Posts Tagged ‘Rudy Gay’

Pierce cares not about your hand in his face


VIDEO: Pierce’s big three seals Brooklyn’s win vs. Toronto

BROOKLYN – Nets coach Jason Kidd didn’t think Paul Pierce was going to play Monday night.

Pierce, dealing with an injured shoulder, played. He played 30 minutes, scored 15 points, and hit the biggest shot of the night, a 3-pointer that gave the Nets a three-point lead with 1:14 left and propelled them to a big win over the visiting Raptors.

It was a tough shot, because Kyle Lowry was in Pierce’s shirt with a hand in his face. But Pierce had to take it because the shot clock was about to expire.

And maybe it didn’t matter that Lowry was there, because, according to SportVU, Pierce has shot better on contested jumpers than uncontested jumpers. Among 92 players who have attempted at least 100 of each, only one — the Pelicans’ Brian Roberts — has a bigger discrepancy.

Players who have shot better on contested jumpers

Uncontested Contested
Player FGM FGA FG% FGM FGA FG% Diff.
Brian Roberts 82 213 38.5% 63 128 49.2% -10.7%
Paul Pierce 83 236 35.2% 62 151 41.1% -5.9%
Russell Westbrook 73 203 36.0% 57 138 41.3% -5.3%
Dirk Nowitzki 200 439 45.6% 210 431 48.7% -3.2%
LeBron James 140 370 37.8% 47 117 40.2% -2.3%
Marcus Morris 102 252 40.5% 61 143 42.7% -2.2%
Rudy Gay 87 223 39.0% 105 259 40.5% -1.5%
Evan Turner 107 288 37.2% 88 231 38.1% -0.9%
Rodney Stuckey 67 178 37.6% 55 145 37.9% -0.3%
Jamal Crawford 142 355 40.0% 143 356 40.2% -0.2%
James Harden 141 375 37.6% 69 183 37.7% -0.1%

Minimum 100 of each.
Contested = Any jump shot outside of 10 feet with a defender within four feet of the shooter.

Note: We’re looking at standard field goal percentage and not effective field goal percentage to simply see the effect on a player’s success rate.

That LeBron James has shot better on contested jumpers is more incentive for defenses to play off him on the perimeter, as the Spurs did (successfully, until Game 7) in The Finals.

The league has shot 5.4 percent better on uncontested jumpers this season. But a contest will affect some players more than others. On the opposite end of the spectrum from Roberts and Pierce is the Suns’ Goran Dragic

Players who have shot at least 10 percent better on uncontested jumpers

Uncontested Contested
Player Name FGM FGA FG% FGM FGA FG% Diff.
Goran Dragic 145 279 52.0% 52 178 29.2% 22.8%
David West 142 288 49.3% 35 102 34.3% 15.0%
C.J. Miles 86 191 45.0% 36 118 30.5% 14.5%
Khris Middleton 148 302 49.0% 57 161 35.4% 13.6%
Jameer Nelson 118 312 37.8% 35 143 24.5% 13.3%
Kevin Love 201 473 42.5% 45 152 29.6% 12.9%
Bradley Beal 181 431 42.0% 78 263 29.7% 12.3%
Jerryd Bayless 91 217 41.9% 41 137 29.9% 12.0%
Terrence Ross 107 240 44.6% 59 181 32.6% 12.0%
Randy Foye 150 363 41.3% 39 132 29.5% 11.8%
Tim Hardaway Jr. 121 296 40.9% 30 103 29.1% 11.8%
Josh Smith 126 380 33.2% 28 129 21.7% 11.5%

For some of these guys, the difference is about how well they shoot when they’re left open. For some, it’s about how poorly they shoot when there’s a defender nearby. Josh Smith probably shouldn’t shoot jumpers at all.

Banged-Up Spurs Find Footing After (Another) Solid Rodeo Road Trip


VIDEO: Spurs coach Gregg Popovich talks about Kawhi Leonard’s expected return to the lineup

OK, so maybe Tim Duncan wasn’t just a frisky young colt the last time the Spurs played a game at the AT&T Center. It could be that Manu Ginobili didn’t have his long, flowing hair that flopped in the wind when he flopped on the court or that Tony Parker was still coach Gregg Popovich’s favorite teenaged whipping boy.

It just seems that long ago.

When Rudy Gay’s last ditch 3-pointer missed on Feb. 1, the Spurs were able to claw past the Kings to end a three-game losing streak, hoping to crawl out of town in search of recuperation and recovery.

That’s exactly what the Spurs found on their annual rodeo road trip that might once more have saved their season. The Spurs have been forced to vacate their arena for the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo for an extended stretch each season since 2003 and have never brought home a losing record in their luggage.

This time, the Spurs traveled 8,989 miles through four time zones and left with a broken lineup that had been missing three starters — Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green — and before the journey left the East Coast in Boston, Parker and Tiago Splitter had to take their turns on the shelf.

Yet they returned with an unlikely 6-3 mark that keeps them No. 2 in the Western Conference entering their first home game in 25 nights against the Pistons (8:30 p.m. ET, League Pass). It was an experience that while testing their depth, resolve and supply of bandages in their medical kit could once again give the Spurs the faith in the full roster and the necessary belief in themselves again down the stretch toward the playoffs.

“We’ve been looking for some consistency, and I saw more of that on the trip,” Duncan told Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News. “I saw the effort and execution. We’re still making a lot of mistakes, but that might just be me being around Pop too long and trying to be a perfectionist.

“We’ve improved, our confidence is there, and to see we’re operating with our 10th, 11th and 12th guys just like we are with the first guys will be huge for us and pay dividends down the stretch.”

Popovich for years has monitored and kept a lid on the minutes of his core players while maximizing virtually every man on his roster. But this Rodeo Trip might have been his best work yet. Green returned for the first game of the trip, but Leonard (nine), Ginobili (six), Splitter (four), Duncan (one) Boris Diaw (one) and Aron Baynes (one) each missed games during the trip. Parker missed the last three games because of assorted aches and pains and Popovich said he will continue to rest “for the foreseeable future.”

The Spurs even got a big win at Portland on a night when they played without the starting trio of Duncan, Parker and Leonard.

“Good trip for us,” Duncan said. “We would love to have played better (in Phoenix), but we’ve got a couple days to rest now, and hopefully we can continue to add people back to the squad and get ready for some home games finally.”

