Posts Tagged ‘Rajon Rondo’

Things could still be ugly in Boston


VIDEO: Danny Ainge talks about the three-team trade

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens still has that six-year contract, which is good, because he still doesn’t have much talent to work with.

The Celtics haven’t stood idly by over the first two weeks of free agency. They re-signed guard Avery Bradley and picked up assets (a first round pick and a trade exception) by helping the Cleveland Cavaliers clear cap space and the Washington Wizards sign Kris Humphries.

The Celtics also added to their young core by drafting Marcus Smart and James Young, and adding Tyler Zeller in the Cleveland trade. They now have six first-round picks under the age of 25 on their roster (the others are Bradley, Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger).

Celtics president Danny Ainge also has a bunch of extra future first round picks lying around. Few teams are as stocked with assets.

The potential is there for a very good team in the future. But the present is still pretty ugly. And though young players and draft picks are keys to trading for a star, the Celtics lack the one blue-chip asset that would make other teams salivate. If the Timberwolves eventually relent and trade Kevin Love, other teams can offer more tempting packages.

Celtics fans can take comfort in seeing the potential of a Smart/Young backcourt. They can anticipate further development from Olynyk and Sullinger. But they will also be watching a team that will rank in the 20s in offensive efficiency for the fourth straight season.

To succeed offensively, you need two things: a player or two that can draw double-teams and perimeter shooting. The Celtics lack both. They ranked 27th in offensive efficiency last season, and it’s hard to see them being much better this year, even with a healthy Rajon Rondo.

Rondo can be brilliant at times, but without potent scorers around him, he doesn’t put much pressure on opposing defenses. The Celtics were even a bad offensive team in their last two seasons with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. And Rondo made no impact on Boston’s offensive numbers upon his return last season.

Jeff Green has size and talent, but is neither consistent nor efficient. And Bradley is the only player on the roster who shot better than the league average from 3-point range last season.

Defensively, the Celtics have a strength on the wings (with Bradley and Gerald Wallace), but lack rim protection. With a season of Stevens’ system under their belt, they should be better than they were last season (when they ranked 20th) on that end, but probably not any better than the league average.

The 2014-15 Eastern Conference is going to be fascinating. All eight playoff teams from last season are still very much in the mix, while Cleveland and Detroit clearly improved with the additions of the best player in the world and one of the best coaches in the game.

Along with the Milwaukee Bucks, Orlando Magic and Philadelphia 76ers, the Celtics will likely be watching from afar as those 10 teams (and maybe New York) fight for eight playoff spots.

Ainge’s options were limited this summer. Though it’s been a year since parting with Pierce and Garnett, his payroll is still well over the salary cap. He’ll have some flexibility next summer, but also Rondo to re-sign or let go and Green and Wallace on the books for another season.

So, Stevens will have at least another year to learn the league and implement his system. And it won’t be until at least Year 3 of his contract when we find out if he was worth a six-year commitment.

With no LeBron, what’s next for Miami?

LeBron James (Issac Baldizon/NBAE)

LeBron James (Issac Baldizon/NBAE)

HANG TIME NEW YORK CITY — With just one tweet, the Miami Heat went from being next season’s Eastern Conference favorites to most likely being out of the race to win their own division.

Today’s announcement that LeBron James is taking his talents home to Northeast Ohio effectively ends what has been a feverish run by the Miami Heat: four seasons, four NBA Finals appearances, two NBA titles. But LeBron’s exodus not only breaks up the Big Three. It throws the franchise into flux.

With LeBron gone, the next domino that seems to be teetering is Chris Bosh, who is reportedly in talks to join the Houston Rockets. With James and Bosh gone, the cupboard in South Beach will be left mostly bare.

What happens to Dwyane Wade? As part of his season-ending news conference, Heat president Pat Riley made clear that Wade, who has played his entire career in Miami, was something of a made man. Just two weeks ago, when Wade opted out of his contract, presumably as part of an effort to create financial room to help keep the Heat competitive, Riley said, “Dwyane has been the cornerstone of our organization for over a decade, and we hope he remains a part of the Heat family for life.”

It’s a nice idea, but at this point in his career, Wade isn’t the type of player a franchise builds around. After missing 28 regular-season games last season to rest his ailing knees, Wade seemed to wear down in the postseason, to the point where he didn’t have much let in the tank during the NBA Finals.

Yet Wade could still serve as the franchise face while the Heat reload. They’ve already reportedly agreed to deals with free agents Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger, two players who should (or at least could) be solid contributors. They will join incumbents like longtime Heat big man Udonis Haslem, who will likely re-up, and guard Norris Cole. Rookie guard Shabazz Napier will give them some youth in the backcourt.

While James and Bosh may be gone, the allure of South Beach and the Heat’s organizational championship pedigree still could serve as a siren’s song for available free agents. And with Bosh and James off the books, even if the Heat sign Wade to a modest long-term extension, the Heat will have plenty of cap space to throw at other free agents. Would a core of Wade and a couple of free agents like Luol Deng and Pau Gasol be enough to contend in the East? What about Wade with Isaiah Thomas and Lance Stephenson?

Or, do the Heat step back, not immediately use their cap space, and try to reload down the road? The Heat’s first round pick next summer belongs, ironically, to Cleveland, though it’s top-10 protected. After that, the Heat own all their own first round selections going forward. And if the Heat can hang on to their cap space for one more year, the 2015 free agency class could include names like Kevin Love, Rajon Rondo and LaMarcus Aldridge (who has expressed his hope of staying in Portland).

No matter which way they go, what the Heat already have in place is a strong organizational structure. Riley may have swung and missed on keeping the Big Three together, but he did put them together to begin with and has the bona fides to build another championship organization. Coach Erik Spoelstra has spent just six years on the Heat sideline but has won two titles and never missed the playoffs, even when the Heat were setting up to go after the Big Three.

The Heat may be waning in Miami, but if there’s anything we’ve learned from watching how they operate, things likely won’t be cool for too long.

