Posts Tagged ‘Oklahoma City Thunder’

Morning shootaround — Jan. 5


VIDEO: Highlights from games played Jan. 4

NEWS OF THE MORNING

How Divac nearly upended Kobe trade | Curry, Barnes back in mix for Warriors | Thunder fall apart vs. Kings | Scott says Randle needs to ‘grow up’

No. 1: Divac nearly cancelled Kobe trade to Lakers — Today, Vlade Divac is the Sacramento Kings’ general manager after a 16-year NBA playing career from 1989-2005. In early-to mid-1990s, Divac was a solid young center on the Los Angeles Lakers who was a part of one Finals team with Magic Johnson (1991) and a key cog in a youthful Lakers group (including Eddie Jones, Nick Van Exel and others) that seemed primed for big things out West. Yet come the night of the 1996 Draft, Divac was dealt to the Charlotte Hornets for the rights to rookie (and future franchise icon) Kobe Bryant. As Divac explains to Yahoo Sports’ Marc J. Spears, though, he wanted nothing to do with the trade and nearly axed the deal by retiring rather than play in Charlotte:

“My feelings were that I play basketball for fun. This is not fun,” Divac recently told Yahoo Sports about the 1996 draft-day deal that sent him to the Charlotte Hornets in exchange for Bryant, who is expected to play his final game in Sacramento on Thursday. “If somebody asked before, ‘Vlade, are you going to play basketball over there [in Charlotte]?’ It’s not going to happen. I talked to my wife and told her, ‘Look, I’m going to retire.’

“It would have been so bad. I would have been the most hated guy in L.A.”

The Serbian quickly fell in love with Los Angeles and was in even deeper love playing for the Lakers, averaging 12.2 points and 8.5 rebounds primarily as a starter from 1989-1996.

But before the 1996 draft, then-Lakers general manager Jerry West became infatuated with Bryant, the high school kid from Philadelphia who was destined to become a superstar. West worked out a deal to send Divac to Charlotte for the 13th pick in the draft, which the Hornets used to select Bryant for the Lakers. By trading Divac, who was set to make $4.7 million in the 1996-97 season, the Lakers would clear the needed salary-cap space to make a lucrative offer to Shaquille O’Neal in free agency.

Divac was in Europe and was stunned when his agent told him about the trade. Days later, Divac said he informed the Lakers he planned to retire, which would have prevented the team from trading him for Bryant.

“It felt like someone from behind hit me with a hammer,” Divac told Yahoo Sports. “It was the first time in my career that something happened in a way I didn’t plan. I was devastated. I was thinking, ‘I play basketball for fun.’ My father said when I brought my first [basketball paycheck] back home, ‘Who gave this to you? Are they crazy? Do they know you would play basketball even if they don’t pay you?’

“I am not going to play basketball because I have to play. I am going to play for fun. I was 28. I am not going to go somewhere and be forced to play basketball. I told my agent that I am not going to Charlotte. I loved L.A. I loved the Lakers. For every kid that played basketball, it was basketball heaven being with Magic and the other guys.”

Within 10 days after the draft, Divac said he returned to Los Angeles ready to retire, yet he agreed to meet with West. After an “emotional meeting” with West, Divac changed his mind and agreed to the trade.

“Jerry called me and I flew back to L.A. and we had lunch,” Divac said. “The trade happened [in principle], but I was holding it up. … It was a great conversation. He said, ‘Why don’t you go over there and explore and see if you like it or not?’

“Me and Jerry had a very good relationship. He was the guy who was waiting for me at the airport [after being drafted in 1989]. It was an emotional meeting for both of us. And I trust him so much. He is the best basketball mind in the world. When Jerry tells you something, you believe it.”

Divac decided to have his wife and children stay in Los Angeles for stability while he played the next two seasons with Charlotte. Despite initial struggles, he averaged 11.7 points and 8.6 rebounds with the Hornets in two seasons from 1996-98.

“We played sellout basketball in front of 24,000 people who love basketball in North Carolina,” Divac told Yahoo Sports. “Each year we had 50-plus wins, and when you win it’s fun. But my first 10 games, I was awful. I can’t explain it. I was fumbling the ball. The funny thing was one of my first games was against the Lakers. I was like, ‘What am I doing here?’

“I felt like I started playing basketball two days ago. There was still mental stuff. I was thinking negative stuff like, ‘Why did they trade me? Was it worth it [coming here]?’ Then I said to myself, ‘Come on, Vlade, it’s just a game.’ I knew that after two years I would come out West and move closer to my family.”

Divac signed as a free agent with the Kings in 1998 with his family and a return to the West Coast in mind. Divac and the Kings pushed the Lakers to brink of elimination entering Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference finals, but the Lakers would win the next two games to stop Sacramento from making its first Finals appearance.

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Morning Shootaround — Jan. 3


VIDEO: The Fast Break: January 2

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Curry reinjures leg, Warriors win in overtime | Jack injures knee, will have MRI | Pistons, Pacers end with theatrics | Pop says Crawford will be missed

No. 1:Curry reinjures leg, Warriors win in overtime After leading the Golden State Warriors to a historic 29-1 start to the season, Stephen Curry missed the last two games while resting a shin injury. It is no coincidence that the Warriors went 1-1 without Curry, the NBA’s leading scorer at 29.7 points per game. Curry made his return last night against the Denver Nuggets, but had to exit in the second quarter after aggravating his injury. As Ethan Strauss writes for ESPN.com, even down to six players, the Warriors managed to win in overtime even without the MVP…

After missing the two previous games with a left shin contusion suffered Monday against the Sacramento Kings, Curry reinjured the shin and departed to the locker room with 2:15 remaining in the second quarter.

According to Curry, the injury occurred when a Nuggets player made contact with his leg in the second quarter.

“I got kicked,” Curry said after the game.

Curry confirmed it was a reinjury of his earlier contusion and said he was hit “right in the same spot, playing defense. It’s funny. I guess whenever you hurt something, [if] you try to play through a little bit of discomfort and try to get out there, something happens. Just got to deal with it.”

Curry’s injury left the Warriors with only six available players due to myriad other injuries.

Of the overtime victory Golden State gained despite depletion, Curry praised, “Chips stacked against them, short bench, guys playing 40-plus minutes, found a way to scrap and claw, get stops down the stretch, fight through the fatigue factor, make a couple plays on the offensive plays as well. Gutsy win.”

On how he felt going into the game, Curry said, “I felt pretty good, just somewhat fresh legs and didn’t have to compensate for anything. Just sucks that was the spot that I got hit in. See how it feels for Monday.”

Further elaborating on his prognosis, he added, “I know exactly what happened. It’s just a matter of how it feels tomorrow and go from there. It’s not as bad as the first time it happened, so that’s good news.”


VIDEO: Curry reinjures left leg

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Morning Shootaround — Dec. 26


VIDEO: Top plays from Christmas Day games

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Warriors beat Cavs, believe they can play even better | James wants clarity from Cavaliers | Rockets leave coal for Spurs | Kobe surprised at huge lead in early All-Star voting

No. 1: Warriors beat Cavs, believe they can play even better You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone, even the most rabid Warriors fan, who truly thinks the Warriors have underperformed this season. After all, after last night’s 89-83 win against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the highly anticipated NBA Finals rematch, the Warriors moved to a ridiculous 28-1 on the season, which included a 24-game winning streak. That is, it’s hard to find criticism unless you talk to the actual Warriors players themselves, as our Scott Howard-Cooper did, where you find that the Warriors believe despite all the W’s, they aren’t playing all that great and still have room to grow

“Look,” center Andrew Bogut said, “we haven’t played great the last 10 games. That’s something that we’ve addressed in this locker room.”

“I don’t think we’ve played well,” power forward Draymond Green said. “Even tonight. We did some good things, but I still don’t think we’ve played well.”

“I’m really impressed with our defense the last two games,” interim coach Luke Walton said. “Before that, our defense was struggling.”