After a solid 35-6 record a year ago, the Spurs have already lost eight home games this season. They were staggering and lacked sharp execution, which made rediscovering their cohesiveness and how they play more important than where they play.

Returning home doesn’t necessarily mean a return to the lineup for Parker. After playing so deep into June in The Finals with the Spurs, Parker spent last summer playing for the French national team and led an unprecedented charge for a first-ever championship. Though the summer play kept him sharp for 2013-14, it also clearly sapped his energy and might have led to his nagging injuries. That’s why Popovich is sitting Parker now and remains determined not to put him back into the lineup until Parker is fully recovered, rested and playoff-ready.

It means Parker’s teammates will have to keep the rodeo trip attitude rolling, especially backup point guard Patty Mills.

“I think as long as the emotion, the passion, is always there, you can get it done,” Popovich said. “Look at (Russell) Westbrook, how long he was out. Look at Chris (Paul), what the Clippers did when he was out.

“When you’re on a team with a bunch of guys who care and want to be the last team standing, it’s not so much turning it on and off. It’s just the team rolls without you, just keeps going. Then you plug yourself back in. That’s what good teams do.”

Once again, the long road of the rodeo trip has brought the Spurs home with a deeper sense of who they can be.


VIDEO: Patty Mills discusses the Spurs’ big win over the L.A. Clippers

Morning Shootaround — Feb. 6


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Feb. 5

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Report: Clippers could pursue James | Aldridge interested in deal with Blazers | Silver backs Kings’ new arena | Gay unsure if he’ll stay with Sacramento

No. 1: Report: Clips could make serious push for James – The Miami Heat’s “Big Three” of Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James was formed in the summer of 2010 to the surprise of many. Thanks to many small moves that took place before the opening of free agency that year, the Heat positioned themselves to make Bosh and James — then with the Raptors and Cavs, respectively — albeit lesser offers to get them to team up with Wade in Miami. The rest has been history: three Finals trips, two championships and two Finals MVPs for James. But James can opt out of his deal this summer and, if he chooses to do so, the speculation and wondering about his future will start anew. Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com, who covered James for The Plain Dealer during LeBron’s Cleveland days, has a lengthy read on how the Los Angeles Clippers — not the Lakers — could be the top suitor for LeBron (and perhaps LeBron’s top target as well):

The incumbent Heat have done everything possible to keep James long term, including surrounding him with Hall of Fame talent and winning two championships. The logical and gut read is, five months from now, James will have recommitted to staying in Miami, either by not opting out of his contract or re-signing long term.

But as James and the Heat visit the Los Angeles Clippers on this Feb. 5, the lessons from the past are a reminder to be careful making assumptions at midseason. Especially when it comes to James.

“This time is going to be different,” a source close to James said about James’ view of free agency. “If LeBron decides to look at other options it won’t just be teams with cap space. He has 30 options if he wants them.”

Unlike the Los Angeles Lakers and the Cavs — two teams that have been mentioned as suitors for James this summer — the Clippers will not have open cap space. They will not have the cap space to sign James as a maximum-level free agent. It would require a sign-and-trade if James ever got serious about the option. In short, it would take the Heat’s cooperation.

For this reason, the Clippers are not on the national radar as a potential location for James if he decides to look around. It is unconventional to consider it. But what the Heat did to land James four years ago was not conventional, either. They were able to make some remarkable last-minute trades — a detail that largely goes overlooked in history — then convinced three stars in their primes to take pay cuts so they could play together. That is also a feat that remains unmatched by any of their peers.

The takeaway from that operation: Don’t assume anything and don’t underestimate competition.

Stemming from that experience, while James is content for the time being, he does not plan to close any doors. … Now more emboldened and self-assured, James has more power and perspective than ever before.

“LeBron is not thinking about free agency right now, he’s totally focused on the season,” said one James associate. “In the summer he knows he can get to any team he wants to.”

If the results of this season ended up with James looking at the Clippers and the Heat were eventually forced to cooperate, league executives believe Miami would ask for Blake Griffin. But neither the Heat nor the Clippers at this juncture, slightly more than halfway through a season that finds both teams believing they’re capable of winning the title, are prepared to discuss such a hypothetical scenario as they try to keep the focus off the future.

Under any scenario, the Clippers would have to make another maneuver to make a sign-and-trade work, primarily to shed some salary to get under the luxury tax. But it is not that complicated. The bottom line is this: If the Clippers were interested and James got interested, there’s a deal that could be done whether it involves Griffin or another package of players.

It should also not be taken for granted the Heat will want to keep the status quo. While they certainly want to keep James, it is possible they will use the potential free agency of their stars to go shopping themselves and perhaps reshuffle their roster by actively seeking their own sign-and-trades.

James, Wade and Bosh all have the option to become free agents this summer and all have different situations. Wade, who just turned 32, has battled knee issues over the past few years. He would not be able to command the same $42 million he’s owed through 2016 in a new contract. The Heat, however, will likely ask him to opt out so they can perhaps extend and restructure his contract to help manage the rest of the team.

The Heat are facing the reality of being the first team in history to have to pay what is known as the repeater tax, an added penalty for being a luxury tax team four out of five years. To put this in perspective, this season the Heat are about $10 million over the tax line and paying about $15.5 million in taxes. If they are at the same area next year, they would pay about $26 million in taxes alone.

If Bosh, Wade and James all decline to accept pay cuts, the three of them will alone account for $61 million. If James and Bosh request pay increases, they can each make about $21 million, which is where you can see how the Heat would be greatly helped if Wade was willing to redo his deal and accept a pay cut. James, Wade and Bosh have worked well together and all seem content. But it is hard to predict how they will feel by the summer. If all three want to maximize their earnings, the Heat will be in a challenging position both in terms of money and flexibility in the coming seasons.

The Heat and general manager/cap specialist Andy Elisburg have handled the cap masterfully in the past but have needed the cooperation of players. Wade has already cautioned, though, not to expect history to repeat.

“There are different times and different mindsets that you deal with. That was 2010,” Wade said earlier this season. “I’m not saying that LeBron James or Chris Bosh, if they get the opportunity again, are going to leave $17 million on the table [as they did in 2010]. No one can say they should do that. You have to do what is best for you.”


VIDEO: LeBron James and Blake Griffin put on a show in L.A.

