Posts Tagged ‘Paul Pierce’

Morning shootaround — May 22

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Raptors block Cleveland’s path to perfection | Toronto’s offense gets on track | Thunder look to get physical versus Warriors in Game 3 | Carmelo “looking forward” to playing under Hornacek

No. 1: Raptors block Cleveland’s path to perfection The Cleveland Cavaliers had romped through the NBA Playoffs, winning their first 10 consecutive games this postseason to take a 2-0 lead over the Raptors into Saturday night’s Eastern Conference Finals Game 3 in Toronto. But any hope the Cavs had of going undefeated on the road to a return trip to the NBA Finals came to an end in Canada, as the Raptors won 99-84. As our own Steve Aschburner writes, Toronto leaned not on All-Stars Kyle Lowry or DeMar DeRozan, but instead got a huge performance from back-up big man Bismack Biyombo

Near the end of the Toronto Raptors’ resilient and necessary 99-84 victory in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, Biyombo batted a rebound to a teammate to cap a memorable night for both the Raptors and himself. Then he got batted back when Cavs forward Dahntay Jones hit him in, well, a nether region that had the high-revving Raptors center dropping to his knee, then going fetal on the floor as the final seconds ticked away.

Jones said later the hit was inadvertent, just accidental contact delivered down under when he tried to do something in garbage time — box out Biyombo — that no other Cleveland player had managed through the first 47 minutes and change.

Biyombo encouraged the honchos at the league office to be the judges of that when they go to the videotape for their standard review.

What they’ll see on pretty much every other play involving Toronto’s 6-foot-9 defensive dervish is a game-defining and series-slowing performance. Biyombo set a franchise record with 26 rebounds — not just a playoff record, a Raptors all-time high — and blocked four shots.

Not only did he channel the likes of Dikembe Mutombo, Dennis Rodman and Cleveland’s own Tristan Thompson, Biyombo swatted away any notions the Cavaliers, their fans or a bunch of experts around the league might have had that this would be done by Monday. Forget “fo’, fo’, fo’,” thanks to Biyombo’s “no, no, no!”

“He knows his role,” Toronto’s DeMarre Carroll said. “That’s the NBA. Everybody can’t be the Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Stephen Curry. You have to understand your role, your niche, and he understands it to a tee, and that’s a prime example of a true professional.”

Biyombo, 23, was reminiscent of several professionals Saturday, starting with Mutombo. Like the eight-time All-Star center who blocked 3,289 shots in 18 NBA seasons, Biyombo is a native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He gives up five inches to his famous countryman and NBA ambassador, is less than half his age and is 2,713 regular-season swats behind. Yet he has adopted the finger-wag that Mutombo used to such great effect on those blocks (second all-time since the league began counting them in 1973) and in that recent GEICO insurance commercial.

When did that start? “After I got the license from Mutombo,” Biyombo said. “He’s like my big brother, and I’ve had several conversations with him, especially defensively, how he was able to impact the game.” Though shorter, Biyombo has way more quick-twitch muscle going for him, getting higher off the ground than the former Georgetown star.

Then there’s Rodman, a comparison volunteered by Biyombo’s coach, Dwane Casey, when Casey wasn’t busy lobbying from the podium for a fairer shake from the officials. “He knows where the ball is coming off,” the Raptors coach said, of his guy’s Rodmanesque tendencies. “He’s an active player. He’s a guy who’s always moving, moving his feet… He understand angles.”

***

No. 2: Toronto’s offense gets on track Toronto’s Game 3 win wasn’t only about the big night from Biyombo — the Raptors also finally seemed to crack a Cleveland defense that had mostly been airtight throughout the postseason. As our own John Schuhmann writes from Toronto, the Raptors looked like the terrific offense they’d been during the regular season, in large part thanks to the performance they got from Cory Joseph

The way the Toronto Raptors played in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, you would think they were a top-five offensive team this year.

Oh yeah, they were.

You wouldn’t have known it from the Raptors’ first 16 games in these playoffs, in which they had strong offensive stretches here and there, rarely got big games from both of their All-Stars on the same night, and had scored less than a point per possession. While the other three teams still playing have scored at a rate at, near, or better than their regular-season marks, the Raptors had scored 8.6 fewer points per 100 possessions in the playoffs than they did in going 56-26.

Their first 14 games were against very good defensive teams that needed to make things ugly to win. With their incredibly potent offense, the Cleveland Cavaliers have no such need. But the Raptors couldn’t take advantage of Cleveland’s defense beyond strong first quarters in Games 1 and 2.

In Game 3 on Saturday, it was if the Raptors’ realized that Cleveland has no rim protection and a handful of sub-par defenders in its rotation. The result was a lot more attempts at the rim than they had in either of the first two games, their second-most efficient offensive performance of the playoffs (99 points on 85 possessions) and an end to the Cavs’ 17-game winning streak in playoff games within the Eastern Conference.

The Raptors’ defense was important. After allowing 56 points in the paint in Game 1 and another 50 in Game 2, they surrendered only 20 on Saturday and were good enough on the perimeter to keep from getting hit with the Cleveland 3-point onslaught. But they took control of this game with a huge offensive first half, scoring 60 points on 43 possessions before halftime.

DeMar DeRozan had his mid-range jumper going again, but didn’t settle. Kyle Lowry hit a few 3s and got his team into early offense. And the biggest key was Cory Joseph keeping things going when Lowry got into foul trouble.

In Game 1, Joseph got a quick hook in the second quarter from Raptors’ coach Dwane Casey and played a season-low 5:21 before halftime. The back-up point guard, who was a huge key to the Raptors’ success in the regular season, had been struggling since the start of the conference semifinals.

But Saturday brought a breakthrough for Joseph, who was a plus-10 in a little less than 18 first-half minutes, never leaving the game after entering for Lowry midway through the first quarter.

“He did a much better job tonight of controlling the game,” Casey said, “running the offense, keeping things under control, not letting the defense speed him up.”

Joseph’s minutes have proven to be critical for the Raptors, who are now 7-0 in the playoffs when he’s registered a non-negative plus-minus and 2-8 when they’ve been outscored with him on the floor.

***

No. 3: Thunder look to get physical versus Warriors in Game 3 — The Oklahoma City Thunder threw their Western Conference Finals series against the mighty Golden State Warriors into chaos by waltzing into Oakland and winning Game 1. After the Warriors evened things by taking Game 2, the series shifts to Oklahoma City tonight for Game 3, where as our Fran Blinebury writes, Thunder forward Serge Ibaka says the Thunder need to stand strong and not let the Warriors push them around

The numbers told the story. The best rebounding team in the NBA was hammered on the backboards in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals. The bigger, taller, stronger Thunder were pushed around, dominated even.

“Of course, you take it personally,” OKC power forward Serge Ibaka said following Saturday’s practice. “It makes us feel like we’re soft, we’re weak, you know what I’m saying? … We have to do a better job next game and be aggressive, make sure if they’re going to score those baskets, that’s hurting them. They have to work hard to get us.

“Yes. It’s kind of weird, yes. It’s kind of weird, especially for us, playing bigs. They’re small. It’s kind of weird. But give them a lot of credit, because they’re the best team in the game. … It’s not going to be easy.”