Morning shootaround — June 28




VIDEO: GameTime examines the 76ers’ selection of Joel Embiid

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Embiid could miss year | Knicks want Pau | No rush on Rondo | Suns keep rising | McDermott first step
No. 1: Sixers will take the cautious route with Embiid — Remember all those photos of last year’s No. 1 pick Nerlens Noel in street clothes in Philly. Remember how Nerlens Noel never got onto the court while recovering from his knee surgery. Sixers G.M. Sam Hinkie loudly hinted that this year’s top pick Joel Embiid might be nothing more than a spectator as well, according to Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer:

General manager Sam Hinkie hinted Friday that Joel Embiid, who was drafted third overall, probably won’t play in the 2014-15 season. That’s because the 7-foot center out of Kansas will miss more time than reported while recovering from a stress fracture in his right foot.
“I’ve seen reported some four to six months,” Hinkie said. “That’s not the number I heard. The number I heard from the surgeon himself was five to eight months.
“Guess what our approach will be? We will focus on the long-term health of the player. We had that discussion before. I don’t want that to sound glib, because it’s not. It is all that matters, honestly.”

***

No. 2: Knicks want to team up Gasol with ‘Melo — While new team president Phil Jackson has been delivering some tough love to free agent Carmelo Anthony lately with talk of taking a pay cut, it seems he’s looking to add some sugar with the addition of Pau Gasol. ESPN’s Mark Stein and Ramona Shelburne say that Jackson plans to reach out to his former Lakers center when the free agency period opens at midnight ET on Tuesday:

Furthermore, one source close to the process told ESPN.com’s Ramona Shelburne that Jackson is planning to make a determined attempt to try to recruit his former Los Angeles Lakers center Pau Gasol to replace the freshly traded Tyson Chandler alongside Anthony on the Knicks’ front line, despite the fact New York is limited to offering Gasol less than $4 million for next season.
Time will tell if the Knicks’ internal confidence in retaining Anthony proves justified, given that he opted out of the final year of his contract at $23.3 million — with Jackson urging him to opt in — and will soon be courted face-to-face by a handful of top teams in big cities.
The 30-year-old officially becomes an unrestricted free agent on Tuesday at 12:01 a.m. and, as ESPN.com reported earlier this week, is planning to go on visits or hold meetings with the Chicago Bulls, Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks and Lakers all before the Fourth of July. It also must be noted as July 1 draws near that the Bulls and Rockets have likewise been radiating no shortage of positivity about their chances of stealing Anthony away from the Knicks.

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No. 3: Celtics are in no hurry to ship out Rondo — The name of Marcus Smart had barely crossed the lips of NBA commissioner Adam Silver on draft night when the speculation began about the end of Rajon Rondo’s time in Boston. But Steve Bulpett of the the Boston Herald believes there is no reason to start packing the veteran point guard’s bags. First the Celtics will see if they can make a big name addition — i.e. Kevin Love – over the summer to pair with Rondo before entertaining offers:

The Celtics’ first choice in all this is to keep Rondo and find better players to put around him, but if they are unable to do that, they will have to confront the issue of his impending free agency. The club went into its rebuild with last summer’s trade of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett knowing it had to show a clear path to again being a contender before Rondo could depart on his own in 2015.
What we know for sure is that Ainge will be entertaining some offers for Rondo this summer, but, according to sources, that may still not assure a trade. The opinion here is that the Celts will have a difficult time getting a return for Rondo commensurate with what he means to this team. But they aren’t afraid to wait it out.
Assuming again they are unable to bring in a major player to pair with Rondo, one source confirmed the Celtics would sooner let him walk away than accept a deal that bogs down their salary sheet just to “get something for him.” If they decide trading Rondo is the best course of action, they will dig in and either get what they need to enhance their rebuilding, or they will let him go and take the cap space benefit.

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No. 4: Suns’ future continues to shine with draft moves — Every team with air in its basketballs come away claiming draft night was a success. However, our own Sekou Smith says that second-year Phoenix general manager Ryan McDonough is just selling more sand in the desert after his addition of young talent. After extending qualifying offers on Friday to free agents Eric Bledsoe and P.J. Tucker, the Suns and are in a position to improve on last season’s surprising 48 wins and make more noise in the Western Conference:

With no glaring holes on a roster that didn’t include a superstar anchor, they entered Thursday night without the pressure of filling any significant gaps or the need to wheel and deal to fix their team.
That allowed McDonough and his staff to zero in on talents that fit the Suns’ system and style to perfection. They snagged prolific-scoring ACC Player of the Year T.J. Warren of N.C. State with the 14th pick, Syracuse point guard Tyler Ennis with the 18th pick, Serbian shooting guard Bogdan Bogdanovic with the 27th pick and topped it off in the second round with 7-footer Alec Brown of Wisconsin Green Bay with the 50th pick overall.
“We think it was a great night for us,” McDonough told Suns.com after the Draft. “I feel like in the draft, with our four picks, we got a blend of a little bit of everything.”
“Sometimes you have to move or give up a lot, give up future picks, give up players to get exactly what you want. We didn’t have to do any of that. We just kind of stayed where we were and the guys fell to us.”
The Suns are in the rare position after a lottery season of controlling their own destiny moving forward. They extended qualifying offers Friday to both point guard Eric Bledsoe and small forward P.J. Tucker, giving them the right to match any offers to two players that played key roles in their resurgent season.
Sometimes teams have to reach and stretch to find security at certain positions, to add the needed depth and to fortify the roster. The Suns didn’t have to reach or stretch for anything. They played the board perfectly, riding the wave of the Draft with the bigger picture in mind and the security of knowing they could compete during an injury-filled season without resorting to any desperate moves.