***

No. 2: Aldridge open to new deal with Blazers As has always been the case in the NBA, winning often does wonders to quash talk of either trade rumors or a player seeking greener pastures. A little less than two years ago, Blazers All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge was hearing his name tossed about in trade rumors. But with Portland fighting with Oklahoma City and San Antonio for the West’s top record, that buzz has died down and, in fact, gone the other direction. According to Ken Berger of CBSSports.com, Aldridge is reportedly open to signing a long-term extension with the Blazers, something that was previously thought to be a tough sell:

Back in Portland, the tale of Aldridge’s day-to-day happiness is big news. Here, in a quaint gym on the campus of Baruch College, it was the last thing on his mind — or anyone else’s.

But the reality is, Aldridge now openly discussing his desire to entertain a contract extension with the Trail Blazers should be big news. That’s because getting Aldridge to a place where he is surrounded by winning talent, with an organization that is well positioned to sustain its surprising success, was a monumental achievement.

“As a player I feel like I have a good mind-set about this, just making sure that I’m not taken for granted and making sure that we’re in a good place,” Aldridge told CBSSports.com on Tuesday after the Blazers practiced in Manhattan to prepare for Wednesday night’s game against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden.

After two straight years out of the playoffs and so much bad luck with Greg Oden and Brandon Roy, the Blazers are back. They’ve faded in January after an impossibly hot start, but GM Neil Olshey steadying what had been a sinking ship to the point where Aldridge now wants to stick around is nothing short of remarkable.

“Winning and happiness and making sure my worth is valued,” Aldridge said, when asked what he will prioritize when it comes time to decide his future. “It’s always nice to be noticed for doing good things.”

It was only a few months ago when word was spreading on the NBA grapevine that Aldridge had seen enough in Portland and wanted out. And truly, who could’ve blamed him? The Blazers’ window certainly appeared to have slammed shut, their decline all but assured.

But Olshey has done in Portland for Aldridge what he did for Chris Paul in Los Angeles: He made it a place where a star wants to stay. From the drafting of Damian Lillard to the hiring of Terry Stotts to the revamping of the bench this past summer, the Blazers are on a sustainable path. They’ve acquired talent and cap flexibility without squandering assets. They have front-office stability, too, after years of unrest.

Though he’ll make his third All-Star appearance later this month in New Orleans, this is the one Aldridge said he feels the best about.

“I’m just healthy,” he said. “Two summers ago, I had my hip scope done and I had to rehab from that. So last season I was thankful for being an All-Star, but I was still coming off that injury. This summer I was healthy. I had more time to work out, I got my conditioning up and I’ve just felt better.”

***

No. 3: New commish Silver backs Kings’ arena plans New NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has been on the job a week or so, and last night he took in the Raptors-Kings game from Sleep Train Arena. Just last week, the team released the first official renderings for their new arena downtown, which is scheduled to begin construction this summer. Silver obviously has seen the plans and as our own Scott Howard-Cooper reports, he’s impressed with what the future holds for the Kings:

Adam Silver on Wednesday attended his first game as commissioner and used Kings-Raptors at Sleep Train Arena as a symbolic gesture to show the league is as committed as ever to getting an arena built despite the transition away from Sacramento guardian angel David Stern.Silver, the long-time deputy who replaced Stern on Saturday, spoke with certainty that the downtown project would get completed, even as the issue appears headed to the courts after a group attempting to stop public funding for the facility submitted signatures to force a vote in a June election, only to have the petition thrown out on legal grounds. If anything, senior NBA officials, who previously accurately predicted looming lawsuits would have no impact on the decision between Sacramento and Seattle last spring, have said for months that the matter going to a public vote would result in a rousing affirmation in favor of the new arena, although with a cost to the city to put it on the ballot.

“I’m so confident because I’ve known Kevin Johnson for over 20 years,” Silver said. “I knew him as a player, I knew him as a broadcaster and obviously I know him as a mayor now. I’ve sat in literally dozens of meetings with lawyers, political advisors, political leaders, both from Sacramento and California, and talking to (Kings owner) Vivek (Ranadive) and his partners. I’m absolutely confident it’s going to get done.”

***

No. 4: Gay unsure if he’ll opt in with Kings — Since being traded from Toronto to Sacramento 19 games into the season, Rudy Gay has done a solid job with the Kings, averaging 20.8 ppg and averaging 52.5 percent while leading the team to an 11-14 mark (they started the season 6-14). Gay has a player option on his contract this summer, but as he tells ESPN.com’s Marc Stein in a brief Q&A session, he’s unsure if he’ll opt in or not:

Q: Why has the move made such a dramatic difference in your game individually?

A: I don’t know, man. I just think in Toronto we didn’t have enough time to actually get rolling. Here I’m just back to being me, that’s all.

Q: What exactly does “back to being me” mean?

A: Just being free. Just going out there and making plays for myself and others. Coach [Mike Malone] is putting me in different situations. He’s trusting me with the ball, trusting me to make plays for others, and also the guys around me are trusting me to do that for them.

Q: Which way are you leaning in terms of opting into your contract for next season or opting out?

A: I’m not sure. I have to go into the summer with my people, think about everything, weigh out the pros and cons. I don’t know yet. But Sacramento’s been great to me thus far. Obviously I’m trying to tune it all out right now. All I can think about right now is how great Sacramento’s been to me.

Q: How hard has it been to watch Toronto kind of take off without you?

A: It’s not [hard]. I love those guys. DeMar [DeRozan] just texted me five minutes ago … literally. We’ll always be brothers. That’s my little brother. I love to see him have this success [and make the East All-Star squad]. He’s been in the doghouse of the NBA for a long time. I think now he’s getting his just due.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Injured Rockets big man Omer Asik could be cleared to return to practice in 7-10 daysChris “Birdman” Andersen is beginning to find his rhythm again for the Heat … Magic Johnson says he’s plenty willing to help recruit free agents to the Lakers … The Nets expect to have Andrei Kirilenko and Andray Blatche in uniform tonight against the Spurs … Speaking of the Nets, point guard Shaun Livingston credits reading the book ‘Siddhartha’ with his turnaround this season … Kings big man DeMarcus Cousins called Bulls forward Mike Dunleavy a clown after the Bulls-Kings game Sunday, and Dunleavy didn’t like that too much …

ICYMI of the Night: Lotsa folks got dunked on last night (we’re looking at you Greg Steimsma, Zaza Pachulia and John Henson, Robbie Hummel, Meyers Leonard and Jonas Jerebko), but our favorite play was this twisting reverse layup off an alley-oop by Blake Griffin


VIDEO: Blake Griffin contorts himself to finish off the alley-oop with a layup

Kings’ Cousins: ‘I Know I Deserve A Spot’


VIDEO: Check out who made the West reserves for the All-Star Game

DALLAS – Kings center DeMarcus Cousins believes he is an All-Star.