The Thunder are 9-2 in the playoffs when they’ve out-rebounded their opponents. They were especially effective in the previous series against San Antonio by using a big lineup that kept 7-foot Steven Adams and 6-11 Enes Kanter on the court together. Adams was able to play his role as defensive stopper at one end, Kanter scored at the other and together they helped get the Thunder a bundle of second-chance points. However in the Warriors’ 118-91 runaway win in Game 2, they were the ones able to come up with 15 offensive rebounds.

“They are playing tougher than us,” Ibaka said. “You know, they were more aggressive than us, so I think that’s why. It’s more a game. We have to do a better job of starting aggressive, and just play our basketball.”

Thunder coach Billy Donovan wasn’t as quick to hang the “soft” label on his team.

“I don’t know if I would necessarily fully agree with that,” he said. “They did a great job on the backboard. They were really physical. They come up with loose basketballs. They made those plays, and in Game 1 I thought we did a better job. They did a great job raising their level of play, and you’ve got to give them credit. So I think maybe Serge’s point is that when you’re getting beat like that, to loose balls or rebounds, it can certainly make you look that way.

“I feel like we need to do a better job rebounding the basketball than we did. They were quicker on loose basketballs. They came in from different angles to rebound. They kept balls alive on the glass. We got caught into some rotations a couple times where we didn’t have our block-out assignments lined up.”

***

No. 4: Carmelo “looking forward” to playing under Hornacek After what seemed to be an interesting journey, Knicks president Phil Jackson has apparently settled on Jeff Hornacek as the next coach for the New York Knicks. And yesterday the Knicks’ biggest star, Carmelo Anthony, said he’s excited to get moving as a part of Hornacek’s offensive attack…

“I played against him a couple of times when he was the head coach out there in Phoenix,” Anthony said in an interview Saturday with WNBC-TV. “Everybody knows he likes to play an up-tempo pace of game, likes to get out in transition, likes to speed the game up a lot. So from that standpoint, I’ll definitely be looking forward to that.”

Anthony’s comments suggest that team president Phil Jackson has given Hornacek the freedom to tweak the triangle offense, as several reports have indicated. The Knicks ranked in the bottom third of the NBA in pace the past two seasons, when they ran the triangle. Hornacek ran a faster-paced offense with the Suns, who ranked in the top 10 in pace in each of his three seasons as coach.

Perhaps more importantly, Anthony said Saturday that he believes Hornacek gives the Knicks a chance to turn things around. The club has missed the playoffs in each of the past three seasons.

“It sets the stage for us to do that,” Anthony said. “[It’s a] new opportunity, something new to play with, something fresh, a clean plate. So hopefully we can build off of this momentum.”

Hornacek was offered the Knicks’ job by Jackson and general manager Steve Mills earlier this week, and negotiations on a contract with the club have begun, league sources said.

Interestingly, Anthony said he didn’t share his opinion on the coaching search with Jackson before Hornacek was offered the job.

“Whatever Phil did, he did on his own,” Anthony said.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Toronto coach Dwane Casey had a lot of thoughts about the officiating in not just Game 3, but the entire series against Cleveland … Former Cavs coach David Blatt says he will coach somewhere next seasonBrian Shaw is close to a deal to join Luke Walton‘s staff with the Lakers … The Houston Rockets will reportedly interview Spurs assistant James Borrego for their head coaching gig, as well as longtime assistant coach Adrian Griffin … The Nets continue adding to their staffPaul Pierce got his daughter a llama for her birthday …

Morning shootaround — April 30

NEWS OF THE MORNING

What’s next for ‘tough luck’ Clippers? | Walton offers Lakers hope | Wade digs deep, goes deep | Portland’s underdog ride blazes on

No. 1: What’s next for ‘tough luck’ Clippers? — One day and two months. That’s the latest way to frame this so-called curse that hangs over the Los Angeles Clippers, who failed to push their first-round Western Conference playoff series to a Game 7 Friday night in Portland. For one day – the time between Stephen Curry‘s sprained right knee and their own calamitous injuries to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin – it looked as if the Clippers might have gotten a fortunate break (admittedly due to Curry’s and Golden State’s misfortune). But then their own stars went down with even more serious injuries (Paul’s hand fracture and Griffin’s quad strain). That brought the Clippers’ history of lousy luck roaring back, and a team that hoped to be playing into June couldn’t even make it out of April. Here are more thoughts on the seemingly snake-bit Clips from ESPN.com’s Arash Markazi:

It was another dramatic and heartbreaking close to a season for the Clippers. They have now squandered a 2-0 first-round series lead by losing four straight games twice, and last season blew a 3-1 second-round series lead by losing three straight games. No team in NBA history has ever blown a two-game series lead three times in four years. The last team to do it in consecutive seasons was the Phoenix Suns in 1994 and 1995.

Teams that go up 2-0 in a best-of-seven series are 258-16, and teams that go up 3-1 in a best-of-seven series are 222-9. As good as the Clippers have been recently, they continue to find themselves on the wrong side of history and fate this time of year.

Of course, the way the Clippers’ season ended Friday, with Paul and Griffin watching the final game of the season back home in Los Angeles while recovering from surgeries, made the result more understandable. But it doesn’t change the end result.

Paul has now been on three of the last four teams to blow a 2-0 series lead, and no player in NBA history has played in more postseason games without getting past the second round than he has. Doc Rivers also becomes only the second coach in NBA history to have his team blow three best-of-seven series when leading either 2-0 or 3-1.

So where do the Clippers go from here? They are the only team other than the San Antonio Spurs to win at least 50 games over the past four seasons, but they have nothing to show for it except for two Pacific Division banners that hang in their training facility along with a handful of game balls from some memorable wins. Even the Memphis Grizzlies and Houston Rockets have found a way to sneak into the conference finals during that time.

Paul, Griffin and [DeAndre] Jordan are all under contract for next season, but Paul and Griffin probably will opt out of the final year of their deals and become free agents in the summer of 2017. Jordan can be a free agent the following summer (2018).

Looking at the rest of the roster, J.J. Redick will be a free agent after next season; Jamal Crawford, Jeff Green and Luc Mbah a Moute will be free agents this summer, and Austin Rivers, Cole Aldrich and Wesley Johnson probably will opt out of their deals and become free agents as well.

Paul Pierce, 38, signed a three-year, $10 million contract with the Clippers last year, but said after the game he’s “50-50” on whether he will retire following the worst season of his professional career. Pablo Prigioni, who turns 39 next month, probably will retire after also having his worst season.

In short, the Clippers are a team in flux that has hit a ceiling.

***

 No. 2: Walton offers Lakers hope — For a team so down-trodden this season, the past couple of weeks sure turned out to be heady ones for the Los Angeles Lakers and their fans. Starting with Kobe Bryant‘s 60-point farewell performance in the season finale, right through the announcement that Byron Scott – a popular former Lakers player but hardly that as the teams’ most recent head coach – had been fired, there actually was some buzz about the proud-but-sputtering franchise. Then came the word Friday night that Luke Walton, another former Laker but more important Golden State coach Steve Kerr‘s right-hand man up in Oakland, had been tabbed as L.A.’s replacement for Scott. The honeymoon began instantly, though Baxter Holmes of ESPN.com was quick to remind readers that the task Walton faces is a daunting one:

By hiring Walton, the Lakers accomplished several feats. They’re hiring a young, smart, well-regarded, up-and-coming coach from a successful, forward-thinking organization. They’re once again bringing back one of their own, as Walton will become the eighth former Lakers player who went on to coach the team. And the fact that the Lakers are bringing in a beloved familiar face — a Southern California native, no less — will undoubtedly help them not only win the media conference but establish patience from their fans as Walton tries to steer the team out of the depths of rebuilding.