Help is on the way, if only the Warriors can hold it together another couple weeks and avoid the all-out panic that will come if they slump all the way to, say, 75-win pace and only break the single-season record by three games as opposed to the current tracking to 79 victories. Good news is on the horizon for a change.

Coach Steve Kerr, out since the early days of training camp while recovering from the effects of two back surgeries in the offseason, is nearing a return. He stepped in for an ill Walton to run practice Tuesday, the interim to the interim, watched the Cleveland game from the coaches’ office in Oracle and plans to accompany the team on the Dallas-Houston back-to-back that begins Wednesday while Walton continues to lead. While the Warriors continue to avoid targeting a return date, the increased activity raises the possibility Kerr could be back as soon as Jan. 2 against the Nuggets in Oakland.

Forward Harrison Barnes, out the last 12 games with a sprained left ankle, was in some of the scrimmage Tuesday and Thursday participated in three-on-three drills with the team. Being listed as doubtful for Friday showed there was at least the thought he could play against the Cavaliers, so Monday against the Kings at Oracle or the two games in Texas are all possibilities.

The next week or two, depending on the actual return dates and how long Barnes will need to work back into game shape, could become an eventful time in the season of a defending champion, and that just doesn’t happen very often in early-January. Golden State will be whole again, assuming no one else gets hurt in the meantime, with Barnes an important piece as the starting small forward and also one of the triggers to the successful small-ball lineup when he moves to power forward.

It would have been impossible on opening night to imagine the Warriors would stand at 28-1 under any circumstances, let alone 28-1 with a coach younger than several players around the league and stepping in with two previous seasons as an assistant, with a concussion costing Bogut six games and Barnes’ absence. Now imagine the Warriors at 28-1 and thinking they will start to play better in the future.

“Maybe a little bit,” Bogut said.

Maybe more than a little bit.

“There’s part of it that [makes me mad] and there’s part of it that makes me very, very happy,” Green said. “I think we’ve got a lot of improving to do, and we will.”

Mad because the Warriors are not happy with how they have played lately. The happy: “Because what are we? Twenty-eight and one? You’re 28-1 and you’re not near playing well, that’s exciting. We know we know how to get to that point and we know we’ll reach that point. And when we do, I think that’s trouble because if we’re 28-1 and we’re not playing well, imagine where we are. That’s why it excites me.

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No. 2: James wants clarity from Cavaliers Meanwhile, the Warriors’ vanquished Christmas Day foe, the Cleveland Cavaliers, drop to 19-8. That’s still good enough for the lead in the Eastern Conference, but with the Cavs getting more players back from injury and healthy, including Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert, the Cavs have more options available than ever before. And after the loss to the Warriors, as Cleveland.com’s Joe Vardon writes, LeBron James would like to see the Cavs discover a rhythm going forward

After the Cavs lost 89-83 to the defending champion Warriors on Golden State’s home court, where it’s now won 32 in a row during the regular season, dating back to last year, James repeatedly mentioned the lack of continuity the Cavs had on the court and suggested that at least some of it had to do with David Blatt‘s rotation.

“It’s going to take some time to get back into rhythm, and all of us, not just the players, but everyone, to get back in rhythm,” James said.

The lineups and the newness need some context, and what James said about them was nothing like the cool attitude he directed toward Blatt at times last season.

In fact, James didn’t name his coach specifically on Friday, but the bottom line was James called for Blatt and his staff to gain perhaps a clearer sense of who they want to play, and when, now that the entire team is healthy.

“For us to have a full unit, we’ve got to practice, we’ve got to play some games where we know what we want to do, what lineups we want to play out there,” James said.

“It’s an adjustment period, it’s not just going to happen – you plug a guy in there, plug two guys in there and it automatically happens,” he continued. “It’s going to be an adjustment period, but we’ll be fine. We’ll be fine toward February and March.”

This was just the second game this season that the Cavs had all 15 players available, due to season-long injuries to Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert.

That’s not Blatt’s fault, but, it was the head coach who placed James, Shumpert, J.R. Smith, Matthew Dellavedova, and Tristan Thompson on the court to start the fourth quarter. It was the first time all season they’d all been on the court at the same time.

When Irving and Kevin Love subbed in for James and Smith with 10:06 left in the quarter, the Cavs still had a lineup that had never played together. Those are just two examples.

Richard Jefferson did not play at all against the Warriors. Mo Williams logged 4:39, and James Jones, a favorite of James, played just 1:34.

James led the Cavs with 25 points and contributed nine rebounds, but shot 10-of-26 and was a brutal 4-of-9 from the foul line. He took the blame for that, saying “I wasn’t very good, inefficient, and it trickled down to everybody else.”

The Cavs’ 83 points, 31.6 percent shooting from the field and 16.7 percent shooting from 3-point range were season lows. Irving (13 points) shot 4-of-15 and Love (10 points, 18 rebounds) was 5-of-16. Cleveland assisted on just 12-of-30 baskets.

“For the first time, for a long period of time we had some different lineups out there,” James explained, talking about the woes on offense. “And against a championship team like this, it’s kind of hard to do that on the fly. We’re not making no excuses, we still got to be a lot better, still got to move the ball, got to share the ball, get it moving from side to side, but offensively we were all out of rhythm.

“You credit to their defense, for sure, and then the lack of detail.”

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No. 3: Rockets leave coal for Spurs While the Warriors have romped through the NBA this season, the San Antonio Spurs have quietly put in work as well, and entered yesterday’s Christmas game against the Houston Rockets with a sparkling 25-5 record. Their opponent, the Houston Rockets, have struggled to find an identity, firing a coach (Kevin McHale) and getting inconsistent play from their superstars, James Harden and Dwight Howard. But on a big stage yesterday, the Rockets turned to their defense to grind out an 88-84 win over the Spurs, and as our Fran Blinebury writes, Houston got a present from their veteran reserve guard, Jason Terry

Jason Terry is long past the days of being the shiny new toy. He has stockings that have hung from chimneys far longer than some of his teammates have hung around the planet.

So even after the Rockets had spent most of the night standing toe-to-toe and going push-to-shove with the Spurs, there came a time to seal the deal and the closer had to come out of the attic.

It wasn’t just Terry’s nine points and three steals in the last 10½ minutes of the bone-jarring 88-84 victory Friday night at the Toyota Center. It was the way he did everything. Like he owned the place.

Ever since the shocking 5-10 start to the season that got coach Kevin McHale fired, the Rockets have been trying to convince everybody, including themselves, that they’re really a very good team, capable of getting back again to the Western Conference finals.

Trouble is, since the opening tip back in October, every time the Rockets have put another stake in the ground with a signature win over the Thunder, at Dallas or sweeping a pair of duels from the Clippers, they have also put a stake or a half dozen into their own foot. A combined 0-5 record against the lowly Nuggets and Nets. A whipping in Sacramento. A comeback that came up just short in Orlando.

You don’t get to call yourself a real contender until you stop pretending to show up consistently and take the job seriously every night. Dwight Howard and James Harden talk the talk.

“The Jet” puts his arms out at his sides and takes flight on the wings of drive and emotion that have carried him into a 17th NBA season.

“That’s what I’ve prided myself on, being ready, always stepping up to the moment,” Terry said. “In big moments like tonight when my team needed me most, I want to show up and be effective.”

He buried a big 3-pointer. He hit a mid-range jumper from the wing. He stepped into the San Antonio passing lanes to snatch away three balls to get the Rockets headed in the other direction.

But now, more than being the fire-starter in a big holiday event — the first time the Rockets hosted a home Christmas Day game since moving to Houston in 1971 — Terry’s task and bigger challenge will be to instill a sense of every day urgency that goes from the locker room out onto the court. Even in too many of their wins this season, the Rockets have started games lazily and had to come scrambling back from double-digit holes. Which is why this latest so-called statement win lifts their record back to just 16-15.