“I feel like I’ve played at a high level. Do I feel like I can do better? Absolutely. But I feel like I was pretty deserving of an All-Star spot,” Cousins said Friday night prior to Sacramento attempting to break a five-game losing streak against the Dallas Mavericks.

“I don’t know what it is,” the 6-foot-11 Cousins said when asked why he thinks enough Western Conference coaches didn’t select him to be one of seven reserves. “But I know looking at it, I know I deserve a spot.”

He won’t even get to take out his frustrations on the court against a team he’s destroyed to the tune of 19.4 points and 10.8 rebounds over his career, and torched for 32 points and 19 rebounds in the Kings’ blowout win over Dallas last month. Cousins is missing his fifth consecutive game with a sprained left ankle. He said he set himself back a bit by working too hard to make a quick return. The team is now preaching patience. Coach Michael Malone said Cousins will likely miss Saturday’s game at San Antonio with a possible return targeted for Monday night’s home game against Chicago.

Two weeks later, the 23-year-old will get unwanted rest when the NBA converges in New Orleans on Feb. 14-16 for All-Star weekend. With three forwards — Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin and Kevin Love — voted in by fans as “frontcourt” starters, the coaches selected LaMarcus Aldridge, Dwight Howard and Dirk Nowitzki as reserves.

“I’m not surprised,” Cousins said dryly. “At the end of the day it’s an individual stat, so when they read you off as an eight-time All-Star, they don’t include your team’s record. So, like I said, it didn’t surprise me at all.”

That was Cousins’ way of suggesting that his personal improvement and All-Star worthy season shouldn’t be penalized by his team’s 15-30 record entering Friday’s game. He leads all centers in scoring at 22.6 (on a career-high 48.8 percent shooting) and ranks fourth in rebounding at 11.6. He’s first in steals (1.78) among centers and ninth among all players. His usage rate of 33.0 percent is the highest in the league, meaning almost everything the Kings do offensively goes their big man, who can score in the low block and step out and hit the mid-range jumper.

The league’s eradication of the center position on the All-Star ballot didn’t help Cousins’ cause. Under the traditional positional format, Houston’s Howard would have been tabbed as the starting center in the fan vote and coaches likely would have had a hard time leaving Cousins off the team as the backup center.

“That did affect a lot,” Cousins said. “But even with that being said, I still deserved it.”

The Kings got off to a rough start to the season, made a minor trade for young Timberwolves castoff Derrick Williams followed by a major deal that netted Rudy Gay. After a transition period, Sacramento put together it’s best stretch of the season with a win over Miami, a down-to-the-wire loss at San Antonio followed by a win at Houston, which they’ve defeated twice.

After disappointing let-down losses at home to Philadelphia and Charlotte, the Kings beat Portland. Soon after came the unfortunate luck of concurrent injuries to Cousins and Gay that has again made life hard on the West’s last-place team.

As deserving as Cousins believes he is for a first All-Star nod, the talent in the West simply runs too deep to squeeze on the 12-man roster. Howard and Aldridge were locks. And Nowitzki is so respected by the coaches that they weren’t going to leave him off the team after averaging 21.1 points coming off a rough 2012-13 season in which he had knee surgery and his 11-year All-Star run ended.

Until the league expands the All-Star rosters or the Kings turn around their fortunes, All-Star disappointment could continue to follow Cousins. He has a slim chance of sneaking onto the 2014 team. New commissioner Adam Silver will pick a replacement for injured guard Kobe Bryant, and a replacement will be needed for point guard Chris Paul, if he hasn’t returned from injury.

Suns point guard Goran Dragic will likely be the first player added. Dragic is having a brilliant season on the league’s most surprising team. The Suns are 28-18, yet that still couldn’t get him onto the team, another nod to the conference’s overall talent pool. If Paul is out, Cousins and New Orleans’ Anthony Davis will likely be the next two players on Silver’s list.

“It is fuel to my fire,” Cousins said. “I’ve been doubted my whole life. Nothing’s ever come easy for me. So this not coming easy is not a surprise; keep grinding and at the end of the day I’m going to get in.”

Six Worthy Below-The-Radar All-Stars

DeMar DeRozan is the Raptors' leading scorer, at more than 21 points a game (Rocky Widner/NBAE)

DeMar DeRozan is the Raptors’ leading scorer, at more than 21 points a game (Rocky Widner/NBAE)

We know the fan balloting to select the NBA All-Star Game starters is a beauty pageant more than a referendum on results.

Kobe Bryant, playing only six games this season, leading the balloting for the West backcourt and Rajon Rondo, who hasn’t played at all, ranked in the top six in the East means all that is missing is a sash and tiara.

With less than a week left in the voting for the starting lineups, it will be up to the coaches — they name the reserves — to fill in the blanks and rectify some of the slights. But there’s still more than handful of deserving players who could be left out. We’ll call them the All-Fars, as in too far under the radar:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Paul Millsap, F, Hawks — When teammate Al Horford was lost for the season with a torn pectoral muscle, it certainly made life a little more difficult for everyone on the Hawks. But it also shed some light on Millsap’s contributions. After six years in Utah, the Jazz let Millsap walk in the name of their youth movement. So he took his lunch-pail attitude to Atlanta as perhaps the best free-agent bargain of last summer. He’s rung up 16 double-doubles in the first 37 games this season and, along with point guard Jeff Teague, is responsible for keeping the Hawks in the No. 3 spot in the East.

