:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Paul Millsap, F, Hawks — When teammate Al Horford was lost for the season with a torn pectoral muscle, it certainly made life a little more difficult for everyone on the Hawks. But it also shed some light on Millsap’s contributions. After six years in Utah, the Jazz let Millsap walk in the name of their youth movement. So he took his lunch-pail attitude to Atlanta as perhaps the best free-agent bargain of last summer. He’s rung up 16 double-doubles in the first 37 games this season and, along with point guard Jeff Teague, is responsible for keeping the Hawks in the No. 3 spot in the East.

Arron Afflalo (Fernando Medina/NBAE)

Arron Afflalo (Fernando Medina/NBAE)

Arron Afflalo, G, Magic — Location, location, location. Afflalo is hardly in the prime real estate spot for getting notice with the also-running Magic. There was a great deal of speculation that he would have to be traded before the start of the season to make way for rookie Victor Oladipo. But the Magic are glad they resisted the urge and kept him around. He’s averaging more than 21 points, four assists and four rebounds per game and shooting better than 40 percent from behind the 3-point line. Is it too much of a stretch to label him the second-best shooting guard in the East behind Paul George? Dwyane Wade certainly gets the notoriety and the votes, but Afflalo has the credentials to be in the conversation.

DeMar DeRozan, G, Raptors — If Afflalo is held back by Orlando being mired at the bottom of the East standings, how much of a bump can DeRozan get from being the lead dog pulling the wagon for the Atlantic Division-leading Raptors? That is odd just to type. But there’s no question that Toronto has come together in the aftermath of the Rudy Gay trade. The 24-year-old DeRozan has ably stepped up to carry the offensive load and has shined in big wins at Oklahoma City and at home over the Pacers. He’s scoring, passing and rebounding. The only thing missing is a dependable 3-point stroke.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Ty Lawson, G, Nuggets — With the injuries to Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul, it seems that the All-Star door is finally going to swing open for Stephen Curry. But that still leaves a gigantic logjam of point guards in the West. Never mind the populist voting that has the likes of Steve Nash and Jeremy Lin in the top 10. Lawson still has plenty of competition from Damian Lillard and Tony Parker, both of whom play for teams that are significantly higher up in the standings. The Nuggets had to do an extreme makeover with the departure of Andre Iguodala and the loss of Danilo Gallinari to a knee injury. Lawson has to carry the lion’s share of the load and is the only player on the roster averaging more than 30 minutes per game. He said he didn’t like coach Brian Shaw’s system at the start of the season, but he has thrived in it.

Nicolas Batum (Sam Forencich/NBAE)

Nicolas Batum (Sam Forencich/NBAE)

Nicolas Batum, F, Trail Blazers — He’s a victim of his own teammates. While the Blazers’ surprising rise in the standings is giving LaMarcus Aldridge his star turn, and Damian Lillard is constantly providing his own end-of-game highlights, the young Frenchman stands in the background and rarely draws more more attention than the wallpaper. He’s still long and lean, but seems to have grown in confidence with his offense. As part of the bombs-away Portland attack, he’s firing up at least five 3-pointers per game and connecting at a 40 percent clip. He’s also playing more of a role as a distributor and remains an excellent finisher on the Blazers’ break with his speed and length. Likely the only way Batum will ever get his due is if he helps take his team all the way to The Finals, where nobody gets overlooked.

Anthony Davis, F, Pelicans — A year ago, it was easy to look past the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft because his coach did more to stop him with a lack of playing time than any defender on the court. But the reins are off now and Davis has become a real force at both ends of the court, averaging just under 20 points, nine rebounds and more than two blocked shots per game. Coach Monty Williams says there is virtually nothing he doesn’t trust Davis to do on the court now. The 20-year-old, who’s expected to be the foundation of the franchise for the next decade, has had to shoulder even more of the load due to the spate of injuries that have taken down Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans and Ryan Anderson. He’s got a particularly tough road to travel to the All-Star Game in his hometown of New Orleans with Aldridge, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki, to name a few, blocking his path. Plus, he’s playing in the depths of the standings. But growth in the shadows is still growth.

Trail Blazers Face First Gut Check


VIDEO: Blazers fall short to Kings in Sacramento

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – The Trail Blazers scored 13 points in the third quarter Tuesday at Sleep Train Arena against a sieve defense, putting themselves in such a bad place that even a 46-point fourth period couldn’t save the night. This is what adversity looks like.

