Posts Tagged ‘Phil Jackson’

Morning shootaround — May 8

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Lillard’s helpers were invaluable | Miami’s dark side without Whiteside | Lowry comes back for Raptors | Jackson ‘owes’ Knicks job to Rambis?

No. 1:  Lillard’s helpers were invaluable — First things first: Without a medical degree, can you nonetheless hazard a guess as to whether Golden State’s Stephen Curry will play in Game 4 of his team’s Western Conference semifinals series at Portland on Monday night? Even before we got any official updates from Curry, coach Steve Kerr or the Warriors’ crackerjack media staff, it seemed likely Curry would test his sprained right knee rather than risk seeing Golden State slip to even, 2-2, in the best-of-seven series. As for how Portland even got it to 2-1, there was Damian Lillard‘s 40-point performance and then there was the work of other Blazers, such as Al-Farouq Aminu, Allen Crabbe and Gerald Henderson. Those were the guys Draymond Green was moaning about, per Kevin Arnovitz‘s report for ESPN.com:

The way the Warriors saw it, they began to lose the game on the margins. Green sensed the Warriors could’ve effectively wrapped up the series in the first quarter had they only paid sufficient attention to the smaller details they generally master.

“That team — they had doubt,” Green said of the Trail Blazers. “You could just tell they were unsure about everything that they were doing in the first quarter. Then all of a sudden, like I said, you get a couple of offensive rebounds, hit a couple of shots, that’s when the crowd gets into it. That’s kind of what happened for them. I think right there in that first quarter, they felt like they were on the ropes and we didn’t really take advantage of that.”

When the Warriors ratcheted up their defense on Lillard after intermission, he just pitched the ball out to the likes of Allen Crabbe, Gerald Henderson (who took over defensive duties on [Klay] Thompson) and Aminu, who were a combined 6-for-6 from distance heading into the fourth quarter. Lillard assisted on 18 Trail Blazers points in the third quarter and scored another five of his own, as Portland extended their lead to 93-80 after three quarters.

“[Lillard] getting 40 — that’s not going to beat us if we don’t let Aminu get 23, Crabbe off the bench get 10,” Green said. “If we cover those guys, Dame’s 40 doesn’t beat us. C.J. [McCollum]’s 22 really don’t beat us if we cover the other guys. I think a big part of that fell on me.”

It’s a shame for Green, who put on an individual shooting display of his own in the third quarter. “Draymond from long range” can be a touchy subject in Warriors World, but with the Trail Blazers begging him to shoot from distance, Green politely obliged — draining 5-of-6 3-point attempts in the third quarter and matching a career high for the game with eight total. He finished the game with 37 points, while Thompson added 35.

“All that’s cute,” Green said of his prolific offensive production. “I didn’t do what I do for this team. I don’t feel like I led my troops tonight, and I feel like I was horrendous on the defensive end.”

***

 No. 2: Miami’s dark side without Whiteside — If the result of Hassan Whiteside‘s MRI Sunday is as troubling as he and the Miami Heat fear, if he’s facing even the 2-3 week layoff that Curry has endured for Golden State since slipping on that wet part of the court against Houston, then the Heat are in a bad way. Ethan J. Skolnick of the Miami Herald reminds us of young Whiteside’s value to that veteran club, his status as its X factor and the limitations it faces without him merely surviving the current series against Toronto, never mind a possible clash in the next round against Cleveland:

He was the one who, if channeled correctly, could lift this from a nice little squad to a fearsome one, a squad that could even scare the Cleveland Cavaliers should it come to that — since most teams to topple LeBron James in the playoffs have had at least two perimeter players who could make James work (which Miami has in [Luol] Deng and Justise Winslow) and a rim protector who could make him think. He was the unaccountable element, the one who might literally swat away a superior opponent, should he be energized, focused and disciplined for an extended stretch.

The Heat knew how much it needed him, Erik Spoelstra above all. That’s why, for all the warts (in Whiteside’s game) and worries (about his contract) Spoelstra invested more personal time in the 26-year-old center than anyone else in the past eight years. That’s why, on the Friday night prior to Game 3, with so much else at stake, Spoelstra was at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, dining in a group with Whiteside and Bill Russell, aiming to expose Whiteside to the ultimate winner.

That’s why Dwyane Wade, as the team leader, while critical of Whiteside at times, also took opportunities to pump him up, even suggesting this could be a “Hall of Fame career.”

This wasn’t just a passing interest, after all. The Heat wants to make Whiteside a core component, wants to see his development all the way through, especially after improvements in foul shooting and screen-setting and — to a degree — composure, in the second half of this second Miami season. And perhaps, regardless of the severity of the injury, that will still occur; maybe, in the worst case, it comes at a reduced cost in free agency in this cruelest of businesses.

But, for this particular postseason, it’s hard to see how the Heat competes for much without Whiteside. Win this series? Maybe. Wade nearly saved them Saturday, with a remarkable 38-point performance, and Udonis Haslem was his usual spirited self while playing a season-high 22 minutes. Heat players generally believe the Raptors are beatable, though some were baffled about why movement was mostly taken out of the offensive plan for Game 3. And Toronto started making rollicking rim runs as soon as Whiteside went out.