Arron Afflalo (Fernando Medina/NBAE)

Arron Afflalo (Fernando Medina/NBAE)

Arron Afflalo, G, Magic — Location, location, location. Afflalo is hardly in the prime real estate spot for getting notice with the also-running Magic. There was a great deal of speculation that he would have to be traded before the start of the season to make way for rookie Victor Oladipo. But the Magic are glad they resisted the urge and kept him around. He’s averaging more than 21 points, four assists and four rebounds per game and shooting better than 40 percent from behind the 3-point line. Is it too much of a stretch to label him the second-best shooting guard in the East behind Paul George? Dwyane Wade certainly gets the notoriety and the votes, but Afflalo has the credentials to be in the conversation.

DeMar DeRozan, G, Raptors — If Afflalo is held back by Orlando being mired at the bottom of the East standings, how much of a bump can DeRozan get from being the lead dog pulling the wagon for the Atlantic Division-leading Raptors? That is odd just to type. But there’s no question that Toronto has come together in the aftermath of the Rudy Gay trade. The 24-year-old DeRozan has ably stepped up to carry the offensive load and has shined in big wins at Oklahoma City and at home over the Pacers. He’s scoring, passing and rebounding. The only thing missing is a dependable 3-point stroke.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Ty Lawson, G, Nuggets — With the injuries to Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul, it seems that the All-Star door is finally going to swing open for Stephen Curry. But that still leaves a gigantic logjam of point guards in the West. Never mind the populist voting that has the likes of Steve Nash and Jeremy Lin in the top 10. Lawson still has plenty of competition from Damian Lillard and Tony Parker, both of whom play for teams that are significantly higher up in the standings. The Nuggets had to do an extreme makeover with the departure of Andre Iguodala and the loss of Danilo Gallinari to a knee injury. Lawson has to carry the lion’s share of the load and is the only player on the roster averaging more than 30 minutes per game. He said he didn’t like coach Brian Shaw’s system at the start of the season, but he has thrived in it.

Nicolas Batum (Sam Forencich/NBAE)

Nicolas Batum (Sam Forencich/NBAE)

Nicolas Batum, F, Trail Blazers — He’s a victim of his own teammates. While the Blazers’ surprising rise in the standings is giving LaMarcus Aldridge his star turn, and Damian Lillard is constantly providing his own end-of-game highlights, the young Frenchman stands in the background and rarely draws more more attention than the wallpaper. He’s still long and lean, but seems to have grown in confidence with his offense. As part of the bombs-away Portland attack, he’s firing up at least five 3-pointers per game and connecting at a 40 percent clip. He’s also playing more of a role as a distributor and remains an excellent finisher on the Blazers’ break with his speed and length. Likely the only way Batum will ever get his due is if he helps take his team all the way to The Finals, where nobody gets overlooked.

Anthony Davis, F, Pelicans — A year ago, it was easy to look past the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft because his coach did more to stop him with a lack of playing time than any defender on the court. But the reins are off now and Davis has become a real force at both ends of the court, averaging just under 20 points, nine rebounds and more than two blocked shots per game. Coach Monty Williams says there is virtually nothing he doesn’t trust Davis to do on the court now. The 20-year-old, who’s expected to be the foundation of the franchise for the next decade, has had to shoulder even more of the load due to the spate of injuries that have taken down Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans and Ryan Anderson. He’s got a particularly tough road to travel to the All-Star Game in his hometown of New Orleans with Aldridge, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki, to name a few, blocking his path. Plus, he’s playing in the depths of the standings. But growth in the shadows is still growth.

Morning Shootaround — Jan. 13


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 12

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Players only meeting works for Kings | Conley at crunch time in Memphis | Teletovic pokes LeBron | Blazers not one of the Bynum 8

No. 1: Kings players-only meeting works wonders – Three straight wins in most places isn’t worth going crazy over, not during the marathon that is an 82-game NBA season. In Sacramento, however, it’s definitely going to raise eyebrows. A players-only meeting has worked wonders for the Kings, who routed Cleveland Sunday to polish off their season-best win streak. Is this potentially a turning point for a Kings team that has dealt with adversity and distractions for months now? Time will tell. But as Jason Jones of the Sacramento Bee notes, an epic beatdown of the Cavaliers is a good place to start:

The victory margin equaled a 44-point win over Denver on Dec. 12, 1992, and trailed only a 56-point win over Philadelphia on Jan. 2, 1993 and a 58-point victory over Dallas on Dec. 29, 1992.

The Kings led by 46 points, their biggest advantage of the season, and tallied season highs in points, 3-pointers (15) and blocked shots (eight).

Defensively, the Kings (13-22) held Cleveland to 11 points in the third quarter and 30 points in the second half, both season lows by a Sacramento opponent. The 80 points were also a season low, bettering the 83 the Kings gave up against Orlando on Friday.

In the third quarter, the Cavaliers (13-24) made only four shots and shot 20 percent, both season lows for a Kings opponent.

“This young team is growing and I’m just happy to be a part of it,” Rudy Gay said. “We can become a really good team. It takes hard work and we’re working hard, and coach has been great. As long as we keep going on that same path, we should be a good team.”

The defensive numbers are what pleased coach Michael Malone. After allowing 32 points in the first quarter, the Kings began to defend better, leading to the dominant second half.

“Consistency is a word we’ve used a lot,” Malone said. “It’s something we haven’t shown we can (accomplish) most of the season, but in our last three games I think the defense has been consistent, the communication has been consistent, the effort’s been there. We had breakdowns without a doubt, but our breakdowns are happening less often at the moment, and that’s a step in the right direction.”



VIDEO: Isaiah Thomas wins his duel with Kyrie Irving and his Kings get the win

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No. 2: Conley is the man at crunch time for Grizzlies – Whether you realize it or not, Mike Conley has become a stabilizing force for the a Memphis Grizzlies team that sorely needed one. Even with the likes of Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen on the roster, the young point guard emerged from a humbling start to his career to evolve into the sort of floor leader that pushes the pile the way he did against the Atlanta Hawks Sunday night.  Conley is on a tear right now that suggests he might be ready for even bigger and better things, writes Ronald Tillery of the Commercial Appeal:

Conley continued arguably the most productive week of his NBA career in leading the Griz with 21 points, 13 assists and four steals. He posted 30 or more points in each of the two previous games.

The Griz blew a 13-point lead with Conley on the bench. The Hawks began connecting on 3-pointers and used a 16-0 run that bridged the third and fourth quarters to wrestle away the momentum and take an 80-77 lead.

