HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Rarely have so few words received so much scrutiny.
But if we didn’t know any better, the amnesty provision in the NBA’s new labor proposal (and that’s all it remains at this point, until the untangling process is complete) would appear to be the most important piece of the pending collective bargaining agreement.
It seems strange that something that will be utilized by such a small number of teams would be the focus of everyone’s attention. Yet when you realize the names that could potentially be impacted by the rule — Brandon Roy, Rashard Lewis, Baron Davis, Richard Jefferson, Mehmet Okur,Gilbert Arenas and several others — the intense examination of how the rule works makes much more sense.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Don’t beat yourself up if you’re having a hard time keeping up. Most of us are in the same spot, trying to figure out who is for what as the clock ticks down to the league’s 5 p.m. ET Wednesday deadline for the players to either take or dismiss the league’s 50-50 proposal.
“We need for the two sides to get together again before Wednesday, because we’re too close to getting a deal done,” Bryant told Yahoo! Sports. “We need to iron out the last system items and save this from spiraling into a nuclear winter.”
Some others are not. Some of the owners are for it and apparently, per ESPN.com‘s sources, some others are not. It’s high time someone made a move, the right move to get the 2011-12 season up and running.
But when the sides can’t come to a consensus within their own caucuses, it’s tough to see some sort of breakthrough if and when the sides come together again to try and hash out the final details of a new collective bargaining agreement.
With the union representatives from all 30 teams set to meet today in New York, in advance of Wednesday’s end-of-business deadline, plenty of observers are a little nervous about what type of movement could emerge from the gathering. The players have limited options at this point. They can take a vote on the proposal and decide to take the deal, bowing to the league’s “ultimatum,” as union president Derek Fisher called it over the weekend, and breathe life into a season and the NBA fan base. Or they can refuse to even consider it, as Fisher insisted in the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s bargaining session, and push this affair into an even darker corner.
Fair or not, the players will own the next 36 hours of this mess.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – You don’t need X-ray vision to figure out where the NBA’s labor impasse is heading this week (“straight past the ‘Dead End’ sign and over the cliff” is the way an agent put it to us early this morning).
The end of business Wednesday deadline issued by NBA Commissioner David Stern is a car wreck we’re all being allowed to watch from a distance far too close for comfort. The threats — of a considerably worse offer if this one is not accepted by the owners and of the dissolution of the union by the players if they ignore Wednesday’s deadline — only make for a yet another wicked twist to an already disturbing tale.
That doesn’t sound like a union ready to capitulate or compromise, as union attorney Jeffrey Kessler made clear in the aftermath of Saturday’s nearly nine-hour session. It sounds more like players, at least a faction of them, willing to stare the league down on deadline day and come out swinging the morning after. What that means for us, the true casualties of this lockout, is the loss of more games and potentially the demise of the entire 2011-12 season.
Ken Berger of CBSSports.com: In the end, the truest words spoken early Sunday morning came from Kessler, who said the owners’ tactics were “not happening on Derek Fisher’s watch. It’s not happening on Billy Hunter‘s watch. It’s not happening on the watch of this executive committee.” If the players successfully decertified, none of the aforementioned would be in power. A decertification petition requiring the signatures of 30 percent of union membership would put the union on approximately a 60-day clock before an election is held to disband it — and that’s only if the National Labor Relations Board authorizes the election. Typically, the agency does not when a union has an unfair labor practices charge pending. The mere signing of the petition by 30 percent of the union would not by itself cease negotiations since the union would remain in power until the election, which wouldn’t happen before January — if at all. That leaves two months for cooler heads to prevail. But really, the stopwatch has been set for four days — 96 hours to spare chaos. Of all the inflammatory words spoken after this latest fiasco, the words “best and final offer” were never among them. That’s legal mumbo-jumbo for this: There’s still time to end the ass-hattery, if everyone’s heads return to a place oxygen is available. The clock is ticking.
Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports: After reports that Charlotte Bobcats owner Michael Jordan had become one of the most vocal of hardline owners, union officials were anxious for him to speak up in Saturday night’s meeting. Union officials, just as they wanted to do back at the last labor meeting that Jordan attended on All-Star weekend, were determined to throw back at Jordan many of his old anti-ownership screeds from the 1990s. As one official said, “He never opened his mouth, not once.” The two sides didn’t spend a great deal of the 8½ hours engaging each other, but rather had the federal mediator shuttling back and forth between rooms, a source said. Stern’s ultimatum comes with the backdrop of player agents actively canvassing their clients to determine if there were enough votes to move forward with a decertification vote on the union, agent and player sources told Yahoo! Sports. Before proceeding, agents and players were waiting on the outcome of the weekend’s labor talks. Several agents and players believed support would grow for a vote on dissolving the union without significant progress on a deal. Agents and players took part in two conference calls this week on the subject of decertification. Boston Celtics star Paul Pierce has taken a lead in spearheading those discussions, sources said.
Chris Sheridan of Sheridanhoops.com: The owners, Kessler said, had been the ones who brought an abrupt halt to the proceedings. After 3 weeks of preconditions that were levied and then removed and then levied and removed again, the owners circled back to basically the same place they have been all along while giving the players a take-it-or-leave-it offer that for all intents and purposes would max out at 50.2 percent of revenues going to the players, 49.8 percent going to the owners. The players had dropped to 51 percent, or as Kessler termed it: “Fifty plus one,” with the extra one percent ($40 million) being earmarked for improved pension benefits for both current and retired players. “These are professional basketball players,’’ Kessler said. “They are the finest athletes in the world. How do you think they feel about threats? How do you think they feel about efforts at intimidation? Who negotiates in good faith when they say it’s this proposal or (back to) 47 percent? Take it or leave it. This is not good faith to the fans. ‘’ Big, bad Michael Jordan had become Paul Allen 2.0 during the meeting, Kessler said, barely uttering a word. Arbitrator George Cohen’ suggestions, Kessler said, had been hijacked by Stern and turned into the owners’ official offer. The money quote from my news story, after the 8 1/2 hours of meetings and 60 minutes of dueling news conferences had ended: “The story here is they want it all,” Kessler bellowed. “They want a win, win, win, win. We wanted a compromise. Our 51 percent offer was based on a fair system. They would have to come to us on the system, but they did not.”