And yet the reality is, for as happy as the Lakers and their fans are now, there’s plenty of reason for skepticism. Walton will become the youngest active head coach in the NBA. In fact, at 36 years, 32 days old, Walton is 1 year, 218 days younger than the just-retired Bryant. And Walton’s first NBA head coaching job will be leading a rebuilding team that currently offers a few promising young players but little else. Walton will be tasked with developing those fledgling talents and helping lure free agents back to the Lakers after the team has struck out in that arena for three straight offseasons, though it’s unclear what kind of sway he’ll have with free agents, let alone his own players.

Beyond that, the Lakers aren’t considered to be the most modern-minded franchise, so Walton will have to assist in installing a new culture that helps them turn the page from their past (and Kobe) to whatever successful future he hopes to forge.

This is an extremely tall task for someone who two years ago was a part-time assistant with the Lakers’ D-League team, the D-Fenders. Though, in an odd way, Walton’s experience dealing with those players should come in handy considering the roster he’s now taking over.

There will be expectations for Walton to replicate some measure of success that he had when keeping the seat warm for Kerr, and to infuse some of that Warriors’ DNA into the Lakers. However, such expectations must be tempered.

[It’s] fair to wonder if Walton would’ve been given this offer a year ago.

It’s fair to wonder if his 39-4 mark with the Warriors may have hypnotized some. The Lakers will back him and say that Walton will be a great coach, as they should. But they’ve said that for their previous three coaches, too, all of whom departed before their contracts expired.

Walton has learned under Phil Jackson and Steve Kerr, as well as Mike Brown and Byron Scott, and now the Lakers have gone back to a familiar well, bringing back one of their own. Walton could be the greatest hire in Lakers coaching history, a perfect fit. But, if we’re being honest, no one knows much about Luke Walton as a head coach, as someone who can hire a staff, observe a roster and set a course for success.

The once and future Laker is entering an organization that, on many levels, couldn’t be more different than the one he’s about to depart. The Warriors are a well-oiled machine with total buy-in, a modern-day top-down philosophy, a confluence of so many good elements that, together, have produced something almost magical — that’s truly a joy to watch.

The Lakers are none of that.

Jim Buss, part-owner and executive vice president of basketball operations, could well be gone next summer and so could Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak. Could Phil Jackson return? Such questions loom heavy over the Lakers’ future.

“The number one thing is this,” said one source familiar with both the Warriors and Lakers. “The Lakers are dysfunctional as an organization. A coach can’t change this.”

Indeed, but at the very least, Walton will be (or should be) better than Scott, who is one of the worst coaches in recent memory. Walton has a chance to be good if he develops and is given time, which the Lakers should certainly grant him. Walton knows the Los Angeles market, the Lakers organization, their fan base, the expectations and history. He wanted the Lakers and they wanted him.

He has his dream job and now the Lakers have something they haven’t had in a while: hope.

***

No. 3:  Wade digs deep, goes deep — Neither Dwyane Wade nor Udonis Haslem was ready to have it end Friday night. They have been together in Miami for 13 years, through five trips to The Finals and three NBA championships, so the idea of falling short in Game 6 in Charlotte held no appeal whatsoever for the veteran Heat players. Wade was the one in position to do the most about it, and that’s what he did. In the most unlikely way possible: digging deep and shooting deep. Ethan J. Skolnick of the Miami Herald chronicled the events:

They’re not men prone to all that much mistiness, though the years can do something to you, and so can the fears of another ending. And so, after Friday’s shootaround, hours before what could have been the final game of the 13th season they’ve shared together, Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem paused to reflect.

“About how much this meant to us,” Haslem said. “About how much this has meant to us. This opportunity, this organization, being able to lead these guys, and be able to pass the torch at some point…”

“Just being here together,” Wade said. “For 13 years. We’ve been a part of making this organization a championship organization. We’ve been to five (NBA) Finals in 10 years, and we know how hard it was to do that. We just talked about trying to get the guys who have never been here to understand how hard it is to be successful.”

And, when the conversation concluded, Haslem understood clearly:
“Not tonight.”

Not tonight, because, to secure a 97-90 victory and a 3-3 tie in this first-round series — with Game 7 coming Sunday afternoon — Wade truly did need to use whatever means necessary.

Even the least likely of all.
“I’m Kyle Korver now,” Wade joked later.

Well, not really. Not when, before Friday, he hadn’t made a three-pointer in the calendar year 2016, missing all 21 attempts since Dec. 16. But he’s warning reporters that he can still stroke it — he did make 88 during the 2008-09 season, and reminded Joe Johnson that he “bombed” Johnson’s Hawks out of Game 2, with six makes, in the 2009 first round. He’s spoken of some sort of mental block, that stops him just as he readies to release.

But, after scoring 13 points in the first half and just two through the first 21 minutes of the second half (”my stroke left me”), Wade did rise up after receiving a pass from a doubled Luol Deng.

And he did rattle it in, off the rear of the rim.

Then, after [Kemba] Walker’s dazzling reverse layup in transition cut the Heat lead to two — and both the Heat and Hornets had empty possessions — Wade did take the ball from Haslem after a rebound, dribble to the top of the circle, then bounce away from traffic in the middle, and step back to the left into another steady 26-footer.

Then he did gesture toward a purple-shirted harassing Hornets fan, who had been angrily advising him the entire game to retire.

“Yeah, I was tired of his mouth,” Wade said. “I mean, I hadn’t said nothing to him.”

Nothing was required, as it turned out.

He’d made his point.

With three points. Twice.

“They gave it to me,” Wade said. “This is a good defensive team. Courtney Lee is a good defensive player. You’re not always gonna get what you want.”
But what you get can still be what your team needs.

“He was shooting them yesterday, and I told him, ‘Man, we’re gonna need you to make some of them [bleep],’ ” Joe Johnson said. “He was like, ‘I’m gonna shoot ’em. I’m gonna shoot ’em.’ So we come down the stretch and I was not surprised, because Courtney Lee kept backing off of him, playing him for the drive. I mean, nobody expected D-Wade to shoot the three. And if he does, you’re like, OK, I’ll live with that. And he made two huge threes.”

After not making one since mid-December.

“Man, are you serious?!” Johnson said, before shouting across the room. “Damn, D-Wade!”

Haslem, naturally, had no issue with the shot selection.

“He was working on it,” Haslem said. “I didn’t know he was going to shoot it, but he was working on it. Clutch situation, that’s my guy, man. I trust every decision that he makes, and every shot that he takes.”

***

No. 4: Portland’s underdog ride blazes on — The story of the Portland Trail Blazers’ overachieving 2015-16 season has been written often and in multiple ways lately. It’s evident in the voting results for NBA annual awards that have come out, what with guard C.J. McCollum‘s triumph as Most Improved Player and Terry Stotts‘ ballot-love in Coach of the Year voting. But the chapter added Friday night with their dispatching of the Clippers and advancement to the playoffs’ conference semifinal round was special enough to earn inclusion here, courtesy of Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN.com:

There are no asterisks in the NBA postseason — not for abbreviated seasons, and not for series wins over short-handed teams missing two All-Stars. Coaches and players sound this trope all the time: It’s so hard to win in the NBA. Hard to win a game, hard to win a series, hard to win a title.