The game was tied at 77 when Conley returned to replace rookie reserve Nick Calathes with 10:38 left. About 20 seconds later, Conley whipped a pass to James Johnson out of a pick-and-roll and Johnson finished the play with an emphatic slam dunk. The basket was the start of a 16-4 run that allowed the Griz to regain the lead for good.

Conley set up Courtney Lee and Mike Miller for 3-pointers, Zach Randolph for a point-blank shot, and created his own scoring opportunities by zipping past defenders and into the paint.

“Once (the Hawks) started making a little bit of a run, from the bench, I noticed that we weren’t getting to the paint,” said Conley, who had eight points and six and six assists in the final period. “We weren’t getting to the rim, to the free throw line or making plays at the rim. It shows our aggressiveness when we are going in-and-out of the paint. We got just little bit too lax in that stage of the game. I just wanted to come in and act on that.”

Conley is averaging 27.3 points in his last three games, which have resulted in an overtime loss to San Antonio and wins over Phoenix and Atlanta.

“He has really taken responsibility, not for running the team but really as a leader for the team and defining whether we are successful or not,” [Grizzlies coach Dave] Joerger said. “He has taken the steps to say, ‘I’m going to be up front, and not pushing from within. I’m not going to be facilitating. I’m going to be out front and be a leader and those who follow will follow and those who don’t will get left behind.’ He is so much more assertive in his approach and our guys feed off of that.”

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No. 3: Teletovic pokes the LeBron bearIn the event that the Miami Heat and Brooklyn Nets meet in the postseason (yes, still months away but work with us here), Mirza Teletovic might want to be careful with his poking of LeBron James. He’s still having a little fun at LeBron’s expense in the aftermath of their dust-up during the Nets win over the Heat last weeek in that TNT showdown. His good hard foul on LeBron, when he went around the neck to prevent an uninterrupted layup attempt, prompted plenty of bickering and back and forth about not only the foul and LeBron’s immediate reaction. Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald went so far as to suggest that LeBron’s long-term response will have an impact in the playoffs:

Teletovic went high around James’ neck, yes, but it appeared on replay that Teletovic was only trying to prevent James from completing a three-point play. Teletovic didn’t grab James, but James took exception and lunged at Teletovic following the play. Michael Beasley and others restrained James while Nets players rushed in to hold back Teletovic, who reacted to the sequence by flashing a smile.

“Not a basketball play” was James’ constant complaint during the 2013 playoffs, especially during the series against the Chicago Bulls. Bulls center Nazr Mohammed was ejected during Game 3 for shoving James to the ground during a fast break.

For years, the postseason scouting report on James has called for opponents to rough up the MVP in the hopes of knocking him off his game.

Although hard fouls are nothing new for James, Teletovic defended himself after the game and then had a little fun with the incident on Twitter.

“It was just a foul,” Teletovic said. “I just tried to make a foul, and he was coming down the court. He shouldn’t be reacting like that. It’s just basketball.”

Teletovic then did something he might come to regret. The European needled James on Twitter when he posted a screen shot of the scuffle and wrote, “Five in a row…Go @BrooklynNets :) lol ;)” Teletovic then changed the background of his Twitter page to a large picture of the incident.

https://twitter.com/Teletovic33/status/421920903006789632


VIDEO: Mirza Teletovic and LeBron James scuffle

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No. 4: Count the Trail Blazers out of the Andrew Bynum sweepstakes – The Andrew Bynum 8 — the reported eight teams interested in pursuing the big man’s services for the remainder of this season — does not include that surprise outfit in Portland. Chris Haynes of CSNNW.com reports that the Trail Blazers, true contenders this season in a loaded Western Conference playoff chase, have not registered any legitimate interest in Bynum:

The Portland Trail Blazers could use an extra big man on their bench, but if they did decide to make a play for one between now and the trade deadline, it won’t be for center Andrew Bynum.

CSNNW.com was informed by a well-placed league source that Portland is not one of the reported eight teams interested in Bynum. Another source backed it up saying, “Portland has not inquired” about the services of the 7-foot free agent Bynum.

This revelation isn’t much of a surprise.

There are a couple of reasons why Portland opted not to take such a risk: the concern regarding Bynum’s character and how he would fit inside a locker room that has gelled seamlessly, had to have been a huge road block. Bynum has had his share of knee problems, a road Portland is reluctant to travel down.

The other obstacle is Portland is already carrying 15, the maximum amount of players allowed on a roster. If they were thinking of adding a player such as Bynum, someone would have to be released.

And being that every Trail Blazer on the roster has a guaranteed contract for this season, if Portland did decided to waive a player to make room for a free agent, they would have to eat the contract of that released player.

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Memphis basketball coach Josh Pastner claims there might be film of Wilt Chamberlain‘s 100-point game … Deron Williams will not make the trip to London with the Brooklyn Nets … Lakers on the verge of getting injured shooting guard (Xavier Henry not Kobe Bryant) back this week … Speaking of the Lakers, GM Mitch Kupchak says “taking” is never discussed in Lakerland.

ICYMI of The Night: Who, you ask, is Jeff Ayres? He would be the former Jeff Pendergraph of the San Antonio Spurs, the same man you here getting his Dunk of the Night on in a win over the Minnesota Timberwolves:


VIDEO: Ayres throws it down over the Timberwolves

Ujiri The Ultimate Chemistry Teacher




VIDEO: DeMar DeRozan and the Raptors are on a roll right now, winners of four straight games

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Masai Ujiri‘s front office peers around the NBA should pay close attention to the way the Toronto Raptors’ star goes about his business. While some franchise architects like to work their so-called magic with the public watching intently, Ujiri has done a masterful job (first in Denver and now in Toronto) tweaking chemistry and getting results.

In fact, Ujiri has proven himself to be the ultimate chemistry teacher these days in terms of knowing how to tweak a roster just right. The reigning NBA Executive of the Year, an honor voted on by his peers, Ujiri is making a strong push for repeat honors with the way the Raptors are playing since the Rudy Gay trade went down.

They are 9-3 and winners of eight of their last 10 games since moving Gay to Sacramento Dec. 9. It was a move designed to give the Raptors long-term flexibility and not necessarily an immediate jolt that has helped them climb all the way up to the No. 4 spot in the Eastern Conference playoff chase.