Beat Cleveland?

That seems fantasy. Wade has gone above and beyond already, and everything he’s doing should be appreciated. But the Cavaliers are rolling now, 7-0 in the postseason, seeming past their regular season drama.

Whiteside was always the X-factor.

Now he may be X’d out.

***

No. 3:  Lowry comes back for Raptors — Playoff basketball means more than hard fouls, no easy layups and cherished possessions. It also means seeing the individual highs and lows of the participants, usually under the brightest and least forgiving lights. When things are going well – say, for LeBron James or LaMarcus Aldridge these days – those lights can make a guy shimmer like the star he is. But when things are not going so well – think Toronto point guard Kyle Lowry – every flaw gets uncovered and it’s the heat of the lights that matter more than the illumination. Lowry had been suffering through a postseason of personal torment, the Toronto Star’s Bruce Arthur wrote, until the second half of the Raptors’ Game 3 at Miami Saturday:

[Finally], Kyle Lowry came back. Toronto had been waiting for him, and he came back. The Raptors were winning Game 3 against the Miami Heat, who had lost their monster centre, and then the Raptors lost their monster centre, like this was some kind of chess match, like they had exchanged queens. The Heat started rolling, and Dwyane Wade, the old Hall of Famer, rose to the moment. The Heat crowd, a laid-back crew, were singing along with Seven Nation Army, thundering. The Raptors were coming apart.

But Kyle Lowry came back. He had hit a three-pointer to start the half, and then another. Hmm. The 30-year-old points had missed 96 of his last 139 shots, had openly said it was messing with his head. In Game 1 he had tried to avoid shooting the ball altogether. In this game, with Toronto’s two all-stars flailing again, [Jonas] Valanciunas had become the centre of things. Lowry had four points in a quiet first half.
Then Valanciunas was gone. Lowry came back.

“That’s the Kyle I know,” said DeMar DeRozan.

“Kyle went back to being Kyle,” said head coach Dwane Casey.

“I don’t think we played him that poorly, either,” said Miami Heat coach Eric Spoelstra.

Lowry’s third quarter was revelation, a flashback, a return. He scored 15 points, and Wade exploded for 18, and the game was tied entering the fourth. The Heat run reached 32-13 and with 8:49 left Miami was up six, and the Raptors’ offence looked gummed in glue again. All season long the Raptors relied on Lowry in these situations: they’d be up two or three, tight game, and he’d hit a string of middle-finger shots to cinch it.

Two games earlier his teammates said he looked beaten. His old friend Goran Dragic said he was thinking too much. All that vanished into the afternoon air.

“He was hitting shots, he was happy,” said Patrick Patterson. “We just tried to do whatever possible to keep him happy. We tried to free up some room for him to create opportunities, and just keep feeding the monster. He was hitting shots, and he was keeping us in that game. When he was hitting the shots, he started calling more plays for himself. He was just feeling it, saying he wanted the ball.”

Did Lowry tell them he was feeling good, finally? That his shot was back in alignment, smooth and assured?

“He never does it,” said Patterson. “The Cleveland game (when Lowry scored a career-high 43), he didn’t did that. No matter how he’s feeling, he doesn’t let us know. He’s just playing within the moment.”

***

No. 4: Jackson owes Knicks job to Rambis?Phil Jackson‘s affinity for the triangle offense that won his Chicago and Los Angeles teams a total of 11 NBA championships – even if that offense has had limited success when run by others whose rosters don’t include two Hall of Fame stars – is, at least, an understandable factor in how he might shape the New York Knicks’ search for a head coach. But Marc Berman of the New York Post cites a noted NBA author and relative Jackson insider when exploring a secondary, more deeply rooted reason for Jackson to stick with Kurt Rambis. It might have something to do with guilt and the employment history of Jackson and Rambis, Berman writes:

Phil Jackson may have cost Kurt Rambis a potentially promising head-coaching career back in 1999, back when they didn’t know each other.

Rambis was the hot, young Lakers assistant, coming off a cult-hero playing career in purple and gold during which he won four championships. Rambis passed over head-coaching offers from the Kings and Clippers, believing he had a bright future on the Lakers’ bench.

Indeed, Rambis took over for fired Del Harris in February of the 1999 lockout season as interim, with promises he would become the permanent guy.

Rambis closed with a 24-13 record, lost in the second round to the eventual champion Spurs, but had plans to smooth a frosty partnership between Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.

Late Lakers owner Jerry Buss, his new Staples Center and expensive skyboxes set to debut, changed his mind once Jackson expressed interest. Buss felt he needed a marquee name. Rambis was removed from the staff completely, demoted to broadcaster and, according to the controversial biography “Mindgames,” conducting arena tours.

According to the 2002 biography, Buss’ daughter, Jeanie, who didn’t know Phil Jackson from Andrew Jackson, was furious. Jeanie had been close friends for years with Rambis’ wife, Linda, since the 1980s.

