Posts Tagged ‘Ricky Rubio’

Change your face? Rubio, Timberwolves need to change their fate


VIDEO: Minnesota coach Rick Adelman discusses his team, 3/10/14

Change your face. Be happy. Enjoy.

Aw, shaddup already.

If ever there was a time for the Minnesota Timberwolves to take Ricky Rubio‘s advice, and for Rubio himself to self-medicate, it would be now. But tousling teammate Alexey Shved‘s hair in a quickie pep talk, as Rubio so famously did last year in a game against the Lakers, is one thing. Salvaging an entire season is quite another.

Ricky Rubio (Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE)

Ricky Rubio (Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE)

Despite protests from fans in Cleveland, Brooklyn, New York and maybe Los Angeles, a persuasive case can be made that the Timberwolves rank as this season’s biggest disappointment. And within the team’s failure to gain traction toward a long-elusive playoff spot, the most disappointing individual has to be Rubio.

Minnesota’s inability to turn Rubio’s ballhandling creativity, All-Star Kevin Love‘s 26-13 relentlessness, Nikola Pekovic‘s strength in the paint and Kevin Martin‘s marksmanship into something much more than a .500 record has been head-scratching.

On stats alone, the Wolves ought to be headed for their first postseason appearance since 2004, back when 27-year-old league MVP Kevin Garnett led them to the Western Conference finals. Based on basketball-reference.com’s “Simple Rating System,” built off a team’s point differential and strength of schedule, Minnesota ranks seventh in the West, comfortably ahead of Dallas, Memphis and Phoenix – the three teams it trails in a desperate stretch run to salvage the season.

The Wolves play at the NBA’s fourth-fastest pace (97.4), rank ninth in offensive rating (108.8) and 13th in defensive rating (104.9), all per NBA.com/Stats. Per basketball-reference.com, their “expected” W-L record is 39-23.

Instead, coach Rick Adelman and his team are facing a steep climb to make the playoffs. If eighth-place Memphis splits its final 20 games to finish 46-36, Minnesota has to go 15-5 just to tie. Phoenix is wedged in there at No. 9, 4.5 games up on the Wolves, which further complicates things.

No wonder some fans in the Twin Cities are wondering if Seattle impresario Chris Hansen can swoop in, cut a deal for the Bucks, move them from Milwaukee and switch conferences with Minnesota all in the next five weeks. (The Wolves would be seventh, a game behind Brooklyn, in the East right now.)

The reality for Rubio, meanwhile, is that this has been a lost season, and for reasons beyond the vicious circle of passing up and failing to make shots.

Granted, that still is a problem – his 36.8 field-goal percentage and 37.3 rate from within the 3-point line has been horrible. The pass-first-and-last Rubio is averaging a career-low 8.8 ppg. The fact that he can’t and won’t score on his own – aside from his underused ability to hit 3-pointers (.347) from certain favorite areas around the arc – is considered a stubborn brake on what otherwise has been a potent Wolves attack. (He is averaging a league-high 2.4 steals, but that’s a stat some coaches dismiss for rewarding gamblers over stay-at-home defenders.)

Lately there has been concern that Rubio and the Wolves aren’t flourishing together because of a disconnect in the way he and Adelman prefer to play. A recent post in the Timberwolves-dedicated blog, Punch-Drunk Wolves, elaborated:

Adelman’s team had just beaten the Pistons in convincing fashion. His starters dominated almost every second they touched the floor. Rubio in particular played well, nearly compiling a triple double (11 points, 9 assists, 8 rebounds) in just under 36 minutes of action. Ricky’s 3 turnovers were offset by the same number of steals.

Rather than focus on the positives (which he explicitly said that he was going to do, a moment earlier in response to a question about his bench’s struggles) Adelman went on this vague, critical rant about “this group” that seemed — in context — a lot more like a thinly veiled, direct shot at Ricky Rubio.

If you have been following this Timberwolves season with any interest, you’ve noticed a simmering tension between Ricky Rubio’s playing style and Rick Adelman’s offensive vision.

And:

This year, the offense is much different. Before the season, Adelman publicly challenged Kevin Love to become a facilitator of offense for his teammates. They installed the high-post “corner” (Princeton?) offense that Adelman used in Sacramento and Houston. A typical Timberwolves possession begins with Rubio passing to the wing, who then passes to Love at the high post. Love then surveys the floor for cutters or other scoring opportunities. …

But by running the early offense through Love, Rubio’s best skill is neutralized. He does less dribbling and creating, and more entry-passing and standing. His biggest weakness, scoring, is magnified when defenders shade off of him to help against better scorers like Love and Kevin Martin.

Ricky Rubio is not suited for the offense that Rick Adelman prefers.

And:

If you attend Wolves games, maybe you’ve glanced over at the coach after a Ricky drive to the basket ends in a blocked shot. Or, for a better example, you’ve looked at the bench after a flashy Rubio pass ends up in an opponent’s hands.

Adelman goes ballistic. It’s the one thing other than officiating that gets him visibly upset. Sometimes he puts his hands on his head and shakes around in his seat. Other times he gets up and stomps around. But there is always a visible reaction.

He HATES Rubio’s creative decision making. All he wants is the ball delivered to Love, so the offense can do what it’s supposed to. There are not to be audibles called at the line of scrimmage. And Ricky is all about audibles.