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No. 5: McDermott tasty, but Bulls hungry for more — The Bulls did some wheeling and dealing, and actually increased their payroll on draft night, to get a player they believe will be a perfect fit in Doug McDermott. But according to our Steve Aschburner, this is still a summer they will only be deemed a rousing success if Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James or Kevin Love winds up in Chicago:

McDermott’s strengths overlap enough with Mike Dunleavy that, now, the 12-year veteran and his $3.3 million salary are in play. Possibly in a sign-and-trade for Anthony, the scorer many Bulls fans believe will complement Rose, solve the team’s biggest problem and propel them back to the Eastern Conference finals.
It’s not just Dunleavy’s salary. It’s the money Chicago saved by turning two guaranteed first-round contracts into one. It’s the cap space it will free up once the Bulls invoke their long-anticipated amnesty cleanse of forward Carlos Boozer’s $16.8 million.
Rolled together, those and a few minor tweaks could give Chicago about $12 million to $13 million to offer Anthony — or theoretically James, a real long shot — as the starting salary of a four-year contract. Without going backward — shedding key players such as Taj Gibson or Jimmy Butler – in a stab at going forward.
Might it happen? Might Anthony choose to kiss buh-bye a far more lucrative offer from his most recent team, the Knicks (who can pay him $129 million over five seasons)? Might he bank $30 million or $40 million on Rose’s prognosis and, let’s face it, luck, choosing that over new N.Y. boss Phil Jackson’s proven jewelry box?
Sure. He might. James might go back to Cleveland, too. Love might run off and join his uncle’s band.
But without a big play in free agency, what the Bulls did on draft night won’t rise beyond a modest play for shooting and spacing. Nothing wrong with that, just as there was nothing really wrong four years ago in landing Boozer and a more experienced sharpshooter from Creighton. If McDermott can learn to defend and pass at the NBA level like Kyle Korver, while shooting as well or better, it’s a solid move.
It just won’t induce any state of calm and well-being around United Center, not without pharmaceuticals.tory here as you normally would do …

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Paul George clears the air on Lance StephensonJose Calderon believes he could really help Carmelo Anthony…Rockets rookie Capela doesn’t want to wait.
ICYMI(s) of The Night: A sequence like this illustrates why Paul George is among the best two-way players in the game today …:

VIDEO: Paul George gets the steal and then caps the break with a fancy jam

Morning Shootaround — June 12


VIDEO: Go inside the huddles and on the court in Game 3 of The Finals

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Report: ‘Melo opt-out date set; Heat have eyes for Knicks’ star | Love hoping ‘everything works out’ | Rondo impressing Celtics’ coaches | Hall of Famer Ramsay gets Finals tribute

No. 1: Report: ‘Melo opt-out deadline set; Heat might make push for Anthony The Miami Heat are in the midst of The Finals against the San Antonio Spurs and find themselves in a 2-1 series hole. As such, don’t expect Miami’s players — namely its Big Three of LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade — to start speculating or discussing what moves they’ll make this summer when they can all become free agents. Their lack of comments, though, hasn’t stopped a report from surfacing that the Heat may make a serious push to land free agent Carmelo Anthony this summer and team him up with the Big Three (who would have to take serious pay cuts to make this all happen).

ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst and Marc Stein have more on the notion of a “Big Four” in Miami. Of course, before there can be any Big Four, Anthony has to officially let the Knicks know he’s opting out of his deal. Marc Stein of ESPN.com has more on that move, too.

First, here’s Stein on Carmelo’s opt-out deadline date:

Carmelo Anthony has until June 23, essentially one week before the start of free agency, to notify the New York Knicks if he plans to opt in or out of the final year of his current contract, according to sources familiar with the terms of his deal.

Sources told ESPN.com that Knicks president Phil Jackson is continuing to urge Anthony to exercise next season’s $23.3 million player option and put off unrestricted free agency for one more year.

The Chicago Bulls, Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks are all teams Anthony would consider starting July 1, sources say, if the 30-year-old decides to become a free agent this summer.

Jackson’s pitch to Anthony — which sources say he has delivered more than once over the past month — is founded upon the notion that the Knicks will have increased financial flexibility in the summer of 2015 to bring in a marquee free agent to pair with a re-signed Anthony.

ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith said on his ESPN New York radio show Tuesday and in subsequent interviews that Anthony and James, members of the NBA’s ballyhooed 2003 draft class and longtime USA Basketball teammates, have expressed the mutual desire to play together before their careers end and will look into teaming up if both wind up on the open market in July 2015.

James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all have until the end of June, sources say, to notify the Heat whether they intend to opt into the final years of their respective current contracts or become free agents July 1.

And here’s Windhorst and Stein on the potential of an Anthony-Wade-James-Bosh lineup in Miami next season:

The Miami Heat’s immediate focus remains overcoming a 2-1 NBA Finals deficit to the San Antonio Spurs, but discussions have begun within the organization about trying to grow their so-called Big Three into a Big Four, according to sources close to the situation.

Sources told ESPN.com that Heat officials and the team’s leading players have already started to explore their options for creating sufficient financial flexibility to make an ambitious run at adding New York Knicks scoring machine Carmelo Anthony this summer in free agency.

The mere concept would require the star trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to all opt out of their current contracts by the end of the month and likely take further salary reductions in new deals that start next season to give Miami the ability to offer Anthony a representative first-year salary. The Heat also are prevented from making any formal contact with Anthony until July 1 and can do so then only if he opts out of the final year of his current contract. Anthony has until June 23 to notify the Knicks of his intentions, according to sources.

Sources say internal conversations within the Heat organization about pursuing this course have run concurrently with Miami’s bid to win a third consecutive championship, with sources adding that James in particular is likely to try to recoup potential salary sacrificed through fresh off-court business opportunities if the Heat’s new dream scenario does come to fruition.

James’ off-court business is booming, thanks to a string of investments paying off massively and the prospect of new opportunities in endorsements and entertainment projects promising to expand his wealth significantly in coming years.

The Heat are in essence trying to emulate some of the longstanding policies employed by their current Finals opponent, as the Spurs have been able to keep Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili together for more than a decade — while routinely strengthening the supporting cast around them — because their three best players have been repeatedly willing to take pay cuts.

ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith said on his ESPN New York radio show Tuesday and in subsequent interviews that Anthony and James have expressed the mutual desire to play together before their careers end and will look into teaming up if both wind up on the open market in July 2015.


VIDEO: Phil Jackson talks with NBA TV about Carmelo Anthony’s future in N.Y. and more (more…)

Morning Shootaround — June 8


VIDEO: The Heat and Spurs are all geared up for Game 2 of The Finals

NEWS OF THE MORNING

LeBron should be fine for Game 2 | Spurs defend, don’t whack | Eyes on Heat, Spurs bench guys | A Love-Rondo package?

