Posts Tagged ‘Nicolas Batum’

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

Making A List, Checking It Twice …

We’re making a list, checking it twice. On Christmas Eve, it’s time to remember who’s been naughty or nice in the first two months of the 2013-14 season:

Naughty — Nets — There isn’t enough coal in Newcastle to fill up the deservingly drooping stocking that hangs over a forlorn and underachieving mantle in Brooklyn. Why would anyone think it would make sense to trade for 37-year-old Kevin Garnett, 36-year-old Paul Pierce, 36-year-old Jason Terry as part of $102 million-payroll and put the whole thing in the hands of a guy who had never coached a game in his life? Then Jason Kidd gets extra naughty by intentionally spilling a drink when he doesn’t have a timeout against the Lakers. They have a mediocre offense and the 29th-rated defense. Now they lose Brook Lopez to a broken foot. So it won’t be a Happy New Year either, Billy King.

Nice — LaMarcus Aldridge — From Damian Lillard to Nicolas Batum to Robin Lopez to coach Terry Stotts, there are many contributors to the rousing start to the season by the surprising Trail Blazers with the best record in the league. But no one has done more to elevate his game and his team to the elite level than Aldridge. He labored faithfully through seven seasons with a roster that virtually fell apart around his ears, listened to so much talk of trades and has come back to deliver a magnificent season that has him firmly in the MVP conversation.

Naughty — Knicks — Remember when they used to play basketball in New York? The Manhattan edition of the NBA can’t shoot, doesn’t rebound and Carmelo Anthony is saying the Knicks’ troubles are all in their heads. Would that be the heads of the players and the coach who can’t think to call a timeout in the final seconds to set up a shot? If things don’t turn around fast, Mike Woodson’s going to be the fall guy even though there have been enough injuries to fill an ER and the myth of the Knicks as true playoff contenders entering the season was no more real than a team of flying reindeer pulling a sleigh across the sky.

Nice — Suns — If you went to a Las Vegas sports book during training camp and plopped down a sizable lump of cash on the Suns to beat the over/under prediction of 21.5 wins, you’d probably be only a week or two away from returning to book a penthouse suite with your winnings. First-year coach Jeff Hornacek has his club riding the backcourt pairing of Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic with a rotating cast of other contributors to a 17-10 record and a spot right in the thick of the tough Western Conference playoff race. When the Spurs were in town last week, the entire Phoenix roster had played the same number of NBA games in their careers combined as 37-year-old Tim Duncan.

Naughty — Ricky Rubio — Sure, it’s fun to sit in front of the big screen TV and keep hitting the rewind button on the DVR to replay all of those behind-the-back, no-look, over-the-shoulder, through-the-opponent’s-legs, thread-the-needle, oh-my-gosh, how-did-he-do-that, head-on-a-swivel, slicker-than-a-greased eel passes that get his teammates easy layups and dunks. But come on, two years plus into your NBA career, you’ve got to be able to knock down a wide open jump shot when teams give them to you. Which they do and which you don’t. Which is a big part of the reason why your Timberwolves are healthy and still underperforming.

Nice — Kevin Love — After missing 91 games over the past two seasons to injury, Love’s return to good health and a nightly spot in the lineup has been a sight sweeter than sugar plums dancing in the Timberwolves’ heads. How does a guy who is always a threat to score 30 points and pull down 20 rebounds get better? He becomes a better passer, nearly doubling his assists to 4.2 per game. Outside of The King down in South Beach, there’s just nobody in the league you can count on more every night.

Naughty — Grizzlies — There are more excuses than places to hear the blues in Memphis. But the bottom line is that even before Marc Gasol was sidelined with a knee injury, the Grizzlies were going south. They simply haven’t bought into new coach Dave Joerger, still can’t shoot from the perimeter and Zach Randolph seems to have lost his inspiration. The Grind House was a fun place while it lasted.

Nice — LeBron James — Maybe the only thing that stops him from winning MVP No. 5 — and third in a row — is boredom. Not his. Ours. He’ll never completely win over the entire public the way Michael Jordan did simply because of the times in which we live. The age of social media allows critics to throw stones and pick nits. There has simply never been anyone this big and this strong and this fast and this complete with still such a large part of the meat of his career ahead of him.