So please excuse the Portland Trail Blazers if they see their 106-103 Game 6 closeout win over the Los Angeles Clippers at the Moda Center on Friday night not as a fluke born out of Chris Paul’s fractured hand or Blake Griffin’s aggravated quad injury, but as a logical extension of a season-long process.

“Behind closed doors, we felt like we could make the playoffs in September,” guard CJ McCollum said. “We felt like we had enough pieces to get there, but it was going to be a process. We needed to get everybody together. We needed to execute. We were going to take some lumps.”

Even as the Trail Blazers drained seven consecutive 3-pointers in the third quarter, they still couldn’t shake the Clippers. More Rivers’ vengeance off the bounce, and Jordan reversed the Blazers’ fortunes on the glass. As the game moved into the fourth nip and tuck, the prospect for irony was ripe: The league’s most opportunistic underdogs might squander their ready-made ticket to the conference semis.

Ultimately, Portland became their best selves when they needed to in the fourth. A merry-go-round of multiple offensive actions created a drive-and-dish for [Damian] Lillard, who found McCollum for a 3-pointer with a little over four minutes remaining. Same thing a couple of minutes later: Movement, drive, kick, three from McCollum to keep Portland a length ahead of the Clippers

“I was really happy with the way we executed down the stretch,” Lillard said. “We didn’t panic when they put up a fight for us. We did the things necessary to win the game.”

The Trail Blazers had little time to reflect on the closeout win before the departure time for their Saturday afternoon flight to San Francisco was scrawled on the whiteboard. Golden State awaits in 36 hours time, and the Warriors without Steph don’t resemble the Clippers’ skeleton crew.

The mood following the game was lively, but like a class that finished one exam and has to trek down the hall to the next final, there was a certain focus, even among the relief. “There wasn’t no champagne popping or anything,” big man Ed Davis said.

While Lillard has the most stage presence, and McCollum might be the most expressive of the core, Davis displays the most unvarnished thoughts in the locker room.

“We have nothing to lose,” Davis said. “We go out and [get] swept, that’s what everyone is expecting so that’s how we have to play it — give it all we got, the whole 48 minutes out there and see what happens. We really have nothing to lose. All of y’all are expecting us to lose and the only people who think we’re going to win it are the 15 on the roster and the coaching staff.”

As the scrum dispersed, Davis pleasantly added, “All of y’all expect us to lose, don’t even lie to me.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: It was Indiana’s night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse Friday but it was Toronto’s nightmare, with pressure shifting back big-time onto the Raptors’ heads in Game 7 Sunday night. … Injured Warriors guard and presumptive repeat MVP Stephen Curry is trying to beat his target date of May 9 in recovering from that sprained right knee. … Cleveland’s Tyronn Lue apparently hasn’t actually signed the contract offered by the Cavaliers when he got promoted from assistant to head coach, taking over upon David Blatt‘s firing. In a fluid market, it makes one wonder whether the numbers verbally agreed to might change. Maybe something bigger? … The Lakers’ gain is the Warriors’ loss, with Steve Kerr now faced with replacing another lieutenant on his bench. … Looking like Dallas point guard Deron Williams will be opting out of his deal with the Mavericks, if only as a good business move. … We’ll say it again: It’s possible that Paul Pierce has played his last NBA game. If so, the memories he made are remarkable ones.

Hang Time Podcast (Episode 236) Featuring Dan Woike

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — The “Clippers Curse” seems all too real these days for Doc Rivers and his crew.

You lose Blake Griffin to a quad injury for the remainder of the playoffs after losing Chris Paul (broken hand), on the same night, and yes, you are entitled to believe in any urban legend you’d like if you are a Los Angeles Clippers fan.

Rivers still has a chance to do the unthinkable and guide his team to the conference semifinals without Griffin and Paul in uniform. It’ll require him trusting the role players and supporting cast in ways no coach has had to in years.

It’s up to you Jamal Crawford, J.J. Redick, and Austin Rivers. And you Paul Pierce, Jeff Green and DeAndre Jordan. And yes, even you Cole Aldrich.

It’s going to take everyone for the Clippers to survive the Portland Trail Blazers in this first round series and that still might not be enough to get past Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and their suddenly confident supporting cast.

That curse … it’s real.

We discuss that and all things Clippers and playoffs on Episode 236 of The Hang Time Podcast featuring Dan Woike of the Orange County Register. And Woike is pronounced “woy-key.”

LISTEN HERE:

As always, we welcome your feedback. You can follow the entire crew, including the Hang Time Podcast, co-hosts Sekou Smith of NBA.com, Lang Whitaker of NBA.com’s All-Ball Blog and renaissance man Rick Fox of NBA TV, as well as our new super producer Gregg (just like Popovich) Waigand.

– To download the podcast, click here. To subscribe via iTunes, click here, or get the xml feed if you want to subscribe some other, less iTunes-y way.

***


VIDEO: Can the Clippers win without Chris Paul and Blake Griffin? We’re all about to find out

Morning shootaround — March 29


VIDEO: Highlights from Monday’s games

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Westbrook nearing stats history | Scott blasts Lakers’ youngsters | Pierce suffers knee, ankle injuries | Warriors aim to tighten up defense

No. 1: Westbrook on brink of NBA history — Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook picked up his 16th triple-double last night and OKC improved to 16-0 in those games. What’s more amazing than that perfect mark? How about this: that’s Westbrook’s seventh triple-double in March, the most in a single month since Michael Jordan in 1989. The 16 triple-doubles is two off the all-time mark (held by Magic Johnson) for the most in a season over the last 30 years … and Westbrook still has eight games to play. Oh, and entering this season, Westbrook had 19 career triple-doubles. Ethan Strauss of ESPN.com was on hand for Westbrook’s amazing performance in Toronto and has more on his play this season:

Kevin Durant is asked about Russell Westbrook a lot — about the triple-doubles, about the absurd athletic displays and about the punishing dunks. He sticks to pretty much the same line: He’s not surprised. He has seen that for the past seven years.

After Westbrook followed his own missed free throw in the fourth quarter Monday with a one-handed putback layup in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 119-100 win over the Toronto Raptors, Durant put both hands on his head. Even he was stunned this time.

“That was unreal,” Durant said. “You’ve got to time that right, and you’ve just got to be as athletic as him. There’s only a few … ”

Durant stopped himself.

“Well, I don’t know if there’s anybody in the league that can do that,” he said. “You’ve got to make the free throw, but I’ll take the two points and the acrobatic play instead. But yeah, he’s a freak of nature, man.”

There aren’t many ways to describe Westbrook anymore. “Freak of nature” seems to do just fine, but that might not be adequate.

The putback was the standout play for Westbrook in what has become a nightly crescendo of highlights for the supernova point guard. He notched his 16th triple-double of the season — 26 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists — which ties him with Fat Lever for second most in a season over the past 30 years. With eight games to go, Westbrook is just one off Magic Johnson’s record of 17.

It’s an amazing thing for a triple-double to seem routine, but that’s what Westbrook has done. For some guys, it’s a career accomplishment to get one — remember Andray Blatche running all over the court chasing rebounds a few years ago? — so is it even meaningful to Westbrook anymore?

“It’s something I never take for granted,” he said, “but I like winning.”