Harden’s pair of fourth-quarter 3-pointers were big and it’s good to know that you’ve got that arrow in your quiver, but it can’t be enough to think he’ll be able to bail you out game after game with offensive heroics. And it was Terry’s spark that ignited the flame.

Terry had been inserted into the starting lineup for the first four games after J.B. Bickerstaff took over the team. But as the team kept struggling, the interim coach began to shuffle his guards like a casino dealer until finally he turned Terry back face up in this one. In fact, the veteran has played less than 15 minutes in 11 games this season and also has six DNPs, including the previous game, which the Rockets lost at Orlando. That’s now likely to change.

“I just feel like we need him on the floor,” Bickerstaff said. “There’s times where he needs the rest, obviously. But big moments in big games, he’s one of the guys that I trust the most. I trust not only that he’ll do the right thing, but I trust that he’ll perform and then I trust that he’ll carry his teammates in a positive direction.

“You can’t speak enough about him. He’s a class guy. He’s a winner. He’s a champion. He’s a leader. He’ll sacrifice, whatever it takes to win. That’s what he does. That’s who he is. Every since I’ve known him he’s been that way.”

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No. 4: Kobe surprised at huge lead in early All-Star voting The first 2016 All-Star voting results are in, and while there are still several more rounds to go, at least for now, Kobe Bryant has a huge lead over everyone else in the NBA, including Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. Considering Kobe’s global appeal and previously announced retirement plans, it shouldn’t come a complete surprise that fans want to see him on the NBA’s big stage one final time. But as ESPN’s Baxter Holmes writes, the numbers apparently shocked at least one person: Kobe Bryant.

Bryant has 719,235 votes — well ahead of Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry (510,202), the next-highest vote-getter, and more than twice as many as Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James (357,937).

After the Lakers’ 94-84, Christmas night loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, Bryant said he was more than a little surprised he had such a wide lead.

“Listen, I was making a little coffee run this morning, got some gas and decided to just go on Instagram and peruse,” he said, “and [I] saw the damn votes, and I was like, ‘What the hell?’ Shocked doesn’t do it justice.”

He added, “It’s exciting. What can I say? Just thankful.”

The 2016 NBA All-Star Game, to be held in Toronto, would be Bryant’s last, as he has announced his plans to retire after this season, his 20th in the NBA. His 17 All-Star selections are second all-time behind former Lakers star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who had 19. Bryant, 37, is the leading scorer in NBA All-Star history (280 points).

This year marks the first time that the 6-foot-6 Bryant is being listed as a member of the frontcourt in All-Star voting. In previous years, he has been listed as a guard. The second-highest vote-getter among Western Conference frontcourt players is Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant (349,473).

Clippers coach Doc Rivers said before Friday’s game that Bryant deserves a spot on the All-Star team.

“A lot of people disagree with me on that. That’s fine. I have my opinion. I think Kobe should be on the All-Star team,” Rivers said. “I don’t care if he’s a starter of if they figure out a 13th spot for him. [With] what he’s done in his career, he should be on the All-Star team, and I don’t see any debate in that. You can have one, but I’m not hearing it.”

But what if someone else were left off, such as one of Rivers’ players?

“It would be awful, but Kobe should be on the All-Star team,” Rivers said. “I think they should have a special exception and put 13 guys on if that’s the case if he wasn’t in one of the top 12 as far as voting or whatever. But I just believe he should be on it. Magic [Johnson] was on, Michael [Jordan] was on with the Wizards. I think certain guys earn that right, and unfortunately for other guys who can’t make it, they have to earn that right too.”

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Chicago Bulls may have turned a corner with their win over the Oklahoma City Thunder yesterday … Steph Curry doesn’t think he’s “hurting” basketball, regardless of what his former coach Mark Jackson says … Chris Bosh punctuated Miami’s win over New Orleans yesterday by talking trash to Anthony Davis down the stretchEvan Fournier has broken out of his slump in Orlando … You can ask him questions, but doesn’t have to answer them …

Stats preview: Bulls at Thunder


VIDEO: Dennis Scott and Greg Anthony preview the Bulls-Thunder matchup.

NBA.com’s John Schuhmann gets you ready for the league’s five-game Christmas Day slate with a key stat for each team, along with an explanation of what it means. Here’s a look at the day’s second game, Chicago at Oklahoma City (2:30 p.m. ET, ABC), the only Christmas matchup of a top-three offense vs. a top-three defense.

Chicago Bulls (15-11)

The stat: No team has regressed more offensively than the Bulls, who have scored 6.3 points per 100 possessions fewer than they did last season.

20151224_chi_regression

20151224_chi_basicsThe Bulls were the league’s best defensive team over the five years that Tom Thibodeau was on their bench. But over the same timeframe, they ranked 17th in offensive efficiency. Thibodeau was fired this summer and new coach Fred Hoiberg was brought in to improve the offense.

But the offense has gone in the wrong direction. The Bulls have taken a lower percentage of their shots from the restricted area, where they rank last in field goal percentage. They’ve also taken a lower percentage of their shots from 3-point range than they did last season.

The four Bulls who have taken the most shots are all below the league average in effective field goal percentage. Derrick Rose ranks 206th in effective field goal percentage among 209 players who have attempted at least 150 shots. Nobody in the league who has shot as much as Rose has shot worse.

The Bulls have also suffered big drop-offs in offensive rebounding percentage (with Joakim Noah playing fewer minutes) and free throw rate (with Rose registering a career low in that category).

Chicago has scored 102.8 points per 100 possessions over the last six games. That’s its best six-game stretch of offense this season, but it ranks only 17th over that time. And entering Friday’s game in Oklahoma City, the Bulls have lost three straight games to teams below them in the Eastern Conference standings.

More Bulls notes from NBA.com/stats

Oklahoma City Thunder (20-9)

The stat: Kevin Durant has shot 46.4 percent from outside the paint, the best mark among players who have taken at least 200 shots from there.

20151224_okc_outside

20151224_okc_basicsIf you wanted to make the argument that Stephen Curry isn’t the best shooter playing on Christmas Day, you have at least one data point to help your cause.

Durant is one of only three players who has shot 50 percent or better on at least 100 mid-range shots. And he ranks eighth in 3-point percentage among players who have attempted at least 100 threes. He ranks fifth in field goal percentage among players who have attempted at least 100 pull-up jumpers and 10th among players who have attempted at least 100 catch-and-shoot jumpers.

Though he missed a six-game stretch in November with a strained hamstring, the Thunder star has played almost as many games (23) as he did last season (27), so it should be no surprise that OKC is one of the league’s most improved teams. The Thunder are actually the only team that’s at least four points per 100 possessions better than they were last season in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

The Thunder have scored 113.4 points per 100 possessions with Durant on the floor and just 101.9 with him on the bench (in part because they don’t stagger the minutes of Durant and Russell Westbrook much). It’s amazing how much a 6-foot-11 guy who’s been the league’s best shooter from outside the paint can help your offense.

Durant needs to put together a bit of a free throw streak to be on pace to become the third player in NBA history to have multiple 50-40-90 seasons (50 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3-point range and 90 percent from the free-throw line). But he’s already having the best jump-shooting season of his career.

More Thunder notes from NBA.com/stats

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

Data curated by PointAfter

Morning Shootaround — Dec. 24


VIDEO: The Fast Break — Dec. 23

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Nowitzki moves up, Mavs get win | Suns throw in towel against Denver | Hawks starting to soar | Butler wants to lead Bulls

No. 1: Nowitzki moves up, Mavs get win Wednesday night the Dallas Mavericks visited Brooklyn, which meant the return of Deron Williams to the borough where he formerly played. But with Williams out injured, leave it to the 37-year-old Dirk Nowitzki to post a performance worthy of the Big Apple. Not only did Nowitzki pass Shaquille O’Neal for sixth all-time in scoring in the NBA, but he also hit the game-winner in overtime to give the Mavericks the victory. And as Eddie Sefko writes in the Dallas Morning News, in some ways it was business as usual for Nowitzki

“Way back when I was a skinny 20-year-old, bad haircut, bad earring, not the most confident guy,” he said, before stopping, clearly thinking about the enormity of having only five players ahead of him on the all-time scoring list.