I’m not criticizing here; just observing.

This is a problem that goes beyond any temporary slippage in Rubio’s play. (He’s still 23 and, thanks to injury and lockout, his three NBA seasons translate to about two years’ worth of games so far.) This gets to the essence of what Minnesota is and where it is headed.

Adelman might be gone after this season; that’s the speculation, fueled by his wife’s ongoing health issues even more than the team’s underperformance. If he is, that removes a coach whom Love likes, admires and has a history with. If he isn’t, then Rubio – the other half of the Wolves’ intended inside-outside star tandem – may face continued stunting.

Sixteen months from now, Love will either be gone through free agency or he’ll have re-upped with Minnesota based on a positive sense of the franchise’s future. The missing fifth-year in Love’s current contract that made his 2015 free agency possible might have been, at one time, intended for Rubio. But he’s looked nothing like a franchise guy.

So, with just a few games remaining before things really get serious, Minnesota’s biggest pieces all are in play.

Change your face? Change your fate.

Sizing Up Love: Dunks, Data Or Victories?


VIDEO: Kevin Love executes perfect pass and dunk after practice in Phoenix

When taking the measure of an NBA superstar, what’s your preferred yardstick: Highlight videos or cold, hard analytics? Something visceral and dazzlingly in the moment, or something statistical, built on percentages and decimal points?

Minnesota’s Kevin Love had you covered both ways Thursday.

The fun stuff occurred after the Timberwolves’ practice in the Phoenix Suns’ gym at U.S. Airways Center, as the Wolves – after beating the Suns Tuesday, 110-101 – stuck around for a few days before heading to Sacramento for their game Saturday against the Kings. In an homage to LeBron James‘ impromptu dunk show after Miami’s practice on the same court earlier this month, a shirtless Love fired a ball off the side wall, caught it on the bounce and threw down a reverse, two-handed slam.

All of it, right down to the barechestedness, was just like LeBron. Only this time it was captured by teammate Ronny Turiaf on rookie Gorgui Dieng‘s cell phone.

Now it’s time for the math: The gap in the Wolves’ schedule allowed for some numbers-crunching that showed how much impact Love and his All-Star season has had on his Minnesota teammates.

If the 6-foot-10 power forward’s 26.6 points, 13.2 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game aren’t enough, or his 38.4 percent 3-point percentage, a 28.3 PER rating, those 48 double-doubles (one triple-double) and 20 games scoring 30 points or more, consider how much better the other Wolves players are when Love is on the court with them than when he’s not.

Point guard Ricky Rubio, for instance, has an offensive rating of 109.8 and a defensive rating of 102.2 in the 1,603 minutes he has played alongside Love this season, a net rating of plus-7.6. In the 188 minutes Rubio has been out there without Love, those stats drop to 97.6 and 105.9, a minus-8.3.

Shooter Kevin Martin has had the same pattern: 107.1/102.8/plus-4.3 with Love, 100.7/108.2/minus-7.5 without him.

So has center Nikola Pekovic, at 109.7/102.8/plus-6.9 vs. 95.0/103.2/minus-8.1.

And Corey Brewer, 110.1/103.0/plus-7.0 vs. 95.2/101.7/minus-6.6.

And J.J. Barea, 105.3/100.1/plus-5.1 vs. 91.3/104.5/minus-13.1.

Love’s own on/off numbers for the Wolves: 113.8/104.8/plus-9.0 in 1,956 minutes played vs. 99.5/107.9/minus-8.4 in 784 on the side.

Love’s impact shows up in other ways. Martin, for example, has hit 43.9 percent of his field goal attempts with the big guy around to draw defenders but just 33.7 percent when he’s not. Rubio, Pekovic, Brewer, Barea and Chase Budinger also have shot better with Love on the court.

Only Turiaf of all the Wolves players, curiously, has been more efficient and/or productive with Love out of the game. Maybe that has something to do with some overlap in where they’re at their best.

So which is it that impresses you more: The grainy dunk-show video in all its individual glory, or the hardcore data tied to teammates?

Or are you old school, focusing on Minnesota’s 28-29 record and dreary spot (10th) in the Western Conference standings and withholding your ooh‘s and aah‘s until Love makes his impact felt with a playoff berth? Fair enough.

Time To Step It Up For The Stretch Run


VIDEO: Carmelo Anthony talks about the challenges facing the Knicks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blogtable: Stop Doing That, Please

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


MVP: KD or LeBron? | A should-be All-Star? | Player’s flaw?



VIDEO: Stephen Curry talks about his big season to date

If you could get one player to stop doing one thing on-court – a habit, a particular pass or shot he keeps blowing, something he does too much and drives you nuts every time you see it — who and what?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.comRajon Rondo letting an inbounded ball dribble and roll too long before picking it up and going. Don’t mean to pick on Rondo – he’s just one of many, including Ty Lawson, Kyrie Irving and a bunch of mostly point guards who have bought into this false economy. Sure, once in a while the ball is delivered in a way that it can be chaperoned for a few extra feet while keeping the game clock from starting. But often, it’s angled toward the sideline and losing its speed, so finally grabbing it and veering back on course eats up whatever seconds allegedly were saved. Meanwhile, it gives a defender an opportunity to pounce. It’s a Joe College move and the sort of false hustle/smarts that makes sliding into first base such a laughable MLB play.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.comJ.R. Smith: touching the basketball.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: My first inclination is for Steve Nash to stop licking his fingers. So gross. But we haven’t seen all that much of Nash this season, so I’ll give him a reprieve. My other beef is with another crafty guard with an oral fixation. Hey Steph Curry, keep that mouth piece of yours where it belongs — in your mouth. He especially seems to love to dangle the thing after dropping a ridiculous 3-pointer and then incorporates the dangle with a half-crazed stare as he awaits the opponent at the other end.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: That habit a lot of top players have of getting hurt has become old. I’d like that to stop. I don’t have one player fixing one thing. I would like to see a lot of guys hit a mid-range jumper, even the guys who do well on 3-pointers. I would even take it beyond just players. I would like to see word come down from NBA HQ to make the game the thing, not a layer, even the top layer, in the entertainment experience.

