Posts Tagged ‘Paul Pierce’

Time To Step It Up For The Stretch Run


VIDEO: Carmelo Anthony talks about the challenges facing the Knicks

Now that the slam dunking, 3-point shooting and other wretched excess of NBA All-Star weekend is in the rearview mirror, even those of us who aren’t 7-footers can stand on our tip-toes and see the playoffs from here.

There’s jockeying the standings to be done: Races for the No. 1 seeding in both the Eastern and Western Conference, the long-shot hopefuls trying to sneak in at the No. 8 spot and the down-to-the-wire elbowing for home-court advantage in the first round.

While Kobe Bryant continues driving himself to make it back onto the court this season because, well, he’s Kobe Bryant, there are a handful of other players and teams who need to step up their games coming down the homestretch:

Deron Williams — After a slow start a year ago, Williams found his stride and finished strong, averaging 22 points and 10 assists per game in the second half of the season. While the Nets have picked themselves out of the bottom of the garbage heap of the East to climb into the No. 7 spot in the standings thanks to Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett finally starting to come around, the most expensive roster in the league isn’t going anywhere in the playoffs if Williams can’t bounce back again and lead them. Is it the ankles? Is it the lack of confidence that he has mentioned? Or is he simply at the end of the line as an elite level point guard in his ninth season? Williams has scored 20 points just once since Jan. 4 and has only two games of handing out double-digit assists in 2014. He was even challenged to a 1-on-1 duel by coach Jason Kidd at a recent practice to try to light a spark.

Carmelo Anthony — He doesn’t show an interest in defense and, yes, he can turn Knicks games into a circus where he’s in the center ring and everyone else watches him hog the spotlight and the ball. Yet if it weren’t for Anthony carrying the offensive load, New York would be buried deeper in the standings. His PER of 24.61 is the second best of his career. Even at 20-32, the Knicks are within striking range in the East and Anthony is going to have to find a way to lift up his teammates — and save the job of coach Mike Woodson — rather than just outshine them before going into his summer of free agency. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt if J.R. Smith stopped his clown show and got back to playing basketball at least part time.

Timberwolves — The clock is ticking. Not just on another season when the Wolves were supposed become a playoff team that is slipping away. It could — and should — be ticking loudly on the end of Kevin Love in Minnesota. Two more seasons until Mr. Double-Double can fly out of the icy north to a landing some place where they actually do more than just talk about making the playoffs. Healthy again, Love is back to putting up big numbers. Yes, he’s faltered at times down the stretch as the Wolves have lost a ton of close games. But it really is a case of not having a supporting cast around him that has shown much inclination for improvement. That’s you, Ricky Rubio. Reports have said G.M. Flip Saunders is willing to trade anybody on the roster except Love in an attempt to keep him in Minnesota. But as another year comes off the calendar, you have to wonder if it isn’t already too late.

Manu Ginobili — Sidelined since the end of the January with a strained hamstring, the San Antonio firecracker is scheduled to jump back into the lineup this week. He’s not on this list due to underperforming but for how much the Spurs need him back in their lineup to get the fire burning again. Tony Parker got a chance to get a head start on his All-Star break because he has simply looked worn out this season after going all the way to The Finals last June and then playing for the French national team in EuroBasket. Tim Duncan is showing more and more of his age at times and there are rumors that he is thinking of retiring at the end of the season. The Spurs have played miserably against the top contenders in the West — just a single win over a Clippers lineup without Chris Paul. They need Ginobili to come back strong and healthy and durable to be considered real playoff contenders again.

Andre Iguodala — When the Warriors brought him in from Denver, the belief was that he’d upgrade the roster at both ends of the floor. They figured he’d be the slashing, penetrating force of the past, adding another scoring option and helping Stephen Curry distribute the ball and being a solid wing defender. While he’s helped move the ball and been solid on defense, the problem has been a lack of offensive production. He’s scoring just 9.6 points per game, the lowest since his rookie season in Philly. The Warriors don’t need him to challenge Curry or Klay Thompson as a big gun every night, but occasional flashes of firepower will be necessary if the team hopes to climb out of the No. 8 spot in the West and reach the preseason goal of a top four finish. Iguodala has scored 20 points only once since the opening week of the season.

Nets Smaller Starters Playing Elite D

BROOKLYN – Typically, teams play faster and are better offensively and worse defensively when they play small. The Brooklyn Nets are different.

Brook Lopez broke his foot and was lost for the season on Dec. 20. And it was on Jan. 2 when the Nets went to a starting frontline of Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett on a permanent basis. Since then, the Nets have played slower, and have gone from the third worst defensive team in the league to top 10 on that end of the floor.

Nets record, pace and efficiency

Timeframe W L Pace Rank OffRtg Rank DefRtg Rank NetRtg Rank
Through Dec. 31 10 21 94.6 25 101.9 18 106.7 28 -4.8 26
Since Jan. 1 12 4 92.6 28 105.9 13 101.8 9 +4.2 9
Season 22 25 93.9 26 103.2 17 105.0 20 -1.8 19

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

The Nets’ original starting lineup, with Garnett at the four and Lopez at the five, was OK defensively, allowing 101.4 points per 100 possessions. Of 71 lineups that played at least 75 minutes through Dec. 31st, it ranked 34th in DefRtg.

Not great, but not terrible either. And Brooklyn was better defensively, allowing just 100.3 points per 100 possessions, in the other 167 minutes that Garnett and Lopez were on the floor together. So playing big wasn’t necessarily a big problem.

But that’s not a lot of playing time. The Nets’ issues started with the lack of minutes (just 90 over 10 games before Lopez broke his foot) that their $82 million starting lineup played together. It was their other combinations that were truly awful defensively.

Nets lineups through Dec. 31

Lineup(s) MIN Pace OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg +/-
Williams, Johnson, Pierce, Garnett, Lopez 90 96.9 96.5 101.4 -4.9 -14
Other lineups 1,413 94.5 102.2 107.0 -4.8 -160

And here’s the thing. Their bench units are still pretty bad defensively. But since Jan. 1, their starters, with either Deron Williams or Alan Anderson as the third guard, have been ridiculously good on that end of the floor.

Nets lineups since Jan. 1

Lineup(s) MIN Pace OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg +/-
Livingston, Johnson, Pierce, Garnett + Anderson or Williams 167 88.6 102.7 89.4 +13.3 +39
Other lineups 610 93.8 106.8 105.0 +1.8 +23

Allowing less than 90 points per 100 possessions is elite defense. The Pacers have the best defense of the last 37 years, and they’ve allowed 93.9.

There’s some logic to improved D. Replacing Lopez with an extra guard has allowed the Nets to be more aggressive in defending pick-and-rolls, switch without worrying about mismatches, rotate and recover quicker, and better challenge 3-point shooters.

It helps that their top four guards are 6-foot-3, 6-foot-6, 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-7. Length goes a long way.

Through Dec. 31, the Nets ranked 30th in 3-point defense, allowing their opponents to shoot 39.1 percent from beyond the arc. In 2014, they’ve ranked 15th (35.7 percent). And opponents have shot just 31 percent from 3-point range against the two starting groups.

Those two groups have also forced 19.4 turnovers per 100 possessions, a rate that would lead the league. In fact, the Nets do lead the league by forcing 18.6 since Jan. 1. Livingston, Williams, Pierce and Andray Blatche have all averaged more than a steal per game since Jan. 1.

In regard to the how good the Nets’ starters are defensively, we’re looking at just 167 minutes of playing time. But 113 of those 167 have come against above-average offensive teams (and we’re not including the 14 minutes they played against the depleted Spurs on Thursday), so it’s not like the numbers are schedule-aided. They’ve shut down good teams.