No. 1: LeBron should be fine for G2 — No matter is more pressing in The Association than LeBron James‘ fitness for Game 2 of the 2014 Finals. The extreme heat in San Antonio’s AT&T Center caused the Miami Heat superstar to lock up from painful cramping in the left side of his body, and he missed the decisive minutes at the end of the championship series’ opener, when the Spurs closed in a 16-3 rush. Monitoring James’ recovery has been top priority for the vast media mob covering these Finals, so know this: As much as the 72-hour layoff between games might have been a bummer for entertainment’s sake, it could end up being vital to James’ capabilities Sunday night. As our man Fran Blinebury chronicled off Friday’s availability:

There was no latest update on the bags of IV fluid taken in by LeBron James, no count on the bags of liquids he’s ingested and, thankfully, no longer a step-by-step total of the trips he’s made to the bathroom.
James appeared less tired, more confident, more chipper and even channeled the ghost of Allen Iverson when teammate Dwyane Wade chided him for spending too much time chatting with media.

The four-time MVP has been resting and working with the Miami medical staff since he was forced to sit out the last 3:59 of Game 1 on Thursday with severe cramps.

“I’m going to get some work done today,” James said before the Heat’s practice on Saturday afternoon. “But there is no way to test my body for what I went through. The conditions are nowhere near extreme as they was, unless I decide to run from here to the hotel, that’s the only way I would be able to test my body out.

“But I’m doing well, doing a lot better. The soreness is starting to get out. I’m feeling better than I did yesterday and with another day, I should feel much better (Sunday).”

James said he will not go into Game 2 with any mental burdens from the incident, won’t wonder if and when his body might give out again.

“Well, for me and the situation that happened in Game 1 is like you don’t know it’s going to happen,” he said. “Obviously I felt the extreme measures, but I wasn’t the only one out there on the floor. So you just play and you worry about the results later. You can’t think about what may happen in the third or fourth quarter, live in the moment. And for me, whatever I can give my teammates if it happens again, hopefully I can make an impact while I’m on the floor and that’s all that matters to me.

“I can live with the results. If I’m giving my all and playing as hard as I can, I’m putting my body and my mind on the line for us to win, you know, for that guy back there in the back, it’s all that matters.”

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(more…)

Morning Shootaround — June 3


VIDEO: GameTime’s crew discusses how the Heat and Spurs are preparing for The Finals

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Report: Knicks plan to talk to Fisher soon | Rondo:  No Celtics ‘pitch’ to Love | Report: Pistons nearing deal to make Bower GM | Report: Jazz to interview Griffin, Snyder again

No. 1: Report: Knicks to talk with Fisher soon; Lakers cooling on him as coach — After Oklahoma City lost in Game 6 of the West finals, Thunder backup point guard Derek Fisher didn’t sound like he was as ready to make the jump into NBA coaching as most thought he’d be. As such, the teams most associated with being interested in him — the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers — backed off a bit to allow him time to decompress after OKC’s loss. The Knicks, according to Marc Stein and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.com, remain interested in Fisher and plan to talk with him this week about their opening. Out in L.A., though, interest in the ex-Lakers fan favorite may be cooling, writes Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports.

Here’s Stein & Shelburne on the Knicks’ pursuit of Fisher:

Phil Jackson‘s first substantive chat with Derek Fisher about the New York Knicks’ coaching job is scheduled to take place this week, according to sources close to the situation.

Sources told ESPN.com Monday that Jackson is planning to connect with Fisher by week’s end, giving the Oklahoma City Thunder guard some time to decompress after his team was eliminated by San Antonio Saturday night in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals.

One source cautioned that the discussion shouldn’t be classified as a formal interview, given the long and close working relationship between Jackson and Fisher during their two stints together as coach and player with the Los Angeles Lakers. But another source close to the process told ESPN.com that he thinks Fisher will ultimately find the allure of coaching in New York under Jackson too difficult to pass up.

As ESPN.com reported May 19, Jackson essentially put his coaching search on hold to wait to speak to Fisher first after missing out on initial top target Steve Kerr, who spurned the Knicks to coach the Golden State Warriors.

Fisher said Sunday he remains undecided about retirement, but sources say Jackson continues to hold out hope he can persuade the 39-year-old to make the immediate jump to coaching — as Jason Kidd did last season with Brooklyn — after Fisher’s 18 seasons as a player.

“I’m still struggling with the results of [the series],” Fisher told local reporters Sunday. “I haven’t [had] a chance to talk to my wife and kind of step back emotionally from the end of the season. That’s important to do, so that whatever is next, there has to be a separation from the end of the season and what just happened and then I can go from there.”

And here’s Wojnarowski on the Lakers cooling a bit in their pursuit of Fisher:

As the Los Angeles Lakers remain cool on the pursuit of Derek Fisher as a coaching candidate, the New York Knicks continue to cement themselves as the strong frontrunner to hire him, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

So far, the Lakers have expressed an exclusive desire to explore experienced head coaches in their search, and there isn’t yet an indication that team officials plan to seriously consider Fisher for the job, league sources said.

Los Angeles has so far interviewed four coaches about replacing Mike D’AntoniMike Dunleavy, Kurt Rambis, Byron Scott and Lionel Hollins.

Knicks president Phil Jackson has been eager to sell Fisher, 39, on the possibility of Jackson mentoring him as part of a direct move from Fisher’s playing career into the Knicks head coaching job. Fisher is taking a few days to finalize his thoughts on the likely end of his 18-year playing career before fully engaging in talks to become a head coach.


VIDEO: Derek Fisher discusses his playing and coaching future during his OKC exit interview (more…)

For Thunder, Ibaka Effect is real and debilitating

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – When Serge Ibaka was ruled out for the Western Conference finals with a strained left calf, it was an obvious blow to the Oklahoma City Thunder’s chances of defeating the San Antonio Spurs.

But does a 52-point differential (122-105 and 112-77) stem solely from the Ibaka Effect? Without the rock-solid, 6-foot-10 Ibaka bumping Tim Duncan on post-ups and fiercely meeting Tony Parker on penetrations and Spurs players rolling through the lane, had the Thunder been reduced from title contender to also-ran without their starting power forward?