Naughty — Westbrook critics — Now that Russell Westbrook has recovered from two surgeries, returned to the Thunder lineup and shown not the slightest loss of his swagger, is there anyone who still thinks Kevin Durant and the OKC franchise would be better off without him?

Nice —Kendrick the Bouncer — It had to bring a smile to the face — if not a tear to the eye — of every old school scrapper who’s ever laced up a pair of sneakers and just gone after it when Kendrick Perkins unceremoniously ran Joakim Noah out of the Thunder locker room. That’s enough of the 21st century touchy-feely, we’re-all-buddies atmosphere that persists these days. Not enough get-outta-my-face growling between rivals. A team’s locker room is its castle and the only thing that could have made it better is if Perk dumped him into a moat.

Naughty — Omer Asik — Let’s see. For two seasons in Chicago you were averaging just 13 minutes per game and getting relative peanuts. The Rockets signed you to a free agent contract that pays $25 million over three years and last season you started all 82 games and averaged a double-double. That’s nice. But then they signed All-Star Dwight Howard in July. He’s much, much better. You’re still getting your $25 million. Didn’t you read the line about you better not pout? So we’re making our list, checking it twice and — ho-ho-ho — you’re definitely on it.

Damian Lillard: The New King Of Clutch


VIDEO: Damian Lillard was a man on a mission in Portland’s win over Cleveland

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Damian Lillard is an assassin.

Get this: When Steph Curry buried a buzzer-beater to lift Golden State over Dallas last week, it was the first time the surest shooter in the league had collected a game-winner since … high school? At least that was the last one the fifth-year Golden State Warriors point guard who spent the previous three seasons shooting the lights out at Davidson, could recall.

That puts into perspective what Lillard, the Portland Trail Blazers’ dazzling second-year point guard, has done in the last two games: Consecutive buzzer-beating game-winners.

At Detroit on Sunday with the game tied in overtime at 109, Lillard, with about 12 seconds on the clock, went one-on-one with Pistons guard Rodney Stuckey. Lillard dribbled up top, came around a LaMarcus Aldridge screen but it didn’t free him up. He kept dribbling, spun at the free-throw line to get inside the paint and drained a fallaway with 0.1 seconds left. He finished with 23 points, eight in overtime.

At Cleveland on Tuesday, the Cavs made a furious comeback from 10 down in the final 2:15 to tie the game at 116-116 with 7.1 seconds left in regulation. This time Lillard lulled Cavs defender Alonzo Gee several feet beyond the top of the 3-point arc. With Gee allowing space presumably to protect against the dribble-drive, Lillard rose up and splashed the 3-pointer as the horn blew. The official play-by-play called it from 30 feet. He finished with 36 points — 12 in the fourth quarter — 10 assists and eight rebounds.

“You’re watching a superstar being born right in front our eyes,” were the in-the-moment words spoken by Cavs color commentator Austin Carr, who has the nightly privilege of watching another cool clutch performer in Kyrie Irving.

And just like his stoic reaction at Detroit, Lillard acted as though he expected no other outcome. And why not? He’s now pocketed four game-winners on the season and has established himself as the game’s top clutch-time performer:

In clutch situations (defined as the final five minutes of regulation or overtime and the team ahead or behind by five or fewer points), no one’s been better than the 6-foot-3 reigning Rookie of the Year out of Weber State.

In 49 clutch minutes, he’s scored 55 points in 49 minutes on 15-for-30 shooting from the floor (8-for-16 on 3s), 17-for-19 from the free-throw line, plus seven assists and seven rebounds. No matter how you slice up the situations — three minutes to go in a three-point game, two minutes left in a two-point game, in the final minute and behind by two or tied — Lillard’s point production stands at the top of the list of clutch performers.

His career overtime stats are mind-boggling (courtesy NBA.com/Stats): 45 minutes, 43 points, 15-for-19 from the floor (10-for-10 inside the arc), 8-for-8 on free throws and a plus-31 rating. Portland is 7-1 in those games.