And while the starters have played great D, the bench has held its own offensively. The Nets have scored a ridiculous 127.3 points per 100 possessions in 102 minutes with Blatche, Mirza Teletovic and Andrei Kirilenko on the floor together.

Kirilenko’s health has been critical. His passing and off-ball cutting are two elements the Nets were desperately missing for most of the first two months of the season. Even on Thursday, the Nets were going to their typical mismatches (Johnson and Livingston in the post) early, but were rather stagnant offensively until Kirilenko entered the game.

Shooting is so important in this league, but while Kirilenko has shot just 1-for-13 from outside the paint this season, he has the highest on-court OffRtg of anybody in the rotation.

It makes you realize that, even though Lopez is done for the season, the Nets are still one of the deepest teams in the league, so deep that Jason Terry got a DNP on Thursday.

The talent was always there. The healthy bodies were not. Ironically, Lopez’s injury has helped the Nets find an identity that works and start to live up to their lofty expectations.

Morning Shootaround — Jan. 27


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 26

NEWS OF THE MORNING

No place for ‘Melo in LA? | KG and Pierce; the return | Wounded Wall will rise from USAB snub | Heat ready for season to crank up

No. 1: Lakers cool on recruiting ‘Melo? – Kobe Bryant has already declared himself out of the Carmelo Anthony recruiting sweepstakes, choosing the role of big brother instead.  He tried the recruiter hat with Dwight Howard last season and it didn’t work. But Bryant wasn’t the issue then and he’s not now for the Lakers. That responsibility belongs to Mike D’Antoni, the Lakers’ coach whose rough relationship with Howard (and now Anthony) could have a negative impact on the thinking of the coveted free agent. D’Antoni, who coached Anthony with the Knicks, is taking a similarly hands off approach where the soon-to-be free agent is concerned. Marc Berman of the New York Post explains (D’Antoni also offers up some support for his successor) :

When asked if he got a chance to see Anthony, D’Antoni said after the 110-103 loss, “I said hi to him. He said hi to me. What do you want us to be, pen pals or something? We’re fine.’’

D’Antoni was short in his praise of Anthony’s 62-point Friday record-setter and wanted no part of a question regarding Anthony’s future.

“I watched clips, it looked like he was making baskets,’’ D’Antoni said. “He’s got that ability. If he’d played the whole game he probably would’ve had about 80. Obviously scoring talent he does not lack.’’

D’Antoni, however, thought Anthony never bought into the spread-the-wealth, speed-ball attack that earned him the offensive genius label in Phoenix. It seems farfetched Anthony, a free agent this summer, and D’Antoni would make the perfect marriage in Los Angeles. But you never say never.

Asked about Anthony’s free-agent future, D’Antoni demurred: “I’m good. I just want to drink my water and watch a little basketball.’’

D’Antoni defended Knicks coach Mike Woodson, who has been on shaky ground. Woodson replaced D’Antoni late in the 2011-12 season. Fans that year chanted “We Want Wood-son.” Now they chant “Fi-re Wood-son.’’

“Woody does a great job,’’ D’Antoni said. “They’ve had injuries, it’s a tough league, and some years it doesn’t go well. [But] they have a lot more basketball to play, and they win two or three in a row they’ll be in second place in the East, so they’ll be fine. It’s a great organization, I enjoyed my four years here, but you’ve got to win. Everything is going to be questioned. It should be.’’

***

No. 2: Celtics honor KG and Pierce in their return – Credit Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce for keeping their composure during an emotional return to Boston Sunday. They held it together during an intense and relentless stream of praise from the fans and folks in TD Garden and around the city of Boston. Not every city maintains the bond with its former sports superstars. And now KG and Pierce understand what it must have been like for the Boston sports heroes that came (and left) before them. Chris Forsberg of ESPNBoston.com has more from the emotional return for two-thirds of Boston’s Big 3:

Suggesting his return to Boston was tougher than his first trip back to Minnesota, where he started his NBA odyssey, Garnett detailed his ride on an emotional roller coaster while back at TD Garden on Sunday. But he stressed that, even without Gino, the video tribute and the fans’ reaction exceeded even his wildest expectations for coming back.

“This was over the top,” Garnett said. Later he added, “What comes to mind is unbelievable, I didn’t expect anything like that for myself. It shows the first-class type of organization that this is and the appreciation from this organization for you. And I couldn’t put it into words.

“Paul and I were joking before the game, who was going to tear up and drop a tear. I had lumps in my throat. I kept them under control and I focused as much as I could on the game and not take away from it. But, man, this was over the top. I couldn’t put that into words.”

Boston fans delivered an extended standing ovation when Garnett and Pierce were the final two Nets players announced during pregame introductions. With 2:25 to play in the first quarter, the arena hushed in anticipation of what was about to come.

Then came a roar at the mere sight of a green No. 5 flashed on the screen. Garnett’s tribute opened with a clip from “SportsCenter” detailing the trade that delivered him to Boston from the Timberwolves. After a clip of the Big Three holding up their jerseys at Garnett’s introduction, highlights from his Boston tenure rolled, including his bloodied head during a game against the Lakers in 2011, his in-game pushups versus Miami from 2012, and a wild montage of chest pounds and emphatic fist pumps. The video closed with Garnett kneeling to kiss the parquet floor and him screaming, “Anything is possible!” after the Celtics’ Game 6 victory over the Lakers delivered Banner 17 in 2008.

As the crowd delivered another standing ovation, the camera cut to a banner with retired jersey numbers with a couple open spots at the bottom — spots that eventually will house Garnett’s No. 5 and Pierce’s No. 34. But Garnett was already back in the huddle at that point, barking at teammates while trying to power through his emotions.

The cameras cut back to Garnett as play resumed on the court and, after a couple of deep breaths, Garnett smiled and appeared to tell teammates he had been on the verge of losing it.

In the days leading up to Sunday’s game, Garnett pledged to keep his focus on the game and he lived up to that promise. The Celtics rallied in the fourth quarter, trimming a 12-point deficit to three, and had a chance to tie the game with less than 30 seconds to play. With Rondo dribbling in a late-clock situation, Garnett cheated off his man to double the ball and managed to intercept a pass intended for Brandon Bass.

The 37-year-old Garnett, 18-plus years of NBA mileage on his tires, had 70 feet to cover, but he outraced Jeff Green and Chris Johnson before delivering a layup that essentially sealed Brooklyn’s 85-79 triumph, capping a perfect trip back to Boston.

“It took me two days to get the layup up; I thought I was going to get caught, but I got it still — put the ball in front of me, and I got the layup,” Garnett said. “Like Paul said, I’m glad we came here and got a win. A lot of distraction, but they were good distractions.

“It felt good to be showered and for the city to show their appreciation [and] the organization, man. You give yourself. People always say that players can be too loyal. I don’t believe that. A city like Boston is worth it and tonight’s the epitome of all that.”



VIDEO: Garnett and Pierce on their emotional return to Boston

***

No. 3: Wall will use USA Basketball snub as motivation – John Wall‘s Olympic dreams are fading. The Wizards point guard did not make the cut on USA Basketball’s roster for 2014-16, a 28-man that includes his backcourt mate Bradley Beal. Granted, Beal is a shooting guard and a specialist in one area that the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team can never have enough of for international competition. Wall, meanwhile, is one of the many talented point guard options the USAB brass had to choose from. The fallout from this snub, however, could very well work in the Wizards’ favor. Michael Lee of the Washington Post tries to make sense of it all:

Wall is the one of two American-born No. 1 overall picks in the past 11 years not to receive an invitation to Team USA. The other former top pick left out of the mix is Greg Oden, who is back in the NBA after missing the previous four seasons with chronic knee problems. LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Derrick Rose, Blake Griffin, Kyrie Irving and Anthony Davis were included.