“Sounds pretty good, huh?” he said. “It’s a dream come true.”

And the way he passed Shaquille O’Neal on Wednesday couldn’t have been more fitting. He nailed a midrange jumper early in the second quarter against Brooklyn, took congratulatory hugs from teammates and coaches, then, a couple hours later, slipped to the basket for the winning layup in a 119-118 overtime victory that the Mavericks needed a lot more than Nowitzki needed any milestone.

Along the way, the Mavericks needed a lot of help from a guy who’s only 23,607 points behind Nowitzki on the scoring list.

J.J. Barea had a career-best 32 points, including several key 3-pointers, paying big dividends for coach Rick Carlisle starting him in place of the injured Deron Williams.

“I think the coach threw me in there early to give us a little energy early and I got in a rhythm and was able to help my team out big time,” Barea said. “I wanted to get to 30 (points in a game) before I finished my career.”

But even he knew this night was not about him, even though he’s never had a better statistical night. He hit his first eight shots and finished 13-for-20 and also dished out 11 assists.

“I’ve been through all the battles with him and seen him break all kinds of records,” Barea said. “But this one is amazing.”

Nowitzki started fast with six points in the first six minutes. Early in the second quarter, he got the ball on the left wing and wasted no time, pulling up and nailing an 18-footer for the record.

“It was a special moment for me,” he said. “I saw the whole team getting up and everybody gave me a hug and I’ve obviously been blessed in this organization for a long, long time.

“There have been a lot of great players who didn’t score as many points because they were cut short by injuries. I’ve been lucky. And we got the win. It would have felt really salty flying home with a loss.”


VIDEO: Arena Link — Dirk Nowitzki

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No. 2: Suns throw in towel against Denver The current Phoenix Suns feel light years removed from just two seasons ago, when they unveiled a small ball lineup that raced through the Western Conference and nearly earned a playoff berth. These days they are in flux, with forward Markieff Morris recently assigned to the bench. Last night the Suns lost at home to an undermanned Nuggets team, as Paul Coro writes in the Arizona Republic, while Morris evoked Robert Horry … and not in a good way…

In one of their more advantageous scenarios of the season, the Suns posted another dreadful loss with play so frightful and no signs of stopping. The bow on Wednesday night’s stocking of coal came when Markieff Morris added to a season of distraction by harkening back memories of Robert Horry’s towel toss at Danny Ainge by tossing a towel toward coach Jeff Hornacek in Wednesday’s fourth quarter.

The Suns lost 104-96 at Talking Stick Resort Arena to a Denver team playing a night after losing at home to the last-place Los Angeles Lakers and was missing five players (two starters) with no backup point guard available.

That is not all that surprising any longer for a team that has gone 5-14 since Nov. 22. How the Suns fell behind by 22 points, rallied to lead by three, started each half with new lineups and lost is now of less interest than Morris’ towel toss.

Much like Horry on a 10-21 Suns team in 1997, Morris was upset about being pulled from the fourth quarter from a 12-19 Suns team. With 9:47 to play and Denver leading 84-75, Morris was taken out of the game and he threw the towel while barking at Hornacek. Hornacek picked up the towel and threw it back Morris’ way with his own upset words for him.

“He’s mad about not playing,” Hornacek said. “I look at the stat sheet. He’s a minus-13 in 12 minutes. So there, I took him out. … He thinks he’s better than that. Show me.”

Hornacek said the Suns staff will discuss possible discipline for Morris, who has created a stir since the offseason when he asked to be traded after his twin, Marcus, was dealt. Markieff did not arrive in Phoenix until it was required for training camp. He lost his starting job earlier this month.

In January, Marcus also engaged in a shouting match during a game with Hornacek. He apologized publicly and to Hornacek after the game.

“That’s between me and ‘H’ (Hornaceck),” said Markieff, who made 2 of 8 shots and had one rebound Wednesday. “It’s not for media. It’s something between me and him that happened. We’ll talk about it.”

***

No. 3: Hawks starting to soar They won 60 games a season ago, including a 19-game win streak, but thus far this season, even with a winning record, the Hawks have mostly flown under the radar. That may be changing now. Wednesday night the Hawks got their fifth win in a row with a convincing home victory over the Detroit Pistons, and the Hawks are now in second place in the Eastern Conference. As Brad Rowland writes for Peachtree Hoops, the Hawks hacked Andre Drummond and got a big night from Jeff Teague to get the win…

The game was highly competitive early on, with Detroit taking an 18-14 advantage after a 7-0 run. That momentum would not last particularly long, however, as Mike Budenholzer employed the aforementioned “Hack-a-Drummond” strategy freely from that point forward, and that seemed to turn the tide. Dennis Schröder exploded for seven straight points to end the opening quarter (11 in the period), and in a flash, the Hawks were in control.

The “big” spurt was yet to come, though, and it appeared to close the second quarter. Atlanta raced to a 26-9 run to end the half, with Jeff Teague taking things over, and he finished with 13 points, 6 assists and 5 rebounds before the break. That big run netted the Hawks a 61-45 lead, and on the defensive end, Atlanta was quite effective in holding the Pistons to just 33% shooting (27% in the second quarter) in addition to the poor free throw shooting from Drummond.

To begin the second half, the Hawks quickly increased the lead to 22 points, but the margin settled into the mid-teens for much of the remainder of the contest. In truth, Atlanta didn’t play particularly well down the stretch, including a third quarter in which they allowed 50% shooting to Detroit, but the Pistons were never able to seriously challenge on the scoreboard until the closing minutes.

Detroit managed to climb within an 8-point deficit within the final two minutes of game action, using an 11-4 run to force a timeout from Budenholzer with 1:52 left in the game. Though it wasn’t pretty, the Hawks managed to salt the game away for good using a Jeff Teague basket (that was actually a goaltend from Andre Drummond) to push the lead back to 10 with 41.1 seconds remaining and that was the end of the threat. From there, Atlanta put away a 7-point win and the winning streak reached five games in pleasing fashion.

It was a big night from Teague, and that was the biggest individual story. He has struggled, at least relatively, to this point in the season, but this may serve as a “breakout” from the 2015 All-Star, as he finished with 23 points, 9 assists and 6 rebounds while keying everything Atlanta did offensively. In support, Paul Millsap added 18 points and Al Horford chipped in with 15 points in his own right, but this night was about Teague and a strong team effort on the defensive end.

***

No. 4: Butler wants to lead Bulls As the Chicago Bulls try to right the ship and find some offense to go along with their defensive prowess, reports of unrest continue. According to Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times, as the Bulls consider roster moves, some players aren’t thrilled with Jimmy Butler‘s attempts to position himself as the leader of these Bulls…

While Jimmy Butler won the self-appointed leadership role unopposed, not everyone associated with the Bulls is a supporter.

One source told the Sun-Times that there are several players that often simply laugh when told of Butler’s latest thumping-of-the-chest leadership proclamations, and while Derrick Rose seems to be completely detached from the situation, his camp is very annoyed by all things Butler these days.

A veteran that is behind the Butler push, however? Well, it just so happens to be the one player in the locker room with two championship rings.

“I don’t mind those comments,’’ big man Pau Gasol said, when asked about Butler declaring himself the leader throughout this season. “I think those comments are positive. Those comments and attitudes don’t raise my eyebrows. I think it’s good certain guys want to take ownership and say, ‘Hey let’s go.’ ‘’

Gasol said that Butler worked his way into that role of leader, and was obviously paid like it this offseason, when the Bulls gave him a five-year, $92.3 million contract extension.

“I don’t disagree with it,’’ Gasol said. “I think Jimmy is obviously one of the main guys here.’’

He’s more than that. He’s the future. His deal is guaranteed through the first four years, with a player option of $19.8 million following the 2019-20 season.

Basically, last man standing of all the veterans on the roster.