Robin Lopez sat at his locker after Portland lost to the Kings, contenders for the worst record in the West and not far from owning the basement for the entire league, and straight out said he and some teammates have not been playing as hard as before. This is what adversity sounds like.

Nicolas Batum, in addition to the pain of playing with a fractured left middle finger that requires a splint and heavy tape job, the only benefit being that it’s on his non-shooting hand, couldn’t help but admit that skeptics of the Trail Blazers’ kick-the-door-down start were pointing at the last six games and smugly nodding. This is what adversity feels like.

It has, out of nowhere, become gut-check time, one of the success stories of the first three months of the season suddenly trying to regain its footing and mostly looking inward at the problem: themselves.

“I think we’ve been shown a lot of our flaws,” Lopez said. “We need to be more consistent on the defensive end. When things aren’t going right offensively, that (defense) has to be our strength. We can’t turn tail on that end.”

Their flaws?

“I think our consistency,” Lopez said. “Not to say we weren’t going hard at that end. Obviously we were getting after it. Maybe just speaking for myself, I can’t help but feel there were a few times where maybe I let off the gas pedal and maybe some of the other guys did too.”

Defeats happen, but the Trail Blazers just lost at home Saturday to the 76ers, with a day off before and Philadelphia on the last stop of a five-game trip, and Tuesday at Sleep Train, with two days to prepare. That would be concerning enough, except Portland has instantly flipped from 24-5 and wins in seven of eight, including over the Clippers and Rockets, into dropping four of six as the defense takes on water.

Portland is suddenly at a mini-crossroads, with a home game tonight against Orlando, another lottery-bound opponent (10 p.m. ET, League Pass), much more meaningful than a team setting itself up for April would prefer to sweat in January. But welcome to it. Blazers-Magic is undeniably important.

“Yeah, we know people doubt about us,” said Batum, who is playing through the finger injury. “People may talk about us right now and say, like you said, ‘Told you so. What happened right now?’ But this is a long season. We’ve played 35 games. OK, we’ve missed like five games, the last five games. We still have 40-something games remaining. We know what we are. We know we have a good team, so we’ll get back to it and show them that the Trail Blazers are for real.”

This should be the perfect time for a recovery. The Magic, Celtics and Cavaliers are the next three opponents, all in Portland and spread out over eight days. C.J. McCollum, the No. 10 pick in the 2013 draft, has yet to play while recovering from a fractured left foot, but at least he is healthy now and available in what could become additional depth in the backcourt behind Wesley Matthews at shooting guard and Damian Lillard at the point. In a season when the Trail Blazers have made so much go right, they now get a lot of things breaking right when they need it most.

Waste this fortunate moment of the schedule, though, struggle with Orlando, Boston and Cleveland as the Blazers did with Philadelphia and Sacramento, and then they’ll see what mounting skepticism really is. That will be what real adversity tastes like.

Morning Shootaround — Jan. 5


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 4

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Bynum-Gasol talk heats up | Rivers shoots down Griffin-’Melo rumor | Sanders, Neal have postgame beef

No. 1: Bynum trade keys on Sunday — The on-then-off trade talks involving the L.A. Lakers’ Pau Gasol and their former big man Andrew Bynum, now on the outs with the Cleveland Cavaliers, might just be on again. And by on, we mean heating up big-time Sunday, since that represents the best last day to cross all t’s and dot all i’s by the end of business Tuesday. Trades of this nature typically take 48 hours to be finalized with NBA headquarters, and Jan. 7 is the date by which Bynum’s contract calls for another $6 million guaranteed for the balance of the season. The Cavaliers would prefer not to throw good money after bad, of course, and the Lakers are focused on the luxury-tax benefits of acquiring and then shedding Bynum to reduce payroll. ESPN.com reported the revival of talks that previously were said to be squelched, and USA Today offered a little more context of a deal that – despite the big names involved – is about as sexy as an investor culling stock losers from his portfolio with the IRS in mind:

The Los Angeles Lakers big man once again is the subject of trade talks, this time with the possibility that he’d swap spots with former teammate Andrew Bynum in a possible deal that is of very little relevance to this particular season when it comes to the competitive landscape. This is about failed ventures on both sides and mutually-beneficial attempts to fix bad teams.

… [According] to a person with knowledge of the talks between the two teams, the only asset Cleveland has offered as of Saturday night is a second-round pick, and that won’t be enough to get this deal done.