Howard Beck of the New York Times: This latest negotiating session, the 21st of the lockout, lasted for eight and a half hours, ending around 1:30 a.m. Sunday. Under the guidance of George Cohen, a federal mediator, the parties actually narrowed the gap on some crucial items before the talks collapsed. The players — who had vowed not to accept less than 52.5 percent of league revenues — proposed a 51 percent share, with 1 percent devoted to aid retired players. That moved them within 1 percent of the league’s longstanding proposal. On Saturday, the owners proposed a “band” that would pay the players 49 to 51 percent, depending on revenue growth. But the union said it amounted to a 50 percent offer, because the threshold for growth was so high that the share would never get to 51. Jeff Kessler, the union’s outside counsel and chief negotiator, called the 49 to 51 band “a fraud.” Yet it was ultimately the mechanics of a new system, not the revenue split, that killed the talks. The league’s standing proposal would eliminate spending options for teams that pay the luxury tax, by banning them from sign-and-trade deals and the use of the midlevel exception. At Cohen’s suggestion, the league proposed a “mini-midlevel” that would start at $2.5 million — half the value of the full midlevel — and would be limited to two-year deals. The N.B.A.’s proposal also called for an additional penalty — a so-called “repeater tax” — on teams that exceed the tax threshold three times in a five-year span. The union is open to the concept, but not at the steep rates proposed by the league. The net effect of the N.B.A.’s proposal, the union said, would be to eliminate the highest-spending teams from acquiring top talent — thus devastating the free-agent market.
Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News: The owners have not threatened to impose a flex-cap since last summer. But it’s a sign that they’re running out of patience with the players, who continue to hold out for more of the same soft-cap features that were part of the last collective bargaining agreement. “We want our players to play and we’d like to have a season and these are the terms upon which we’re prepared to gear up and get in as many games as possible,’’ Stern said. The league has already cancelled all of its November schedule. With the players already rejecting the owner’s latest offer, it seems fairly certain that December games will soon start to go up in smoke, too. In addition to the split of revenue, owners in this latest proposal want players to accept a decrease in the mid-level exception, from five years to two years for teams over the luxury tax. There would also be reductions in the terms of the exception for non-tax paying teams. The deal would also penalize taxpayers by not allowing them to work sign-and-trade transactions. Jordan is one of nearly 12 owners who don’t want players to get above 47%. But Stern said that he would have enough votes to get the deal for the players allowing for them to get upwards of 51%. That’s because Jordan, Charlotte majority owner, and other small- and mid-market owners who lost $300 million last season do not have enough votes to kill a deal. To ratify a deal, Stern needs a simple majority of 16 votes. “This is not good faith to the players or to the fans,’’ said union counsel Jeffrey Kessler. “The players will not be intimidated. That’s what the league is doing in presenting an ultimatum to us.’’
Marc Stein of ESPN.com: Bear in mind that there’s a big difference between rounding up the 130 players needed to sign a petition to vote on decertification and finding a 50 percent-plus-one majority in a union of roughly 450 members amenable to actually voting for decertification. Because decertification is “risky and messy,” as established above, there is undeniable skepticism around the league about how many players would be willing to go all the way through with it. And maybe that’s why some ownership sources insist that the decertification process won’t have nearly as much impact as its supporters contend. But if it merely gets as far as a vote — no matter what would happen when decertification ballots are passed out — that’s when you’ll know that there’s really no hope for a 2011-12 season. If the union ultimately does decertify fully, there won’t even be time at that point to do what NBA commissioner David Stern does not want to do and stage another 50-game season. The reality, though, is that we’re still some distance removed from that crossroads. Wednesday is the deadline announced by Stern for the union to take the deal as currently constructed, but this sad saga can rumble on for at least another good month — and probably longer — unless Stern can convince the union that they better take Saturday’s offer because he’s serious about canceling the rest of the ’11-12 season before Thanksgiving.XX
Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times: Player reaction to Stern’s take-it-or-leave-it offer was swift on Twitter. ”U gotta love an ultimatum,” tweeted San Antonio Spurs guard Steve Novak. “How does basketball ever even get to this point?” … All 29 owners gathered early in the day Saturday for a meeting among themselves, and Cohen met separately with players and owners before collective negotiations resumed. Small-market owners in attendance included Charlotte’s Michael Jordan and Portland’s Paul Allen, believed to be among those wanting to hold the players’ share of revenue to 47%. Among large-market owners were the Lakers’ Jerry Buss and Miami’s Micky Arison, the latter of the recent $500,000 tweet claiming he wasn’t the reason the lockout was lingering. The discussions lacked star power on the players’ side. Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade, who had attended earlier negotiating sessions, announced via Twitter that he had landed in Sydney for the start of an exhibition tour. ”Got off the plane in my jordan sweat suit,” Wade wrote, “but as soon as I walked out the airport it felt like Miami.” Clippers teammates Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan exchanged trash tweets regarding their alma maters’ Big 12 Conference football game in Norman, Okla. Tweeted Jordan: “Sorry but Texas A&M is going to smack OU today!!!” Final score: Oklahoma 41, Texas A&M 25. Jordan wouldn’t find a happy ending with the proceedings in New York either.