John Schuhmann, NBA.comKevin Love needs to stop admiring his shot and get his butt back on defense. The Wolves rank near the bottom of the league in transition defense, in part because Love often stands idly by as the opponent is running down the floor

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: I’m terribly uncomfortable whining about something like this, truly … players are entitled to their rituals and habits, I’ll take a pass over another dribble almost every time and nobody ever sets out to miss a shot on purpose. I made a resolution for 2014 to stop worrying and whining about things that don’t change the course of my day (or my life, for that matter) and this, my friends, definitely falls into that category. But since we’re going there, I need a player with Ricky Rubio’s talent to stop passing up open looks, wide-open quality looks, because he has no confidence in his shot. Rubio isn’t the threat he should be because he hasn’t fine-tuned his shooting stroke. He’s a brilliant passer and no one will dispute that, but there’s no way he maximizes his immense potential (and no way the Timberwolves get his best) if he cannot round out his game with a more aggressive approach and a more confident and polished stroke.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball blog: From the beard to the range, I love nearly everything about James Harden. Except one thing — the way he flings his head back when driving to the basket in order to draw fouls. It wouldn’t bother me so much if Harden didn’t do it so often, jerking his head back almost every time he drives to the basket. The thing is, it’s hard to criticize someone for doing something that works — Harden shoots eight free throws a game, gets easy points from the line and keeps opponents in foul trouble. But just because it gets called doesn’t make it right.

Karan Madhok, NBA IndiaI scream at the TV set every time Pau Gasol settles for a mid-range jumper, and this has been happening for a few years now. Gasol is one of the league’s last standing big men with genuine sublime offensive post moves, and has the ability to create for himself and dish out beautifully under the basket or with his back to the basket. A quick look at his short chart says that Pau is a better-than-50 percent shooter under the basket and can hit the mid-range jumper in front of the basket, but the percentages start to fall in most shots taken from the mid-range from either corner. Plus, aesthetically, that jumper is an eye-sore, especially when I know how gifted he is when he drives in. Attack the basket, Pau!

Stefanos Triantafyllos, NBA Greece: I hate it when Rajon Rondo hides his mouth-piece inside his jersey. It drives me crazy, because I can’t understand why he does it. Why have a mouth-piece if you don’t intend to keep it in you mouth at the first place!

Adriano Albuquerque, NBA Brasil: Is there any other possible answer here than erasing the 3-point shooting from Josh Smith? Just stay on the block, Josh!

Morning Shootaround — Jan. 18




VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 17

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Kobe’s return | Rondo returns | Durant explodes | Rubio’s thrill is gone | Red-hot Grizzlies

No. 1: Bryant has no intention of sitting out — It doesn’t matter that if his Lakers continue to plummet in the standings. It doesn’t matter if the team might be better off the long run — and for the end of his own career — by getting a high lottery pick and maybe a budding young star. It doesn’t even matter what legend Magic Johnson thinks. Kobe Bryant says he has every intention of returning to the court this season because, well, as he told Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com, he’s Kobe and that’s all he knows:

“The only thing I can afford to consider is getting better, getting stronger,” Bryant said before the Lakers’ 107-104 win over the Boston Celtics on Friday. “I can’t allow myself to think any other way. I can only think about the next step. To do anything else becomes distracting if you allow yourself, if you give yourself wiggle room to not push yourself as hard as you possibly can. To think about sitting out and this, that and the other, your motivation is all wrong. I refuse to think that way.”

Magic Johnson disagreed, as the former Lakers star questioned whether Bryant should come back at all this season in an interview with the Los Angeles Times this week.

“What is he coming back to? He’s not going to be able to stop the pick and roll, all the layups the Lakers are giving up,” Johnson told the newspaper. “He’s been hurt twice, give him the whole year to get healthy.”

In the same interview, Johnson called hiring Mike D’Antoni last season a “wrong decision.”

“Normally I don’t hear it until [the media] brings it up,” D’Antoni said, adding that he has never spoken to Johnson in person since joining the Lakers. “There’s voices everywhere, and it’s a hard job to do no matter what team you’re with. You do the best you can and you feel like every day is a new battle, and everybody has their opinion. There’s a saying about that. … So, that’s the way it is. You go on and do your job.”

Bryant, sidelined since Dec. 17 when he suffered a fracture of the lateral tibial plateau in his left knee during the Lakers’ 96-92 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies, said he will return this season so long as he is medically cleared.
“We’ll see where it’s at in February and see if it’s good to go,” Bryant said, pushing back his return timeline ever so slightly, with D’Antoni having recently said Bryant would be re-evaluated Jan. 27, at the conclusion of the team’s current seven-game trip while the Grammy Awards take over Staples Center.