… By getting rid of Gasol in exchange for Bynum, the Lakers would escape the luxury tax territory this season while creating some badly-needed distance between them and the ‘repeater’ billing that is followed by such a huge, well, bill. …

… Whether it’s a first-round pick that the Lakers are pushing for or a young player who could be part of their cloudy future, the point of it all is that they want something besides the savings to hang their collective hat on. It’s a staring contest in that regard: the Cavs are well aware that the financial factor looms largest for the Lakers, and the Lakers are banking on Cleveland not wanting to cut Bynum for nothing in return and realizing that Gasol on a team that entered the season with playoff expectations but is now 11-22 would be a huge boon.

***


VIDEO: Doc sounds off on trade rumors

No. 2: Rivers disses favorite sports network — So stupid. A non-story. And “that network.” If anyone had any doubts about how L.A. Clippers coach Doc Rivers felt about speculation on ESPN’s various outlets about a Carmelo Anthony-for-Blake Griffin trade, Rivers removed them prior to his team’s game against the Spurs in San Antonio Saturday. In fact, while Rivers always is quick with the comic line about “Doc” merely being a nickname, he deftly performed a little-known surgical process, a rumorectomy, for the assembled media who were poking and prodding, as noted by Broderick Turner of the L.A. Times. Let’s all remember, too, how Rivers reacted to comments by ESPN basketball guy Bill Simmons‘ analysis of the coach’s departure (“quit on” was the pivotal phrase) from the Boston Celtics last summer:

Rivers said the Clippers aren’t engaged in talks to trade Griffin for Anthony and aren’t going to trade their All-Star power forward.

“My whole issue with any of that … is that that network to me reports a story that they created and then they do reports on it for the next two days, on a story that they created,” Rivers said. “But it’s stupid.”

The ESPN report, which was attributed to unidentified league sources, said the Knicks have discussed proposing an Anthony-for-Griffin trade with the Clippers, and that Clippers management has discussed such a deal internally. But the report said the teams haven’t spoken to each other about a possible trade.

With Chris Paul out three to five weeks because of a separated right shoulder he suffered Friday night at Dallas, Griffin becomes even more key for the Clippers.
Griffin leads the Clippers in scoring (22.1) and minutes played (36.6), and he is second in rebounding (10.6) and assists (3.1).

Griffin, 24, is in the first year of a five-year, $95-million contract that pays him $16.4 million this season.

Rivers said he didn’t talk to Griffin about the ESPN report.

“I didn’t say a word about it,” said Rivers, who is also the Clippers’ vice president of basketball operations and has the last word on trades. “I just thought it was such a non-story.”

***

No. 3: Bucks’ Sanders, Neal squabble in locker roomBad things happen with bad teams, and based on the unseemly scene in the visitors’ locker room in Phoenix late Saturday, you could probably guess without a glimpse at the standings that the Milwaukee Bucks (7-26) lug around the NBA’s worst record. After a 116-100 loss at US Airways Center, Milwaukee’s Larry Sanders and Gary Neal got into what the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel termed a “bitter argument,” with Neal “going” where few in the fraternity of millionaire athletes dare to go: attacking Sanders’ new contract extension (which doesn’t even kick in till next season). “I earned my money. Why don’t you try it?” Neal said postgame in earshot of reporters, after Sanders questioned his attitude. Anyone paying attention to the Bucks this season could make a case that no one there – from the front office down – has been earning his salary, based on the results. Sanders’ notorious and YouTubed nightclub incident cost him 25 games with a hand injury, while Neal has underperformed and been criticized for selfish play since arriving as a free agent from San Antonio. Charles F. Gardner of the Journal Sentinel was there to chronicle some of the dreary ugliness:

It was the latest meltdown for a Bucks team that dropped to a 7-26 record as it lost for the second time in three games on its western swing.

And there were plenty of problems during the game as the Bucks committed a season-high 26 turnovers leading to 38 points by the Suns (20-12).

Bucks teammates did their best to downplay what was an ugly scene in the visitors’ locker room.

“Oh no, we’re good,” Bucks guard O.J. Mayo said. “A little team bonding, that’s all. A little kumbaya, man.

“It’s all good. When things aren’t going well, that’s when the real men reveal their true colors. Are you a grinder? Are you going to roll your sleeves up and get it done?