Well, in Game 3, the theoretical might become the real. Thunder general manager Sam Presti on Friday announced that Ibaka’s Grade 2 left calf strain has substantially improved to the point that he is now being listed as day-to-day. Prior to the start of the Western Conference finals the team announced he would be out for the remainder of the postseason.

The raw numbers profoundly suggest that the Thunder was substantially weakened, particularly defensively without Ibaka, and Duncan likely wouldn’t argue. Just look at the difference:

DUNCAN vs THUNDER

                  Regular season            2014 West finals

MPG               31.3                                     29.0

PPG                14.8  (high: 17)                 16.5 (high: 27)

FG%                43.4                                   52.7

%PIIP*           54.2                                   61.5

PIIP**              8.0                                   14.0

OffRtg              93.1                                  130.8

DefRtg              106.5                                96.2

NetRtg              -13.5                                 34.6

*Percentage of points scored in the paint; **average of points scored per game in the paint

 

The Spurs have scored 120 points in the paint in the first two games of this series. They scored 166 points in the paint in four regular-season games, all won by the Thunder.

Within the Thunder organization, hope existed that veterans Nick Collison, Kendrick Perkins and rookie Steven Adams could make the necessary adjustments and patrol the paint forcefully enough as to not make it an expressway for Tony Parker to score and endlessly feed Duncan and Tiago Splitter underneath for easy layups. The club wanted to believe that Thabo Sefolosha, Reggie Jackson and Caron Butler could each step up and make up for Ibaka’s mid-range accuracy.

It hasn’t happened. Through two games, Ibaka’s essential two-way contributions are irreplaceable. His loss to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook would now seem equivalent to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade trying to get by last year without Chris Bosh, or Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce playing without Kevin Garnett during their contending days in Boston. Or even Parker and Manu Ginobili running the gauntlet without Duncan, particularly during their stretch of three titles in five years a decade ago.

Recall Kevin Durant’s praise for Ibaka in his MVP speech: “When Russell [Westbrook] was out, you stepped your game up for me, for the team, and nights where you made me look way better than what I am. You cleaned up so many of our mistakes, and we appreciate that, from everybody on the team.”

Ibaka had missed only three games over the last four seasons. His sudden loss threw Oklahoma City into scramble mode to make adjustments on the fly, and to do so with little practice time, and against the most effective and efficient ball-movement team in the league.

It has become the Thunder’s worst nightmare: Sorely limiting and wholly debilitating.

“I don’t know what’s going on in their locker room,” hot-shooting Spurs guard Danny Green said. “All I know is what’s going on in our locker room, and our mindset is they’re dangerous regardless if Serge is there or not. He has an injury, we don’t know how serious it is.”

We’re all about to find out.

CP3 witch hunt needs to stop!

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: Chris Paul endured some tough moments during the Clippers-Thunder conference semifinal

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — The grumblings started long before the fall, long before Chris Paul and the Los Angeles Clippers fell in the Western Conference semifinals to the Oklahoma City Thunder. 

They’ve been rumbling around the basketball world for years now, the questioning of Paul’s place among the game’s current greats. Where does he fit in a landscape where he’s generally considered one of, if not the best point guard in the game? And yet there is still that glaring hole on his resume.

Paul has never been to the conference finals and has therefore only been a spectator when the NBA’s champion has been crowned.

He’s won multiple gold medals in international competition, including the Olympics in 2008 and 2012, and is a staple in the talent-laden USA Basketball pipeline. And still, there are folks that want to chip away at his armor after years of excellence from him.

It doesn’t help that his contemporaries have hardware he lacks. LeBron James has championships rings and MVPs trophies to spare. Kevin Durant joined the elite club with his first MVP this season. Tony Parker has a Finals MVP and plenty of rings. Derrick Rose has his MVP. Rajon Rondo a ring and multiple trips to the conference finals and The Finals. Even the oft-maligned Russell Westbrook has been to The Finals.

Paul is in that weird superstar purgatory where everyone knows he belongs in any conversation of the best of the very best, until they start weeding guys out based on their accomplishments. The same superstar purgatory that veteran All-Stars like Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Love have taken up permanent residence in the past few seasons (Anthony has been to the conference finals but still gets panned for not winning it all. Love is still waiting to make the postseason.)

Paul’s been a subject of a witch hunt, of sorts, this season in particular, with pundits and Hall of Famers questioning the validity of his superstar status. It’s a witch hunt that needs to stop!

Paul’s a seven-time All-Star, a five-time All-NBA pick (three times on the first team), a five-time All-Defensive team selection and has led the league in assists three times and in steals six times. He knows better than anyone that the shortcomings in the playoffs are the one dark mark on his ledger right now, that’s why he takes the losses as hard as he does. That’s why this latest failure stings the way it does and will until he gets a chance to make it right.


VIDEO: A quick recap of the spectacular six-game series between the Clippers and Thunder

Those of us who chronicle the league have been tossed into the fire as well. We’ve been accused of giving Paul a pass because he’s always been good to us, always been as cooperative as possible and is a drama-free superstar in a world that boasts few of those.

That’s garbage. I don’t hold Paul to any different standard than anyone else. He and Deron Williams came into the league and promptly bum-rushed the point guard hierarchy. Paul played his way into the elite mix, held his own all the way up and fended off challenges year after year.

He doesn’t have to defend his position to me, you or anyone else.

He is not the fist superstar to fall down at a big moment in the playoffs, the way he did in Game 5 of the conference semifinals against Westbrook and Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder. That final and disastrous 13.9 seconds will not define Paul’s season or career. And to hear people suggest that it would or even should is a testament to the prisoner-of-the-moment syndrome that permeates every fiber of our current sports culture.

“I just feel awful for him, point-blank I do,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said after his team bowed out to the Thunder in Game 6. “He’s the spirit of our team and right now his spirit is broken.”

You’d expect nothing less of a man who holds himself to the standard Paul does. But if we start running down the list of Hall of Famers who came up short in big moments, who didn’t win it all, we’d be here all day … and night.

This notion that Paul’s incapable of leading a team to championship heights is preposterous. No one took the Clippers serious as a contender before his arrival. For him to power them through the turmoil of the ongoing Donald Sterling saga the way he did goes down as another of his standout performances.