***

No. 2: Rondo looks and feels good in first game of season — It was his first game in almost a year, but Rajon Rondo showed no ill effects of the surgery to repair his torn right ACL. Even though the Celtics let the Lakers close with an 11-0 run to win the game, the new team captain told A. Sherrod Blakely of CSNNE.com that overall conditioning in his biggest hurdle going forward:

“I felt pretty good,” said Rondo, who didn’t have any significant pain but knows that could change within the next 24 hours. “When I got back in the second quarter I got pretty winded, but that was expected. Other than that, I didn’t feel like I was limited to anything tonight.”

Rondo has reiterated time and time again that his conditioning, more than anything else, remains his biggest hurdle.
For the 19-plus minutes he played, Rondo didn’t appear to show any concern or apprehension on the floor relative to his surgically repaired right knee.

In fact, the biggest issue facing Rondo going forward doesn’t appear to be what he’s doing on the floor.
It has to do with what happens when he’s not on the floor for long stretches of time, something that will inevitably happen as long as he has to play with minute restrictions.

Prior to Rondo’s first game, head coach Brad Stevens said he would be limited to 18-20 minutes per game.
It is unclear how long he will have minute restrictions.
“Coach (Stevens) and I talked about my minutes, how we were going to spread it out, you know, five minutes a quarter,” Rondo said. “I think that’s the best way to do it.”

***

No. 3: Durant takes his game to new heights with 54 points — If there comes a times next May or June when Kevin Durant is raising the MVP award above his head, will this have been the night when he wrestled the trophy out of the grasp of LeBron James? K.D. took on the Splash Brothers Friday night and gave them a dunking with a career-high 54 points on just 28 shots and staked his claim in leading the Thunder past the Warriors. Berry Trammel of The Oklahoman says it was Durant’s best night ever:

“He’s a special talent, a superstar basketball player, an all-time great,” said Golden State coach Mark Jackson.
The game started as a sharpshooting duel between teammates. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, who put the gold in Golden State, seemed to be playing a solitary game of H-O-R-S-E in the first quarter.

But by game’s end, there was no doubt who wore the crown. This was Durant’s finest offensive game as a pro.
Durant made 19 of 28 shots and virtually matched the long-range bombs of Curry and Thompson. The Warrior backcourt duo each nailed two 3-pointers in the first seven minutes and each nailed three treys in the first quarter.
Curry and Thompson finished with a combined 63 points. Curry had 37, making six of 10 3-pointers; Thompson had 26 points, making six of nine deep balls.

But Durant finished five of eight on 3-pointers. His 19 field goals tied a career high. The only two times he’s made more than 16 baskets in a game, he’s gone 19 of 28 overall. Friday against Golden State and Feb. 2012 against Denver, when Durant scored 51 points in a 124-118 Thunder victory.

But this performance was better. That Denver team included Andre Iguodala, one of the NBA’s few defenders capable of giving Durant a rough time, but Iguodala missed that game.

Now a Warrior, Iguodala played 29 1/2 minutes Friday night but was no match for Durant.

“The great players, you can play great defense and he can have numbers,” Jackson said. “It’s just a question of making him work. He hit some tough shots, some incredible shots. Give him credit.”

Durant now is averaging a career high 30.6 points a game this season. He was asked to carry a heavier load when Russell Westbrook underwent another surgery just after Christmas, and Durant has responded. He’s averaged 36.8 points the last five games.

***

No. 4: Rubio says he isn’t having any fun these days playing ballRicky Rubio says a lot of the blame for the Timberwolves disappointing 18-21 start to the season should be placed on his shoulders. The flamboyant point guard admitted to John Krawcyznski of the Associated Press that he just isn’t enjoying playing the game this season:

“I’m going to be honest. I’m not feeling comfortable out there,” Rubio told The Associated Press after a light practice on Thursday. “I’m not being myself and the team is noticing. I just have to be back where I was, be myself. I’m working on that. It’s something that’s missing. It’s tough for me, too.”

Rubio’s shooting numbers have never been great, but harping on that always seemed to be nitpicking for a player who sprinkled magic point guard dust all over the court — slipping passes through a defender’s legs for an open 3-point shot, picking a player’s pocket to start a fast break and seeing windows open before the defenders knew what hit them.

Even when he wasn’t starting his rookie season, the arena would crackle when he stepped to the scorer’s table to check in and his teammates’ eyes would widen in anticipation of a passes that came from impossible angles. It was still there last season when he returned from a torn ACL in December, even though his body took some time to ramp back up to the NBA’s pace of play.

“It’s basketball. I love it,” Rubio said. “But I’m just not having as much fun as it used to be. I know it has to be professional. But I just want to have fun. It’s hard to find it right now.”

***

No. 5: The Grizzlies are finally making their move –Just in case anybody forgot how important Marc Gasol is in Memphis, the All-Star center made a game-saving deflection to clinch a win over the Kings. The Grizzlies are now 3-0 since he returned to the lineup after a knee injury, have won five in a row overall and have crept back above the .500 mark and into the playoff picture in the West. Ron Tillery of the Memphis Commercial-Appeal has the details:

Gasol said later that he got fortunate on a gamble. But nothing about the Grizzlies’ season-high, five-game winning streak could be reduced to a stroke of luck.