Gasol has a player option at the end of this season, and there continues to be more whispers that he’s done with the Bulls experiment, while Joakim Noah, Kirk Hinrich and Aaron Brooks each come off the books when this season comes to an end.

Rose and Taj Gibson are free agents after next season, while the Bulls own the $5.175 million option on Mike Dunleavy for the 2017-18 season.

The likes of Gibson, Noah and Gasol might not even see the end of their current contracts, as several sources indicated that the Bulls are taking calls on all three players as the trade deadline draws near.

Noah’s value has taken a hit this week with a small tear in his left shoulder, and the center told reporters on Wednesday that he is looking at a two-to-four week window now. Not the best news for a player that was starting to look like his old self.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The NBA debuted a new public service announcement campaign against gun violenceSteph Curry says he’s the best player in the worldKobe Bryant and Kevin Durant exchanged shoes after playing against each other … Mark Cuban says Rick Carlisle’s threat to trade players was a motivational moveAlan Anderson looks to be out for a few more weeks. Meanwhile, John Wall has his own set of injury issuesNik Stauskas says he’s the hardest working guy on the Sixers … The Houston Rockets are trying to help former players stay on top of their health

Morning Shootaround — Dec. 22


VIDEO: The Fast Break — Dec. 21

NEWS OF THE MORNING

The Thunder are rolling | As the Bulls turn | Garnett makes final(?) visit to Boston | Blazers’ backcourt in good hands

No. 1: The Thunder are rolling For a team with championship aspirations, it was exactly the kind of game they needed to win: A close game, on the road, against another contender. And for the Oklahoma City Thunder, just as important was how they beat the Los Angeles Clippers, with their superstar duo of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant taking over down the stretch, hitting key shots and getting a huge defensive stop. It was the Thunder’s eighth win in nine games, and don’t look now, but the Thunder have climbed among the Western Conference’s elite. As Anthony Slater writes in The Oklahoman, they’ll take it…

With 5.8 seconds left on Monday night in the Staples Center, Kevin Durant’s all-world offense put the Thunder in front.

Then just before the buzzer, his underrated defense sealed OKC’s biggest road win of the young season — 100-99 over the Clippers in Los Angeles.

As an emotional but surprisingly sloppy game navigated toward the finish, the pendulum of momentum swung wildly in the final minutes. Both sides nailed big shots, but committed equally huge turnovers.

With 10 seconds left, after a Chris Paul steal and layup, the Clippers had a one-point lead. OKC called timeout and then Billy Donovan called Durant’s number.

Off the ensuing inbound, Durant raced toward the right wing, created enough space against solid defense from Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and then rose for a 19-footer with the game in the balance.

“It was the most care-free I felt the whole game,” Durant said. “Try not to think about it. If I miss it, store it in the memory bank and be better next time. If I make it, move on.”

On this night, Durant’s made it. But it may not have been his biggest play of the game.

Now leading 100-99, the Thunder still needed a stop. And it had trouble creating them against Chris Paul on Monday night.

Paul finished with 32 points and 10 assists, done on an efficient 11-of-19 shooting. But his biggest attempt was a miss.

Paul, like Durant, drove right as the final seconds ticked down and found one of his most comfortable spots. From about 12 feet out, Paul hit Serge Ibaka with a little stepback and seemed to create enough space to get off a short fadeaway.

But Durant left his man, Wesley Johnson, in the corner and surprised Paul, reaching over just in time to slightly block the fadeaway, causing it to fall far short of the hoop.

“He had no other choice but to shoot it,” Durant said. “I knew he was gonna shoot it, so I wasn’t gonna sit there and let him. It was a second on the clock. He had no other options. And he’s 6-feet and I’m 6-11.”

As the ball bounced away and time expired, Durant let out a yell and huge fist-pump, untucking his jersey and staring down the courtside row that featured Drake and Floyd Mayweather.

“I feel like my defense has grown,” Durant said. “Coaches challenged me at the start of the year just to step it up to another level on the defensive end. I’ve just been trying to play as hard as I can.”

***

No. 2: As the Bulls turn The Chicago Bulls had a high profile coaching change during the offseason, swapping out Tom Thibodeau for Fred Hoiberg, while mostly keeping their core players intact. Yet there has been more than enough drama early on this season, with the most recent bump in the road coming from Jimmy Butler, who said Hoiberg needed to “coach harder.” Getting a win can fix a lot of things, but last night the Bulls couldn’t even get that against the struggling Nets, losing 105-102, and possibly losing big man Joakim Noah for an extended time. As Nick Friedell writes for ESPN.com, right now the Bulls have a few things that need fixing…

“We had no togetherness at all,” Hoiberg said. “We had no toughness.”

When the eulogy of the 2015-16 Bulls is written at the end of the season, that may well be the opening line.

All the flaws the Bulls were supposed to fix in the wake of Jimmy Butler calling out his new head coach after Saturday’s loss to the New York Knicks were as clear as they ever were on Monday. Players coasted through much of the game against a weaker opponent. Rotations and pairings didn’t have consistency and went through spells of inefficiency. The defense, which has been solid much of the season, was porous most of the night. For all the talk and good vibes emanating from the Advocate Center on Monday morning after Butler said he cleared the air with both his teammates and coach, the Bulls still looked like a team with no identity and no answer on how to find one.

“What was missing tonight, I feel, has been missing a lot of the games,” Bulls big man Pau Gasol said. “I think it’s just a sense of urgency. We cruise for most of the game and then when we have our backs against the wall we turn it up, we pick it up and we try to give ourselves a chance. But some of those times it’s just too late and then other teams are in rhythm, they’re confident, and you lose games like this one.”

Losing games is one thing; losing games fewer than 48 hours after your best player called out your first-year head coach is another. For the Bulls to perform this way against a Brooklyn team that came into this game with a 7-20 record and a five-game losing streak is embarrassing to a group of players that came into this season believing they could contend for a championship.

“We were outplayed in every aspect of the game,” Butler said.

When asked for an explanation as to why the intensity isn’t there consistently for this group, Butler didn’t have a good answer.

“There is no explanation, truthfully,” Butler said. “It’s supposed to be there all the time. We talk about it. Obviously it’s not. It is a concern. We have to fix it as a group.”

In order to fix these problems, that would mean the Bulls would have to come together as a group. With the way they have performed this season, and for much of last season, there’s no reason to believe that’s actually going to happen. The Bulls look like a group that doesn’t like playing with each other. The unity that was prevalent in years past is gone. Butler has been vocal about being the leader of this group, but in order to be the leader players have to want to follow what a person says. Up to this point in the season, the Bulls still don’t have a leader. They haven’t taken to Hoiberg’s system and they haven’t responded to Butler’s challenges.

“We all have to take responsibility,” Gasol said. “We all have to take it personally. This has to hurt. If it doesn’t hurt, then we have a problem that might not be correctable.”

That’s the problem for the Bulls. They say the right things but they don’t follow the words up with the right actions. When asked about Butler’s comments, Gasol, who wasn’t in New York City on Saturday after being given the night off to rest, actually seemed to agree with Butler’s sentiment. The veteran believed Butler should have kept his commentary “indoors” but didn’t condemn him the way he could have.

***

No. 3: Garnett makes final(?) visit to Boston Minnesota big man Kevin Garnett has been sitting out the second half of back-to-back games, a kind of self-preservation employed by many NBA veterans. But it meant that Garnett didn’t play last night in Boston, a homecoming game of sorts for the Big Ticket, who won a title in 2008 as a member of the Celtics. With the clock ticking on Garnett’s career, it was perhaps KG’s last visit to Boston, and even if he wasn’t going to get off the bench, as Steve Bulpett writes in the Boston Herald, fans in Boston couldn’t wait to shower KG with love…

Kevin Garnett was stoic for nearly 47 basketball minutes and the time in between.

The Garden crowd had gone from several “We want KG” chants to a “KG-KG-KG” shout to a “Thank you, KG” refrain, but the object of the affection, in uniform but not playing for the Timberwolves on the second day of a back-to-back, held his emotions in check.