Some of it is simply due to the number of close games a team plays (Portland is 4-1 in games decided by three points or less and 2-0 in overtime), but coming through in such situations rarely occurs at the success rate Lillard has demonstrated over and over.

In the standard definition of a clutch situation (ahead or behind by five points with five minutes to go), Lillard’s plus-minus rating ranks No. 1 at plus-52. It’s little surprise that his teammates — Nicolas Batum, plus-51; Wesley Matthews, plus-50; and Aldridge plus-49 — rank second through fourth. Robin Lopez is seventh at plus-32.

However, in terms of clutch-time points, Aldridge is Portland’s next-highest scorer with 28 points — 27 fewer than the stone-cold Lillard.

How Sustainable Is Portland’s Hot Start?


VIDEO: Wes Matthews discusses the Blazers’ seventh straight win

BROOKLYN – Now that we’re past the hot starts of the Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns, the Portland Trail Blazers are the surprise team of the early going. Having won seven straight games, they’re 9-2, in second place in the Western Conference. They’re also the only team to have knocked off the 9-1 San Antonio Spurs.

You could argue that beating the Spurs was Portland’s only quality win. But the Blazers are also 5-1 on the road and can complete a 4-0 trip with a win in Milwaukee on Wednesday night (8 p.m. ET, League Pass). Road wins are good wins, especially when you’re a team that might be fighting for a playoff spot come April.

A potent offense has keyed the Blazers’ start. Through Tuesday, they rank third in offensive efficiency, having scored 108.1 points per 100 possessions. They’re the most improved offensive team in the league, scoring 5.4 more points per 100 possessions than they did last season …

Most improved offenses (points scored per 100 possessions)

Team 2012-13 Rank 2013-14 Rank Diff.
Portland 102.7 16 108.1 3 +5.4
Minnesota 100.1 25 104.0 10 +3.9
Detroit 100.9 22 103.5 11 +2.7
Phoenix 98.2 29 100.7 16 +2.5
L.A. Clippers 107.7 4 109.7 2 +2.0

Bonus stat: Charlotte is the most improved defensive team, allowing 9.6 fewer points per 100 possessions than they did last season.

The question is how sustainable the Blazers’ offense is, because they’re the jump-shootingest (it’s a word around these part) team in the league, with less than 39 percent of their shots coming from the paint. LaMarcus Aldridge already leads the league in mid-range attempts by a wide margin, while Damian Lillard (1st), Nicolas Batum (10th) and Wesley Matthews (17th) all rank in the top 20 in 3-point attempts.

Lowest percentage of shots from the paint

Team Paint FGA Total FGA %Paint
Portland 364 937 38.8%
Washington 341 872 39.1%
New York 332 841 39.5%
Cleveland 391 935 41.8%
L.A. Lakers 440 1,048 42.0%
League total 12,479 26,524 47.0%

Bonus stat: New York had the lowest percentage of shots from the paint last season at 38.0 percent. Coincidentally, they also ranked third in offensive efficiency.

Would it be nice if the Blazers got to the basket more? Sure, but all those guys can shoot. And so can Mo Williams and Dorell Wright, two of the important reserves that the Blazers added this summer. But a few of them are shooting much better than they have over the past few years.

Effective field goal percentage from outside the paint

Player Last 3 seasons 2013-14
LaMarcus Aldridge 41.6% 45.8%
Nicolas Batum 48.7% 49.5%
Wesley Matthews 52.7% 69.1%
Mo Williams 47.6% 56.7%
Dorell Wright 49.3% 59.4%
Combined 47.8% 54.0%

Effective field goal percentage = (FGM + (0.5 * 3PM)) / FGA

Bonus stat: Among 122 players who have attempted at least 50 shots from outside the paint, the Warriors’ Andre Iguodala has the highest effective field goal percentage (76.7 percent), having shot 13-for-18 from mid-range and 22-for-42 from 3-point range. Utah’s Alec Burks has the lowest (30.8 percent).