The Griz (20-19) moved above .500 for the first time since early December and now they can claim a steadily improving defense. Memphis trailed 86-79 with 5:19 left and allowed Sacramento just one field goal the rest of the game.
Gay’s putback dunk cut the Grizzlies’ lead to a point with 38.9 seconds left. There had been no movement in the score when the Kings received the ball with 15.1 ticks remaining.

The Griz were as disruptive on the final possession as they had been the second half of the fourth quarter. Gay had the ball slapped away twice as he tried to attempt a game-winner from 15 feet. The Kings never got a clean look at the basket down the stretch.

“We’re making the right decisions at the right time,” Conley said after scoring a game-high 25 points. “I told the guys that it’s good to have games like this where you have a little adversity and come back. Those are the ones you learn from the most.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: J.R. Smith shows signs of positive life in Knicks loss … DeAndre Jordan wants to be more than just a dunker Jimmer Freddette could be turning a corner with steady playing time.

Might Saunders See Timberwolves’ Answer In Mirror?


VIDEO: Wolves coach Rick Adelman talks about disappointing loss to Kings

Sometimes it’s the malaise that gets you, not the disaster.

When things go haywire for an NBA team – when the losses come four or five in a row, the locker room sours and both parties in the coaching/playing relationship hit the mute button – grabbing at a fix is relatively easy. You change up everything, or as close to that as possible, turning whatever dials and pulling whatever levers are available. Downside is minimal because desperation equals justification, and the alternative to trying anything is doing nothing, at which point a wink-wink about tanking becomes the last refuge of scoundrels.

Malaise is trickier. Malaise is less the presence of awful than the absence of OK. It’s that pervasive uneasiness, that general sense of something lacking in the strategy, on the roster or in their hearts. It is sputtering along two games below .500 almost halfway through the schedule, and burrowing back down each time they break the surface. It is the lack of legit winning streaks, and awkward losses to losers.

Malaise is offense without defense, talent without leadership, instructions without inspiration, velvet glove without iron fist. It is the Minnesota Timberwolves right about now.

Losing at home to Sacramento and slipping to 18-20 Wednesday night was merely the latest symptom of a season gone sideways. And as the Wolves face another challenge Friday in Toronto against the resurgent Raptors (7 p.m. ET, League Pass) and former coach Dwane Casey, the bright spot is that at least they’re not at home, where Minnesota has dropped four of its last six and, according to Andy Greder of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, things have turned – worse than hostile – apathetic.

Timberwolves center Nikola Pekovic dribbled the ball a couple of times between free throws Wednesday night; the bouncing ball seemed to echo throughout Target Center.

“Wake up!” one fan yelled from behind the Wolves’ bench between those free throws in the fourth quarter.

The Wolves started the night by hitting the snooze button and trailed the rebuilding Sacramento Kings by 10 points entering the fourth quarter.

“It was dead,” Wolves guard J.J. Barea said. “Couldn’t hear anything out there.”

Flatlined is as flatlined does, and the Wolves are kidding themselves if they think a raucous home crowd is going to save them. If it’s cause-and-effect they’re seeking, it’s going to have to start with them rather than the fans. In the mirror rather than in the stands.

What was billed as a breakthrough season has been anything but. The purging of David Kahn as chief basketball executive was followed almost immediately by a bungled draft night that played almost as homage (the No. 9 pick parlayed down for Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng). The guy the Wolves took and traded to Utah, point guard Trey Burke, has been better than both of them, and the equal of zestless Ricky Rubio, who has been playing as if his dog is lost, shrinking in lockstep with his shooting percentage.

A season in which Kevin Love‘s commitment to the franchise and to the market was supposedly reaffirmed, to hear new Wolves president Flip Saunders tell it, mostly has ground on, leaving Love in an emergency-exit row, window seat, for 2015. The roster is full of nice guys without much bark, never mind bite – despite Pekovic’s oft-noted “Bond villain” appearance – and the saltiest guy on board, the smallish Barea, wouldn’t scare a chessmaster.

As a result, the Wolves have been wandering through the hinterlands in January, jumper cables in hand, the battery in their jalopy pretty much dead. If head coach Rick Adelman has said it once – “I don’t know who we think we are” – he has said it a dozen times, a reasonable guess given his team’s 0-11 record in close games (four points or less).

The malaise, mind you, is starting to stick to Adelman, too. His methods haven’t noticeably changed any more than his postgame material, making him appear more detached from the situation than he might be. Benchings? A revised rotation? Less adherence to corner-3 tactics? A heightened commitment to defense – not just from Corey Brewer or Luc Mbah a Moute but by all five on the floor at any time, including two Kevins (Love and Martin)?

Adelman has more NBA know-how in his proverbial little finger than the Wolves franchise had for several years prior to his arrival in 2011. But his ongoing frustration – “It almost takes an act of Congress for us to go out and foul somebody. You have to get after people in this league,” he said after the Kings loss – is reminding folks that he re-committed late to this team last fall (after his wife’s illness last season). Adelman will turn 68 in June and the longer the Wolves bump along, the more out of sync they’ll look with their head coach’s timeline.

Which gets us to the elephant that recently squeezed through the door.