“People handle it different ways. We’re searching [for] ‘what do we need to do to get it going.’ “

.***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The downside of tanking (well, one more of the many downsides): Promising young players have to endure hard times. Pricey veterans often get shed by teams focused on the future, but a young desirable such as Philadelphia’s Thaddeus Young winds up waiting for the 76ers’ plan to kick into action. … Veteran big man Kurt Thomas would like to get back in, yet at age 41, even he is turning up his nose at his old team in New York. … We’ll leave the digit jokes to you, but can report that Portland’s Nicolas Batum has broken the middle finger on his non-shooting (left) hand. He might not miss any time. … Veteran Hedo Turkoglu, who has played just one more game than Derrick Rose since the end of the 2011-12 season, might be on the Lakers’ radar. Turkoglu, 34, was waived Friday by Orlando, with the Magic saving half of his $12 million by shedding him now. Turkoglu reportedly is eschewing opportunities in Europe for a chance to stay in the NBA.

Morning Shootaround — Dec. 29


VIDEO: The Daily Zap, a quick rundown of the 12 games played Dec. 28

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Bosh rises to sink Blazers | Smith lashes out at Cheeks | Clippers interested in Bynum? | Wolves back to .500

No. 1: Bosh rises to sink Blazers — On a night the Miami Heat were looking to avoid consecutive losses for the third time this season, LeBron James sat out with a groin injury and Dwyane Wade didn’t have it going. But there was the often overlooked member of the Big Three, Chris Bosh, an All-Star in his own right, standing by to save the day. The Heat’s power forward outplayed LaMarcus Aldridge, posting 37 points, including the game-winning 3-pointer in the final seconds to beat the Portland Trail Blazers, the West’s No. 1 team. In the final huddle Heat coach Erik Spoelstra drew up a play, but Bosh overruled it, wanting to take the 3, and Spoelstra smartly rolled with it. After Bosh drilled the shot, the Heat bench, including James, erupted and showered Bosh with a wild celebration that revealed how big that win was and how much Bosh’s teammates enjoy seeing him succeed.
Ethan Skolnick of Bleacher Report provides the details:

“My call at the end of the game was much more conservative,” Spoelstra said, after the Heat’s 108-107 victory. “I drew something up to get him on the move, and he said no, I want it for three.”

Bosh wanted the extra space, especially since he knew his momentum would take him away from the hoop anyway.

He wanted the extra point too.

“I told him I wanted to go for the jugular,” Bosh said.

“So he overruled it and became a prophet,” Spoelstra said. “Why did I even diagram something else for him? I mean, he already hit two threes. He was feeling it, he wanted it, and as soon as he said it, I said, ‘Yeah, that makes sense.’ It was much better than what I had planned.”

It was. So much better.

Norris Cole inbounded to Dwyane Wade from the left side, with Mario Chalmers running Damian Lillard down the baseline from right to left, while Ray Allen occupied Mo Williams‘ attention on the left wing. It was similar to the previous play, in which Allen’s screen freed Wade for a slam.

Bosh set a brush screen—and this time, Aldridge left him to help Nicolas Batum chase down Wade.

“My job was to drive his man to me,” Wade said.

It went just as they planned.

“It didn’t really go exactly like that,” Wade said.

OK, it didn’t. Wade lost the handle briefly, before chucking the ball behind him on one bounce, fortunate that Williams didn’t budge.

“He threw a crazy pass a little bit, I’m not going to lie,” Bosh said. “But I was able to see it, nobody was in the vicinity, so I didn’t have to rush, and I was able to lock into the goal the whole time.”

Bosh collected it with his left side touching the three-point line, backing up, stepping in and launching from 26 feet with 2.6 seconds left.

With 0.5 seconds left, it fell through.

***

No. 2: Smith lashes out at Cheeks — The Detroit Pistons were on the verge of hitting .500, but have now lost four of five and two in a row, blasted on back-to-back nights by Orlando and then at Washington on Saturday. And now the Pistons have the first signs of internal conflict brewing with big free-agent acquisition Josh Smith unhappy about being benched for the entire second half and suggesting that coach Maurice Cheeks called him out for not playing hard. As David Mayo of MLive reports:

Josh Smith didn’t play the second half of a 106-82 blowout against the Washington Wizards, the second time head coach Maurice Cheeks has made that decision this season.

This time, Smith suggested Cheeks called him out for not playing hard, and that he took “real offense” to the accusation.

Smith also was benched the second half of a Nov. 12 game at Golden State.

“Like I told y’all before when we had this conversation, when you hit adverse times, characters are gonna be tested,” Smith said. “It’s either that we’re gonna come closer together and make it all one team, or are you gonna use a scapegoat to get away from what’s really at hand?”