“Mindgames” cited Rambis as “discouraged, confused and bitter.’’ Two years later, in 2001, at Jeanie’s behest, Jackson promoted Rambis to his staff, demoting triangle legend Tex Winter. But Rambis’ head-coaching career never took off.

Jackson’s current Knicks coaching search has been ongoing for 3 ½ weeks, with indications he is leaning toward Rambis. Is Jackson, who won five titles in L.A., making up for 1999?

Knicks general manager Steve Mills reached out to newly freed former Pacers coach Frank Vogel. But it might take a striking turn for Jackson, at his Montana think tank, to hire Vogel.

Roland Lazenby, the “Mindgames” author who is out with a new book on Kobe Bryant in August, said he believes Rambis will be the guy and explained a move that would not go over well with fans on social media.

If Jackson is making up for 1999, it’s in his subconscious.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Miami isn’t the only conference semifinalist sweating out a big man’s injury; Toronto’s fate might swing on Jonas Valanciunas‘ sprained ankle. … With Dave Joerger out, the Memphis Grizzlies can talk about stability if they like, but it’s a concept with which they’ve had very little experience, writes Geoff Calkins in Memphis. … Joerger was scheduled to spend at least part of his Sunday in Sacramento being interviewed for the vacant Kings coaching job. Though circumstances suggest he’ll likely end up getting hired, there are other candidates in play, at least for appearances sake. … Maurice Harkless and his sore hip might be out of Portland’s rotation for Game 4 . … Acquiring Channing Frye was a bold and expensive move at the trade deadline for the Cavaliers, but it has the look of a difference-maker for Cleveland in its NBA title quest. … Here’s one more look at Howard Garfinkel, the grass-roots basketball legend who died Saturday, as well as some appreciative tweets from fellows whose professional lives he touched. …

Morning shootaround — May 1

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Heat needs Johnson to step up | All about team for Lillard | Raptors face pain, Pacers all gain | Cavs’ Griffin: Expectations, not chemistry, was challenge

No. 1: Heat needs Johnson to step up — As dynamic as Miami’s Dwyane Wade was in Game 6 against the Charlotte Hornets Friday and as durable as he’s been this season, a matinee tipoff time for Game 7 down in South Florida (1 ET, ABC) isn’t the most ideal scenario for the Heat’s 34-year-old leader. That short turnaround time had Ethan J. Skolnick of the Miami Herald casting about for the likeliest teammates to step up into a 1-A role Sunday, and after considering the likes of Hassan Whiteside, Goran Dragic, Luol Deng and a couple others, Skolnick settled on:

The other guy is Joe Johnson.

The 15-year veteran has had mixed success, with Everest highs and deathly Valleys.
It didn’t start well. He was 5 for 17 for 16 points in the Hawks’ 34-point loss to a much better Boston team in the 2008 first round.

“They killed us,” Johnson said. “But that’s the year they won the championship.”

But then, in 2009, the Hawks and Wade’s Heat went the distance, and Johnson actually had the better finish: He made 10 of 19 shots for 27 points, while also recording five rebounds, four assists and five steals in an easy win.

“That was a pretty good one, because I struggled that whole series,” Johnson said. “And I probably had my best game in that Game 7.”

In 2010, Johnson had just eight points on 4-of-14 shooting in Atlanta’s rout of Milwaukee in Game 7 of the first round. And then, in 2013 against the Deng-less Bulls, he went 2 of 14 and scored just six points in Game 7, as his Nets lost at home by six.

In the first round in 2014, he made plenty of big plays to push the Nets past the Raptors, in a Game 7 on the road: 26 points on 11-of-25 shooting.

“That was probably the most special, because it was on the road, hostile environment,” Johnson said. “And man, down the stretch, we were huge. It was the loudest place I’ve ever played in. I couldn’t [bleeping] hear myself breathe, think or nothing. That was probably the best one.”

No better basketball feeling than ending somebody’s season.

“Knowing that one team has to go home,” Johnson said. “So for us, to have a Game 7 on our home floor, I think we’ll take that.”

The Heat took him in this season, after his buyout from Brooklyn. He’s had a decent series — averaging 11 points while shooting 49 percent from the field, including 47 percent from long range. But Miami needs more than efficiency to advance.

It needs more impact.

The Heat may not get his best Game 7, better than what he gave against Miami in 2009.

But his best performance of the series?

With the start time, this seems the right time for that.

Bonus coverage: He isn’t expected to be in the building Sunday, but here is the Charlotte Observer’s story on “Purple Shirt Guy,” who played such a goofy intrusive role in Game 6.

(more…)

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.

No penalty from NBA for Drummond’s elbow? LeBron James not surprised

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – The reaction to this one from many in the NBA’s 29 other precincts might be along the lines of puh-leeeze: LeBron James suggested Sunday that he doesn’t get his share of whistles when on the receiving end of physical play.

The bruised and bloodied bodies of fallen opponents strewn behind him might argue to the contrary.