Alan Hahn of Newsday: Stern said that the league would spend Sunday writing up two formal proposals, one as outlined above and another based on a less appealing offer that would come if Wednesday’s deadline passes without an agreement. That deal, Stern said, would have two ominous parts: a 47-53 split of league revenue in favor of the owners and a “flex” cap system that would replicate the NHL’s hard cap. ”We hope that this juxtaposition will cause the union to assess its situation and accept the deal,” Stern said. If they don’t take the deal, the union is faced with one option: to decertify the union and fight the league in court. That, of course, would take up the kind of time that would essentially kill any chance of having a season. Neither Fisher nor Kessler would address decertification, which has been promoted by several agents. Union executive director Billy Hunter did not speak to reporters after the talks because, according to a union spokesman, he was under the weather. It was yet another long day for everyone involved, as the owners met early Saturday afternoon to discuss their strategy going into the meeting with the players. Michael Jordan, the Charlotte Bobcats owner who is the marquee name among a faction of hardlining small market owners, was in attendance, along with Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen and Heat owner Micky Arison, who last week was fined $500,000 for a few candid tweets about the lockout. On the players’ side, Knicks guard Chauncey Billups, one of the most respected veteran players in the league, made his first appearance at the talks at the request of the union’s executive committee, mainly vice president Mo Evans. But it was Kessler who had the strongest voice after the meetings, as he continually charged the owners with having no interest in making a deal. ”Who negotiates in good faith and makes an ultimatum?” he said. Later he added, “The big story here is they want it all.”
Listening to union executive director Billy Hunter on The B.S. Report with Bill Simmons of Grantland.com provided a drama- free opportunity to hear Hunter’s argument and try to grasp how we got here and where we might be headed. (You need to carve out an hour to listen. It’s an absolute must-listen, especially the part when Hunter reveals that he and NBA Commissioner David Stern are fraternity brothers.)
The finger-pointing that marked last week’s breakdown in talks was pleasantly absent from this conversation, which made it much easier to wrap your head around exactly why the players feel the way they do toward the owners, who have come under considerable fire themselves since last week.
Portland owner Paul Allen has been the most talked about member of the owner’s side since last week, both in Portland and beyond. Whatever his role was in last week’s breakdown of talks, he’s being fingered as the man whose presence led to a severe crack in the process.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Your anger is understandable.
Mostly because the actions of so many are indefensible.
With this latest breakdown in talks between the two sides in the NBA’s labor madness comes a sobering truth about this entire process. It’s never been about saving the game or even preserving it for the fans. It’s about two sides fighting over a billion dollar pie and each one wanting the biggest piece. Someone has to win and someone has to lose, compromise be damned!
We knew as much when this thing started, but we seemed to lose sight of that in the past few months with all the details tossed into the fray to deflect our attention from the fundamentals of this dispute. Our confidence has been betrayed by the men who have asked for that very thing from us, the basketball loving public,. And here we stand, just days away from what should have been the start of a season, staring at a potential season on the brink.
When the federal mediator both sides agreed to let dive into the middle of this battle packs up his stuff and heads for the door after three days of listening to everyone talk, it’s clear the “gulf” between the positions NBA Commissioner David Stern spoke of last week is greater than most of us imagined.
Unlike many of my less cynical colleagues here at the hideout and beyond, I wasn’t expecting a resolution to this process this week. I did (foolishly) assume that some tangible progress this week could lead to a deal sometime in the very near future.
But not after reading these words from NBPA attorney Jeffrey Kessler after the Board of Governors meeting:
“This meeting was hijacked. Something happened at their [owners] meeting. This is not the move where the owners were yesterday. We were making progress, as you heard.
“They came back, they came without the commissioner. They came with Paul Allen. We were told Paul Allen was here to express the views of the other members of the Board of Governors. And that view was: ‘Our way or the highway.’
“That’s what we were told. We were shocked. We went in there trying to negotiate, and they came in and said, ‘You either accept 50-50 or we’re done. And we won’t discuss anything else.’ “
Point fingers in whatever direction you like. Both sides are doing the same now without hesitation.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Greg Oden‘s season is over in Portland.
It might be time for the whole experiment to come to an end.
The news came late Wednesday night via Twitter first (where else would it come from these days?). Another microfracture surgery scheduled for Friday morning, it ought to be the 13th for Trail Blazers fans, Oden and the organization that cheered his arrival four years ago like the championship banner was strictly a matter of when and not if.
We’re talking about a 22-year-old behemoth with three season-ending knee surgeries in four years people — THREE in FOUR YEARS. Let that marinate for a second and then realize what a devastating blow this has to be to all involved.
The recovery time for microfracture surgery is anywhere from six to 12 months. That means Oden’s next step might not come until January of 2012 or later. He’s done in Portland. And I know the organization will stick by him through his rehabilitation, as they should. But beyond that, they owe him nothing.
They’ve paid him close to $20 million for a grand total of 82 games of actual work. The rest of the time he’s spent in the training and operating room. That’s just the facts.
If you invest $20 million in a project in the business world and it goes awry, you don’t keep pouring money into the project. You cut your losses and move on to the next venture.
Oden will get another shot at this. If Michael Olowokandi, Kwame Brown and Darko Milicic all got second, third and even fourth chances, Oden will play basketball for someone in the NBA if he wants to. That much is up to him.
But the Trail Blazers have to move on. Trying to patch up the gentle giant and march him out there in those Rip City colors one more time is a scene we have no interest in viewing.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – A week of training camp is hardly enough time to form any lasting impressions about most teams in the NBA, let alone one with as many question marks surrounding it as the Portland Trail Blazers.