That’s what the Thunder do when Westbrook notches a triple-double. They’re now 16-0 in such games this season. They have also ripped off eight straight wins by an average margin of 17.1 points, with seven of those wins coming against playoff teams. The Thunder are hitting their stride as they gear up for the playoffs and are peaking with eight games left in the regular season. It has been the goal all season under coach Billy Donovan to work toward a bigger picture, a “better brand of basketball,” as everyone in the organization likes to say.

Just a few weeks ago, the Thunder hit rock bottom when they lost eight of 12 coming out of the All-Star break. That streak was punctuated by blown fourth-quarter leads and head-shaking losses to bad teams. The message internally was to stick with it, to believe they were playing well, despite the results, and trust it would pay off. It appears that it has.

“I tried to tell you guys that when we were going through it, but it was kind of blinded with the fourth-quarter losses and back-to-back losses. But I tried to tell you guys,” Durant said. “Glad you see it now. It was good to kind of figure ourselves out and what we need to do. It was kind of like a splash of water on your face — just knowing you’ve got to wake up and know the second half of the season is important.”

Donovan also offered his take.

“I think sometimes you’ve got to go through some wounds and some scars and some hurt,” the coach said. “You’ve got to get calloused a little bit. I think as you go through a season, you’ve got to get calloused. Sometimes, the harder and the more difficult the struggle, the more calloused you get, the more hardened you get. I think the more you have a chance to learn and grow — I’ve said this about this team — I don’t think it ever needs to be easy for them. It’s got to be hard.”

Confidence is dripping off the Thunder right now, as evidenced by the 48 minutes of swagger they dropped on the Raptors on Monday.


VIDEO: Best plays from Russell Westbrook’s 16th triple-double this season

***

(more…)

Morning shootaround — March 20


VIDEO: The Fast Break – March 19

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Wizards owner says team can make playoffs | Ricky Rubio still showing growth | Sixers’ growth slower than that of their rival | Is Curry changing the game?

No. 1: Wizards owner says team can make playoffs — You can say the Wizards have been one of the more disappointing teams in the league and currently find themselves in the outside looking in regarding the playoffs. But Washington owner Ted Leonsis prefers to see the glass as being half full and believes the team can still make the playoffs, which mathematically is definitely possible. You wonder if “making the playoffs” sounds more like an ultimatum from the owner and whether heads will roll if Washington, which scored an upset over the Raptors last spring, fails to make the cut. Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post reports:

The Wizards have strangled and then revived their playoff chances more times than I can count. Most recently, they imploded in Chicago, then won four straight games. Then they lost five straight — including three on a brutal West Coast swing — before rebounding with three straight wins, two against playoff contenders. Don’t worry about these details: just know that when they reach the absolute precipice of disaster, they recover just enough to keep us interested until the next disappointment.

Washington’s schedule still looks forgiving; seven of its final 14 games are against truly awful teams. But only an extreme optimist could continue to have total faith in this team after the past few months.

Ted Leonsis is an extreme optimist.

During a radio appearance this week, Leonsis was asked serious questions about the Wizards future: about how this team could both miss the playoffs and lose its first-round pick, about his commitment to patience, and about how he would decide whether General Manager Ernie Grunfeld and Coach Randy Wittman deserve to be back.

“We’re going to make the playoffs,” Leonsis told Grant Paulsen and Danny Rouhier on 106.7 The Fan. “We have to believe that. We have to be focused on that. That’s all we’re looking at.”

Leonsis said this on Wednesday afternoon. That was before the Wizards beat the Bulls and Sixers to pull within a 1.5 games of the eighth seed. It wasn’t necessarily pretty; Washington tried like crazy to lose to Philadelphia on Thursday night. And the Wizards would still need to pass two teams to make the postseason. But Leonsis, like most of us, at least sees a path.

“This has been an outlier year, mostly because of how many injuries we’ve suffered,” Leonsis said. “We had a very poor road trip — Bradley Beal didn’t play at all — and then Bradley Beal plays 24 minutes [against Detroit] and the team just looks different. John Wall looks like a different player when he doesn’t have to be the first offensive scoring option, he can set other players up.

“And so we’ll take a look at how we end the season in the offseason,” the owner said. “But right now, we’re just focused on do we have our full contingent of players, can we play the kind of system that we want, can we amp up the energy defensively. And it seems trite, you hear this all the time, but we truly are in the mode of you’ve got to play one game at a time, and be totally focused and conscious of just that one impediment that’s in front of you tonight.”

 

(more…)

Rockets re-acquire Josh Smith


VIDEO: Josh Smith comes up big for Houston in Game 7 of the 2015 West semifinals

In the last year, two teams decided they had no use for Josh Smith, except one of them is bringing him back.

After playing for the Rockets last season and then being ignored by them in free agency, where the Clippers signed him, Smith is headed back to Houston.

Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski first reported the Clippers sent Smith to the Rockets virtually for nothing; cash and a second round pick changed hands. The deal saves the Clippers a few bucks in salary cap fees and provides the Rockets … well, nobody is exactly sure what it does for them.

The Rockets confirmed the trade on Friday afternoon and detailed it as follows:

Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey announced today that the team has acquired forward Josh Smith via trade from the Los Angeles Clippers along with the draft rights to forward/center Sergei Lishouk and cash considerations in exchange for the draft rights to forward Maarty Leunen.  Smith will wear #5 for Houston.

Here’s more from Wojnarowski on the deal:

Several Rockets players were eager for the the team to bring back Smith, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

After losing Smith to the Clippers in free agency in July, his inability to find a role with Los Angeles made him expendable almost immediately.

Smith had regret over leaving the Rockets, where he had found a significant role in the team’s run to the Western Conference Finals last season. Smith signed a one-year deal with the Clippers for the league minimum, but never meshed with coach Doc Rivers.

The Clippers will send cash to cover the remaining $460,000 on Smith’s $1.4 million minimum salary this season and the draft rights to Sergei Lishouk. Houston sends the Clippers the rights to Maarty Leunen. Neither player is expected to play in the NBA.

Smith was solid for Houston last year in the playoffs, coincidently against the Clippers when he helped erase a 3-1 West semifinals hole, but his poor habits and mistakes made the Rockets look the other way in free agency. He signed for the Clippers and the summer haul by Rivers (Smith, Paul Pierce and Lance Stephenson) was economical and expected to be helpful.

But none have made a major impact, and Smith and Stephenson in particular stuck to the bench. Smith averaged only 14 minutes a night in Los Angeles and his playing time didn’t increase even after Blake Griffin went down with a quad injury.

Rivers might make another economical move before next month’s trade deadline to shore up the bench in preparation for the playoffs as Rivers and his players have already stated they’re not good enough to beat the Warriors.

Meanwhile, the Rockets are searching for anything that provide a throwback to last season, when they reached the Western Conference finals, losing in five games. Right now, they’re barely treading water and sit near the bottom of the playoff cutoff point. Don’t be surprised if Rockets GM Daryl Morey is active on the trade market, too.

Nets remove King, Hollins, have long way to go


VIDEO: What’s next for Nets in wake of recent moves?

HANG TIME NEW YORK CITY — When Mikhail Prokhorov purchased the Brooklyn Nets in 2010, he promised fans that the team would win an NBA title within five years. Six years later, the Nets have collected no titles, and are currently floundering at 10-27.

And as of about an hour ago, the Brooklyn Nets no longer have a coach or general manager, either.