“I been through it before. The main thing for me is try to be professional. I went out there and played. I did it the right way,” Wall said of his experiences with Team USA minicamp. “I just use it as more motivation. It’s nothing I could do. It’s nothing I can say, and I don’t want nobody to babysit me or try to make it work for me. They made their list, they made their decision and that’s what they’re happy with, and I just have to look past that. It’s more motivation because I didn’t make McDonald’s game. I wasn’t national player of the year. I wasn’t rookie of the year. So those are just tabs I keep to motivate myself to prove people wrong.”

The Wizards gave Wall a five-year, $80 million maximum extension last summer, solidifying his standing as the foundation of the franchise’s efforts to get back to respectability. In his fourth season, Wall has been producing the best numbers of his career with averages of 20.0 points, 8.5 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.9 steals. He finished a distant third in all-star fan balloting for Eastern Conference guards but is expected to be chosen by the coaches as a reserve with the Wizards positioned to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

Wall is having a better season than some of the point guards on the list, but despite his slow-but-steady improvement, he lacks the skill as a consistent shooter that is a necessity for international basketball. Beal, however, is a noted marksman who has connected on 42.3 percent of his three-point attempts this season and could be more of a threat with a shorter international three-point line.

Team USA only invited three other shooting guards in James Harden, Gordon Hayward and Klay Thompson but has been known to use two point guards on the floor at the same time.

“A lot of these guys can go either way. Like LeBron can play” point guard, Beal said with a laugh. “It really doesn’t matter, so I just have to be able to come in and show what I’ve got. It’s totally different than the NBA.”

***

No. 4: Heat just getting started on the 2013-14 season? – So playtime is over now for the Miami Heat. Dwyane Wade came back for Sunday’s Finals rematch and win over the San Antonio Spurs. Chris Bosh made up for his woes against the Spurs during The Finals with a huge effort and the Heat looked energized and much more like the outfit that is chasing a third straight title and fourth straight trip to The Finals, where the Spurs could once again await them. Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com dissects the Heat’s season and where they stand going forward:

After weeks of clearly struggling with motivation, the Heat are about to have plenty of it put before them. Sunday’s strong 113-101 victory over the San Antonio Spurs kicked off a stretch where the Heat will play teams with winning records in seven of 10 games. Not by accident, eight of their next 12 games are on national television.

More importantly, Sunday was also the first day the Heat had their full roster since the start of the season. Though they’re hardly alone in that distinction, with the league ravaged by injuries to stars, the Heat had a rather large variable in play because of the recent appearance that Greg Oden could end up being a factor at their weakest position.

The Heat have been rapped across the knuckles recently for what has been dubbed a “malaise” as they’ve swallowed nine losses against teams with losing records. What that fails to recognize is that the Heat were actually two games better this season through 43 games than they were last season. There were plenty of “what the?” games in the first few months last season as they struggled to get traction after winning the 2012 title.

It was last season in their 44th game when they truly got serious, after a losing road trip. It started Super Bowl weekend and they eventually reeled off 27 wins in a row and found a rhythm that carried them to another title.

It’s Super Bowl week again and the Heat have those several reasons to start getting serious, including a 2-4 road trip that ended grimly last week. Forget about another one of those crazy winning streaks (though the current one is at three and counting) but it wasn’t hard to miss how the Heat seemed to start to depress the gas against the Spurs.

Leading by 29 points at one point before the gap closed in garbage time, they delivered one of their most impressive performances of the season and their first quality win of the new year. It wasn’t a sterling defensive performance — those have been particularly elusive for the Heat this season and what they are really looking for — but there was no missing their increased intensity.

“They came with their A-game,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said.


VIDEO: The Game Time crew unveils their Sunday Feast

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: We didn’t mean to snub Stephen Curry and the Warriors, who knocked off the Portland Trail Blazers in an exciting Grammy night show which also served as a homecoming for the heir apparent of Oakland’s point guard legacy … Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle is doing his due diligence to pump Dirk Nowitzki up as an All-Star reserve … New Orleans Pelicans big man Anthony Davis is content to let his play do the talking for him … Nuggets point guard Nate Robinson is operating behind enemy lines this week as an unabashed fan of his hometown Seattle Seahawks

ICYMI of The Night: Between the highlights and the narration of Beau Estes, the Top 10 Plays is a must-watch and must-listen on a daily basis. Sunday’s Top 10 plays is no different. Watch the players shine and enjoy Beau’s soundtrack while you do it:


VIDEO: Check out Sunday’s Top 10 plays, the best highlights and delivery in the business

It’s Time For New Year’s Resolutions

VIDEO: The Starters review the year so far

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Ring out the old. Ring in the new. As the calendar turns, it’s time for resolutions throughout the NBA:

Atlanta Hawks — Look Back to the Future: This was supposed to be the start of a brand new era for one of the NBA’s most moribund franchises, and things were actually looking good until Al Horford tore a pectoral muscle. With their undersized big man done for the season, the Hawks will only stay afloat because they’re in the horrid Eastern Conference. But they’re going in the right direction under GM Danny Ferry and coach Mike Budenholzer, and will get the lottery pick of the sinking Nets, so there’s reason for hope out of a draft class teeming with talent.

Boston Celtics — Move Fast on Rondo: According to the old saying, you’re either part of the solution or part of the problem. When Rajon Rondo is finally able to get back onto the court and prove that he’s close to his old self, rookie coach Brad Stevens and GM Danny Ainge have to find out right away if he’s mentally ready to anchor the rebuilding project. If not, the Celtics could reap a windfall in new pieces ahead of the trade deadline.

Brooklyn Nets — Fuhgetaboutit: OK, it was a nice little pipe dream to think that a couple of old codgers like Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce could shuffle up and down the court in slippers and robes to tangle with the Heat and Pacers. Fortunately, team owner Mikhail Prokorov can afford their salaries with the kind of change he finds in his sofa cushions. Pay them off, send them away and get back to building around Brook Lopez and Deron Williams with players who aren’t signing up for Medicare.

Charlotte Bobcats — Keep Him: For the first time in who can remember how long, Michael Jordan won’t have to spend next summer looking for a coach. The merry-go-round can stop. Steve Clifford has given Charlotte a sense of purpose, respectability and a solid identity on the defensive end. Now they’ve got to work on boosting production out of that woeful offense. One thing at a time.

Chicago Bulls — Play Derrick and the Dominoes: Even Layla couldn’t have knocked the Bulls off their feet like the second straight significant injury to their All-Star, MVP guard Derrick Rose. It might be time to reshuffle the bones on a club that hasn’t even won a conference title and already has significant money locked up in Rose, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson before re-signing Luol Deng to a big contract.

Cleveland Cavaliers — Stop Winning the Draft Lottery: Of course, that would require the Cavs to actually make the playoffs and not qualify for the lottery. This is a team that was supposed to be on the rise with enough young talent to make LeBron James think about returning, but instead has Kyrie Irving trying to do everything, Dion Waiters angry and Andrew Bynum maybe ready to give up the game. Time for an adult to take control here, coach Mike Brown.

Dallas Mavericks — Embrace Reality: It’s a bit ironic that a guy like Mark Cuban that has made a name for himself in the world of reality TV shows rarely faces up to it with the Mavs. He’s fun. He’s entertaining. He’ll say anything, such as there’s no telling whether Houston getting Dwight Howard or Dallas getting Monta Ellis was a better free agent signing last summer. Now go get yourself some defense, Mark, before Dirk Nowitzki winds up running on his tongue trying to outscore everybody.

Denver Nuggets — Respect Yourself: There shouldn’t be a decent team that breaks camp without a solid sense of its identity. A year ago with George Karl pulling the strings from the sidelines and Andre Iguodala setting the pace on the court, the Nuggets had that. Now they are often just a bunch that is stuck in the middle of the pack on offense (18th) and defense (16th) and too often can’t defend its home court.