Is Greg Oden ready? Will he ever be?
“I wish I could honestly say there’s a timeline, but there’s not,” Oden said at media day. “There’s good days and bad days.”
What’s up with Rudy Fernandez? Why hasn’t he been traded already?
“I prefer the style of European competition,” he said. “I feel better in Europe.”
The Trail Blazers have already announced that Oden won’t be ready for opening night. And Fernandez has made clear his desire to be free of Portland, the NBA and the Trail Blazers, in at least two different languages.
This isn’t exactly the kind of stuff that inspires confidence during the opening stages of the marathon that is the NBA season. Hearing this sort of talk from and about two players that could prove crucial to the Trail Blazers’ postseason fate is what makes this team arguably the league’s biggest mystery heading into the regular season.
On paper, you’ve got to love this team. At their best, they’re capable of manhandling any team in the league. But the reality is their margin for error (due to injury or any other drama) is paper-thin, like several other teams not named the Lakers in the Western Conference this season.
Granted, Paul Allen‘s crew has already endured enough pain and suffering to last four or five years. Surely, you remember last season’s injury parade that claimed everyone from Oden and Joel Pryzbilla to coach Nate McMillan and All-Star Brandon Roy, at one time or another.
But there’s so much to like about this team, provided they stay healthy long enough to show off just how deep and talented they really are — they won 50 games in spite of all the tumult of last season.
Start with the Roy-Andre Miller backcourt and their improving relationship. They are as dangerous as any combo in the Western Conference, and the league for that matter, this season. And Marcus Camby is sure to deliver his usual double-digit rebounds and two or three blocks a night. LaMarcus Aldridge is one of the league’s most productive power forwards. Nicolas Batum was an instant fave here at the hideout for his quality work on both ends of the floor and McMillan is easily one of the league top 10 coaches. There’s fresh new blood in the form of the fearless Wesley Matthews, the prize of the Trail Blazers’ relatively quiet summer, and rookies Luke Babbit and Elliot Williams.
The Blazers’ prized offseason acquisition, best known for his in-your-face defense, scored a game-high 17 points and earned MVP honors before 11,525 at the Rose Garden during the team’s annual Fan Fest, a free scrimmage that offers fans a sneak peek at the team.
“When you’re looked at as a defender, of course your offense is going to be overlooked,” Matthews said. “I’m just going out there and taking the shots they’re giving me. I worked hard in the offseason to fine-tune my offense and I was able to showcase it a little bit tonight.”
Friday’s event was mostly about putting on a show for the fans, so it’s hard to put too much stock into an individual performance that came in a split-squad scrimmage. But, even so, it was hard to over look the newest Blazer.
Matthews scored his first bucket early in the first quarter, when he swished a tough baseline jumper over Brandon Roy, and that was but a taste of things to come. Matthews would go on to sink his first three field goals and make three three-pointers in the first half. By the time his night was over, Matthews had made 7 of 11 field goals, including 3 of 4 three-pointers.
Most of his damage came from the outside, but Matthews also mixed in some crowd-pleasing dunks, including a fast-break alley-oop of a lob pass from Jerryd Bayless. Matthews’ performance seemed to catch the crowd off guard — and perhaps even some of his teammates. After he hit his third three of the first half over Roy, the Blazers’ All-Star headed down the court shaking his head and laughing.
“I hope he didn’t leave it out there,” said coach Nate McMillan, laughing, after the game. “He’s been playing that way in training camp. You didn’t see a lot of that in Utah and it may be the style of play. But he’s been doing that. He’s been handling the ball, he’s been running the breaks. He does a good job of moving without the ball and he’s knocking down his shot. I want him to be aggressive.”
It’s probably foolish to assume Matthews, and not an inspired and healthy Oden, will make the difference in Portland this season. But with a team shrouded in as much mystery as these Trail Blazers are, at least to those of us watching from a distance, it’s hard to know what to go on here.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Raise your hand if you thought it would take 81 games for the playoff picture to be sorted out this season.
Go ahead, get it up high.
Anyone … anyone … Bueller …
We promise we didn’t think we’d go down to the final seconds Wednesday night with teams still jockeying for space. But it’s become a true pleasure watching teams and players (hey LeBron James, you can stop reading now) finish this marathon with a little kick.
A couple of teams (Thunder, Bobcats) saw their playoff status settle during Monday night’s action:
More (playoff) order could be established tonight with a TNT doubleheader that will provide opportunities for the Celtics and Bulls (8 p.m. ET) and Nuggets and Suns (10:30 p.m. ET) to nail down their positions.
In the meantime, it’s time to dive into a some news, notes, quotes and opinions from around the league:
THUNDER GET LAKERS IN FIRST ROUND
Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman: “Break out the “Beat L.A.” chants. The Oklahoma City Thunder is guaranteed to face the NBA’s defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in the first-round of the playoffs. The Thunder’s fate was sealed Monday night, with a 103-95 loss at Portland before a sold out crowd of 20,691 inside the Rose Garden. The Lakers won the season series over Oklahoma City, 3-1. The Thunder’s lone win was a 91-75 rout inside the Ford Center in the final regular-season meeting March 26. Los Angeles won the first and third meetings by three points, respectively, and notched a 16-point victory in the second meeting Nov. 22 at the Staples Center. “It’s an opportunity to keep getting better,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said before Monday night’s game when asked about a potential matchup with the Lakers. “We’re playing the best basketball team in the West, and you will learn a lot.” Considering how few pre-season predictions had the Thunder picked to be playoff-bound and a victory shy of 50 wins this year, the season must be viewed as successful. But it’s a somewhat disappointing conclusion to a playoff race in which Oklahoma City, just a few short days ago, still had a chance at a top-four seed and home court advantage. Instead, the Thunder wrapped up a date with reigning NBA Finals MVP Kobe Bryant and his star-studded Lakers teammates.”