Adelman is one of the most accomplished coaches in NBA history. He has 1,020 victories and has taken his teams to the playoffs 16 times in 25 seasons. But he happens to have a boss in Saunders who won 638 games and took 11 of his 16 teams to the postseason. When Saunders was hired last spring, he said he no longer craved the sideline and he can argue persuasively that he not only has a better, safer job now but a less consuming one as well.

From the start, Saunders has said the right things: “I will be the general manager that most coaches want. Because I understand what it is like to sit in that seat.” But he also has a distinctly different, more enthusiastic personality than Adelman. Saunders isn’t big on confrontations or conflicts but he’s a closer when it comes to confidence. His willingness to sell, sell, sell came through in a recent Q&A with MinnPost.com’s Britt Robson:

Part of coaching is managing frustration. Unfortunately that’s we have to do. We have to continually get ourselves up the next day and present a front to the players, a very confident front, a front that we are not in a panic situation.

Until they are, anyway.

So Minnesota finds itself in a predicament that is more than vaguely familiar. Nine years ago, a Wolves team desperate to improve on its prior year’s performance meandered through the season’s first half. A skid of seven losses in eight games left them one game under .500 (25-26), at which point the team’s general manager (Kevin McHale), with owner Glen Taylor‘s blessing, reluctantly fired the head coach and took over on the bench himself. Minnesota went 19-12 under McHale the rest of the way but it wasn’t enough; the Wolves finished ninth in the West and still haven’t been back to the playoffs.

Back then, Saunders was the coach. This time he’s the “GM that most coaches want,” but with a tiny sliver of minority ownership and an impatience with what’s playing out right now.

It might not happen and, given the pitfalls inherent in breaking down that today vs. tomorrow wall between administrating and coaching, it probably shouldn’t. But it has to be tempting in the midst of a malaise.

Timberwolves Still Finding It Tough To Close The Close Ones


VIDEO: Kevin Love talks to the media after the Timberwolves’ loss to the Suns

Burdened by a failure rate in close games that soon might wrap itself constrictor-style around the team’s entire season — 0-10 in games decided by four points or less, 1-18 going back a full calendar year — the Minnesota Timberwolves might want to try something daring the next time they have a comfortable late lead:

If they find themselves up six or seven points and the game clock under, say, five seconds, they use a timeout to lay a red carpet around the 3-point line. Invite the other guys to hoist one final bomb, uncontested from long range, in the hope that they’ll hit it. Ideally, there won’t be enough time for the opposition to turn that last gasp into a serious comeback and the Wolves will let some air out of what’s becoming a burdensome dark cloud over their season.

It’s bad enough that Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and the rest of coach Rick Adelman‘s squad have been spinning their wheels like a Camaro in a Minnesota snownami – they’re 0-8 in their attempts to push over .500 since slipping below on Nov. 27. Now these repeated failures at winning the sort of tight games wannabe playoff teams need come April is threatening to fray more than just some postseason ambitions.

After Kevin Martin‘s veering layup dropped off the front rim Wednesday night at Target Center in the 104-103 loss to Phoenix, a cranky Love called out some teammates for their demeanor:

“We can’t have two guys sitting at the end of the bench that play good minutes just sitting there and not getting up during timeouts,” Love said, referring to the poor body language exhibited by veterans J.J. Barea and Dante Cunningham in the fourth quarter. “We all need to be in this together. That kind of [ticks] me off. We’re supposed to be a team.”

The Timberwolves (17-18) are anything but a team right now. They are a collection of individual agendas tripping each other up as the franchise pursues its first playoff bid since 2004.

And:

“It’s two guys that we expect more from them,” Love said. “I think they expect more from themselves. I’m not trying to single anybody out and I don’t want to make it bigger than it is, but it’s just a team that we needed to beat tonight and we needed everybody in there, even guys that didn’t play any minutes. We need to have a team and a bench that’s really in it together.”

The tension is mounting. After the two-point home loss to Dallas on Dec. 30 – the game in which Shawn Marion‘s foul on Love’s game-tying shot wasn’t whistled until the following morning – the All-Star power forward criticized the bench for its five-point, 2-of-12, nine-turnover performance in 58 combined minutes. Five days later, it was Love bricking four free throws at the end of their 115-111 loss to the Thunder (with the bench again chipping in five points).

On Wednesday, the Wolves’ second unit won its matchup 29-27 but Love had a poor game (15 points, 4-of-20, 12 rebounds but just one assist). Minnesota got outscored 7-0 over the final 1:51 to yank that one out of its 17-8 “split” in games decided by five points or more.

So what is behind all the late-game gaggery? It’s dicey to allege that the Wolves are choking because “choke,” like its flip side “clutch,” are oft-challenged concepts these days in the sports world.

Another reason to tread lightly on what might be a mostly random occurrence is the belief that, if this were diagnosable, it would be correctable. An operation (like Minnesota or any NBA squad) deep in basketball wisdom and financial resources would find a fix before racking up this 0-10 mark.