Detroit Pistons — Say It Ain’t So, Joe: A few years ago, it was signing Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva as big-money free agents. This time GM Joe Dumars figured it would be a good idea to upgrade the Pistons by tossing the combustible Josh Smith onto the fire to light up the frontcourt. So, Smith is already calling out coach Mo Cheeks and the Pistons are backsliding from the .500 mark. Things are getting ugly early again in the Motor City. And, oh yeah, nobody is coming to watch the Pistons, who are last in the league in attendance.

Golden State Warriors — Do the American Hustle: Like the hit movie, was last year’s magical little run through the playoffs by Mark Jackson’s team just one glorious con job? Yes, they’ve played a tough schedule, but something is missing. Lack of last year’s bench? A failure to take care of the ball? You get the sense that the Warriors were just trying to pick up this season right where they left off without putting in all of the gritty groundwork.

Houston Rockets — Rebound, Then Run: Everybody loves watching the Rockets run like methamphetamine-fueled hamsters on a wheel. But for a team that has Dwight Howard in the middle, they are horrible at giving up second-chance points to opponents and it has often proved costly. It’s nice to run, but better not to turn your back and head down the court while the other guy is dropping another put-back into the net.

Indiana Pacers — Don’t Stop Believing: The Pacers came into the season convinced that they could live up to the old axiom of playing them one game at a time and that grind-it-out method would eventually deliver the best record in the league and home-court all the way through The Finals. With Paul George tossing his hat into the MVP ring and Roy Hibbert making opponents ears ring with his physical style, it’s working quite well for coach Frank Vogel’s team.

L.A. Clippers — Say Goodbye to Hollywood: The sooner the Clippers can get rid of all the extraneous things in their game — yes, you, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan — and get down to the serious business of playing some real defense around the basket, the sooner we’ll take them seriously as real contenders in the Western Conference. At this point, despite all the good work by Chris Paul, the Clips are still one of those acts that gets eliminated early on “American Idol.”

L.A. Lakers — Lock Up Kobe: Yes, we know he’s the Black Mamba. We know that he’d be the guy standing out in the rain with a fork and still believe he’d quench his thirst. But the Lakers aren’t going anywhere this season and it doesn’t help their cause for next year if Kobe Bryant returns and pushes himself to the limit again in a debilitating run that winds up far short of the playoffs. It’s time to think about the limited — and high-paying — future he has left. Oh yeah, and trade Pau Gasol.

(more…)

Morning Shootaround — Dec. 26


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Dec. 25

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Bryant vows to return this season | Report: Kidd calls out Nets; Pierce unhappy with role | Bogut gets under Clippers’ skin | Concerns about Spurs as contenders

No. 1: Bryant vows to return this season — Save for six games this season, Kobe Bryant has found himself in a spot he’s never been before during the season: watching games in a suit from the sidelines. As Bryant recovers from a knee fracture he suffered last week, he remains steadfast that he will not shut himself down for the rest of the season. Our own Sekou Smith was on the scene in Lakerland yesterday and has more from Bryant and what his future is looking like in L.A.:

Any suggestions that he might shut it down for the season Bryant insists are not only misguided but just plain foolish. He has an obligation to get through his latest rehab stint and get back on the court with the Lakers and chase the playoff berth they have been planning on since he missed out on it last season.

“No, not that I’m aware of,” Bryant said when asked if there was any chance six games would be the total of his workload this season. “My job as an athlete is to train, get healthy, get strong and come back and do my job.”

Some Christmas it turned out to be for him. Instead of squaring off against LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the Heat under the brightest of lights, Bryant instead spent his day watching the action. Before he suffered that latest setback, Bryant had this matchup circled on his calendar.

“This was a really big measuring stick,” Bryant said of the matchup against the Heat. “Because of their speed, their activity and their size. I was really looking forward to this game to be able to measure where I was physically, especially with the time frame I came back. I was really looking at this game to measure what I can do and what I can’t do.”

When asked if he thought pushing to get back from the Achilles injury had anything to do with the knee fracture, Bryant resisted the urge to go off.

“Because it’s Christmas I will refrain from being a smart ass,” he said. “I don’t think one had anything to do with the other. I mean, we evaluated it pretty extensively. The fact of the matter is, any of us can get hurt at any moment. The key for us at athletes is to block that fear out. And when you have injuries that fear is enhanced. You kind of put yourself under a microscope and you start thinking about it too much. It can happen to anybody. So you just have to tune that noise out and go out there and perform.”

“The biggest part of my game the last two or three years has been getting to a space on the floor and then elevate and shoot pull up jump shots or get into the paint,” Bryant said. “It was a great test going up against Tony Allen, who in my opinion has been the guy who defended me the best individually since I’ve been in the league. And with four games in five nights, to be able to go up against him and respond to that challenge … I was feeling really good about things.”

With that feeling gone and another month or so to grind away getting ready for yet another comeback, Bryant has not lost any of his fire.

“My spirits are fine,” he said. “My spirits are fine. I feel more locked in now than I have my entire career because of this. My spirits are fine, focus is great and we’re just going to have to see what happens when I come back.”

***

No. 2: Report: Kidd calls out Nets after loss; Pierce continues to struggle – We pointed out in this space on Christmas Eve that Nets coach Jason Kidd was none too pleased after Brooklyn’s blowout loss to Indiana, going as far as to say his team was getting complacent with all the losing going on this season. Kidd was reportedly even more upset after yesterday’s 95-78 loss at home to the Chicago Bulls and according to ESPNNewYork.com’s Ohm Youngmisuk, he and veteran forward Kevin Garnett blasted the team following the defeat:

Following the Brooklyn Nets’ embarrassing 95-78 Christmas Day loss to the Chicago Bulls, an exasperated Jason Kidd called his players out in the locker room, according to multiple league sources.

Tired and upset with a lack of effort, Kidd’s outburst came after the Nets dropped their fourth straight game, sources say. The first-year head coach said Monday after a 103-86 loss to Indiana that the Nets were becoming too comfortable with losing.

The frustration is mounting. According to league sources, after Kidd yelled at the team on Wednesday, Kevin Garnett stood up and vented his frustration before walking out to the showers. Multiple sources stressed Garnett backs Kidd and that the veteran’s frustration has been building over some of his teammates’ lack of fight after the Nets lost by 17 points for the second straight game.

Sources also said Garnett’s walking out was viewed as him being one of the few Nets to care about the team’s downward spiral.

“At the end of the day, the coach can only hold you responsible for energy and effort,” Kidd said. “If you’re not giving it, I have to take you out. If you’re missing shots, that’s just part of the game. But if you’re not giving energy or effort, I’ve got to take you out.”

“I’m even surprised with this season, how it’s played out. It’s like a nightmare,” Deron Williams said after the latest blowout loss. “The way the injuries have been and the things we talk about every day: the lack of energy, the lack of effort. I didn’t see that being a problem when we put this team together.”

What Kidd said he has not been able to stomach is the team’s almost apathetic approach when adversity hits in a game and the opponent makes a run against them.

“I think it is getting very close to just accepting losing,” Kidd said of the mental state of the team on Monday. “We are kind of getting comfortable with losing.”

“And we got to make a stand with that because when things get tough, do we just give in?” Kidd continued. “And most of the time right now, we do.”

Garnett and Williams disagreed and said they don’t accept losing. But the Nets were still blown out by Chicago.

While Garnett reportedly went off on the team’s effort and play against the Bulls, his teammate, Paul Pierce, saw his season-long woes hit a new low against Chicago. He went scoreless for the first time since his rookie season and, as Howie Kussoy of the New York Post reports, is looking unhappy with his off-the-bench role:

Following Paul Pierce’s first scoreless game since he was a rookie — an 0-for-7 performance in Monday’s loss to the Pacers — the 10-time All-Star and former NBA Finals MVP had another miserable day Wednesday, shooting 1-for-8 from the field and finishing with six points in the Nets’ 95-78 loss to the Bulls at Barclays Center.