Then Brad Stevens called a 20-second timeout with 1:02 left, ostensibly to get his starters out of the game — and maybe to help Jordan Mickey get his varsity letter.

Then the disco beat began to thump from the speakers above.

Then “Gino,” the Celtic video victory cigar, appeared on the video screen in all his American Bandstand glory, and Garnett could hold it in no longer.

He smiled. He pointed to the screen. He laughed. He turned and acknowledged the crowd that had been showering him with love all evening.

Yes, Kevin Garnett — the man so compulsively competitive that he swats away opponents’ shots taken after the whistle — was digging the scene with his team down by 15 points.

With the home team ahead by as many as 22 in the last quarter, the given was that Gino would make an appearance. The only question was whether KG would have the same reaction he used to when the video was a more frequent part of Celtic home games, a love affair that began for Garnett during the 2007-08 championship season.

But Gino was the irresistible force last night.

“That was classic,” said Garnett after the 113-99 final. “That was like cherry on top for me. My teammates were looking at me like, ‘What is this?’ I was like, ‘I’ll explain it later.’

“But thank you. Thank you for whoever put the Gino on. I know my guys here put it on for me, so I appreciate it. I appreciate that.”

Longtime Celtics fan Wilson Tom got Garnett a “Gino” T-shirt before the game, but KG chose to wear Wolves’ warmups instead of civilian clothing, which probably served to raise the fans’ hopes.

“On back-to-backs, very difficult for me, regardless of what I look like out here,” Garnett said as he stood by a wall in the hallway outside the visitors’ dressing room. “I think that’s a tribute to, you know, obviously a work ethic and things I put into this. Making 39 look like 25 these days. But it’s very hard. It’s hard to even come into this building and not want to, want to play.

“But the appreciation that not only the city, but the Mass. area and the northeast, they’ve given me, the love is unconditional. I’m very appreciative. I definitely heard all the chants.”

He appreciated, too, the spontaneous outpourings from the crowd, though the one about wanting him begat some mixed emotions.

“I really wanted them to stop that, because I didn’t know if Sam (Mitchell, the coach) was going to actually put me in,” KG said with a laugh. “I was like, please, please. But it was cool. Like I said, appreciation is . . . unconditional appreciation is overwhelming. So thank you guys for that. I appreciate that.”

(Little chance of Mitchell being sentimental. He seemed perturbed when asked about the fans’ shouts for KG. “It was nice,” he said after a pause.)

Garnett drank it all in, as he did when he first returned as a Brooklyn Net.

“I think I’ll always have that kind of reaction here,” he said. “Boston’s always been a special place in my heart, probably always will. That outcome tonight wasn’t the way I wanted it to be, (but) it was a great homecoming. It felt really good to be in the building.”

Asked what Boston meant to him, KG didn’t hesitate.

“Everything,” he said. “It meant everything. I like to say that Minnesota made me a young man. I grew up when I came to Boston. I learned a lot coming from the Minnesota situation and I applied it in my Boston situation. I got all but great memories here.”


VIDEO: Garnett receives standing ovation in Boston

***

No. 4: Blazers’ backcourt in good hands When LaMarcus Aldridge announced this summer that he was leaving for Portland for San Antonio, and Wesley Matthews also decamped for Dallas, it raised as many questions in PDX as it did answer them in their new cities. But the emergence of C.J. McCollum, alongside All-Star Damian Lillard, seems to have answered a lot of doubters. And as our Shaun Powell writes, the Blazers have a backcourt ready to carry them for the foreseeable future

The teammates that play together, hang out together and carry the Blazers together also managed to get injured together in the same game. And so, we’ve learned something else about the quickly-formed bond between guards Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum: They even limp alike.

This is bad, because the Blazers were missing their heart and soul Monday against the Hawks. But in a warped kind of way, this is good, because their two most important players once again have shown to be clearly in step even when those steps are painful.

“They’re so much alike,” said Blazers coach Terry Stotts. “That’s why they’re great together. They compliment each other well because of the problems they cause for other people and their ability to create for each other.”

Lillard has plantar fasciitis in his left heel and missed a game, a first for him in four-plus seasons; his streak of 275 straight games played is third-longest among active players. Also on Sunday against the Mavericks, McCollum sprained both of his ankles; he also sat against Atlanta but could return sooner. Lillard and McCollum perhaps carry bigger backpacks than any tandem in basketball, definitely from a buckets standpoint. They generate 44 percent of Portland’s points and just over half of Portland’s assists. Any basketball that the Blazers use have more fingerprints from Lillard and McCollum than pebbles.

With the Blazers in the beginning stages of a rebuild, Lillard and McCollum are all that separate the Blazers from being the Sixers of the Western Conference. Or close to it. The hope in Portland is that once the Blazers are ready to win again, McCollum and Lillard will still be in their prime and not worn down from the experience.

At the moment, they’re dangerous together, two smallish guards with the right amount of quickness and shooting to cause headaches and matchup issues for teams, and their development has been both effortless and rapid. They are more peanut butter and jelly than oil and water, showing no signs of conflict or inability to share the wealth and load.

“We’ve been talking about this for a long time,” said McCollum. “We knew this was inevitable. We knew it was going to happen eventually. We just didn’t know when.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Joakim Noah will have an MRI today on his injured shoulder … John Wall injured his ribs during a win against the Kings, but says he doesn’t expect to miss any gamesDeron Williams says maybe he just wasn’t built for New YorkDavid West on his decision to leave Indianapolis for San Antonio … The Rockets say reports of Dwight Howard‘s unhappiness brought them together … The Sixers say Joel Embiid is making stridesKristaps Porzingis would like to sell you a mattress

Morning shootaround — Dec. 18


VIDEO: Highlights from games played Dec. 17

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Next man up is new normal in Cleveland | Riley says Heat not looking to trade | Howard responds with love in Houston | Shumpert truly delivers

No. 1: Next man up is new normal in Cleveland The Oklahoma City Thunder entered Cleveland having won six games in a row, but the Cavs used a strong second half run to build an insurmountable lead and win, 104-100. While Kyrie Irving has still yet to return from injury for the Cavs, LeBron James once again stuffed the stat sheet, finishing with 33 points, 11 assists and 9 rebounds to lead the way for the Cavs. And as our Steve Aschburner writes, it’s still early, but the Cavs look locked in:

No Kyrie Irving (recovery from knee surgery), Iman Shumpert (groin) and Mo Williams (thumb sprain) meant minutes and opportunities for others. No biggie for the Cavs, for whom short-handed is the new normal. You have to go back eight months and 44 games, to the postseason opener against Boston, for a game in which Cleveland had all its guys healthy.

“Our motto is the next man up,” said James, who now has a 16-4 personal record head-to-head (regular season or playoff) against OKC’s Kevin Durant. “There’s no excuses around here. Whoever’s in the lineup is ready to go.”

While OKC was missing the playoffs last spring, done in by Kevin Durant’s and Russell Westbrook‘s injuries, Cleveland was busy getting resourceful. The Cavs beat the Celtics, the Bulls and the Hawks, and pushed the Warriors to six games in the Finals, by leaning on the likes of Matthew Dellavedova and Tristan Thompson like never before. James at times seemed startled by how much those role players could handle, but by doing so they toughened up and built a bond.

That was evident again Thursday. Thompson gave the Cavs repeated extra chances by grabbing 15 rebounds overall — 11 on the offensive end — to go with 12 points. Dellavedova chipped in his own double-double with 11 points and 10 assists. Veteran Richard Jefferson scored 13 points and wild card J.R. Smith was big early, both scoring and making timely defensive plays.

This essentially was the crew that pushed Golden State to an extra level of great last spring. It’s the team that, with Irving, Shumpert and Williams all due back soon, knows how to fold back in talented players because it did that over the second half of last season. It’s the biggest reason Cleveland stands alone as a legit contender from the East, while the Thunder will slug it out with two or three rivals out West.