That in no way lets him off his own hook. Paul’s not looking to be patronized by me or anyone else for doing and saying the right thing, or coming close but not breaking through to the conference final threshold after a decade in the league. He wants more, he needs more. And that’s the way we all like our superstars, our champions to be built.

Paul believes he has championship DNA. And he knows that the only way to validate his own belief in himself is to make sure he and Rivers, Blake Griffin and the Clippers find their way to that next level in the near future.

If that means going back to the grind for yet another summer with the rumblings surrounding him and the questions lingering about whether or not he’s going to be a true superstar or a superstar with an asterisk, bring it on.

“I prepare for every offseason like I always do,” a clearly agitated Paul said after that Game 6 loss to the Thunder. “It’s nothing just to get out of the second round. It’s to win a championship. I don’t know anybody in our league that plays for the Western Conference finals. That’s not enough.”


VIDEO: Chris Paul and Blake Griffin address the media after losing Game 6 to the Thunder

Westbrook’s Game 2 one for the books

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Westbrook steps up in Game 2 as Thunder even series

OKLAHOMA CITY – It took Memphis coach Dave Joerger seven games to finally shake his head and throw up his arms.

“I have no idea why he takes the flack that he takes,” Joerger said. “This man can play.”

This man is Russell Westbrook. Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers needed just two games and a third playoff triple-double from the Oklahoma City Thunder point guard to say the same.

“He gets criticized a lot, but I don’t know why,” Rivers said. “The dude plays hard.”

Still, the dude gets piled on, so much so that Kevin Durant felt compelled to address it in his MVP acceptance speech: “A lot of people put unfair criticism on you as a player…”

Criticism revolves around a Westbrook tendency to go off on volume-shooting binges. The theory goes his poor judgment steals shots from Durant, the more natural scorer who should always finish with more attempts.

Lost in this simplified dissection is that Durant is a four-time scoring champ, and now the MVP in six seasons playing alongside Westbrook. Together they’ve made two Western Conference finals and one NBA Finals. Had Westbrook, 25, not torn the meniscus in his right knee in last year’s postseason, well, who knows?

Westbrook’s full-throttle, yet totally in-control Game 2 performance for a third triple-double in five games thrust him into elite company. Only four other players have produced three or more triple-doubles (but no more than four) in a single postseason going back to 1985: Magic Johnson had four in 1991 and three in each 1986 and 1987; Larry Bird had three in 1986; Rajon Rondo recorded four in 2012 and three in 2009; Jason Kidd had four in 2002; and LeBron James had three last season.

Just a reminder: The Thunder and Clippers are only headed into Game 3 of the second round (Friday, 10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Westbrook’s Game 2 mega-performance of 31 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists and three steals is a four-category combination so rare in the postseason that only three other players have managed it: Charles Barkley (32 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists, three steals) in 1993; Gary Payton in 2000 (35 points, 10 rebounds, 11 assists, six steals); and James in 2013 (32 points, 10 rebounds, 11 assists, three steals).

Going 13-for-22 from the floor (59.1 percent) made Westbrook the first point guard in NBA playoff history to post at least 30 points on 59-percent shooting while also accumulating double-digit rebounds and assists. He’s the first player to do it since Barkley in 1993, and he became only the sixth player since 1985 to accomplish such a stat line, also joining Ralph Sampson (1986), James Worthy (1988), Michael Jordan (1989) and James (2010).

The 6-foot-3, 200-pound Westbrook scored his Game 2 points in a variety of ways — pull-up jumpers, post-ups against his smaller counterparts Chris Paul and especially Darren Collison, full-speed penetrations, plus two 3-pointers on four attempts.

“Just taking what the defense gives me,” Westbrook said afterward.

Hard to criticize that.

Morning Shootaround — March 19


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 18

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Report: ‘Melo to explore ‘options’ in free agency | LeBron backs off vs. Cavs | Bynum suffering from swollen knee | Rondo struggling with how to lead rebuilding Celts | Pau backs Jackson’s move to N.Y.

No. 1: Report: Bulls, Rockets top suitors for Anthony — As Phil Jackson was introduced as the Knicks new team president yesterday, one of the main topics of conversation was the future of All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony. Anthony intends to opt out of his contract this summer and test the free-agent waters and while the Knicks can offer him more money than any other team on the open market can, rumors have bubbled up about him being interested in leaving. In a review of the Knicks’ addition of Jackson, Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski says that two teams — the Chicago Bulls and Houston Rockets — are in the lead to make a big push for ‘Melo this summer:

Jackson has limitless resources to construct a front office, coaching staff and roster. Everything’s on him now. James Dolan won’t be cramping Jackson’s style in those big free-agent meetings, because it will be Jackson playing the part of Miami’s Pat Riley now. Throwing his rings on the table, selling management credibility born of coaching genius.

And make no mistake: One of the most important things Jackson offered on Tuesday was a nod toward his old Chicago Bulls nemesis and GM, Jerry Krause, whom, he said, set a standard for thoroughness and legwork in the evaluation of talent. All of them mocked Krause, but no one – not Jackson, nor Michael Jordan – would’ve had multiple titles without him. Or maybe even one.

The NBA is a talent business, and the Knicks’ most important asset, Carmelo Anthony, will welcome listening to Jackson’s pitch on the future. Anthony heard part of it in the news conference when Jackson went out of his way to suggest the Knicks star’s freewheeling, isolation-scoring days are done.

Anthony has free-agent options, and two have risen above everything else: Chicago and Houston, sources with direct knowledge of his plans told Yahoo Sports. The Bulls have an easier path to clear the necessary salary-cap space to sign Anthony, but the Rockets believe they can shed the contracts necessary to offer a third near-max deals alongside Dwight Howard and James Harden, league sources said.

“He’ll give New York every option,” one source with knowledge of Anthony’s plans told Yahoo Sports on Tuesday. “But he has options – and he’s going to explore them all.”