Blazers’ coach Terry Stotts isn’t going to get caught up in the percentages or where the Blazers’ shots are coming. He understands that he’s got a jump-shooting team and just cares about how those shots come about.

“I’m not necessarily concerned about our points in the paint, offensively,” Stotts said Monday. “My concern is that we get good threes. Preferably, we get threes off the pass, in rhythm, and have confidence to shoot them.”

His belief is that better ball movement leads to more open shots and, therefore, a higher shooting percentage. This dagger three from Batum in Sunday’s overtime win in Toronto is a good example of what he’s talking about …


VIDEO: Blazers showcase solid ball movement against Raptors

That looks like a Spurs possession, and Stotts sees San Antonio as the prime example of how an offense should look.

“The way they move the ball,” he said, “make the extra pass, turn down one shot to get a better shot. And they keep playing throughout the shot clock. When we were in Dallas, we played them in the playoffs a couple of years. Defensively against them, you just had to keep playing, because they were going to keep wearing you down with their passing and ball movement.”

The lineup — Lillard, Williams, Matthews, Batum and Aldridge — that was on the floor for that shot in Toronto would appear to be the Blazers’ best offensive unit. It scored 23 points in a little over nine minutes on Sunday, but just 20 points in about 14 1/2 minutes in seven other games, so its offensive numbers don’t look too good right now.

But overall, the Blazers have been strong offensively — scoring 109.4 points per 100 possessions — in 175 minutes with Lillard and Williams on the floor together.

“The NBA game’s getting more and more about having playmakers on the court,” Stotts said. “So when you’re able to have two guys who can make plays for other people and themselves, it makes our offense more effective.”

Last season, the Blazers suffered both offensively and defensively when they went to their bench. This year, they’ve actually received a boost offensively …

2012-13 Portland lineups

Lineups MIN Pace OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg +/-
Starters 1,143 93.6 104.1 105.8 -1.7 -28
Other lineups 2,825 93.9 102.2 107.3 -5.2 -232

2013-14 Portland lineups

Lineups MIN Pace OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg +/-
Starters 195 93.6 106.5 101.3 +5.3 +14
Other lineups 337 97.3 109.0 103.9 +5.1 +45

OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions

However, the defense hasn’t been too good with both point guards on the floor. And that, more than ball movement, is Stotts’ biggest concern. After ranking 26th defensively last season, they traded for Robin Lopez and changed their principles.

“For us to be a playoff team, we had to improve our defense,” Stotts said. “We’ve changed our defensive concepts, particularly on pick-and-rolls, to not extend as much.”

The Blazers are trying to mimic the Indiana Pacers’ defense (as well as they possibly can without having Roy Hibbert and Paul George), having the big man sag into the paint on pick-and-rolls to protect the basket, while the ball-handler’s defender attempts to stay attached to his man.

It’s a work in progress. Portland opponents have attempted 35.2 percent of their shots from the restricted area, the fourth-highest rate in the league. But they’ve shot just 57.3 percent on those shots, the ninth-lowest rate.

The stay-at-home-on-the-perimeter aspect of the Blazers’ defense seems to be working just fine. They lead the league in 3-point defense, allowing their opponents to shoot just 28.6 percent from there. Opponents have shot just 13-for-67 (19.4 percent) from 3-point range with Portland’s starting lineup on the floor.

Those are more numbers that aren’t sustainable, so it’s more than fair to look at Portland’s first 11 games with a skeptical eye. But the Blazers should be continue to be an improved defensive team.

If they can eventually settle in the middle of the pack defensively and in the top-10 offensively, they can certainly be a playoff team. The offense will be tested later this week when they face two top-five defensive teams — Chicago and Golden State — on Friday and Saturday, respectively.

“Every team in the league is going to be better four months from now,” Stotts said. “I’m pleased with what we’re doing. Where we got to get better is consistency defensively.

“I think, offensively, we’re going to find ways to score, inside, outside, whatever. Whatever limitations that we have, it’s going to be at the defensive end. And we got to continue to make that a priority.”