But then, when the NBA has an opportunity to review video of some of the hits the Cleveland star takes – like a high elbow from Detroit center Andre Drummond in Game 3 Friday of the teams’ first-round Eastern Conference series – and issues no retroactive flagrant or technical fouls or fines, maybe James has a case.

James wasn’t complaining at the Cavaliers’ shootaround session Sunday in advance of their closeout opportunity in Game 4 at The Palace of Auburn Hills. But he wasn’t hiding his belief, either, that all physical contact isn’t adjudicated fairly.

Asked about the Drummond blow and the absence of any rebuke, James told reporters: “Initially I was surprised. But then I thought who he did it to and I wasn’t surprised.”

Given the size, speed and power of James’ game, at a muscular 6-foot-8 and 250 pounds, the sense among NBA observers long has been that he dishes out punishment without even trying, just from incidental contact that can hurt. The flip side is that, given his strength, he absorbs a lot of contact without getting knocked off course or sent to the floor, resulting in fewer whistles that way as well.

“He’s the Shaq of guards and forwards,” Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said. “He’s so strong and so physical when he goes to the basket guys are bouncing off of him. Those are still fouls. But he doesn’t get that call because he’s so big and so strong and so physical.”

Lue, since taking over at midseason as the Cavs head coach, assiduously avoids criticizing the referees or NBA HQ over calls made or not made. It’s a button many coaches push at playoff time, dating back at least to Phil Jackson‘s tweaks while with the Bulls and the Lakers and probably all the way back to Red Auerbach and John Kundla.

Their goal: Plant a seed for the next game. But it can get expensive – witness Stan Van Gundy‘s $25,000 fine after Game 1 for bemoaning what he felt was the refs’ disinterest in calling offensive fouls on James – and it doesn’t suit Lue’s personality.

“It’s their job to clean it up,” said Lue, who proudly notes that he never got a technical foul in 11 years as an NBA point guard. “It’s not my job to complain about the situation at hand.”

James rarely is shy in complaining in the moment about calls he feels should have gone his way. His lightning-rod game and expressive gripes, added to every NBA player’s default position regarding fouls, generates a lot of hoots and hollers from fans in arenas who think James actually gets preferential treatment from the refs.

Some teammates, such as Cavs center Tristan Thompson, are in the middle of the physical play that ramps up in the playoffs and see it differently.

“He gets beat up the most. He gets beat up the most in the league,” Thompson said. “He takes a lot of hits night in and night out, especially in this series, and he keeps pushing and he stays mature.”

James takes the hits but clearly he doesn’t take them lightly. He had a no-nonsense look Sunday morning, suggesting a resolve to limit the Pistons’ shots at him by limiting their playoff run to the minimum of four games.

“I just like to gather my composure, my guys’ composure, going against the opponents’ fans,” James said this close-out opportunity on the road. “I thrive adversity and hostile environments.”

Morning shootaround — April 21


VIDEO: Highlights from Wednesday’s games

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Curry still iffy for Game 3 | Pistons’ Johnson on LeBron: ‘I’m definitely in his head’ | Report: Blatt, Rambis top names on Knicks’ list | New era begins in Minnesota

No. 1: Curry improving, but not quite fully healthy yet Game 3 of the Golden State Warriors’ series with the Houston Rockets is tonight (9:30 ET, TNT), but the status of the Warriors’ star player, Stephen Curry, remains as unknown as it was yesterday. Although Curry took part in practice on Wednesday, neither he nor team officials were ready to declare him ready to play tonight. Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle has more:

Go ahead and exhale, Warriors fans: Stephen Curry returned to practice Wednesday.

Go ahead and fret, Warriors fans: Curry would not declare himself game-ready.

He joined his teammates for their workout at Toyota Center, his first extended, on-court session since he injured his right ankle Saturday. Curry was encouraged by how the ankle felt, but not enough to peer confidently toward Game 3 against Houston on Thursday night.

“Based on how I feel right now, I probably couldn’t play,” he said after Wednesday’s practice. “Tomorrow, it could be different. … The trainers are trying to get me right, but how I feel on the floor is a big part of it.

“That’s why I didn’t play in Game 2. I tried to simulate moves I’d probably have to do in the game (during warm-ups), and I couldn’t do it. If that happens tomorrow at full speed, then we’ll adjust accordingly.

“Obviously, my heart is geared toward playing and being out there with my teammates.”

 …

Head coach Steve Kerr hears all the chatter about the Warriors proceeding cautiously with Curry because they hold a two games-to-none lead on the Rockets. This logic suggests the Warriors can beat Houston without him, as they did Monday night, but they will need him to win another championship.

Kerr, naturally, narrowed his vision after Wednesday’s practice. He insisted he will rely only on the guidance of team doctors, and input from Curry himself, in deciding whether No. 30 suits up for Game 3.

“It doesn’t matter who we’re playing,” Kerr said. “Honestly, it doesn’t even matter the series score. It’s nice to be up 2-0 and say we’ll give him rest, but it really isn’t about that.