In the previous 15 seasons, there were only three games when Pierce didn’t start, but the veteran forward has now come off the bench in seven of the past eight. Pierce has shown discomfort in his new role, and also seems unhappy with rookie coach Jason Kidd’s distribution of minutes.

“You’re coming off the bench, you’re not a primary option, and you sort of try and force things,” Pierce said. “You don’t get the looks every night that you’re used to getting over the years, and I’ve grown accustomed to that. I’m usually the third or fourth option when I’m on the court, and sometimes it’s going to be like that. Minutes over the last few games have been different. I played less minutes last game, less minutes this game. When you have inconsistency in your minutes sometimes, you have some inconsistency in your play.”

***

No. 3: Bogut’s spirit wears down Clips, Griffin — If the hubbub of Christmas Day got you worn down and you missed the Clippers-Warriors game last night, it was a dandy. While the final score was close — a 105-103 win for home-standing Golden State — what most folks are talking about this morning is the chippy play between the squads that led to Blake Griffin and Draymond Green getting ejected and a postgame scuffle between the teams as well. Our own Scott Howard-Cooper was on the scene and looked at how Warriors big man Andrew Bogut didn’t cause any scuffles, but did what he could to get under the Clippers’ skin:

Bogut being in the middle of conflict is part coincidence — he didn’t do anything at the end to deserve the parting gift from Barnes — but also surely part plan. He wanted to wear on Griffin just as he would be willing to instigate his own teammates in practice if he felt the Warriors needed to rumble to find their inner fight. He will create havoc to generate stability.

“The little thing between me and Blake, I don’t think he should have been thrown out,” Bogut said. “Just get up and brush it off and go down to the other end, in my opinion. That kind of stuff doesn’t bother me too much.

“It’s not like I go home and pencil the Clippers in and say, ‘I’m going to be physical and try to get a technical foul and try to give the league money.’ That’s just the way the game went. He was being physical, I was being physical, and we both didn’t take a step back and that’s how it should be. I think it’s good spectacle for you guys (the media) and the fans.”

For all the attention that goes to his defense, rebounding and passing, demanding intensity through toughness is one of the primary contributions Bogut provides that’s largely unseen in public.

Early in his career here, after he arrived via a trade with Milwaukee and as he was healing from a lengthy ankle injury, he said he wouldn’t hesitate to start a fight in practice if he felt teammates needed to be, um, called out. He would be insistent and unforgiving in the way a lot of rosters need to be held accountable.

There have been times in practice where fights seemed possible — “We’ve been close,” Bogut said, “we’ve gone at it. Guys are talking smack and it gets pretty testy” — but the Warriors have yet to cross that line with punches thrown, he said. It doesn’t seem necessary with this team that will play hard without the internal conflict, however temporary.

But Wednesday against the Clippers, it was a different story.

“Blake Griffin was hot and I tried to do everything in my power to try and frustrate him and stop him,” Bogut said. “I didn’t want him to get thrown out. I just tried to make life tough for him, and that’s the way it worked out. I’m going to give extra-effort plays and dive on the floor and take charges, and I think guys see that. I think without words, you see a guy doing that, and I think it can give us a spark.”


VIDEO: Warriors claim chippy win over Clippers on Christmas Day

.***

No. 4: Concerns about the Spurs as contenders?At 22-7, the San Antonio Spurs have the Western Conference’s third-best record and are a mere 1 1/2 games behind Portland and Oklahoma City for the No. 1 spot. That would cause you to think there’s no reason to worry in the land of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Co., but you might be wrong about that notion. Our own Fran Blinebury was at last night’s Rockets-Spurs game from the AT&T Center and saw first hand how another upper-crust team in the West — Houston — had their way with the Spurs:

The Rockets may or may not yet be a real contender, depending on the day of the week or their interest in being professionals who show up with the same level of commitment each game.

For a holiday night, at least, the most noticeable difference wasn’t those form-fitting jerseys with sleeves, but the way the Rockets strutted into the AT&T Center and did everything this side of ripping the drumstick off the turkey and clubbing the Spurs over the head with it.

It was the difference in 3-point shooting, in having a fourth-quarter closer in James Harden, a defender in Jeremy Lin who wrapped up Tony Parker in pretty paper with a bow, an inside tandem of Dwight Howard and Terrence Jones and in energy.

The Rockets, when they have their heads on straight, are as powerful and devastatingly effective as a blizzard and they buried everything about three feet under with an opening quarter of howling wind.

Meanwhile, the Spurs are looking like one of the polar ice caps that is thawing and melting from climate change.

Despite their gaudy overall record, the Spurs are now 0-7 on the season against the top six teams they’ve faced, giving up 115, 112, 111, 111, 115, 113 and 94 points.

In their four home losses this season — Rockets (2), Thunder and Pacers — they have trailed by double digits every time and were down by at least 18 in three of them. It was the 10th time in their last 14 games that the Spurs have given up at least 100.

For years the Spurs have kept holding open the window on a championship era that was said to be closing and last season perhaps convinced everyone that the Big Three of Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginobili can grow older than Methuselah and never fade away. Then there is this.

For weeks now, the Rockets have shown fleeting glimpses of how often they can stomp down on the accelerator, how good they can be, how far they can go. Until the next night when they just don’t.

Sometimes a game is just a game and sometimes it’s a snapshot that shows generations changing.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Heat are well aware of just how quickly the clock can tick on a career … Why did Chandler Parsons sport a nearly shaved look on Christmas Day? It was to pay tribute to a fan riddled with cancer … The Magic are expected to either cut or find a way to trade former Most Improved Player of the Year winner Hedo Turkoglu by Jan. 7 … Lakers big man Chris Kaman is taking eating healthier to a whole new level … Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau is trying to figure out how to best manage the minutes of D.J. Augustin and Kirk Hinrich at the point

ICYMI Of The Night: If you somehow managed to NOT see the Dwyane Wade-to-LeBron James off-the-glass fast break alley-oop yesterday in Los Angeles in person, you missed out on one of the all-time great Christmas Day game plays. But, at least you can relive it here …


VIDEO: Dwyane Wade finds LeBron James with the off-the-glass fast break alley-oop

Heat Mindful Of Toll Of Being Elite




VIDEO: D-Wade spurs Heat to hard-earned Christmas win over the Lakers

LOS ANGELES — They don’t have to see it or even acknowledge it. But it’s there, every moment of every single day for the Miami Heat. Playing on that tight-rope, before the biggest crowds in Miami and everywhere else, takes a toll on the greatest of players and teams.

The Heat needed only to look down the hall on Christmas to the other locker room, where injured Lakers superstars and future Hall of Famers Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash arrived for the days’ affair in street clothes that they would wear before, during and after the Heat’s closer-than-expected win at the Staples Center. Earlier in the day in Brooklyn,  fellow aging stars (and future Hall of Famers) Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, key members of Boston’s Big 3 (along with Heat reserve Ray Allen), looked like shells of their former selves as the Chicago Bulls trounced the Nets.

James shouldn’t be consumed with his own basketball mortality since he’s at the height of his powers … and trust me, he’s not. But what’s going on around him now is a cautionary tale worth filing away. All of those aforementioned stars, Bryant in particular, have plenty of miles on their bodies. They’ve all soared to great heights in their careers, both individually and otherwise. But it all comes at a physical, mental and emotional price that those stars have to be willing to pay at some point.

James sent out a tweet last week wishing Bryant a speedy recovery from his latest setback, a fractured left knee that followed Achilles surgery that limited him to just six games this season. But that’s basically the extent of his empathy. He’s not going to let anything slow him down, not in the prime of his career and not while the Heat are in the midst of building a dynasty of their own.