CAMBY SOARS, DELIGHTS ROSE GARDEN CROWD
Jason Quick of the Oregonian: “There have been raucous crowds in the Rose Garden before. And there have been chants and cheers from many sellout crowds. But perhaps nothing has ever matched the volume, synchronicity and fervor of Monday’s late-game chant of Marcus Camby’s name. “They should have been chanting the whole team,” Camby said. Indeed, in yet another team-wide Trail Blazers blitzkrieg, Portland beat Oklahoma City 103-95 in the regular season’s penultimate game, breaking a tie with the Thunder and ensuring no lower than a seventh-place finish in the Western Conference. Camby had 30 points, 13 rebounds, three assists, one steal and one block and was so all-over-the-place that the crowd at the 111th Rose Garden sellout began chanting his name in unison with 15.9 seconds left. It was such a remarkable tribute to the man who has flat-out changed this Blazers season that owner Paul Allen emerged from his office after the game and tried to re-create the chant, stopping after two versions and chuckling. And Brandon Roy, the team star who is probably lost for the season after learning he has a torn meniscus in his right knee, marveled at the ferocity of the chants. “I’ve gotten ‘M-V-P’ before, but it has never been as loud as that,” Roy beamed from inside the training room. The win gave the Blazers (50-31) their second consecutive 50-win season, the fourth time they have accomplished that feat in franchise history. It also means the Blazers won’t finish eighth and be forced to play the defending NBA champion Lakers. If the Blazers beat Golden State on Wednesday, they will be guaranteed to finish with the sixth seed in the West. Depending on what happens tonight and Wednesday, the Blazers will play at either Dallas, Denver, Utah or Phoenix for the start of a seven-game series. “Whether it’s Dallas, Utah … it’s going to be a tough matchup, but the defending champions, you don’t really want to face those guys in the first round,” coach Nate McMillan said. “Even though they have lost some games, you know they are going to get their stuff together. So you try to take your chances somewhere else.”
NUGGETS AIM FOR DIVISION TITLE AGAINST SUNS
Benjamin Hochman of the Denver Post: “The dream became a goal before the very first practice. “I believe this team can win a championship,” Nuggets coach George Karl said. What came next was a title-fight bevy of knockdowns and sucker punches — some giveth, some taketh: the J.R. Smith seven-game suspension; Smith’s return and the video-replay win at Chicago; Chauncey Billups’ burying of the Lakers in L.A.; Karl coaching Billups and Carmelo Anthony in the Texas-sized All-Star Game; cancer; Melo’s game-winner over LeBron; Adrian Dantley takes over; Kenyon Martin takes a seat; chemotherapy; losing streak; Martin returns; hope. And this takes us to tonight at Phoenix, Denver’s final regular-season game. Thanks to Monday’s 123-101, imperative win against Memphis, the Nuggets (53-28) are in control of their own destiny. If Denver wins at Phoenix — where it has lost 10 straight — the Nuggets win the Northwest Division and nab the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Otherwise, Denver must wait until Wednesday’s Suns-Jazz matchup to know the seedings. Utah and Phoenix are currently 52-28, each with two games to play (tonight, Utah plays at Golden State). “That’s what the NBA is all about — having adversity and tough games you have to go and win,” Nuggets captain Chauncey Billups said. “That’s the beautiful thing of what we do.” Before each game, a Nuggets coach writes that evening’s “keys” on the locker room dry-erase board, normally bullet points such as: “transition defense” or “pass the ball” or “don’t let J.J. Redick score 23 points.” On Monday, before Game No. 81 at Pepsi Center, the first key read: “Must Win Game.”
RAPTORS STILL ALIVE, FIGHTING FOR PLAYOFFS
Eric Koreen of the National Post: “The title of underdog does not fit the Toronto Raptors well. The Raptors have a five-time all-star, albeit an injured one, and three under-achieving, well-paid jumpshooters who compose the supporting cast. Inconsistent contributors, with those levels of inconsistency varying, fill out the rest of the roster. They are not what you would call scrappy. Still, forward Amir Johnson was trying to pitch the new identity. “We’ve got everybody not counting on us,” Johnson said before the Raptors game against Detroit on Monday night in the wake of a disheartening loss to Chicago at home the night before. “We’re kind of like the underdogs. If we do [make the playoffs], ain’t nobody going to go for us against Cleveland. We’ve really got to go in there and just stop talking and play.” For a night, that mentality seemed to kick in. The Raptors do not control their own destiny, but they do have a pulse following their 111-97 victory. In order to make the playoffs, Toronto still needs the Bulls, who defeated the Raptors at the Air Canada Centre on Sunday, to cough up one of their final two games, be it Tuesday at home to Boston or Wednesday in Charlotte. But should that happen, and should the Raptors win on Wednesday night against New York, they will back into the playoffs. After a bad night against Chicago, the Raptors looked competitive against the Pistons, who did not return the favour. With Chris Bosh still missing from the lineup, the Raptors’ front court was frisky. Andrea Bargnani scored 33 points, and was the most dangerous man on the floor all night. Johnson chipped in with a career-high 26 points against his old team. “We tried to go inside to Andrea as much as we could,” Raptors coach Jay Triano said. “We thought we had a little bit of a mismatch on him. Then they switched. When they put a bigger guy on him, we took them outside. He had a great night. He was able to shoot the ball and score from the low post and from outside. The way that they had to play Andrea, that opened things up for Amir.” Indeed, Johnson was allowed to roll to the basket with abandon. He finished above the rim, often spectacularly, several times. Jarrett Jack added 15 points and 12 assists for his second double-double of the year.”