“It’s about whether he’s OK or not. And if he’s not quite OK and there’s a risk of him injuring himself or making it worse, then we won’t play him.”

The Warriors practiced for more than an hour after their arrival in Houston, but they did not scrimmage. Curry participated in all the drills, then went through his customary, post-practice shooting routine.

Kerr said Curry moved well during the practice, showing no signs of favoring his ankle. That was a striking contrast with the start of the second half Saturday, when Curry tried to play but lasted less than three minutes before Kerr removed him, worried about his obviously limited mobility.

There were times in Curry’s shooting session when the ball repeatedly and strangely bounced off the back rim. There also were times when he found his familiar rhythm, draining 8 of 10 three-point attempts during one stretch.

He acknowledged some concern about becoming rusty if he sits too long. If Curry doesn’t play Thursday night, and returns for Game 4 on Sunday, he will have gone seven full days without any game action.

“I’m definitely encouraged,” Curry said of Wednesday’s time on the court. “It’s better, and as long as it’s continuing to get better, I think we’re in good shape.

“How quickly that happens, I don’t know. Today was, in the words of Ice Cube, a good day.”

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Morning shootaround — April 19


VIDEO: Highlights from Monday’s games

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Curry uncertain for Game 3 | Report: Thibodeau wants full control of next team | Report: Rambis, Jackson to hold triangle camp

No. 1: Curry uncertain for Game 3 The Golden State Warriors are undefeated in the playoffs, building a 2-0 first-round series lead against the Houston Rockets after last night’s 115-106 victory. The Warriors pulled off that feat as the reigning Kia MVP, Stephen Curry, sat out to rest a right ankle injury he suffered in Game 1. As the series shifts to Houston for Games 3 and 4, Golden State coach Steve Kerr remains uncertain if Curry will suit up for Game 3:

The Golden State Warriors took a 2-0 series lead over the Houston Rockets despite Stephen Curry’s absence Monday night, and coach Steve Kerr continued to say the priority is the reigning NBA MVP’s health as the team looks ahead to Game 3.

“We’ll see how he responds the next couple of days, and if he’s not right, obviously being up 2-0 does give us more cushion if we decide to sit him. But it will be based on his health, not the series score,” Kerr said.

Curry sat out Monday night’s 115-106 win because of a right ankle injury. He now has until Thursday night’s Game 3 in Houston to try to get healthy.

“I’d like to think if it were 1-1 and he was still not able to play, we wouldn’t play him,” Kerr said. “We’d never want to put winning ahead of a player’s career and his health. We’ve seen teams do that and paid for it. Players have paid for it in the past. So we want to make sure Steph is right and his [ankle] is fine and healthy.”

Curry took the court some 90 minutes before tipoff and went through his normal dribbling session before he started shooting. He put little pressure on the ankle while taking several shots and hit six 3-pointers in the corner.

He lined up to shoot a long jumper from the right wing but didn’t release the ball and hopped in apparent discomfort before throwing the ball in the air. He left the court at Oracle Arena moments later.

Curry, team physicians, Warriors owner Joe Lacob and Warriors general manager Bob Myers met in the training room after Curry’s exit. Lacob said Curry did not aggravate the ankle but simply wasn’t healthy enough to play.

Kerr said earlier in the day that he and Curry had a long chat.

“We will definitely err on the side of caution,” Kerr said. “If he’s not right, then he’s not going to play. It’s not worth risking turning this into a long-term issue.

“We had a good conversation before shootaround, and Steph is a very rational person. He’s easy to speak with, and we kind of went over the different scenarios. He understands we have, first of all, his best interests at heart — his career. We know that he had surgery on that ankle four years ago. He has a lot of basketball ahead of him. There’s plenty of cases in the past where people played through stuff, and it didn’t turn out so well — Grant Hill being the one that always jumps out at me — and whether that’s the same type of thing as this, I don’t really know. But I do know that we have to look after his health because the competitor that he is, he’s going to want to play.”

Shaun Livingston, who left Sunday’s practice with an illness, moved into the starting lineup in Curry’s place, and had 16 points and six assists.

“I think their small lineup is still unconventional,” interim Rockets coach J.B. Bickerstaff said before Monday’s game. “They still have guys that can shoot it and can score and guys that move well without the ball. I think their system doesn’t change. They’ll still play the same way. They’ll push it at you. They’ll still shoot a ton of 3s. They’ll continue to move. So you have to be prepared for that.

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Morning shootaround — April 16




VIDEO: Season for the ages for Warriors

NEWS OF THE MORNING
LeBron is ready | Walton could talk to Knicks | Allen bows to Curry | Morey defends McHale firing

No. 1: All business LeBron ready for playoffs — What do you get when perhaps the best all-around player in the NBA zeroes in his focus down the stretch and raises his game to a new level over the final weeks of the regular season? That’s a LeBron James who has tunnel vision on the task at hand and says he’s as prepared as possible for the start of the playoffs, according to Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today:

Since March 20, he has averaged 28.4 points, 8.5 assists and eight rebounds, and his scoring coincides with improved shooting. James – who also boasts of his best health in the past five seasons – has made 62% of his shots, including a much-improved 51.9% on three-pointers, in his past 10 games.