“No, I don’t,” James said when asked if he ever ponders his own career clock. “I try to live in the moment. Only the Man Above knows how much time He’s going to give me with this game. Once He decides that I don’t have any more time or when that is, I’ll call it quits … none of us can play forever, though. We’ve all gotta go [sometime].”

That time isn’t anytime soon. Even with the Indiana Pacers pressing them in the Eastern Conference and challengers from Oklahoma City to San Antonio and everywhere else lining up in the Western Conference, there will be no shortage of challenges for this Heat team deal with as we progress toward the postseason.

Trying to make The Finals for a fourth straight season is taxing enough, let alone trying to win the title for the third straight season. The Heat are doing it with Dwyane Wade on a plan to measure his minutes and preserve his body for the entire (anticipated) stretch of a season that ends again in June.

As long as James is healthy and leads the way, though, the Heat don’t have the concerns about longevity that some outsiders might harbor. They also certainly don’t have any issues with sustained excellence, according to Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni.

“They are the same they’ve been the last two seasons, if not better,” he said. “LeBron’s playing out of his mind. He gets better every year, which is hard to say for a guy like that. They are better. They are just laying in the weeds a little bit. But you can’t count ‘em out. They’ll be there at the end. They’ll probably have home-court advantage, if not it’ll be right there.”

Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, among others, will want to have a say about who brings home that Larry O’Brien trophy as well. But only the Spurs understand exactly what the Heat have come to understand these past four seasons.

Winning and winning big is more than just a notion. It’s what James, adopting the terminology of Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, calls a “process.” And one that James was much more prepared for than his coaches and Heat teammates, as James had tried unsuccessfully to climb that mountain in Cleveland before embarking again and succeeding in Miami.

That’s why the Heat, and Spoelstra in particular, know that no one in the organization can take this time or the relative good health of their stars and role players alike for granted. He knows James in the midst of his prime — “physically, mentally and emotionally” as he put it — and with good health has years of operating as the best player in basketball ahead of him.

But times haven’t always been this good in Miami. And Spoelstra has a long memory.

“We’ve been through a lot of teams in 18-plus years in Miami where we had championship-contending teams, where we had 15-win teams, we’ve had 20-, 30- and 40-win teams,” Spoelstra said. “So we’ve seen it all. And when you have a team like this that you know, as long as you have your health you have an opportunity to play for a title, and that’s all you might have is an opportunity, none of us want to take it for granted. This is a special group that we have. And you don’t know how long it will last so you want to make the most of it.”

James refusing to look beyond anything but the here and now makes much more sense after hearing Spoelstra talk about that process. It’s also why James doesn’t fret these days every time the Heat have a hiccup, or face an unsuspected test the way they did from Nick “Swaggy P” Young and the Lakers on Christmas.

He’s comfortable with where his team is right now, with the initial stages of this season’s journey already behind them.

“I don’t want to say comfortable, because I don’t ever like to be, too comfortable … [at least not] until the end, when we raise that trophy,” James said. “But I can say the process, and where we’re trying to get better right now, we’re right on point. We’ve had a couple of bumps in the road, but we’ve taken more steps forward than backward. And I’m excited about that.”

Morning Shootaround — Dec. 24


VIDEO: Highlights from all of Monday’s NBA games

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Melo sprains ankle | Pierce, Nets implode, Kidd explodes | Dirk climbs all-time list | Wade sits, LeBron shines | End of the Lottery?

No. 1: Melo leaves with sprained ankle– As if enough hasn’t happened to the New York Knicks in the season’s first two months, now they’re dealing with a sprained left ankle to their best player, Carmelo Anthony. The club’s leading scorer limped to the locker room in the third quarter of New York’s 103-98 win over Orlando. Yes, the Knicks still managed to hold on and win. Oh, to make matters worse, point guard Raymond Felton, who had just returned from injury, left in the fourth quarter with a strained right groin. Both players will be reevaluated Tuesday and Anthony insisted he’s hoping to play on Wednesday, Christmas Day, when the Knicks play host to the Oklahoma City Thunder (2:30 ET, ABC).

More from Peter Botte of the New York Daily News:

“It’s on. I still have it. It ain’t going nowhere, so I’ll be there,” Anthony said of his sprained ankle. “Hopefully, I’ll be there. … It’s Christmas in the Garden. I don’t want to miss that game. I don’t know, I’m hard-headed sometimes when it comes to that. But I’ve got two days.”

The Knicks (9-18) constructed a 24-point cushion at halftime and still led 72-52 when Anthony went up for a rebound of his own miss and landed awkwardly, with his left foot coming down on the foot of Orlando forward and Long Island product Tobias Harris with 7:26 remaining in the third.
“Melo’s a tough kid. He don’t sit down very often,” Mike Woodson said.

Anthony, who also battled knee and shoulder problems last season, described this ankle injury as “not as severe” as one that kept him out of two games this time last year.
Still, Anthony limped to the bench and remained there for several minutes while receiving treatment from trainer Roger Hinds. During a timeout with 5:43 remaining in the quarter, the pending free agent headed for the locker room and did not return.

“The pain was too much. I was actually trying to walk to see if I could get back in the game. There wasn’t no reason for me to go out there and risk it anymore,” Anthony said. “But I’m walking. I think I caught it before it rolled all the way, but it rolled pretty bad. We’ll evaluate everything (Tuesday), but the good thing is I am able to walk with a little bit of pain.”

Felton was back in the lineup after missing the previous six games with a strained left hamstring, scoring 13 points with four assists in 25 minutes before he collapsed to the floor following a midair collision with Jameer Nelson with 3:21 to go.
Felton, who also missed time earlier this season with a pinched nerve in his hip, admitted he “felt a pop” in his right groin.

***

No. 2: Pierce ejected, Kidd explodes – With the Nets down 19 points to the East-leading Indiana Pacers, Brooklyn’s Paul Pierce, in the midst of a horrible personal season, took down Indiana’s George Hill on a fastbreak. The play was ruled a Flagrant 2 resulting in the automatic ejection of the former Celtics great. But that’s not as bad as it got. Following the Nets’ 103-86 to fall to 9-18, rookie head coach Jason Kidd went off on his underachieving team that just two days ago lost All-Star center Brook Lopez to a broken foot. Kidd’s most damning quote of his club: “Well I think it is getting very close to just accepting losing. We are kind of getting comfortable with losing. And we got to make a stand with that because when things get tough, do we just give in and most of the time right now we do.”

ESPNNY.com’s Mike Mazzeo has more:

The Nets came into the season with the NBA’s highest payroll — an estimated $190 million counting the impending luxury tax — and extremely high expectations. But they’ve failed to meet them.

During the summer, Nets general manager Billy King mortgaged the future, relinquishing several future assets to acquire veterans Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry in an effort to try and win now. But so far, it hasn’t worked out.

On Monday night, Garnett and Pierce both left without talking to the media. Pierce was automatically ejected after being accessed a flagrant foul 2 for clotheslining Pacers point guard George Hill, who tried to finish a layup in transition with 4:22 remaining in the third quarter. He could face a fine or suspension from the NBA league office as a result.

Pierce (0-for-7) was held scoreless for the first time since March 9, 1999 — the 16th professional game of his 16-year career. Garnett went 3-for-10 from the field in 19 minutes. Both players have struggled mightily while trying to fit in with their new team for the majority of the season.

Told of Kidd’s comment, point guard Deron Williams said, “I’m not. I’m not comfortable losing. It’s not fun. Not only when we’re losing during the game, but when I go home sitting there and thinking about it, it’s not fun.”