VIDEO: Phil Jackson talks about his desire to keep Carmelo Anthony in New York

***

No. 2: LeBron backs off a bit after epic start vs. Cavs — After the first quarter of last night’s Heat-Cavaliers game from Quicken Loans Arena, LeBron James had 25 points on a 10-for-11 shooting performance in the first quarter. In short, it looked like James was headed for another record scoring night just weeks after he set the team mark for points in a game with 61 against the Charlotte Bobcats. But a funny thing happened as the game went along: James tapered off his field goal attempts and worked to get others involved. While he still finished with 43 points, ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst notes how James chose to back off against Cleveland after his hot start:

LeBron James had the hammer raised on his former team Tuesday night, the chance to inflict another lasting scar with the sort of record-setting performance that would hang on the books for years.Maybe it was mercy, maybe it was maturity and maybe there was just some pride from the injury-ravaged Cleveland Cavaliers. It was hard to figure exactly what happened, but James uncharacteristically stood down and perhaps allowed a chance at a record to pass and left satisfied that his Miami Heat took a 100-96 victory.

James, who possesses a flash-drive memory, easily remembered Allen Iverson scoring 54 points on the Cavs back in 2001 when he was a teenager in nearby Akron. It was a vendetta that night, Iverson upset the Cleveland crowd had mistreated him in his view in an earlier visit and he was determined to make a statement.

Iverson’s angry night still stands as the Quicken Loans Arena record and it was so within James’ grasp. James himself carries the date Dec. 2, 2010, around in his head like a family member’s birthday because of the rancor he encountered in the building in his first game back after signing with the Heat. He mentions that date numerous times a year, usually when brushing away someone insinuating he’d run into a hostile crowd that particular day.

He referenced that date again Tuesday, in fact. But James doesn’t seem to have the same desire to strike back as Iverson. If nothing else, James played almost 400 games in his life in the building and never eclipsed 50 but was halfway to that number just 12 minutes in.

“With that type of start, you see if you can go for 70,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “It’s just human conditioning to think like that.”

And it’s human conditioning for the coach to let his player try. Instead of sitting James to start the second quarter as normal, Spoelstra sent him to the floor to continue the streak.

Then something odd happened. James backed off. He started passing up open driving lanes. He started looking for teammates inside. He started calling plays for teammates, especially looking to get Ray Allen some open looks. He eased off the pure attack mode he seemed to be reveling in only moments before.

“When I started the game off, I felt like I could have went for 50 or 60,” James said. “But you can’t really dictate what’s going to happen.”

James would take just eight shots the rest of the game, which is simply incomprehensible after one starts 10-of-11. He took just three shots in the entire second half when the Cavs, who were also without All-Star Kyrie Irving because of a biceps injury, were pushing back and trying to pull an upset.

Just imagine how many shots Iverson might’ve taken had he started a game 10-of-11, much less a game in Cleveland during his prime.

James did reach the 40-point mark, getting there with some late-game free throws when the Cavs starting intentionally fouling him to stop the clock to keep comeback hopes alive. In all, he had 43 points on 14-of-19 shooting. It was barely above normal: James averages 17.5 shots a game and most of the time he’s sharing the load with Wade.

“He’s not a selfish player, never has been,” said Chris Bosh, who was the Heat’s main offensive weapon in the second half as he scored 12 of his 21 points despite a little scare when he twisted his right knee in the third quarter.

“He’s still had [43], that’s pretty good. Some guys probably don’t have the maturity to handle that but he did a pretty good job of playing a complete game.”


VIDEO: LeBron James gets off to a quick start in Miami’s win in Cleveland

***

No. 3: Bynum dealing with swelling in knee — The Pacers have to be more than pleased with what they’ve seen from center Andrew Bynum in the two games as the big man is averaging 11.5 ppg, 9.5 rpg while shooting 40.9 percent. But it appears they’ll have to wait a while to see him on the court again as knee swelling will keep him sidelined as the Pacers travel to face the Knicks tonight, writes Scott Agness of Pacers.com:

Andrew Bynum won’t join the Pacers on their trip to New York, but instead will stay in town to treat swelling in his knees that are causing him pain — and to miss games.

“The knees are still swollen so he’s going to stay behind to get some work in here and some treatment here,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said following Tuesday’s practice. “We’ll see where he’s at when we get back.”

Bynum, who was in practice gear but didn’t participate on Tuesday, admitted there’s some concern for his recent setback. After scoring 15 points and grabbing nine rebounds in exactly 20 minutes of work Saturday night in Detroit, Bynum has experienced significant swelling in his right knee to the point where he underwent an MRI and had it drained Monday afternoon.

“This one is a little concerning for me because it caused a lot more fluid,” he said. “I haven’t had that much fluid in there since like the (2010) Boston Finals in L.A.”

That was almost four years ago.

“It’s not fun,” Bynum added. “It is what it is at this point.”

Doctors analyzed the MRI Tuesday morning, according to Bynum, and he expects to know more Tuesday afternoon.

As Vogel has said, they knew what they were signing up for. But that doesn’t mean it’s any easier to deal with.

“[It's] not really disappointing at all, to be honest,” he said. “We knew he was going to be in and out of the lineup. He’s got some problems with his knees, we’re well aware of that, and we’ll be excited with what he can give us when he’s in there.”


VIDEO: Andrew Bynum talks about his knee injury

***

No. 4: Rondo struggling to lead Celts during rebuild – After Monday’s loss to the Dallas Mavericks, the Boston Celtics have an 0-15 road mark against the Western Conference, a feat no other Celtics team had accomplished. If nothing else, that’s proof of a rebuilding season in Beantown as Boston tries to figure out its direction for next season and beyond. Star point guard Rajon Rondo is the de facto leader of these Celtics, who are comprised of many players on expiring contracts, and as Baxter Holmes of the Boston Globe points out, Rondo is finding it tough at times to lead a group with an uncertain future:

There’s always some degree of uncertainty as the front office works to reshape the roster.It’s an unsung challenge for rookie coach Brad Stevens to keep his players united even though they know they might be on unsettled ground.

Likewise, it’s an unsung challenge for the team’s captain, Rajon Rondo.

And around the time Rondo returned to action in January after missing nearly a year following a knee injury, former Celtics coach Doc Rivers said he brought up this topic with his former point guard.

It’s not unusual for the two to talk, even with Rivers now coaching the Los Angeles Clippers. They have history, with Rivers coaching Rondo from 2006-07 until last season.