“Going to the gym even more, focusing in, dialing in more on what needs to be done to help us be better (and) for me to be better,” James said as the top-seeded Cavaliers prepare for the Detroit Pistons in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. “I’ve been in this league a long time. I know what I need to do for my game to be even more sharp.

“I’m where I want to be.”

James is trying to join a short list of players, including Boston’s Bill Russell, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones, Tom Heinsohn and Satch Sanders, to appear in six consecutive Finals.

His outstanding play also parallels Cleveland’s increased efficiency. The Cavaliers have scored 120.7 points and allowed 101.2 points per 100 possessions in that span.

“If he plays like this, man, we’re going to be tough to beat,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. “He’s just taken it to a whole other level the last three, four weeks, playing at a very high level, shooting the ball very well, shooting with it with confidence and getting it to the basket. I like the LeBron I see right now.”

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No. 2: Walton could talk to Knicks during playoffs — Let’s get one thing straight. The first order of business for the Warriors is defending their NBA championship. But since the playoffs could stretch out over two months, it is possible that assistant coach Luke Walton could interview with the Knicks — or any other team — during the postseason, as long as it doesn’t interfere with his Golden State duties. That’s the word from Marc Berman of the New York Post:

If Knicks president Phil Jackson wanted to talk to Warriors stud assistant Luke Walton during their expected long playoff run, Golden State would not stand in the way, according to an NBA source.

Golden State’s position is that an assistant can interview for a head-coaching position “as long as it does not interfere with the team’s preparation during the playoffs,’’ the source said. For instance, an interview would need to happen in the Oakland, Calif., area at a convenient time with the club enjoying a couple of days off.

It’s unclear if Walton will want to grant any interviews as the Warriors embark on defending their title after breaking the record for best overall record with 73 wins, topping Jackson’s 1995-96 Bulls.

Jackson said he soon will embark on a narrow coaching search with coaches he “already knows.” He made a reference the search could go on until July, presumably referring to after Walton is done with The Finals.

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No. 3: Allen says Curry in a league of his own — When the topic is greatest shooters in NBA history, the conversation usually finds Ray Allen at or near the top of the list. The Spurs, of course, will never forget what he did in the 2013 NBA Finals. But even Allen himself thinks Stephen Curry is taking the whole sharp-shooting thing to an entirely differently level, as he told SLAM online in a wide-ranging Q&A:

Ray Allen: Based on what he’s done, I think he has to be—he’s on his way to being the best ever. It’s always arguable, based on who’s telling the story. One thing I always tell people is, it’s hard to compare generations. Everybody has something or somebody that makes him feel special about the game, or the way they saw and the way they appreciate the game. I’ve sat back and watched a lot, and listened to a lot of people talk. He’s creating a lane all of his own. People comparing him to me, to Reggie [Miller]. But I think Steph is in a category of his own. Just being able to have great handles the way he has with the ball, to be able to score at will by getting to the basket. Myself, Reggie Miller, Kyle Korver, Klay Thompson—we play a different game. We’re shooters. We come off screens, pindowns—Steph can do that, but he’s creating a different lane. Point guards haven’t been able to do what he’s been able to do, because he’s mixing that 2 guard-ish in there with having the great handles of a point guard. When I broke the three-point record, they (Steph and Klay) watched that and it became something they said in their mind, this is what I want to do. Now, there are kids watching him, saying I want to work on these things, I want to be just like Steph.

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No. 4: Morey defends firing of McHale — Even now after the firing of coach Kevin McHale back in November failed to ignite a fire under the disappointing 41-41 Rockets, general manager Daryl Morey said the move wasn’t fair, but insists it was the right thing to do. He explained in an answer to a question on QUORA:

Daryl Morey, GM Houston Rockets:

“One thing the Rockets have done well over the years under our owner Leslie Alexander is we have had very good coaches. All winning coaches and all have stayed for more than 4 years. Kevin’s long tenure with the Rockets by NBA standards was no exception. He was an amazing coach to work with who did a tremendous job. I believe he is the coach with the best winning percentage in Rockets history. Since owning the team, our owner has had fewer coaches than any team in the league except Utah. Bottom line, we have great coaches at the Rockets and they stay a long time.

Obviously, given this history the decision to change coaches was not taken lightly. Our team was reeling at the time of the change — in just our first 11 games we had lost multiple games to non playoff teams, including two at home, and none of the losses were close, most were double digit losses. In the West, you basically can’t do that for any stretch of the season and still reach our goals for the season. The prior year, for example, we had only 2 losses at home to non-playoff teams the whole season – we had already done it in only 2+ weeks. I believed that if we waited until what would be considered a normal timetable to make a change that it would likely be too late. Our only focus is on winning and I felt a material change was necessary.