But Ujiri has a way of studying a roster, figuring out what works and what doesn’t and then being fearless in his attempts to change things for the better. Since Gay was jettisoned, the Raptors have scored huge wins over the likes of Dallas and Chicago, and most recently in Oklahoma City (where they handed the West-best Thunder their first home loss of the season) and kicked off 2014 with an impressive home win over the East-best Indiana Pacers.

As much as this is about the fine work being done by Raptors coach Dwane Casey and his staff, and of course, the contributions of a roster full of grinders like DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Amir Johnson, Jonas Valanciunas, Terrence Ross, Greivis Vasquez and others, this is about the man who put it all together.

Ujiri just happens to have the magic touch right now. And if you don’t believe it, just look at the hard times his former team has fallen upon in his absence. The Denver Nuggets have lost eight straight games, their longest such skid since the end of the 2002-03 season. Veteran point guard Andre Miller turned the heat up even more by ripping first-year coach Brian Shaw after Wednesday’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, making matters worse in Denver while Ujiri has his new team soaring.

A boss like Ujiri keeps those dustups contained, as best can be, or at least at a minimum and away from the public. You don’t have to worry about those sorts of altercations when working conditions are at a premium. And Ujiri has freed up virtually every key rotation player on the Raptors’ roster to do what he does best after the Gay trade.

DeRozan and Lowry in particular are allowed to play more to their natural strengths on the perimeter, while Valanciunas has become more of a focal point as well. Role players like Johnson, the ridiculously underrated Vasquez, who came over from Sacramento in the trade, and young journeyman forwards Tyler Hansbrough and Patrick Patterson have become critical pieces in the Raptors’ current run.

“No one on this team is selfish; everyone accepts their roles,” Patterson told reporters after the Raptors outslugged Paul George, Roy Hibbert and the Pacers to kick off the New Year. “No one wants to get more shots, no one wants to do more of this, no one is jealous of another player … we all understand what we have to do in order to make this machine keep rolling smoothly.”

The man responsible for making sure that machine runs without a hitch, of course, is Ujiri. He understands, as well or better than most right now, that team chemistry trumps just about everything else that goes on inside a team’s fabric in this day and age. Even the Miami Heat needed a year (and a Finals defeat at the hands of a Mavericks team that had off the charts chemistry) to figure that out.


VIDEO: The Raptors took it to the Pacers, kicking off 2014 in style before the home crowd

It’s Time For New Year’s Resolutions

VIDEO: The Starters review the year so far

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(more…)

Morning Shootaround – Jan. 1


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Dec. 31

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Suns willing to pay Bledsoe | Raptors react to Gay trade | Raptors rolling | Malone tutors Thomas

No. 1: Suns willing to pay Bledsoe – The Phoenix Suns and Eric Bledsoe have a good thing going this season. With Bledsoe at the helm, Phoenix is off to a surprising 19-11 start and would be the fifth seed in the Western Conference if the playoffs started today. The Suns realize it will cost them to retain Bledsoe during free agency this offseason. But, according to Ramona Shelburne of ESPLA.com, they are willing to spend:

“What he’s done so far is what we thought he could do,” [GM Ryan] McDonough said.

But they just didn’t know for sure.

That’s why when it came time to lock Bledsoe into a contract extension, the Oct. 31 deadline passed without a resolution, making Bledsoe a restricted free agent this summer.

“Sometimes that works out and both parties think it’s a good deal for them. Other times it doesn’t,” McDonough said. “Obviously we don’t have a whole lot of money committed for the future, we don’t have a lot of long-term contracts on our books. So we’ll have no problem stepping up and paying Eric whatever it takes to keep him.”

Whatever it takes?

“Correct,” McDonough said. “Any reasonable offer.

“We have some advantages. We’re able to give him another year, five instead of four if we choose. We’re able to give him higher-percentage increases than other teams too. And then if another team does make an offer, we can always match that. So we feel like we’re holding the cards with Eric, and more importantly, I think Eric’s had a good experience here so far. He’s played well and the team has played fairly well. I think he kind of likes what we’re doing.”

For his part, Bledsoe said he’s fine with the situation.

“I was telling [my agent] over the summer, if the contract doesn’t happen I’m ready to play a full season,” Bledsoe said. “I was confident because I’d worked hard all summer, and I knew that I was going to play a lot more than I did the last three years, so I was ready.”

When that came to bear, Bledsoe said he put the situation out of his mind.

“I’ve just got to play,” he said. “I’m focused. I need to keep moving. I’m not worried about [the contract]. If I get worked up about it, I won’t be focused on the game.”

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No. 2: Raptors React to Gay Trade — Mostly every NBA player realizes that this league is a business and trades happen. Still, this knowledge does not make receiving the news of a trade any easier for players to hear. NBA-TV Canada offers us a rare look at how the Toronto Raptors reacted to the news of a trade on a recent episode of their series Open Gym (reaction starts around the 10:00 minute mark):

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No. 3: Raptors RollingThose same Raptors who were shocked to hear about their friends being traded have bounced back just fine. They’ve won five of their last six games and appear to be a rare team in the Eastern Conference who can actually win. And they’re doing it with toughness, a word rarely used to describe the Raptors in recent seasons, writes Doug Smith of the Toronto Star:

Once again turning up the intensity, the attention to detail, the effort and the toughness when it came down to winning time, the Raptors rolled in another excellent fourth quarter, holding the Bulls to just four field goals on 24 shots in the final 12 minutes of an 85-79 victory.

They did it in what is becoming typical Raptors fashion: Turning the screws when the game got tight.

“These are the kinds of games you have to play if you’re going to be serious about being a playoff team,” coach Dwane Casey said after the Raptors won for the fifth time in the last six games and seventh time in the last nine.

“We have to play with that kind of toughness, that physicality, if we’re serious about being a playoff team.”

Toughness was the buzzword of the night for a game that at times was barely watchable. There were no moments of sustained offensive flow, no fast breaks or transition baskets; it was tough, hard-nosed, beat-’em-up basketball and the Raptors never retreated an inch.

Digest that for a moment: A team that used to have a reputation for softness more than anything, hit first, hit often, hung around and beat a veteran team at its own game.

“You have to meet their force with force if you’re serious about winning,” said Casey. “We did that and we have to continue to do that and I’m not going to let up. I’m not going to relent from that because that’s who we are, it’s who we’ve got to be. I know, to win in this league you have to be a physical, bad-behind team.”