CELTICS HOPING FOR FRESH START IN PLAYOFFS
Julian Benbow of the Boston Globe: “In the past two weeks, the Bucks’ Andrew Bogut dislocated his right elbow after a dunk, ending his season and leaving a hole where 15.9 points and 10.2 rebounds used to be. Toronto’s Chris Bosh caught an elbow and suffered broken facial bones, ending his season and probably sinking Toronto’s playoff hopes. Denver’s Carmelo Anthony was knocked to the floor on a drive in the third quarter, and as play continued a teammate nearly trampled him. Anthony returned in the fourth quarter. And Sunday, Blazers star Brandon Roy twisted his knee and had to sit out last night’s game against Oklahoma City. Meanwhile, even though they’ve undergone their share of breakdowns throughout the season, the high-mileage luxury vehicle that is the Boston Celtics has all of its pieces intact with the playoffs four days away. For the things they’ve lacked — defensive rhythm, consistent focus, respect for teams with fewer than 30 wins — the Celtics have a chance to go into the postseason with arguably the most important element — health — avoiding significant blows such as the knee injury that ended Kevin Garnett’s season a year ago. “That’s what was pretty much our savior,’’ guard Ray Allen said. “We didn’t go through any major injuries. We had guys up and down throughout the season, we didn’t have an overall consistent lineup. But we didn’t have anything major happen to us up to this point. So we’re fortunate.’’ No Celtics starter avoided injury. Allen sat out a game because of back spasms in February. Kendrick Perkins was sidelined twice because of the flu and knee issues in March. Celtics coach Doc Rivers took extra precaution when Rajon Rondo strained his hamstring in January. But the 11 games Garnett missed because of knee and thigh injuries was the longest absence of any starter. Pierce missed 10 games because of knee, back, and foot injuries and the Celtics were 5-5 in his absence. “We made it through a tough season, and at this point I think everybody’s pretty much healthy,’’ Pierce said. “Hopefully, they can stay that way over the next couple of games going into the playoffs and we’ll see what happens. “We had our share of injuries. Guys missed significant amounts of games. But at this point, I think it’s great that guys have fresh bodies going into the playoffs. Some teams are battling injuries going into the playoffs. We got ours out of the way, I guess.”
BOBCATS WIN, TURN FOCUS TO MAGIC
Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer: “The key event for the Charlotte Bobcats happened due south of here Monday, when the Miami Heat beat the Philadelphia 76ers. Now there’s no doubt: The Bobcats open their first-ever playoff series this weekend in Orlando, against a Magic team that won the Eastern Conference last season. Ground zero in that series will be wherever Magic All-Star center Dwight Howard stands. “Every day Dwight plays, he gets better,” said Bobcats coach Larry Brown, after his team played what amounted to a scrimmage, beating the Nets 105-95 to close the Izod Center as an NBA venue. The Bobcats (44-37) sat forward Gerald Wallace to rest his sore left shoulder. Brown said he’d love for Game 1 against the Magic to be Sunday, rather than Saturday, to get an extra day of rest for his injured players. One of the injured, reserve power forward Tyrus Thomas, played for the first time in four games. His dislocated right thumb wrapped in ice afterward, Thomas said it was important to get some playing time before the real games start this weekend. He did well enough, finishing with 13 points, three rebounds and a block in 22 minutes. This night was all about the bench, particularly those who seldom play. Rookie Gerald Henderson, who hadn’t played in six games, logged 201/2 minutes, finishing with 13 points, seven rebounds and two spectacular dunks. “It’s fun to have an opportunity to play these guys,” said Brown, who used everyone except rookie Derrick Brown. “They try every day, they practice every day.”
SPURS PREPARED FOR ANYTHING
Jeff McDonald of the Express-News: “Usually by this time of year, the Spurs’ basketball staff has already done the brunt of its hard work in preparing for the playoffs. A first-round opponent — or, at least, a short list of potential opponents — has been scouted, its tendencies charted, the seedlings of a game-plan germinated. This year, however, is no normal year. “More than any other year, we don’t know who we’re going to play, because we don’t know where we’re going to be,” coach Gregg Popovich said. “Usually, we have a pretty good idea of where we’re going to be, and that helps us limit the work.” Monday’s penultimate game of the season — a 133-111 whipping of Minnesota at the AT&T Center that kept the Spurs seventh in the Western Conference — at long last provided clarity. Thanks to Portland’s 103-95 victory over Oklahoma City late Monday, the Spurs can scratch one potential opponent off the list. Assured of finishing no worse than seventh in the Western Conference, the Spurs can no longer face the top-seeded L.A. Lakers in the first round. They can still get to sixth, but they must win their season finale at Dallas and have Portland lose its finale to Golden State. No matter how it shakes out, there are still four potential foes the Spurs can face in the first round — Dallas, Utah, Denver or Phoenix. “At this point, we’ll play who we play and prepare the same way,” captain Tim Duncan said. “Whatever happens, happens.” The Spurs took care of their own business Monday, closing the first half on a 22-4 run that left the Timberwolves for road kill. With the victory, the Spurs (50-31) ensured their 11th consecutive 50-win season, the longest active streak in the NBA.”