The Nets announced today that the team had “parted ways” with head coach Lionel Hollins and “reassigned” general manager Billy King. The interim head coach will be Tony Brown, who played a season for the Nets in ’86-87, and has been an NBA assistant coach for almost two decades. Brown becomes the Nets’ fifth coach in the last five seasons.

The Nets have been good over the last five seasons, making three consecutive playoff appearances, but they just weren’t good enough. During King’s tenure, the Nets never made it as far as the Eastern Conference finals, much less the NBA Finals. And that clearly wasn’t good enough for an owner with big-time aspirations.

“After careful consideration, I’ve concluded that it’s time for a fresh start and a new vision for the direction of the team,” Prokhorov said in a statement. “By making this decision now, it enables our organization to use the rest of the season to diligently evaluate candidates with proven track records. It’s clear from our current state of affairs that we need new leadership. With the right basketball management and coach in place, we are going to create a winning culture and identity and give Brooklyn a team that it can be proud of and enjoy watching.”

King was Prokhorov’s first significant hire, and he aggressively attempted to fashion the Nets into a team capable of winning immediately and meeting Prokhorov’s championship edict. He traded valuable combinations of draft picks and players to bring in Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. After Avery Johnson presided over the team’s move from New Jersey to Brooklyn, King surprisingly hired Jason Kidd, who had no head coaching experience, but led the team to the 2014 Eastern Conference semifinals. When Kidd departed following one season, King went pragmatic and brought in Lionel Hollins.

In his only other head coaching job, with the Memphis Grizzlies, Hollins established a reputation for connecting with veteran players. In nearly one and a half seasons with the Nets, Hollins compiled a 48-71 record. The veteran-heavy Nets roster seemed to be a logical landing spot for Hollins, and he guided last year’s team to a 38-44 regular season record and playoff berth, where the Nets pushed the Atlanta Hawks to six games before a first round exit. This season, without veterans such as Garnett and Deron Williams, the Nets attempted to get younger and more athletic, although a recent season-ending injury to Jarrett Jack seemed to curb whatever enthusiasm remained in the borough.

One thing about the Nets is certain: Whoever replaces King has their work cut out for them. Thanks to the Garnett/Pierce trade, the Nets don’t control their own first round pick until 2019, which would seem to make rebuilding through the draft nearly impossible. The Nets also don’t have much of trade value on their current roster, other than perhaps Brook Lopez or the injured rookie Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, making it difficult to acquire other first round picks.

With the luxury tax figure rising the next two seasons, the Nets will have cap space to sign free agents, although almost every team in the NBA will also be able to exploit the cap space bonanza. The Nets have trumpeted their new practice facility, opening along the Brooklyn waterfront in February, as a positive for a franchise in need of good energy.

The Nets may have started from the bottom, and now they’re here. And while ownership tries to figure out a new route to relevance, only one thing is certain: For all of their sound and fury, the Nets still have a long way to go.

Morning Shootaround — Jan. 10


VIDEO: The Fast Break: January 9

NEWS OF THE MORNING

A kinder, gentler Bryant? | Lopez doesn’t regret sticking with Brooklyn | Stevens rejoins Celtics | NBA’s Australians looking forward to Rio

No. 1: A kinder, gentler Bryant? For the Los Angeles Lakers, Kobe Bryant‘s farewell tour has become the focus of their season. Which may be a good thing, since the Lakers otherwise haven’t been very good, compiling an 8-30 record thus far. Yet despite all the losses, Kobe seems to be enjoying himself as he plays out the string, and the Los Angeles Times‘ Mike Bresnahan writes, has Kobe’s legendary burning desire to win faded a bit in this his final NBA season?

It was bad to be a trash can if Kobe Bryant was mad.

This was years ago, back when there were championship expectations, but Bryant booted one clear across the Lakers’ locker room at Madison Square Garden after a rough loss.

It was also sometimes bad to be toilet paper, apparently. Bryant angrily called his teammates “soft like Charmin” during a rant at practice in which he didn’t feel challenged. This was a little over a year ago.

The smoldering Bryant is now replaced by a smiling one, even as the Lakers (8-30) pinwheel toward the worst season in their 68-year history.

They played well Friday but lost a tight one to Oklahoma City. The new, lighthearted Bryant showed up again in the interview room, just like the previous night after a close loss in Sacramento.

The losses don’t seem as devastating to him.

“I just hide it a lot better,” he said Friday.

***

No. 2: Lopez doesn’t regret sticking with Brooklyn Last summer, Brooklyn center Brook Lopez was one of the most talented big men available in free agency. He eventually re-upped with the Nets, and though the team has struggled this season, Lopez has been a bright spot, averaging 19.8 points to go with 7.8 rebounds. The Nets may face an uncertain future, but as Andy Vasquez writes for the Bergen Record, Lopez says he has no regrets about re-signing with the Nets…

The Nets are in the midst of another disappointing season, certainly far from what Lopez envisioned when he re-signed. But the 27-year-old doesn’t regret his decision.

“No, no, no. I’m happy to be here,” Lopez said Thursday at the team’s practice facility.

“Time and time again I’ve said I wanted to see something built here, I see a special opportunity, a great situation to be in.”

The current situation isn’t exactly a bright one. Brooklyn just lost starting point guard Jarrett Jack for the season with a torn ACL.

Rookie Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who showed promise, is at least another month from returning from a broken ankle that has sidelined him since early December.

While the Nets aren’t mathematically eliminated from the NBA playoffs — it’s not even halfway through the season — they may as well be.

Brooklyn is closer (seven games ahead) in the standings to the awful Sixers than to the final playoff spot in the East (nine games behind).

The Nets don’t have control of their first round draft pick until 2019 thanks to the 2013 trade for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.

So the franchise’s best chance is to hope free agents agree with Lopez about there being a special opportunity in Brooklyn.

Despite all the doom and gloom, the Nets do have some things going for them.

They should have about $40 million in cap space next summer, enough to offer two max salaries to free agents.

Barclays Center is still the league’s newest arena and the team’s state-of-the art Brooklyn practice facility opens next month. And then there’s the lure of the nation’s largest media market.

“The opportunity to play in New York, first and foremost,” Lopez said, when asked how he’d pitch the Nets. “The facilities we have. I think, for me, it’s all about potential.”

That potential starts with Lopez and Thaddeus Young, 27, two nice players with several prime years remaining in their careers. Both are having seasons worthy of All-Star consideration.

Meanwhile, Hollis-Jefferson was better than expected when he played. And the Nets have an intriguing young prospect in Chris McCullough, who has spent the season rehabbing a torn ACL he suffered at Syracuse a year ago.

Add the right pieces and the Nets could be a good team next season. And Lopez said that matters more than anything.

“At the end of the day, it’s about winning, regardless of where you are,” Lopez said.

“Whether we’re luring free agents or want people to stay or whatever it is, you’ve got to be able to show them that there’s opportunities here for that. We have to have the right product on the court.”

***

No. 3: Stevens rejoins Celtics Before joining the Boston Celtics, coach Brad Stevens led Butler University to several memorable NCAA Tournament appearances. And with his former Butler player Andrew Smith in the hospital battling cancer, Stevens recently missed a Celtics game in order to spend time with Smith. Stevens rejoined the Celtics on Saturday and, as the Boston Globe’s Gary Washburn writes, says the last few days helped put things into perspective…

Celtics coach Brad Stevens returned to the team Saturday, conducting a rather important practice at the University of Memphis in his quest to end the team’s recent doldrums.