What’s really at hand is the Pistons (14-18) have lost four of five, bombed in a two-game road trip against sub-.500 teams this weekend, and now have their first hint of internal upheaval.

How long it lasts remains to be seen.

Asked if Smith will start Monday’s home rematch with the Wizards, Cheeks replied, “I assume he will. I don’t know why he wouldn’t. We’ll wait until that next game gets there.”

Smith said he isn’t inclined to have a personal discussion with Cheeks about their disagreement before the next game.

“To me, it’s over with,” Smith said. “But you know, some people hold grudges longer than others. I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m not saying that he (Cheeks) does. I don’t know.

“But I’m not the type of person that really likes to go all the time in the coach’s office and have one-on-one sitdowns. I’m more of a team morale guy, worrying about what we can do, as far as teammates are concerned, to make ourselves more successful.”

***

No. 3: Clippers interested in Bynum?The former Lakers big man, troubled by knee injuries and possibly a lack of desire to play at the highest level, was suspended indefinitely by the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday for conduct detrimental to the team. Reports have the Cavs eager to deal Andrew Bynum. The Clippers, in need of frontline support behind center DeAndre Jordan and power forward Blake Griffin, could be one team interested in trying to make it work with the troubled 7-footer who had not long ago put himself in the discussion alongside Dwight Howard as the league’s top center. Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times breaks it down:

The Clippers would have interest in Bynum if he was released by the Cavaliers, according to several NBA executives who were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

But according to one Eastern Conference executive, the Clippers would have competition for Bynum because the Miami Heat also would have interest in the seven-footer.

The Clippers have the NBA-maximum 15-player roster and would have to waive a player if they were to sign Bynum, who is still only 26.

The Cavaliers signed Bynum to a two-year, $24-million deal over the summer. But only $6 million of Bynum’s $12.2-million contract for this season is guaranteed if he is waived before Jan. 7.

The Eastern Conference executive said it’s possible Bynum will be released by the Cavaliers in early January if they can’t trade him so the team is not on the hook for the last $6 million Bynum would be owed.

Bynum has averaged 8.4 points and 5.3 rebounds in 20.0 minutes in the 24 games he has played with the Cavaliers. He had 18 points and six rebounds in 24 minutes when he started for the Cavaliers against the Clippers on Dec. 7

.***

No. 4: Wolves back to .500It had been since Dec. 10-11 that the Minnesota Timberwolves had won consecutive games. A team expected to make the playoffs this season following last year’s disastrous injury problems, the Wolves have yet to find any consistency and have lost late leads in multiple games. On Saturday night, they avoided a letdown on the second night of a back-to-back, blowing out woeful Milwaukee to get back to .500. They haven’t won three in a row since starting the season with three consecutive victories. They’ll get the chance to match their season-high win streak at home on Monday against the Dallas Mavericks, a team they handled twice in November. Kent Youngblood of the Minnesota Star Tribune has the story:

The message, at halftime, was something like this: Don’t let it happen again.

The Timberwolves were winning against the lowly Bucks on the road Saturday night, but Milwaukee was getting too many easy baskets and points in the paint. This was feeling a bit too much like last week’s game against the Lakers. Or the week before in Boston, when the Wolves had followed an impressive win with a listless loss.

Not to worry.

With Kevin Love leading the way, the Wolves scored the first 14 points of the third quarter and built their lead to as much as 31 late in the quarter at Bradley Center. That was enough to withstand some shoddy play by the bench to start the fourth quarter. The result was a 117-95 victory that ended a three-game road losing streak and put the Wolves (15-15) back at .500 with five of their next six games at home.

“We haven’t played great in the second night of back-to-backs,” said Love, who scored 33 points with 15 rebounds. He made four of six three-pointers and had six assists. It was his 10th consecutive game with 25 or more points, most in the league this season, and his fifth game with at least 30 points and 15 rebounds.

The Wolves, who won Friday against Washington, have won two in a row, sweeping both ends of a back-to-back for only the second time in eight tries this season. Love and center Nikola Pekovic (19 points, 11 rebounds) took advantage of a Bucks lineup missing 6-11 John Henson. Kevin Martin added 20 points and Corey Brewer had 12.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Deron Williams‘ season keeps getting uglier as Nets get crushed by superior Pacers … Knicks hope to get Carmelo Anthony back for tough Texas road swing. … Bradley Beal makes welcome return 24 hours after limping off the floor and helps Wizards rout of Pistons … Nets center Brook Lopez will undergo foot surgery next Saturday