Was this decision fair? No. Was it correct? That is unknown as we don’t know what coach McHale would have done if he had stayed. I am comfortable we made the best decision for the team with the information we had at the time. I know this, when Kevin coaches again a team is going to get one hell of a coach.”

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES:   The NBA responds to claims that Jeremy Lin is officiated any differently…The salary cap could jump to $92 million for the 2016-17 season…NBA hopes for change in North Carolina discrimination bill…Raptors hope return of DeMarre Carroll for the playoffs won’t disrupt their chemistry…Dirk Nowitzki doesn’t want a farewell tour like Kobe’s…Nic Batum expects to play in Game 1 vs. Miami.

Morning shootaround — April 15


VIDEO: Which East teams will win their series in the first round?

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Curry realizing his impact on league lore | Casey miffed over Game 1 tipoff time | Anthony talks frankly with Knicks’ brass | Hornets pull together

No. 1: Curry starting to realize his place in league lore Tomorrow at 3:30 p.m. ET, the Golden State Warriors start their playoff trek in what they hope will be a mirror of their regular season — total domination of any and all comers en route to another NBA championship. Leading the charge will be reigning Kia MVP and superstar Stephen Curry, who led the Warriors to a record 73 wins and put up an individual season just as remarkable to boot. In a chat with USA Today‘s Sam Amick, Curry explains how he is starting to fathom just how his current run is affecting not only today’s NBA, but generations to come:

“I was watching some show where they were talking about Kobe’s last game,” the 27-year-old Curry told USA TODAY Sports. “And (they talked about) the fans who were my age, or a little younger, who didn’t get to see (Michael) Jordan play much but they saw Kobe play his whole career. … That was like passing the torch to him, (or) obviously LeBron (James) or whatever.”

The epiphany, you see, is that the torch is in his hands right now.

“For the youth that are watching today’s game and where it is, that would be something very special, in 15 or 20 years, (to) hear stories of kids growing up watching me play and being inspired by what I do on the floor, and how I play the game and what not,” Curry continued. “I have certain guys who I looked up to. Jordan, Kobe, those guys. Passing that on to doing my part to kind of keep that influence of basketball where it should be is kind of why I play the game.”

It’s easy to forget how quickly this happened.

Nearly four years ago, on an April 25, 2012 day that is still fresh on the minds of those who were there, Curry entered an operating room in Van Nuys, Calif. without knowing whether his ailing right ankle would ever be the same. Ankle problems plagued the early years of his career, and they threatened everything on that fateful day.

Yet the damage wasn’t as bad as had been feared, and an arthroscopic surgery was enough to get the job done. Curry, who played 78 games in each of the following two seasons while playing at an All-Star level, was on his way again.

Curry has been on the NBA’s version of the Autobahn ever since, racing past all his fellow All Stars and stealing the spotlight from James at a time when the Cavaliers star has appeared in five consecutive Finals. This season, more than any other, is adding to his lore.

In winning the first scoring title of his seven-year career, he became the most improved scorer in NBA history among players who won the MVP award in theseason before (plus-6.3 points per game, from 23.8 to 30.1, ahead of Larry Bird’s plus-4.5 in the 1984-85 season, according to ESPN). He shattered his own single-season three-point record, finishing with 402 after hitting 286 in the 2014-15 season (he now holds four of the top seven marks all-time).

By hitting a career-high 50.4% of his shots overall, 45.4% from three-point range and 90.8% from the free throw line, Curry achieved a 50-45-90 shooting mark that had only been reached by Warriors coach Steve Kerr (while with the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls) and future Hall of Famer/Warriors player development consultant Steve Nash (while with the 2007-08 Suns). Curry, for good measure, is the first perimeter player to average 30 points per game on 50-plus percent shooting since Michael Jordan in 1991-92.

It’s natural to wonder when Curry’s rise will peak. The possibilities for his future, much like his shot, seem limitless. What’s more, for anyone wondering about confidence that always plays a huge part, his willingness to entertain the question about being the best player of all time tells you all you need to know.

“I don’t think about (being the best) on a daily basis, but the way that I prepare and the way that I work, I try to let that kind of goal show itself, if that makes any sense,” Curry said. “When I step forward on the floor, I have the confidence that I’m the best player playing that night and that I am the most prepared at what I need to be doing.

“For me, I don’t want to cheat the game by saying, or kind of doing lip service by saying I want to be the greatest ever. I want to be able to show it. So hopefully that will speak volumes more than me running around touting my own self, which I think that’s wasted energy.”

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Morning shootaround — April 12


VIDEO: Highlights from Monday’s games

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Mavs clinch playoff berthLakers mum on Kobe’s minutes in finale | Thompson supplants Mozgov in starting lineup | Report: Rambis will be back in some capacity; Knicks eye Blatt | Report: NBA restricting Colangelo’s access with Team USA

No. 1: Williams, Nowitzki push Mavs into playoffs — By the time last night’s Mavs-Jazz showdown in Salt Lake City got started, the Houston Rockets were well on their way to a win in Minnesota. That meant the log jam for the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds in the Western Conference got that much tighter thanks to No. 9 Houston’s soon-to-be victory. Behind the play of two Mavs long hated by Jazz fans — Dirk Nowitzki and ex-Utah star Deron Williams — Dallas won to clinch a playoff berth for the 15th time in Nowitzki’s 18 seasons. Eddie Sefko from The Dallas Morning News has more:

The two most hated Mavericks in Utah dragged their team into the NBA playoffs Monday night.