What’s left, then, are largely theories, several of which the Wolves probably will poke and prod in search of answers. Such as:

  • Inexperience in such circumstances. Uh, 1-18 over a 12-month period seems like ample opportunity to learn something.
  • No proven go-to guy. Seriously? With Love and Martin on the floor?
  • Predictable play-calling in such situations. This is Adelman we’re talking about, folks, a Hall of Fame-bound coach with 1,019 victories and fat stack of kudos for his offensive wiles.
  • Nervous ballhandling. Minnesota did have four of its 12 turnovers vs. Phoenix in the fourth quarter, two in the final 46 seconds. Rubio threw the ball recklessly while in the air headed out of bounds with 24.9 seconds left. But as the Wolves’ primary ball handler, Rubio is not worse late in games (15.6 of his turnovers and 16.9 percent of his minutes come after the third quarter) or in close ones (51 percent of his turnovers, 50.1 percent of his minutes with margins of five points or less).
  • Lack of referee respect. Well, yeah, that one night. And the Wolves don’t have a glamour rep or, depending on what you think of Love, a marquee name like James, Durant or Anthony. But Martin merely dealt with the usual end-of-game traffic in the lane Wednesday.
  • Leadership. That’s it, the Wolves just need another traffic cop pointing and growling directions when everyone else’s heart is in his throat. Come to think of it, Love might need to seize that role more.

More likely, at this stage, they need something cool, the way Joe Montana lifted pressure off hjis 49ers teammates late in Super Bowl XXIII when they trailed Cincinnati 16-13 with 3:20 left in the game.

Longtime Minnesota sports fans might recall what the MLB Twins went through in the mid-1980s, when alleged closer Ron Davis got into an ugly run of pouring gasoline on ninth-inning leads. A collective mental block seemed to develop, certainly a bad case of group pessimism, and after blowing a 10-run lead to Cleveland in late September 1984 to crater out of a division race, third baseman Gary Gaetti famously said: “It’s hard to throw with both hands around your neck.”

That ball club was a frazzled mess by the end, unable to exhale. This Wolves team is headed that way, with six of its next nine on the road and 29 rivals convinced that, when facing Minnesota, merely staying close is the surest path to victory.


VIDEO: The Suns rally to overtake the Timberwolves in Minnesota

Rubio 2014 Resolution? Shoot More, Shoot Better

VIDEO: Minnesota’s Ricky Rubio reaches an assist milestone

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Hitting the new year a game below .500, the Minnesota Timberwolves (15-16) know the work facing them in 2014 dwarfs whatever they accomplished in 2013. Father Time hasn’t been kind in recent seasons to that franchise, and that New Year’s Baby will get whiny awfully quick unless the Wolves get busy and get better, fast.

The same goes for their point guard, Ricky Rubio.

Like his team, Rubio still gets talked of more for his potential than his production or overall play. In fact, the plateau onto which Minnesota appears to have settled owes much to the Spanish plain on which Rubio’s game rests these days. Were he playing better – specifically, posing more of a scoring threat to the opponents that are loading up on Kevin Love and Kevin Martin – the Wolves would be, too.

It’s disappointing enough that Rubio’s offensive game hasn’t grown. What’s worse is that it seems to be regressing. After making a mere 35.9 percent of his field goal attempts in his first two (partial) seasons, Rubio is shooting 34.5 percent in 2013-14. His 3-point accuracy (33.9) is about where it was as a rookie (34.0), after last season’s 29.3. But that means his 2-point prowess (34.7) is in decline.

And here’s the worst part: Rubio appears to be shying away from the very thing he needs to improve. As a rookie, he put up 9.5 shots per game. That dipped to 9.0 after he returned to the court in December 2012 following his ACL/LCL knee rehab. Now? The 6-foot-4 playmaker is averaging 8.1 FGAs, including just 17 in his last four games prior to Wednesday’s contest vs. New Orleans. (Per 36 minutes, the drop is greater: from 10.9 last season to 9.1.)

Look, most of us tend to avoid things we’re not good at or confident about. But this cries out for some sort of resolution for Rubio and the Wolves, maybe an intervention. It’s an impediment to his game individually and it’s a missing link in their attack.

Historically so, actually. Get a load of the NBA’s worst shooters of the past 37 years. Is it merely a coincidence that five of the 10 biggest rim-denters, per basketball-reference.com, played for the Wolves (Rubio, Keith McLeod, Eddie Griffin, A.J. Price, Darrick Martin)? Probably, sure. Then again, Martin was Minnesota’s player-development coach for a couple recent seasons.

The Wolves still cite Rubio’s knee injury in March 2012 for the hiccup in his improvement. He has played only 129 games in parts of three seasons.

“I think physically he’s OK. It’s just trying to get a feel for the game,” Minnesota coach Rick Adelman said last weekend. “He’s a young player who’s figuring out how to be effective in this league. People talk about how he’s not scoring and he’s ‘not doing this.’ But he’s in the top five in assists and in the top five in steals. Y’know, you’ve got to give him some time to get into the other things. It’s just going to take him a little bit longer, I think, because of the layoff at the end of the first year and the start of the second year.”

Adelman knows there is much work to be done. In the summer for Rubio, before and after practices, even in games. Assuming the coach is OK with some on-the-job shooting work.

“Definitely, any guard in this league, you’ve got to be able to knock down shots,” Adelman said. “If he can start knocking down shots from 15 or 17 feet… He’s actually shooting the ‘three’ better than he did last year but he’s got to be able to make that mid-range shot.”

Rubio’s ability to see teammates and make highlight passes ranks near the top in the NBA. But he admits he hasn’t been as aggressive as he needs to be in seeking his scoring chances.