Durant and Westbrook combined for 52 points and Serge Ibaka added 23 more, but the OKC bench went from good enough in the first half to ghastly in the second. New coach Billy Donovan appeared to get caught in his rotations, asking the Thunder to survive too long with neither of its two scoring stars on the floor. Enes Kantner was a liability defensively and two-way mishap Dion Waiters reminded the sellout Q crowd why their team is better off without him.

James and the Cavs are playing chess right now relative to the Thunder’s checkers. He knows what Cleveland needs to win a title because he’s been there and done it so recently. The Thunder went to the Finals in 2012 but in this what-have-you-done-lately league, that’s old news in a rapidly changing game.

***

No. 2: Riley says Heat not looking to trade The Miami Heat are currently 15-9, good for fourth place in the Eastern Conference. But we know team president Pat Riley is always looking to improve the roster, which could involve making a trade somewhere along the way. A recent report had center Hassan Whiteside on the trade block, and yesterday Riley spoke to the media to say he wasn’t ready to make any moves, at least not quite yet, as Manny Navarro writes in the Miami Herald:

“I can guarantee you there have been no discussions about the BS that you have read in the newspapers the last couple of days,” Riley said of rumors Whiteside could be headed to Houston or Sacramento. “I like our team and I want to see where we’re headed.”

Riley said he expects the Heat, which plays the Toronto Raptors at 8 p.m. Friday at AmericanAirlines Arena, will be “one of [the teams] that is going to be for real” when that 40-game mark is complete Jan. 15.

What does he like about this Heat team?

“Well, we’ve got great depth,” Riley said during a five-minute interview with The Miami Herald and a two local TV stations Thursday during a holiday event for veterans at the Miami VA Fisher House. “I think we have a three-tiered team which is we have a group of great veterans, mid-aged veterans, and then we have youth. We have a lot of spirit. There’s a lot of energy with our young guys.

“Probably some of our best defenders are our young players. They’re trying to get their offensive games to match their defensive games.”

He also likes the leadership that team captains Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem have brought.

“They have no idea how proud I am of them and how they conduct themselves every single night, good or bad — to the community, to the media,” Riley said. “It’s not easy. This league is not easy, and when there’s a high-expectation level, then you’ve got to deal with the consequences of winning and the consequences of losing, and I think our guys do it very well.”

He said coach Erik Spoelstra has done “an exemplary job.”

“I think he’s finding his way to the heart of his team and how they’re going to play, how he can adjust and make those adjustments,” Riley said. “Contrary to what a lot of people think, we have a team that can play big. We have a team that can play medium. And we have a team that can play small. You don’t want to get caught up in any one thing. You just want to create your own identity, which is what I think [Spoelstra is] talking about. Whether you’re big or you’re small, that’s how you’re going to play. I think we’re showing that.”

***

No. 3: Howard responds with love in Houston The Houston Rockets got off to a slow start, including firing coach Kevin McHale. Part of their inconsistent play has come from center Dwight Howard, the former All-NBA player who has suffered various injuries in recent years, and has seen his production fluctuate. But recent reports of Howard wanting out in Houston are, at least according to Howard, not true, as Jonathan Feigan writes in the Houston Chronicle:

“The one thing that I don’t want to happen is people to assume that because things are not going quite well for us that I’ve quit on the team and take away from all the positive things we have done, despite the loss, making the city feel like they’re unwanted,” Howard said on Thursday. “There’s a lot of negativity going around. I haven’t caused it. I haven’t said anything negative to anybody about this team or this situation. I’ve just been trying to find ways to make this situation better, trying to grow as a man, as a basketball player.

“You just try to laugh at it. I don’t want to go out and persecute the people that persecute me. That’s the hardest part. The first reaction is to go back at them. You just have to respond with love.”

A report at sheridanhoops.com on Tuesday cited sources saying Howard is “extremely unhappy” with his role with the Rockets and predicted he would be traded to the Miami Heat. Howard called the report “lies.”

Howard can expect to hear plenty from the Lakers fans tonight at Staples Center. He has often laughed at the taunts in Los Angeles, even singing along with chants in his first return to play the Lakers after signing with the Rockets.

“If they boo me, they boo me,” he said. “Just going to say, ‘Hey, I love you guys. If you boo me, I’m going to respond with love, just try to have a good game, not get frustrated with whatever happens on the floor. I don’t want to smile too much because then I’m (said to) not take it serious. I don’t want to not smile too much because then I’m (called) unhappy. Just going to stay positive.”

Rockets interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff said he has over the years talked to some players when they have been subject of trade rumors or other media reports. With Howard, Bickerstaff said they have talked often throughout the season, but did not consider that necessary with this week’s reports and that neither took them seriously.

“There’s certain guys that need to be talked to more about those situations and other guys, it doesn’t bother them. I try not to bring attention to it. If a guy does have a problem or a question and he brings it to me, then I’ll talk to him. For the most part, I try to ignore it because there’s so much noise out there.

“We’ve joked about it. We’ve laughed about it. I don’t think it needs to be addressed. I don’t know when I’ve seen him ‘extremely unhappy.’ We’ve had plenty of conversations. We’re in a good place.”

***

No. 4: Shumpert delivers One of the Cavs out with an injury last night was forward Iman Shumpert, recovering from a strained groin. Which meant Shumpert happened to be at home on Wednesday when his pregnant fiancé, Teyana Taylor, unexpectedly went into labor and gave birth. As ESPN’s Dave McMenamin writes, Shumpert ended up having to play doctor and delivered his daughter before the paramedics arrived…

The baby, Iman Tayla Shumpert Jr., was born at 6:42 a.m, according to the post. Taylor nicknamed her “Junie.”

Taylor wrote that she did not realize she was in labor until she could feel her baby’s head. She said Shumpert used the cord from a pair of headphones to tie off the umbilical cord as the couple waited for the ambulance to arrive minutes later.

The birth came about three weeks before the expected due date of Jan. 16, 2016, which Shumpert previously shared on his Facebook account.

Shumpert and Taylor got engaged in November, with Shumpert proposing to her with a ruby engagement ring on the night of her baby shower.

Shumpert was ruled out of the Cavs’ game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday night with a right groin strain. According to the Cavs, his playing status is questionable moving forward.

Before the 104-100 win over the Thunder, Cleveland coach David Blatt said Shumpert had yet to be re-evaluated by the Cavs since the team returned from Boston, because he was excused to be with his family.

“Due to the recent events, we’ve allowed Shump to do more important things,” Blatt said. “The doctor will get his hands on him, hopefully, [Thursday] evening. Then we’ll be a little bit smarter [about his status]. But he’ll be down for a few days for sure.”

Then Blatt cracked a joke about Shumpert’s surprise delivery skills.

“Dr. Shumpert now,” Blatt said. “And congratulations to Teyana, as well.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Scary moment in Cleveland last night, as LeBron James dove for a loose ball and slammed into Ellie Day, the wife of professional golfer Jason Day, sitting courtside. She was taken away on a stretcher and, according to Cleveland.com, treated and released from a local hospitalSteve Kerr hopes to be back on the Warriors’ bench in the next “two to three weeks” … Are the Sacramento Kings interested in trading for Kevin Martin? … Mike D’Antoni was spotted in Philadelphia, presumably there to meet with the Sixers about a job as an assistant … The Milwaukee Bucks held an “informal” meeting with Carlos Boozer in Los Angeles … The Bucks also took a team bonding trip to AlcatrazThe Currys and Drake made a postgame trip to In-N-Out …

LeBron-Durant rivalry offers lots — except frequency


VIDEO: LeBron James at shootaround

CLEVELAND – By the time Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell had shared eight seasons in the NBA — from Chamberlain’s rookie season of 1959-60 through 1966-67 — the legendary centers had battled 115 times. Eighty of their head-to-head clashes had come in the regular season to that point, with another 35 in the playoffs.