***

No. 3: Dirk passes English, destroy RocketsEvery few games it seems Dirk Nowitzki is passing another legend of the game on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. On Monday night, Nowitzki overtook Denver great Alex English for No. 13. The Mavs’ sweet-shooting 7-footer did it in style, dropping 31 points on Dwight Howard and the Rockets to move to 2-1 against their Southwest Division rival this season. Nowitzki, of course, traveled to Los Angeles with owner Mark Cuban and coach Rick Carlisle over the summer to recruit the free-agent Howard, who preferred the situation in Houston. Nowitzki scored 10 points in the final nine minutes to help Dallas protect the lead and end a two-game skid.

Eddie Sefko of The Dallas Morning News was there:

Dirk Nowitzki simply said: Come on, boys, and climb on my back.
“Listen, he’s the great Dirk Nowitzki,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. “The guy has changed the game with the way he plays. The game is not the same. He changed the power forward game forever, and it’s reflected in the modern game now. He’s a great player.”

Nowitzki piled up 31 points, including 10 points in the final nine minutes when the Mavericks were protecting a nice lead they had earned in the third quarter. Along the way, Nowitzki passed Alex English for 13th place on the all-time NBA scoring list.

His play was made possible in part by the shooting of Vince Carter, Jae Crowder and Jose Calderon, all of whom loosened up the Houston defense in a third quarter that the Mavericks won by 15 points to turn the game around.

“They had a lot of respect for our shooting at that point,” Nowitzki said. “So they were a little hesitant to double me. And I got to take advantage of the matchups when they play me with 6-7, 6-8 guys and I can shoot over them. That’s what I’ve been doing my whole career.”
And so the Mavericks still have not had a three-game losing streak this season. They stopped the skid at two with their gutsiest victory of the season.

It’s worth noting that the Rockets were playing without leading scorer James Harden (ankle), point guard Patrick Beverley (hand) and center Omer Asik (thigh).

As such, the Rockets leaned heavily on Dwight Howard, who was a beast all night. But the Mavericks held most of the other Rockets in check in the second half.

.***

No. 4: Wade sits, LeBron shinesThe Miami Heat continued their cautious approach toward Dwyane Wade and his cranky news, sitting the superstar yet again Monday night against the Atlanta Hawks. This time it seemed it would be too much for Miami to overcome. Then again, they do have LeBron James, who had 38 points and one massive late fourth-quarter dunk over Paul Millsap that helped get the game to overtime and allow the Heat to take a 121-119 decision.

David J. Neal of the Miami Herald has more:

No Dwyane Wade. Later, after an elbow to the jaw, no Chris Bosh, either. But the Heat still had a LeBron James, and could pull a Michael Beasley off the bench. And then a Ray Allen and, even for the last 2.3 seconds, Bosh.

Which is how the Heat outlasted the Hawks 121-119 in overtime Monday night. Allen got the Heat to overtime. Beasley provided the game-winning free throws. Bosh provided the long arms.

“The one thing I did like about this game, in the last couple of years with this group, if we’d given up 17 threes in a game, we don’t win that game,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of the Heat’s ninth win in a row over the Hawks. “It would collapse our spirit and our mind.”

Beasley had 10 points. Allen had 19. James scored 38 points on 16 of 28 shooting, six of his last seven as the Heat came from 11 down in the second half. As remarkable, James had six assists without a turnover. About the only thing James didn’t do well was hit free throws (two of six).

“For the basketball aficionado out there, this is a game where you see his full skill set,” Spoelstra said.

***

No. 5: End of the LotteryWith a multitude of front offices seemingly setting up their teams to be very bad this season with an eye toward what is believed to be a very talented draft class, and the league quite sensitive this whole notion, a proposal for a change to lottery system might be floated to owners in 2014.

Grantland’s Zach Lowe has the story:

We can also search for solutions, and there are lots of folks in the league office and among the 30 teams who find tanking abhorrent — who bristle at the idea that the league has incentivized teams to be anything but their best every single season. One detailed proposal, submitted by a team official, has gained initial traction among some high-level NBA officials — to the point that the NBA may float the proposal to owners sometime in 2014, according to league sources. Other top officials in the league office have expressed early opposition to the proposal, sources say.

The Proposal

Grantland obtained a copy of the proposal, which would eliminate the draft lottery and replace it with a system in which each of the 30 teams would pick in a specific first-round draft slot once — and exactly once — every 30 years. Each team would simply cycle through the 30 draft slots, year by year, in a predetermined order designed so that teams pick in different areas of the draft each year. Teams would know with 100 percent certainty in which draft slots they would pick every year, up to 30 years out from the start of every 30-year cycle. The practice of protecting picks would disappear; there would never be a Harrison Barnes–Golden State situation again, and it wouldn’t require a law degree to track ownership of every traded pick leaguewide..

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni tells fans to find another team if they’re discouraged … According to a report, attempts to revive Kyle Lowry trade talks failed … Metta World Peace to have same blood-spinning procedure as Kobe Bryant … In wake of Brook Lopez injury, Nets will file the paperwork for a Disabled Player Exemption

Making A List, Checking It Twice …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goal For Celtics, Lakers Should Be Same

The Lakers have gone 2-4 since Kobe Bryant's return. ( Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Lakers have gone 2-4 since Kobe Bryant’s return. ( Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – The Lakers and Celtics own one of the most glorious rivalries in all of sports. Through the decades they’ve battled one another with teams as different as their respective coastlines.

Yet this version of the Lakers just might be better off accepting the Danny Ainge philosophy: “Making the playoffs is not a goal.”

The Celtics’ president of basketball operations said he needed to explain that a little bit, so I will, too.

Yes, the franchises’ strategies seem completely at odds. Ainge made the tough call to finally bust it up and trade Kevin Garnett and Boston’s beloved Paul Pierce and start from scratch, even with a new rookie coach. Ainge’s commitment to recovering All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo is even in question. The Lakers meanwhile locked up their living legend, Kobe Bryant, for another two years and $48.5 million.

But just as Ainge is looking forward, it’s Kobe’s next two years I’m looking at, not this one. It’s during this time that I implore Kobe to not go nuts trying to sneak into the postseason as he did a season ago. But, as was predictable, that will be difficult.

After the Lakers pulled out an 88-85 win at Charlotte on Saturday night, their first W following three consecutive Ls with Kobe back from his awful April Achilles injury, No. 24 went all anti-Ainge, tenfold.

“I want to win a championship,” he told reporters. “I want to be playing in June.”

The inconvenient truth — and it’s really no secret to most — is that these Lakers are no closer to contending for a championship than Brad Stevens‘ plucky squad. They don’t defend or rebound well and they’re not exactly an offensive juggernaut either (ranking 20th in offensive efficiency). Tuesday night’s narrow win at Memphis, a struggling team playing without Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, made the Lakers 2-4 with Kobe and 12-13 overall. Essentially the same record as the 12-14 Celtics.

Ainge views the Celtics’ applaudable start (and his comments came when they were 10-14, still a better mark than most expected) as a byproduct of a laughable Eastern Conference and Atlantic Division, which they somehow lead and therefore occupy the No. 4 seed. Boston is 9-7 against the East and Ainge cringes thinking about making the playoffs with a losing record in this anomaly of a season and losing out on Draft position, in this coveted Draft.

The Lakers, predicted by most to miss the playoffs with or without Kobe, should view their 12-13 mark as a byproduct of a rugged West. L.A. is 5-3 against the East and 7-10 in its own conference after nipping the depleted Grizzlies.

It can even be argued that when Rondo, Boston’s last remaining player from its recent glory years, returns from his ACL injury that he will join a more talented collection of teammates than the ragtag bunch Kobe inherited. That’s bad news if you’re in the West.