Dirk Nowitzki, always a villain in the eyes of Jazz fans, and Deron Williams, whose unceremonious departure from Utah was a major reason beloved coach Jerry Sloan resigned, spent Monday sticking needles in the Jazz and sewing up their spot in the playoff party with a 101-92 victory.

The Mavericks won their way into the postseason the same way they had put together a six-game winning streak that ended Sunday at the Clippers. They used stifling defense and a sensible, slow pace to grind the Jazz into submission.

They led 86-71 with five minutes to play, but the Jazz pared the deficit to 88-80 with 2:42 to go, forcing Carlisle to call a timeout. Wesley Matthews came up with a tough 3-pointer that swished for an 11-point lead, and the Mavericks were able to make enough free throws to wrap up their 15th playoff berth in Nowitzki’s 18 seasons.

His teammates said they saw a look in Nowitzki’s eyes at the start of the game, like he was in no mood to miss the playoffs. He acknowledged he felt great going into the game and wasted no time showing that with 10 first-quarter points, setting set a terrific tone for the Mavericks.

“We got some guys who wanted to make the playoffs,” Nowitzki said. “I think not a lot of guys gave us a chance looking at our roster before the season.

“We made the playoffs in a tough West. That’s good. But we’ve been in the playoffs a couple times since the championship, and we’re always a first-round exit. So hopefully we’ll keep this momentum and see what happens.”

Williams, who had 23 points and six rebounds, is despised in Utah. He gave them another reason to not care for him Monday.

“It was a playoff game because there was so much at stake,” he said. The booing, he added, “got me going out there. Not only the booing, but the stuff that was being said. It definitely got me going.”

Williams also believed the Jazz’s youth worked against them in what was the biggest game of the season for both teams.


VIDEO: Dirk Nowitzki talks after the Mavs’ big win in Utah

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Morning shootaround — April 7


VIDEO: Highlights from Wednesday’s games

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Warriors want to finish with No. 1 overall seed | Prognosis grim for Jazz’s Sloan | Hinkie era ends in Philly | Bryant has no specific plans for final game | Ewing wants Knicks’ gig; ‘Melo wants say on next coach

No. 1: Finishing with No. 1 overall seed remains Warriors’ goal — Tonight’s showdown with the San Antonio Spurs (10:30 ET, TNT) gives the Golden State Warriors a shot at reaching 70 wins. It’s also, perhaps, Step 1 in a four-game plan to reach an NBA-record 73 wins. But after yesterday’s practice, both coach Steve Kerr and center Andrew Bogut doubled-down on the notion that finishing the season strong — and with the NBA’s top overall seed — remains the goal. Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle has more:

Yep, the Warriors spent Wednesday recalibrating their focus from chasing NBA history to merely completing a historic regular season by clinching the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.

“Every day, it’s the same questions,” said Bogut, who was one of the few who stayed after Kerr told the players they could leave the practice facility following a video session. “Every day, it’s the same thing on TV. Every day, it’s the same article. Every day, it’s a new former player who has a comment. It’s just something you’ve got to deal with, but it’s no excuse.

“We’re going for the record, but if we don’t get it, it’s not the end of the world.”

The Warriors’ magic number for the top seed in the West and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs is two, meaning they would clinch it with a victory over the Spurs on Thursday.

“We’re still trying to get the No. 1 seed,” Kerr said. “… Let’s do that, and then worry about everything else later. … We’ll just try to win tomorrow and then figure out what’s next.”

They haven’t played consistently well in a month and haven’t played a full game of top-notch defense in at least as long. They lost for the first time at home in 55 regular-season games Friday and dropped another one Tuesday.

“I’m actually surprised this didn’t happen a while back,” Kerr said. “There’s a reason that this record has been standing for 20 years. It’s a hard thing to do. …

“It’s a miracle that we’ve gone this far without sort of hitting a bump in the road. … It’s just surprising for people out there — and maybe even our own guys — because this season has come almost too easily for us.”

The Warriors finish the regular season with a home game against Memphis on Wednesday. In between the games at Oracle Arena, they’ll have their first consecutive days off in almost six weeks following a back-to-back set in Memphis and San Antonio.

That should be enough to recapture the Warriors’ focus.

“Once you lose your focus, that’s when bad defense happens. That’s when turnovers happen. That’s when fouling happens,” forward Draymond Green said. “… I wouldn’t say we’re necessarily caught up in the hype, but I think we’ve gotten to the point where … we’re like, ‘All right, we’re kind of ready for the regular season to end.’

“When you’re talking about 82 games, you get bored of that after a while.”


VIDEO: Andrew Bogut talks after Wednesday’s practice

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