He returned from his trip to Indiana with a heavy heart. He acknowledged visiting former player Andrew Smith, who has been suffering from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but wouldn’t offer specifics on his condition, only to say he felt compelled to visit him immediately.

Stevens left the club in Chicago on Thursday afternoon, missing the team’s 101-92 loss to the Bulls.

“It’s very tough, not as tough on me as it is certain on [Smith and his family], but certainly emotionally, very challenging,” Stevens said following practice at the Larry Finch Center. “It certainly puts things in a lot of perspective. The conditions [of Smith] were worsening. I’ll let [his family] talk about his condition. I’m glad that I went.”

Stevens returns to a team that has lost four of five games and fallen out of the top eight in the Eastern Conference.

The Celtics have been abysmal shooting from the field in their past two losses — 36.5 percent from the field, 25.5 percent from the 3-point line — and are playing with wavering confidence.

“We could have controlled things to give ourselves a little bit better chance,” Stevens said of the Chicago loss. “I told [the players] this today. We’ve got to get better in a lot of areas. But we usually play hard.

“Sometimes we play a little haphazard but we usually play hard, so we need to bottle that up and play a little more controlled at times.”

Isaiah Thomas, who has made just 11 of 37 shots in the last two games, took full responsibility for the Bulls loss, saying his poor body language and frustrations spilled over to his teammates. Stevens didn’t fully agree.

“I think it says a lot about him from an accountability standpoint,” Stevens said of Thomas. “And at the same time, that’s an overreaction too, because we don’t feel that way. He’s going to have his moments. Other guys are going to have their moments. Other guys are going to have bad moments. We just all have to be in this thing together. We need to improve.”

***

No. 4: NBA’s Australians looking forward to Rio — The NBA has become a global league, followed worldwide and played by athletes from all corners of the earth. Australia, in particular, has become a hotbed of hoops, with its own popular domestic league and several NBA players who originated Down Under. As Roy Ward writes in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Australians in the NBA are looking forward to trying to find Olympic glory this summer in Rio…

The 82-game NBA season engulfs the lives of all players and Australia’s basketballers are not immune from this.

But on planes, buses or in down time, the country’s leading players admit their thoughts turn to the Rio Olympics and the glass ceiling that sits in front of a first men’s Olympic medal.

Andrew Bogut, Patty Mills, Matthew Dellavedova, Cameron Bairstow, Aron Baynes and Joe Ingles are all in thick of the action this season while Dante Exum continues to rehabilitate his reconstructed knee.

In Europe, in US college basketball and in the NBL sit the rest of the Boomers aspirants with the final 12-man squad not due to be announced until later in the year.

Since the team qualified for Rio in August last year, they have made public their goal to win the gold medal in Brazil despite Team USA’s long-running dominance in the men’s competition.

What adds credence to the Boomers’ brave stance is Bogut, Mills, Dellavedova and Bairstow are playing on NBA championship contenders while Bogut, Mills and Baynes have won NBA championship rings since 2014.

“There is a lot going on here but while it’s not the every day to day focus it’s always in your mind that it’s coming up and that all the boys are playing well, not just in the NBA but in Europe and the NBL,” Dellavedova said.

“We are all very excited and keep in regular touch through group message, we are going to catch up at All-Star break.

“We are all very excited, focused and committed to trying to do something really special at Rio and we realise the time is now for that.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Atlanta Hawks got a career night from Al Horford last night in a convincing win over the Bulls … Some changes may be in store for the D-League Showcase … Chicago is hoping to get Joakim Noah back from injury this weekRobin Lopez is starting to focus on his offensive post playIsaiah Canaan pays attention to advanced stats … Powerball fever may have been sweeping the nation the last few days, but don’t expect Dirk Nowitzki to get excited about it …

Morning shootaround — Jan. 9




VIDEO: Top 10 Plays from Friday night

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Spurs survive close shave | Davis injures back | Brand goal is to teach | Raptors take down Wiz again | Mbah a Moute shines

No. 1: Spurs survive close call against Knicks — Admittedly, the blowout wins the Spurs have been enjoying at home this season are much easier on the nerves. But when Jose Calderon’s last-ditch shot missed and San Antonio survived a nail-biter against the Knicks Friday night, it might have been the kind of game the streaking Spurs needed as they head into the meat of their schedule. Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News has the scoop:

That their latest victory took the full 48 minutes to secure was not lost on Spurs players, who in recent games had grown accustomed to playing fourth quarters with their starters’ feet propped up.

“I think we needed it,” David West said. “I think we figured out some execution stuff, some timing stuff you can only do in a tight game.”

Throughout a stellar start to the season that left them at 32-6 on Friday, keeping pace with the best start in club history, the Spurs have been on the lookout for cracks to fill.

Not everything New York threw the Spurs’ way will prepare them for what is to come.

It will be a while, for instance, before they face another 7-foot-3 Latvian who can shoot the 3-pointer.

Rookie sensation Kristaps Porzingis, all of 20 years old, scorched the NBA’s top-rated defense for 28 points and 11 rebounds. Porzingis was a thorn in the Spurs’ side on the offensive end, and an easy mark on defense. Aldridge got a batch of his points posting up the slender Porzingis.

The Spurs scored 60 points in the paint Friday, and Popovich thought they could have gotten more.

“It’s a strength that we have,” Popovich said. “And we’re getting better and better at recognizing it.” The Spurs did a better job against Anthony.

Tag-teamed by Leonard and Danny Green, Anthony started 2 for 12. The eight-time All-Star eventually found his way to 20 points and 12 boards, thanks to 10 trips to the foul line, but nothing came easy.

“I think they did a good job,” Popovich said of Green and Leonard. “As good as can be expected against a Hall of Fame player.”

***

No. 2: Pelicans lose A.D. to back injury — Another day, another injury for the Pelicans in what has rapidly become a painful and star-crossed season. Star forward Anthony Davis crashed into the seats while chasing a loose ball early in Friday’s loss to the Pacers and suffered a lower back contusion. He was unable to return to the game and according to John Reid of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the Pelicans are still waiting on an update on Davis’s availability:

Davis initially returned to the game, but shortly afterwards Alvin Gentry was forced to call a 20-second timeout to get Davis out of the game. Davis headed to the locker room for treatment and did not return. He was not made available after the game and his status for Sunday afternoon’s game against the Los Angeles Clippers has not been determined but an update may be issued by the team after Saturday’s practice.
But X-rays were negative, and he is listed as day-to-day.

”I don’t know anything yet,” Gentry said after Friday’s game. ”He was telling me that he had back pains when he left the court. So I’m sure we’ll find out later on.”

Davis has missed three games this season due to injury, which included a right hip contusion injury and sore right left shoulder.

***

No. 3: Teaching is the thing for Elton Brand — If 36-year-old Elton Brand drops in a basket or two and chases down a rebound for the 76ers, that’s all just gravy. The veteran forward came out of retirement to join the team this week with one task in mind, says Bob Ford of the Philadelphia Inquirer. That’s to show the ropes to Jahlil Okafor and the other young members of the Sixers’ roster:

“He’s here to guide the young guys and anything else is a bonus,” coach Brett Brown said. “I see him at practice pulling Nerlens [Noel] and Jahlil aside and showing them some of [Atlanta forward Paul] Millsap’s tricks, how he scored on him in practice, how can that not just be priceless?”