“It’s something that I’ve been working on my whole career,” he said. “Sometimes it’s good, sometimes not. But it’s something that I have to keep my confidence up. Maybe it’s bad because I’m thinking more, as a point guard, to pass first and then my shot is the last thing I think of. It’s something that I have to do better and I’m trying to do that.”

In the chicken-or-egg dilemma between shooting better-and-shooting more vs. shooting more-and-shooting better, teammate Corey Brewer is a believer in the latter. Brewer’s no Kevin Durant but in his first three NBA seasons, he took 8.2 shots per game and made 40.8 percent. Since then, he’s attempting 9.7 and hitting 42.9 percent.

“You start learning how you can score and how you can’t score,” Brewer said. “Especially him, with the ball in his hands, it’s going to make him that much better.”

Rubio won’t turn 24 until October. He has time. But his PER of 15.0 means he’s merely average these days, not the franchise guy for whom Minnesota might have been reserving that special fifth year in a contract extension.

And just as the Wolves aren’t content with being League Pass darlings anymore – entertaining across 82 but done when the networks take over in the postseason – Rubio can’t be satisfied by the highlights he logs on NBA arenas’ videoboards. The points he puts next to them, on the scoreboard, matter too.

Injuries Open Spots, But Picking All-Star Guards Won’t Be Easy


VIDEO: Russell Westbrook will be out until after the All-Star break

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Kobe Bryant is going to win a starting job on the Western Conference All-Star team. A second round of returns has the Lakers star well ahead in votes among the West’s legion of worthy backcourt candidates. Bryant has played in just six games and although he could return from a fractured knee in time to play in the Feb. 16 All-Star Game at New Orleans, let’s assume that he will not play.

NBA All-Star 2014Oklahoma City’s injured point guard Russell Westbrook was well on his way to a fourth consecutive selection as one of seven reserves to be picked by Western Conference coaches until Friday’s stunning announcement that he underwent a third surgery on his troubled right knee. Westbrook will not be back in time for the All-Star Game.

That leaves (potentially) two backcourt spots up for grabs.

But first, ink Chris Paul in as the starter at point guard. He’s second in fan voting and in all likelihood won’t come close to relinquishing that spot as an automatic starter. Golden State’s Stephen Curry, last season’s sympathy case as the most notable snub, is third in fan voting and should start at shooting guard.

Now comes the difficult part for the West’s coaches: There’s so many worthy point guards — just point guards — that you could select an All-Point-Guard All-Star team even without Westbrook. Check this out:

PG: Paul

SG: Curry

SF: Damian Lillard

PF: Eric Bledsoe

C: Ricky Rubio

Bench: Tony Parker, Ty LawsonMike Conley, Jrue Holiday

OK, so it takes some of imagination there, but you get the idea how deep the West is at the quarterback position. Then you’ve got the shooting guards to consider. James Harden figures to be a lock for a second consecutive selection. And what about Klay Thompson, Monta Ellis, Kevin Martin, Goran Dragic, Wesley Matthews and Jamal Crawford, who felt he got dissed last year? Even 36-year-old Manu Ginobili can make a compelling case.

There’s plenty of basketball to go before fan voting ends on Jan. 20 (the starters will be announced on Jan. 23) and until the reserves are announced soon after, so selections could become more crystallized by then. But probably not.

So of five guards to get a 2014 All-Star nod, here’s my early locks: Paul and Curry as the starters with Harden as a reserve. That leaves two spots open.

Let’s begin with the power of elimination. As strong as they’ve been, apologies to Martin, Dragic, Matthews and Crawford. Holiday was an East All-Star last year and benefited from Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose being hurt, and even though he’s a hometown Pelican, I’m not seeing it. Rubio has gone from the magician everybody wants to see up close to standing in the back of the line.

Onto the rest. This is going to be tough and there could be not one, not two, not three … but even more deserving guards taking the snub.

Here’s a brief comparison of a few of the backcourt candidates that I don’t consider to be locks (in no particular order):

>Parker, Spurs – Scoring (17.8 ppg) and assists (6.0) are down, but he’s the irreplaceable team catalyst, San Antonio is rolling and it’s hard to see him not making it

>Lillard, Blazers – As clutch as any player going, the reigning Rookie of the Year is averaging 21.1 ppg, 5.8 apg and is shooting 43.1 percent on 3s for a team that’s taken the league by storm

>Bledsoe, Suns – A fearless competitor, has meshed beautifully with Dragic while averaging 18.4 ppg, 5.9 apg, 4.3 rpg and is shooting 49.2 percent overall for arguably the most surprising team in the league

>Ellis, Mavericks – He’s turned analytics on its head, averaging an efficient 20.7 ppg — highest since 2007-08 — and 5.8 apg, and he’s as exciting swooping to the cup as anyone

>Lawson, Nuggets – He’s slowed a bit as the team has struggled recently, but still putting up 17.5 ppg, 7.9 apg and 3.4 rpg in a new, slower-tempo system

>Thompson, Warriors – The other half of the Splash Brothers, he’s scoring 19.6 ppg on 43.2 percent shooting from beyond the arc, plus 2.7 apg and 3.3 rpg.

>Conley, Grizzlies – He’s been garnering greater respect for a few seasons now and while the team has struggled, especially without fellow All-Star Marc Gasol, Conley’s averaging 17.0 ppg, a career-best, and 6.2 apg

Making A List, Checking It Twice …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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