Think about Kobe’s crew: Jodie Meeks, Xavier Henry, Wesley Johnson, Nick Young, Jordan Hill and conflicted pal Pau Gasol, the only other remaining member of the 2010 title team. Jordan Farmar (a role player on the ’10 team left before re-signing this season) could return from injury soon and Steve Blake will be back in a month or so. No one can be sure about Steve Nash. To think this crew can leap into the West playoff fray with any hope of advancing would seem reckless California dreaming.

Rondo, if he’s not already traded, will join Jeff Green, Avery Bradley, Jordan Crawford, Jared Sullinger, Brandon Bass, Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, Vitor Faverani and Kelly Olynyk. Depending how Ainge proceeds with the roster, Brooklyn would seem the only hope from keeping his team built for the lottery from maddeningly backing into the division title.

Ainge knows, and Kobe should, too, that the 2008 and 2010 Finals aren’t walking through that door.

But Kobe doesn’t do lowered expectations, not when he’s got five rings and hungry for a sixth. But for this one season, making the playoffs at all costs can’t be the goal.

“We will get better,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said after the 122-97 loss at OKC, Kobe’s third game back. “Just check in on us in a couple weeks and see where we are.”

It’s hard to see these Lakers in the top eight, whether in a couple weeks or a couple months. The roster presents little opportunity to make a blockbuster, game-changing-type trade. If L.A. did sneak into an eighth or seventh seed like last season, it would only serve as first-round fodder for the Thunder or Spurs, while valuable ground would be lost in the race that matters more — Draft slotting.

L.A. has already accomplished its two prime goals for this season: Kobe is back, and his autograph is fresh on a new contract. Now general manager Mitch Kupchak and D’Antoni must make sure that his raging competitive drive doesn’t take him off the cliff of physical limitation. They must evaluate their young talent and determine who can help most over a two-year championship push.

Then, with a stroke of Laker luck, nab a difference-maker in the Draft and follow with smart free-agent acquisitions to form a solid nucleus for Kobe’s sunset drive.

These are the goals. Making the playoffs is not.

Blogtable: Offseason Hits And Misses

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


Down with divisions | Missing in Golden State | Offseason hits and misses



VIDEO: Monta Ellis’ nails game-winner vs. Blazers

Which offseason acquisition has been awesome? Which not so much?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.comKevin Martin is doing precisely what Minnesota needed and sought, and doing it so well that he’s rejuvenated as a player too. You’d have thought a spot with the contending Thunder team might have brought out the best in Martin but the starts and minutes he’s getting with the Timberwolves, under familiar coach Rick Adelman, have him thriving (22.7 ppg, 6.5 FTA). Worst? Gotta give a group stink-bomb award here to the Brooklyn Nets’ not-so-big four of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry and Andrei Kirilenko for reasons — injuries, yes, but worse — that have been chronicled ad nauseam.

Dwight Howard (Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE)

Dwight Howard (Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE)

Fran Blinebury, NBA.comDwight Howard has made the Rockets a force, if not yet a true contender. The Rockets are still feeling their way along, have not yet found a consistent rhythm or plan of attack. Yet Howard is doing what he’s supposed to do in the middle, second in the league in rebounding and Houston is still 15-7 with much room for improvement. Runners-up: Andre Iguodala and Robin LopezOn the downside, Kevin Garnett: 6 points per game, 36 percent shooting. And I’m not sure there is a “yet.” Enough said.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.comHard to argue with Eric Bledsoe in Phoenix. The Suns are 12-9 — who saw that coming? — and he’s averaging 18.6 ppg and 6.2 apg. Pretty heady stuff for Chris Paul‘s former backup. At the other end, here’s a two-for-one: Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. The good news is that it can’t get any worse. Right?

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.comBest job: Dwight Howard, followed by Kevin Martin, Monta Ellis and Marco Belinelli in some order. Most people will want to put a helmet on Howard no matter what, but the production cannot be denied. Also, I’m not ready to put Michael Carter-Williams in the conversation yet, but I could see adding him at the end of the list if this production continues and his shot gets a little better (which everyone knew would be an issue). MCW is putting up some numbers that rank among all players, not just rookies. Not coming through: Kevin Garnett over Paul Pierce. No, wait. Pierce over Garnett. Let’s just make it a field entry. Boston to Brooklyn doesn’t seem like brutal travel, but they got completely lost along the way.

John Schuhmann, NBA.comDwight Howard is doing the best job. He’s not the same player he was in his Orlando heyday, but he’s still the best player among those who changed teams this summer and is still making an impact for the Rockets, who are among the most improved teams on both ends of the floor. I’m not including rookies for the second part (Hello, Anthony Bennett!), so Jared Dudley is my choice. I don’t know how your 3-point percentage can go from 39 percent to 32 percent when you go from playing for the Suns to playing alongside Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, but Dudley’s has. And he’s not making much of an impact elsewhere. The Clippers have been better both offensively and defensively with him on the bench.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: Monta Ellis is getting the job done in Dallas. There is no doubt about it. He might have been the last big name free-agent to get his deal done, but he’s been far more productive than most of his critics imagined he’d be in a system that demands much more defensively than he was used to giving in either Golden State or Milwaukee. He’s not a candidate for the All-Defensive Team or anything, but he’s making strides. And he’s taken a ton of pressure off of Dirk Nowitzki at this critical stage in his career. Kudos to the Mavericks for taking the risk and cashing in … early on here. Injuries have prevented Al Jefferson from making the impact I thought he would in Charlotte. But that’s a good thing, in a roundabout way, because that means a solid team could get even more from the big man who was supposed to provide that low-post threat and presence on a nightly basis. Big Al hasn’t come through in that way just yet. He can, however, and probably will as the season progresses. And that’s a great thing for the Bobcats, who need to keep their early-season playoff groove going in the wilted Eastern Conference.

Paul Pierce

Paul Pierce (Rocky Widner/NBAE)

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball blog: It’s funny that you don’t hear that much talk about him, at least like we did last season, but Dwight Howard has been pretty great for the Rockets. He’s scoring 17 a game, grabbing 13.2 rebounds per game, and the Rockets are 15-7 overall. More relevantly, we don’t have to listen to endless rumors about what the future holds for Dwight. As for a guy we’re still waiting to break out, Andrea Bargnani has been pretty disappointing in New York I don’t think anyone expected him to come in and turn into Wilt Chamberlain, but I expected more than 14 and 5 per game.

Stefanos Triantafyllos, NBA Greece: I really like how Brandon Jennings is playing right now. He has paired wonderfully with Rodney Stuckey in the Pistons’ backcourt and has already made an impact as the team features in the 6th spot of the East. I am between him and Dwight Howard, who has regained his dominance in the key. As for “Superman,” the most interesting number is “22″. Out of 22. Meaning that he has played in all of the Rockets’ games. When he is healthy he can be an instant game-changer. As for the player who has not come through yet, I have to go with Paul Pierce, who is struggling with career-lows in points and field-goal percentage.

Karan Madhok, NBA India: Over in Dallas, Monta Ellis is turning heads and breaking ankles as he seems to be as comfortable as he has ever been in his career. Ellis is putting up his most efficient season in years, meshing in well with his new coach and teammates. He is averaging team highs in points, assists, and steals, and has the Mavericks off to a respectable start. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the Celtics-turned-Nets Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, who – after all the hoopla – have had a nightmare start to the season and need to get their bearings soon to help their new team get back to winning ways.

Philipp Dornhegge, NBA Deutschland: Apart from Iguodala, who meshed perfectly with the Warriors’ core from the start, I love the jobs that Nate Robinson and Paul Millsap are doing. Both have clear job profiles that fit their style of play, and they execute the gameplan to perfection. Monta Ellis, Kevin Martin and J.J. Redick also deserve to be mentioned. On the negative side, I think Josh Smith is the front-runner with Tyreke Evans a close second. The Pistons’ roster just doesn’t fit together very nicely, and Evans’ start in New Orleans has been derailed by injury.