Brand has put a price on it, and it isn’t monetary. It’s about giving back to the game, about acquiescing to pleas from his college coach and his agent and, maybe a little bit, to the idea that he can get back on the court again for a few minutes at a stretch and show a little something one more time.

“Before practice yesterday, I dropped my son off at school at 8 a.m. I got to practice early, did some cardio, shot with the coaches, lifted, then had a whole long practice,” Brand said. “I ate lunch with the team, shot free throws afterward, and still picked up my son. I was home by 5 o’clock.”

It sounds so reasonable, and perhaps Brand can pull off this balancing act. If it doesn’t work, the season will be over in three months and he can look everyone in the eye and say he tried.

***

No. 4: Raptors keep getting back at Wizards — If you think players have short memories and easily forget things that happened last season, think again. That four-game playoff sweep at the hands of the Wizards last spring was a shocking eye opener to the Raptors. Chris O’Leary of the Toronto Star says that miserable experience still motivated DeMar DeRozan and his teammates in Friday night’s win:

DeMar DeRozan didn’t blink before the words were out of his mouth.
“We got swept last year,” the Toronto Raptors shooting guard said, after he’d hung a season-high 35 points on the Washington Wizards, the offensive backbone in a defensively-sound 97-88 win. DeRozan’s previous season high was 34 and one of those games came against the Wizards too.

Last year’s playoff sweep at the hands of the Wizards is old news by now, hammered home by 2016’s arrival. But being on the Verizon Center court, hearing a crowd of 17,064 cheering the Wizards on and seeing those painfully familiar red, white and blue jerseys, brings the burn of failure back to DeRozan, at least for one night.

“I was here for the playoffs, and that was a bad feeling to get swept,” he said. “Coming back here just playing against them (gives) the same reminder of what happened.”

The Raptors (now 23-15) know that avenging that loss can’t happen until the playoffs, whoever their opponent would be. Friday’s win was a testament to how different these Raptors look now, getting back to their defensive roots after two embarrassing losses earlier this week to the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers.

***

No. 5: Mbah a Moute helps Clippers thriveChris Paul has stepped up his All-Star level game. DeAndre Jordan has shouldered more of the burden. J.J. Reddick, Paul Pierce and others have made big shots. But a big part of the secret to the Clippers’ success in the absence of the injured Blake Griffin has been the below the radar efforts of Luc Mbah a Moute, says Dan Woike of the Orange Country Register:

“Luc is the most under-appreciated person on our team, in all honesty,” Paul said Friday. “We used to talk about DJ all the time, but everyone sees what DJ does on a nightly basis.

“But Luc is the guy. He does everything. He defends. He cuts. He does everything a coach would appreciate but a fan has no idea that he’s doing.”

And, technically, until Thursday his contract wasn’t fully guaranteed for the season.

Ultimately, the decision to keep him wasn’t much of a decision at all.

The Clippers lucked into Mbah a Moute last summer after the Sacramento Kings voided his free-agent deal due to a failed physical – the results of which have been disputed.

Looking for a landing spot, the former UCLA star ended up with the Clippers right before training camp, competing with veteran big man Chuck Hayes for the final roster spot.

Last season, Clippers coach Doc Rivers chose Jared Cunningham over Joe Ingles for the Clippers’ final roster spot. Cunningham was traded to Philadelphia in early January and was waived. Ingles, who was claimed by the Utah Jazz, ended up starting 32 games at small forward, a position where the Clippers could’ve used him.

This season, clearly, Rivers chose right.

Hayes hasn’t played this season, and Mbah a Moute is the Clippers’ starting small forward.

Since inserting him into the starting lineup, the Clippers are 15-5 – the third-best record in the NBA. They have the fifth-best offense in the NBA during that stretch and the sixth-best defense.

“What I love about Luc also is Luc can play a lot of minutes in a game or he can play very little minutes in a game, there’s still no body language change or anything like that,” Rivers said. “He understands there are nights we need offensive guys on the floor, we need floor-spacers. There are nights where we need a stop, and Luc does it.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Stephen Curry is now wearing soccer style shin guards to keep playing through his injury…One front row fan in Minneapolis got a little too up close and personal with Timofey Mozgov…Lamar Odom has been moved out of hospital as rehabilitation continues…Amar’e Stoudemire isn’t ruling out a return to Phoenix to conclude his NBA career…LeBron James wants to see J.R. Smith the All-Star Weekend 3-point Shootout.

With Jack gone, Nets facing winter of discontent


VIDEO: Jack leaves game with knee injury

HANG TIME NEW YORK CITY — What little hope the Brooklyn Nets had for making a return to the playoffs this season may have just left the borough.

Earlier Sunday the Nets announced point guard Jarrett Jack will miss the remainder of the season following surgery for a torn anterior cruciate ligament and a meniscus tear in his right knee. Jack suffered the injury during Saturday night’s 100-97 win at Boston. That win put the Nets at 10-23 on the season, the second-worst record in the Eastern Conference.

Jarrett Jack was never a classic pass-first point guard, but on these Brooklyn Nets he wasn’t asked to play that role. Through 32 games, Jack was averaging 12.8 points and 7.4 assists. He was Brooklyn’s most reliable player on the perimeter, and its best option to create some sort of opportunity when the offense was breaking down. Jack’s absence will likely be felt as strongly off the court as it will be on the floor — Jack was particularly well-liked in the Brooklyn locker room, both by his teammates and media.

Brooklyn’s path forward without Jack is murky. In the immediate future, the Nets will likely insert third-year point guard Shane Larkin, who has thus far averaged 6.6 point and 3.8 assists in 29 games, into the starting lineup. Veteran guard Donald Sloan, who made the Nets out of training camp and has seen action in 13 games, could also see an increase in playing time. Joe Johnson can ostensibly handle the ball and run an offense, but after logging over 40,000 minutes over 16 seasons, the miles seem to have caught up to him this season, as he is shooting a career-worst 36 percent from the floor.

To replace Jack’s production, the Nets will likely rely more on Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young, who have proven to be a capable duo on the interior when healthy, combining to average 35.6 points and 17.9 rebounds. Forward Bojan Bogdanovic has scored in double figures in 10 of his last 13 games. Rookie Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was probably Brooklyn’s best perimeter defender before an ankle injury in December, and his return could come around the All-Star break.

Long-term, the Nets’ future has just as many questions, with answers that are even tougher to find. That the Nets were able to defeat the Celtics on Saturday night was no small irony, as the Nets leveraged their immediate future several seasons ago thanks to the Celtics, by trading numerous draft picks for what turned out to be less than two seasons of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. As a result, the Celtics own Brooklyn’s first round picks in 2016 and 2018, as well as the ability to swap first round picks with the Nets in 2017.

Brooklyn’s best chance to improve in the short-term likely resides in free agency. After taking on salary for years, the Nets have recently worked to get under the luxury tax, and don’t have much financial flexibility to immediately go out and sign a replacement for Jack. They could apply for a Disabled Player Exception to generate some economic wiggle room, but would still need to create a roster slot. With Johnson’s contract expiring this summer and the Nets holding a team option on the contracts of Jack and Markel Brown, and with the salary cap expected near $90 million thanks to the NBA’s new television contract, the Nets could enter next summer with $30 million to spend.

But the summer is still months away. This season, the Nets were already one of the NBA’s worst teams. Now they just lost their leader, and still have 50 games left to play.

It may be a long, cold winter in Brooklyn.