D’ANTONI BELIEVES FREE AGENTS WILL COME DESPITE LOSING
Frank Isola of the New York Daily News: “If only Mike D’Antoni could use whiteout on his resume and remove his back-to-back 50 loss seasons with the Knicks, the job of recruiting LeBron James and/or Dwyane Wade would be that much easier. Unfortunately, the record stands. It stands as an albatross, really, as well as a number that will be hard for the top free agents in the 2010 class to ignore. “First of all, anybody you go after, when they come in they’ll say, ‘Well, yeah, you didn’t have me,’” D’Antoni said. “Those are the type of guys, so I’m not worried about (the record). Maybe they do but you’d have to ask them. We’re in the position that it’ll be either two superstars or a lot of good players.” Donnie Walsh held up his end of the bargain, but did D’Antoni? The Knicks beat Washington, 114-103, Monday night in their home finale to improve to 29-52. D’Antoni’s record is 61-102 in two Knick seasons and his legacy as an offensive savant has taken a hit. His high-water mark was doing the seemingly impossible: increasing Jared Jeffries’ trade value. D’Antoni also deserves a percentage of David Lee’s next contract for helping turn the veteran forward into an All-Star and one of three 20-point, 10-rebound players in the NBA. But under D’Antoni, the Knicks remain abysmal on defense. They have yet to seriously challenge for a playoff spot and worst of all, he alienated several players, starting with Stephon Marbury and ending with Tracy McGrady. It may not mean much to the outside world that D’Antoni’s relationships with Marbury, McGrady, Eddy Curry, Larry Hughes and Nate Robinson were rocky at best, but players around the league do talk. It isn’t surprising that when asked if he will have anything to say to the team following Wednesday’s season finale in Toronto, D’Antoni, laughing, said: “Not really. See ya.”
IN THE PLAYOFFS IT’S HOW YOU PLAY, NOT WHOM
Kurt Kragthorpe of the Salt Lake Tribune: “Wednesday marks the three-year anniversary of the Jazz’s 28-point home loss to Phoenix, after which the late Larry H. Miller ripped his team with a terse, two-word commentary (“We suck”), but I would not recommend that they repeat that performance against the Suns on a night when the organization is honoring Miller. That 2007 team recovered, eventually reaching the Western Conference finals. The Jazz’s performance defied the theory of needing to play well, going into the playoffs. Yet that turn of events has to be considered an aberration. Instead, last spring’s negative results illustrate the truth that when the postseason arrives, it really helps to be rolling, not sucking. So while the rest of us maniacally study the scenarios, projections and possibilities for the Jazz in the playoffs and monitor every Western Conference game affecting his team, Jerry Sloan ignores all of it. “I don’t need that aggravation,” he said, recognizing that he’s paid $5.5 million annually to coach the Jazz — and nobody else. Sloan knows that sometime after 11 p.m. Wednesday, the Jazz will learn their bracketing and the site of Games 1 and 2. Until then, just about everything is still in play. Regarding the first-round matchup, the Jazz are fighting for home-court advantage. That’s important. In terms of the second-round pairings, they are trying to dodge the Los Angeles Lakers. Actually, they can do that by losing in the first round. So what really matters for them in the remaining two games this week is polishing their game and getting Andrei Kirilenko back into form. Winning? Sure, that would be fine. Yet in a year when seven playoff-bound teams in the West were separated by three games in the standings with two games to play, trying to guess what will happen — or what ideally should happen, from a Jazz perspective — when it all shakes out is mind-boggling. To a degree, it is also irrelevant. As the playoffs approach, I’m summoning the logic of Frank Layden, the former Jazz coach and executive: What matters is not so much whom you’re playing, but how you’re playing.”
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – We were hoping we’d have to wait another 11 games or so do this, but it’s become painfully clear that it’s time to put an end to the playoff dreams of a few teams, including (dabbing napkin to BluBlockers) Hang Time’s Grizzlies.
Our boys are not alone. The Bulls and Rockets are in need of last rites as well.
It’s a sad day here at the hideout, where the Prime Minister was the first to notice that the end, however painful it might be, was already here for these teams.
At least our Grizzlies are still fighting until the very end. The Rockets are, too.
We can’t say the same about the Bulls, who flashed a little playoff potential earlier in the season before injuries (and a head-scratching trade — John Salmons anyone?) led to their current slide. They’ve lost 11 of their last 13 games, with those two wins coming over the Rockets and the mighty 76ers, another team that could have set out on summer break a month or so ago.
The Bulls saved Vinny Del Negro‘s job with a run that began the day after Christmas and ended late last month. The Bulls were 18-11 in January and February. And that’s usually a good indication that a team is surging at just the right time. But starting with a Feb. 27 road loss in Indiana, the Bulls went on a 10-game slide that cost them any chance of keeping the pace for a playoff spot.
In defense of our Grizzlies, and you had to know this was coming, they are simply the victims of having to play in a power conference. They’re 18-9 against the Eastern Conference. If they just swapped conferences with the Bulls, they’d be battling the Bucks and Heat for the fifth spot in the playoff race.
Still, it’s time for us to end the playoff campaign honorably. There’s no need dragging our guys through the drama over the next couple weeks without any realistic chance that they’ll be rewarded for an admirable season.
We will rest this summer, see what the summer (the draft and free agency) brings us and then be back next year ready to fight for the right to party into the postseason.
But make no mistake, Hang Time’s Grizzlies will rise again!
REMEMBER THE WARRIORS?
There’s only an outside shot they’d meet in the postseason, but the Mavericks should be worried about their inability to do anything with the Trail Blazers this season.
They struggled during the regular season like this a couple years back with a Warriors team that ended up dumping them in the playoffs.
“Maybe it’s true that everybody has their personal kryptonite.
For the Mavericks, it’s got to be the Portland Trail Blazers.
Heading toward the playoffs, the Mavericks should avoid the Blazers at all costs in the first round. Portland made it 3-0 against the Mavericks this season with a 101-89 victory early this morning at the Rose Garden. The Blazers remain the only team in the NBA the Mavericks have yet to beat this season.