Other great NBA rivalries offered lots of head-to-head matchups, too. Oscar Robertson and Jerry West had met 62 times for the Royals and the Lakers, respectively, through their first eight pro seasons. Michael Jordan and Reggie Miller had butted heads 31 times, all their matchups through eight seasons — like Robertson’s and West’s — coming in regular season games.

Even Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, headquartered on opposite coasts their entire careers, had squared off 32 times through their first eight NBA seasons. Thirteen times they met in the regular season (on their way to 19) and 19 more were playoff games in the classic Lakers-Celtics rivalry.

All of which makes those of us at Hang Time Headquarters feel a little cheated, realizing that when Cleveland’s LeBron James and Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant meet Thursday night at Quicken Loans (8 ET, TNT), it will only be their 20th showdown in what now is their ninth shared NBA season.

“You guys know me — I’ve always loved playing against the best, the best guys in our league, but it’s never about that,” James said Thursday after the Cavaliers’ shootaround session at the team’s practice site in Independence, Ohio. “That’s more of a fan perspective. Fans like to see those matchups. I mean, I like to compete against the best teams, and they’re one of the best teams. That’s what means more to me than anything.”

Here’s the part James undoubtedly likes: He has an 11-3 record against Durant in the regular season and a 4-1 edge from their 2012 Finals meetings when the Cavs star was with Miami.

Their individual stats, while close, favor James as well: He has averaged 29.3 points, 64. rebounds, 6.5 assists and 38.1 minutes against Durant in the regular season, with the Thunder star countering with 29.4 points, 6.6 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 40.2 minutes. In that lone Finals hook-up, James averaged 28.6, 10.2 and 7.4 to Durant’s 30.6, 6.0 and 2.2. Of course, Durant entered the league four years later (2007-08 to James’ 2003-04), so James always has had an experience edge in their battles.

In terms of personal accolades, in the categories of MVP awards, scoring titles, All-Star-appearances, Rookie of the Year trophies, Finals trips and rings, James is 4-1-11-1-6-2. Durant is 1-4-6-1-1-0.

And still, it’s a rivalry that has gotten nearly the traction that a lot of NBA followers hoped when James, at age 28, and Durant, 24, led their Miami and OKC teams to The Finals three years ago. Don’t blame James — he keeps showing up every spring. It’s just that Durant has been derailed by injuries and by a Western Conference more rugged than the East.

This season it’s more of the same, with the Cavaliers sitting atop the East with a 16-7 record while Oklahoma City, at 17-8, ranks third behind Golden State and San Antonio.

But Durant appears to be as good as or better than he was prior to the injuries that shut him down after just 27 games last season. In fact, James said Durant is staking out uncharted territory for NBA players, in terms of his height and his talents.

“He’s a 7-footer with 6-foot ball-handling skills and a jump shot,” James said. “And athleticism. It’s never been done in our league. Never had a guy that’s 7-foot, can jump like that, can shoot like that, handle the ball like that. So it sets him apart.”

He’s not a common player — neither of them are — and theirs is not an everyday meeting, so enjoy the ones you can. The Cavaliers and the Thunder will meet again, for the second and final time in 2015-16 barring a Finals clash, on Feb. 21 in OKC.

Morning shootaround — Dec. 16


VIDEO: Highlights from games played Dec. 15

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Report: Irving to return tomorrow; Shumpert suffers groin injury | Making sense of Heat trade chatter | Kerr determined to return this season | Cousins’ manager tossed for swiping at Terry

No. 1: Report: Irving to make debut Thursday; Shumpert (groin) likely to miss 1 game — On Monday, the buzz in NBA circles was that Cleveland Cavaliers All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving would get back on the court sometime this week. Before last night’s game in Boston, Cavs coach David Blatt said he’s taking a cautious approach with Irving as he recovers from his knee injury, that Irving is not yet 100 percent and has overall been hesitant to commit to a return date. Well, something has changed from then until now as ESPN.com’s Dave McMenamin reports Irving will make his 2015-16 debut tomorrow night against the Oklahoma City Thunder (8 ET, TNT):

UPDATE, 11:48 a.m.

Irving threw some cold water on the report of him playing tomorrow, sending out a tweet that he will not suit up against the Thunder

Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving is set to make his season debut Thursday at home against the Oklahoma City Thunder, a source familiar with Irving’s plans told ESPN.com.

Irving, sidelined for the first 23 games of the Cavs’ season while recovering from surgery in June to repair a fractured left kneecap suffered in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, was cleared for full contact more than a week ago and has been through a handful of practices since without any setbacks.

Irving’s final hurdle before the team approves of his intention to play will involve a series of physical tests to measure his body’s strength and responsiveness, a team source told ESPN.com. The tests will be similar to the ones administered on Irving before he was allowed to return for Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals against Atlanta last spring after sitting out Games 2 and 3 with tendinitis in his left knee.

Although the Cavs can apparently look forward to getting Irving back, his backcourt mate, Iman Shumpert, is likely to miss Thursday’s game after suffering a groin strain last night. Cleveland.com’s Chris Haynes has more:

Cleveland Cavaliers guard Iman Shumpert, fresh off of returning from a wrist injury, left the game in the fourth quarter of Tuesday’s 89-77 win over the Boston Celtics with a right groin injury and would not return.

He will be evaluated further in Cleveland on Wednesday. Shumpert just made his season debut in the team’s last game on Friday at Orlando.

“Honestly a little concerned,” head coach David Blatt said of Shumpert’s latest injury. “I got to be honest with you. I have no idea what the extent is. Just given our recent history, I’m concerned.”

The defensive specialist was visibly frustrated after the game and refused to speak with reporters.

After getting his right leg wrapped, he sat at his locker stall quietly with a towel around his waist staring at the ground. He worked feverishly to get himself back on the court and now this. He could undergo an MRI if the training staff feels it’s necessary.


VIDEO: David Blatt talks after the Cavs’ win in Boston

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Grizzlies aren’t what they appear to be


VIDEO: Play of the Day: Matt Barnes wins it with a half-court heave.

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — The Memphis Grizzlies were down two with six seconds left when Matt Barnes grabbed a defensive rebound. He didn’t call timeout — the Grizzlies had three — so Dave Joerger could draw up a play to tie or win the game. And he didn’t use all of those six seconds he had.

Instead, Barnes took three dribbles and left his feet from just beyond mid-court with 3.5 seconds still on the clock. The shot went in with 1.1 seconds left, Marcus Morris missed the Pistons’ last shot, and the Grizzlies improved to 8-3 in games that were within five points in the last five minutes.

At 13-10 after a 3-6 start, the Grizzlies are looking strong in the Western Conference, where the 8 seed is under .500. Among the teams in the West’s top 10, the Grizzlies have played the most games (13) against the other nine. They have a respectable 6-7 record in those games, but have had some ugly losses.

That’s the story with the Grizzlies. Nine of their 10 losses have been by double-figures and seven of those have been by 15 points or more. They have losses of 20, 30, 37 and 50 points.

In this 10-4 stretch since they traded for Mario Chalmers, the Grizzlies have been outscored by 10 points. And for the season, they’re a minus-104, the fourth worst mark in the West, worse than the 8-15 Sacramento Kings.

The Grizzlies are 13-10 with the point differential of a team that’s 7-16. A win is a win, but point differential is generally a better predictor of future success than winning percentage. And Memphis’ point differential portends some future struggles.

The Bucks and Rockets also have records that are slightly inflated, based on their point differential. Houston has won six of its last eight games, but all 11 of its wins have been by seven points or less and the Rockets have also played one of the league’s easiest schedules. So don’t be so eager to buy low on the Western Conference finalist that’s still below .500.

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On the other end of the spectrum are the Celtics and Thunder, both with the point differential of a team with 16 wins, but only 13 real wins to show for it. The Celtics have typically won big, with 11 of their 13 victories coming by double-digits. Oklahoma City, meanwhile, is 5-7 in games that were within five points in the last five minutes.

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