“I speak to Doc all the time,” Rondo said. “I’ve talked to him on the phone. I’ve talked to him after games, text-wise. He gives me advice all the time.”

“Everybody is not going to buy in, because all they hear is that they’re all getting traded because they’re in the middle of a rebuild,’” Rivers said he told Rondo. “So you’re going to go in there and talk about, ‘Hey, let’s buy in as a team,’ and half of them are going to say, ‘I’m not even going to be on this team.’ ”

“Well, the first concern is to make it through the trade deadline,” Rondo said.

Indeed. The Celtics made two swaps before the deadline. And though he involved in numerous rumors, Rondo wasn’t moved.

But the roster is by no means settled.

The Celtics figure to be especially active this summer, and co-owner Wyc Grousbeck recently told the Globe, “This June there could be some fireworks.”

Technically speaking, only Rondo, Gerald Wallace, Jeff Green, Brandon Bass, Vitor Faverani, Kelly Olynyk, and Jared Sullinger are on guaranteed contracts for next season.

Jerryd Bayless, Kris Humphries, and Avery Bradley will become free agents, though Bradley will be restricted, meaning the Celtics can match any offer he receives.

“For the most part, guys are playing for contracts,” Rondo said. “It’s not a matter of being here. It’s a matter of staying in the league.”

That pressure can weigh on a player.

“If a guy is not under contract, obviously he wants to play well every game,” Rondo said. “He wants to make all his shots, do all the intangibles.

“I’m not necessarily saying that a guy under contract won’t do all those things, but obviously it’s amplified when you’re playing for your life or you’re playing for your career.”

Leading a locker room in which players might be playing for their career is new for Rondo, but Wallace recalled being in that situation in Charlotte.

In 2004-05, his first season there, the team was rebuilding (it finished 18-64) and most of the players were set to become free agents. Ideally, Wallace said, players buy into the system, but that’s easier said than done.

“It’s a big challenge,” he said, “because even though you don’t want to think about that, once you start losing, you start thinking about your career — ‘Oh, I’m up next summer, I’ve got to figure this [expletive] out.’

***

No. 5: Pau backs Knicks’ signing of Jackson — With Phil Jackson officially entrenched as the Knicks new team president, he’s got his work cut out for him in trying to turn New York into a stable franchise again (as our John Schuhmann points out). But for now, many folks are commending New York on getting a person of Jackson’s caliber to lead the charge and one of those backers is none other than Lakers power forward Pau Gasol. Gasol won two championships and made three Finals trips under Jackson when both men were in L.A. and Gasol told ESPNLosAngeles.com’s Dave McMenamin he backs the Knicks’ latest personnel move:

The New York Knicks officially announced the hiring of Phil Jackson as their new team president Tuesday, and will reportedly pay him $60 million over five years for the job. It may have been an unprecedented payday for a front office executive, but it also qualifies as a sound financial decision by the Knicks in Pau Gasol’s eyes.

“I think the Knicks are fortunate to have him,” the Los Angeles Lakers big man said after practice Tuesday. “I know they gave him a big contract and a big investment, but I think he’s worth every cent of it.”

Gasol, who played under Jackson in L.A. from 2008-11 and reached three NBA Finals while winning two championships in the process, said it will take some adjusting seeing Jackson working on the opposite coast.

“It’s weird,” Gasol said. “It’s weird to see him with a Knick logo behind him in the picture today. But I know he’s in a good place.”

Gasol said he still sees Jackson “regularly” since the 11-time champion coach retired from the sidelines following the 2010-11 season, but will have to curtail that contact because of Jackson’s new role.

“Apparently we can’t really talk to each other from now on since I’m going to become a free agent and he’s an executive for another team, so it’s under rules that we can’t communicate,” Gasol said, referring to the league’s tampering clause. “He can be penalized. So, our communication has been cut off until July 1st.”

Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni, who was hired over Jackson last November, said Jackson will do a “great job” in New York, but also detailed the challenge the former coach will face. D’Antoni coached the Knicks from 2008-2012 before being unceremoniously showed the door, so he knows the pitfalls associated with the franchise more than most.

“It’s a big job anywhere,” D’Antoni said. “I don’t think just New York. I think it’s a big job anywhere to turn it around. I think you have to look at the cap room and what they have and how quick you can do it? Can you get lucky? So there’s a lot of things. I know that there will be a lot of effort put into it. Good, sound decisions. And you hope — well, I’m not a Knick now so I don’t hope — it works out for him. But it’s a tall order for anybody at anywhere at anytime. This league is not easy to get on top. And we know in New York, you’re either winning or you’re a failure. So, it will be tough but they got a good man and he’ll do a heck of a job.”

D’Antoni does not believe that Jackson’s coaching resume will automatically translate to front office success.

“I don’t think one correlates to the other,” D’Antoni said. “I think they’re two completely separate jobs. It’s like turning a great player into a coach. It’s a different job. So you don’t know if they can do it or not. I think that obviously he’s got a good basketball mind, so he’ll approach it a different way and let’s see if it works out. I think there’s a lot of great qualities there, so there’s no reason it doesn’t. But there’s no reason it does. So we’ll see what happens.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: As our Scott Howard-Cooper reported last night, the Hall of Fame is weighing a potential change to the voting format … A detailed look at what it might take for Chicago to bring over prized foreign talent Nikola Mirotic to the NBA next season … A groin strain will sideline Lakers guard Jordan Farmar for at least two weeks … Cool little chat with Pacers coach Frank Vogel about his game day routine and more … Blake Griffin doesn’t think he has much of a chance in the MVP race this season … The shared grandfather of the Magic’s Tobias Harris and the Suns’ Channing Frye was a Tuskegee AirmanMo Williams has been playing better since LaMarcus Aldridge has been out of the lineup … Quick guards have been giving the Raptors fits of late … Kings point guard Isaiah Thomas may get some rest down the stretch of the season

ICYMI of the Night: Wizards swingman Trevor Ariza is in the midst of a great season, to be sure. But sometimes even a great season needs a little luck, as demonstrated by his wild fadeaway bank shot last night in Sacramento …


VIDEO: Trevor Ariza nails a wild off-the-glass fadeaway jumper