But as for a team having another team’s number, coach Rick Carlisle wasn’t buying it.
“They’re no bargain,’’ he said. “But we’re no bargain. You want to play us?’’
At the moment, the Mavericks’ fear-factor is somewhat diminished. They now have lost four of their last six games since the 13-game winning streak that seems like eons ago.
Some disturbing numbers Thursday were their zero — yes, zero — fast-break points and the fact that they only got to the free-throw line nine times.
And allowing 50-percent shooting was a bit problematic, too.
“They played a really good game,’’ said Shawn Marion. “It was a playoff game out there. There was a little testosterone going on.’’
The Mavericks simply came up short in this one.
“Look, we had zero fast break points and that to me means you just got to get more stops and give yourself more chances to got out and run,’’ Carlisle said. “They beat us 16-0 and that’s hard to overcome.”
We’re not suggesting that we could be in store for another such series this postseason (for starters, we don’t believe the Blazers possess that same sort of schizophrenic brilliance that Warriors team did). And Carlisel clearly isn’t buying it.
But it’s worth paying attention to if you are the Mavericks.
DIPLOMATIC IMMUNITY FOR HORFORD
We’re not sure Al Horford meant for this to come out the way it did (English is his second language), but we’d like to commend the Hawks’ All-Star center for saying it.
“That really falls on the guys that are running our team,” he said. “The guards have the ball in their hands. They control the game, and that’s something they have to kind of realize.”
There’s no telling if this comment will make it back to the people it needs to, the guys Horford identified. But it would be nice if it did, for the Hawks’ sake. Maybe then they’d stop blowing those late leads.
THE WHAT IF GAME WITH BEASLEY
Michael Beasley‘s a lot of things, but shy about expressing his true feelings is not one of them.
He says what is on his mind whenever he is approached. And that’s a great thing for us and probably a horrible thing for the Miami Heat’s PR machine.
“There are times when Michael Beasley wonders how things might have turned out had he switched places with Derrick Rose in the 2008 draft.
The Bulls selected Rose No. 1 overall, and Beasley was drafted second by Miami.
Since then, Rose has become a cornerstone of the franchise and an All-Star. Beasley has become a starter, but the only constants with him have been inconsistencies in his performance and fluctuating playing time.
Conventional wisdom would suggest Rose has delivered as an impact player while Beasley is still developing.
“I think, ‘what if’ on a lot of things. I’m a ‘what-if’ thinker,” Beasley said before Thursday’s game against the Bulls. “I think things would have been different [for me] here. They don’t have Dwyane Wade. No disrespect to D-Wade or anything. But it’s a fact. A lot of things would happen different.”
Beasley insists he isn’t envious of Rose’s status in Chicago. But Beasley believes his development in Miami has been slower because he is on a veteran team, which requires more patience.
“I feel like I haven’t shown nothing yet,” Beasley said. “I’m kind of disgusted with the way I’ve played these two years. I averaged 14 points last year, 15 this year. Those are disgusting numbers — based on my expectations. I just don’t like them.”
Beasley said he is still a bit surprised he wasn’t the No. 1 pick, based on the workout he had in Chicago and his talks with the Bulls front office.
But he knows there is no looking back. Instead, Beasley searches for the impact he had in college, when he averaged 26 points and 12 rebounds his lone and All-American season at Kansas State.
“I haven’t played in two years, freely,” Beasley said. “I don’t know who Mike Beasley, the NBA player, is. I look back to K-State. But we haven’t seen him in two years. I’m waiting on him to call. I guess it isn’t my time yet. Hopefully, I’ll find him.”
Keep it real Michael Beasley, keep it real!
ANOTHER SMITH DELIVERS THE GOODS
Just so we are clear, the Smith name is safe in the NAB so long as guys like my cousin Craig (of the LA Smiths and Clippers) is getting the job done:
Get ‘em big fella!
CANZANO STAYS AFTER BLAZERS
HT favorite John Canzano of the Oregonian continues to poke holes in the Blazers’ off-court operation and what he sees as their dysfunction, despite statements to the contrary.
We’re not picking sides here. You can do that for yourself.
“The statement was released a couple of hours before tip on Thursday. It consisted of three paragraphs. And the only thing anyone can reasonably gather after reading it is that Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen must have realized that he’d better issue the statement lest he be forced into an uncomfortable position of having to support his general manager.
A few hours later, Allen would be courtside at the Rose Garden Arena, wearing a suit and tie while watching the team he’s owned for 21 seasons. His general manager, Kevin Pritchard, would be on the road, scouting prospects, preparing for the NBA Draft and running off résumés.
Without those flimsy three paragraphs Allen would have to answer questions. He’d have to give Pritchard a guaranteed future or acknowledge what we all already know — that the Blazers general manager is a dead-man walking.
“Painful to see a friend in that spot,” one Blazers front-office executive said. A second offered that Pritchard should stop moping, channel the theories of “The Secret” and start projecting confidence, “You know, I believe what you put out comes back around to you.” And before Allen arrived at the arena a Blazers spokesperson was dispatched to inform reporters that the Blazers owner would have no further statement.
That’s all he has to say on the matter.
Given that he could have ended the speculation on Thursday, I’m not sure we need to hear anything more from Allen. But I asked him at the end of the first half, as he headed into the room he uses as an office, if he’d mind going stronger with the comments on Pritchard.
The Blazers owner waved me off and shook his head. I asked him if there was anything more he wanted to say to Blazers fans. He hurried off, waving his hands and shaking his head. He finally nudged one of his private security guards and pointed at me before disappearing into a room with a small group that included Vulcan executive Bert Kolde, who was puffing his chest out at me.
After the door closed, a second security guard turned to me and said, “Keep writing what you write.”