[Demar] DeRozan was, for one of the few times this season, a non-factor offensively because every time he got near the ball, a second or third defender was there to harass him.

“If I have to be the decoy and that helps the next person on this team get an open shot, I’m all for it,” he said. “It’s at the point now where I know I can score the ball whenever I want, but if they don’t need me to do that at that point in time, then I will do whatever I can, whether it’s rebounding, creating a shot for a teammate or whatever it is to get us a win, that’s what I’m going to have to do.”

That attitude is all-encompassing with this group right now.

“I think the guys in this locker room believe — we believe in each other, we believe in what we’re trying to do,” said Lowry. “I think we know we have a chance to do some things and we can take care of business when times are tough. We’re showing the team camaraderie and spirit that we have, we’re all happy for each other.”

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No. 4: Malone Tutors ThomasSacramento Kings point guard Isaiah Thomas has proven so far this year that his strong play last season was not just a fluke. He’s averaging 19.2 points, 6.1 assists and 1.4 steals per game on an impressive 46.5 percent shooting from the field and 42.5 percent from three-point. He credits a lot of his success to the relationship he’s established with new head coach Michael Malone. Jason Jones of the Sacramento Bee has the lowdown:

The partnership between Michael Malone and Isaiah Thomas continues to develop as the coach consults the point guard on the best ways to improve the Kings.Malone said fixing some of the Kings’ late-game problems comes down to him calling better plays, and that’s where his relationship with Thomas can help.

“Those things take time,” Malone said. “And one thing I like about Isaiah is we’ve had a lot of conversations, a lot of dialogue, and he’s open, wants to learn and he’s trying to figure it out. It’s not a lack of effort. It’s just a matter of going through it and picking the spots for when do I attack.”

Thomas has referenced Malone and himself more often when talking about plays the Kings should run and the best way to get the ball to players. He and Malone spend a lot of time talking about the Kings.

“On flights sitting together, before practice, after practice, we’ve had a lot of conversations,” Malone said. “Before games where we’ve sat and spent whether it’s been 20 minutes, 45 minutes just talking about the game, players, where guys are most effective, where he can pick his spots. We’ve had a number of conversations.”

Malone’s goal is to create synergy between himself and Thomas because he plays most of the minutes at point guard.

“Isaiah’s got to be an extension of me on the court,” Malone said. “He’s got to make sure he’s getting guys looks, know what plays to call, now what matchups he’s going to exploit and how to get those guys going where they’re most effective, and that’s part of his maturation of going from being a scoring guard off the bench to being a playmaking guard.”

Malone said consulting with Thomas or any other player is part of his job and he wants his players’ input.

“I preach trust a lot, and if I don’t trust my players, it’s just a hollow word,’ Malone said.

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Kyle Korver has now hit a three-point shot in 101 straight gamesKevin Garnett went without a field goal for just the second time in his careerKyrie Irving will undergo an MRI on Wednesday after feeling a ‘pop’ in his left knee

ICYMI of The Night: Paul George decided to end 2013 on a strong note with this dunk toward the conclusion of yesterday’s game against the Cavaliers:


VIDEO: Play of the Day: Paul George

Twice-Traded Vasquez Helping Raptors


VIDEO: Kyle Lowry scores 22 points as the Raptors stun the Thunder

DALLAS – Greivis Vasquez truly believed he was on the brink of great things in New Orleans. He had the best season of his career and the franchise was quickly picking itself up from the Chris Paul trade, positioned to burst into a new era as the Pelicans.

The Venezuelan-born Vasquez, a 6-foot-6 point guard, loved everything about it: The team, the city and his personal breakout — career bests of 13.9 ppg and 9.0 apg. The thickly bearded, 26-year-old believed he was only scratching the surface. He believed that he, Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson and Anthony Davis could form the backbone of a hard-working club that would do right by the city and even, as he said last year, rise together in the mold of Oklahoma City and soon be a team to be reckoned with in the West.

Then came Draft night and the three-team trade Vasquez never saw coming.

“I guess you can’t turn down an offer for a Jrue Holiday,” Vasquez told NBA.com last Friday night prior to scoring 14 points in 15 minutes in Toronto’s overtime win against the Mavericks. “I felt like we had the same numbers. He was an All-Star and all that stuff, all that crap. Like I say, I’m really thankful because [New Orleans coach] Monty Williams gave me a chance. That whole franchise was first class and still is. It was such a great experience for me to just make a name.”

Holiday, fresh off his first All-Star season with Philadelphia, was NOLA’s point-guard prize. Vasquez went to Sacramento to start at point guard. Eighteen games in and he was gone again. The Kings’ sluggish start convinced new ownership and management to reach for Toronto’s maligned, but tempting small forward Rudy Gay, himself now twice traded in the past 11 months. Vasquez headed north of the border to another foundering franchise where starting point guard Kyle Lowry has swirled in trade winds since the Gay deal.

Funny, though, that just as the Gay trade seemed a weighted strategy to clear cap space and sink the season for prime Draft position, Vasquez and his quickly bonded teammates have turned the tables, winning four of five, including Sunday night’s handing of a first home loss to the West-leading Oklahoma City Thunder. Toronto will try to make it three in a row against West competition tonight at San Antonio (8:30 p.m. ET, League Pass).

“We got a great group of guys. We’re just here to do our job,” Vasquez said. “The media and everybody is going to have their own opinions. We just have to go out there and play and play hard, have fun. We can’t really guarantee that we’re going to get every win. But we can guarantee you that we are going to play hard and play the right way.”

In five games with Toronto, Vasquez has averaged 9.8 ppg, 4.0 apg and 2.8 mpg in only 18.6 mpg, far off the 34.4 mpg he averaged last season with New Orleans, and a chunk below the 25.8 he averaged starting for the Kings.

“It’s been rough, but this is one of those years I’ve got to keep grinding and keep working. I’ll be a restricted free agent [this summer] and we’ll see what happens,” Vasquez said. “It’s just the business. At first Sacramento was talking about building a future with me and then all of a sudden I get traded. If I’m going to get traded [again] it’s going to be this year because I am going to be restricted. I am going to have to sign with somebody and find myself a home.”

The Raptors, flush with added bench depth from the trade, have life. They’re just 11-14, but they’re also back in first place in the woeful Atlantic Division after Sunday’s win. Coach Dwane Casey, working in his uncertain final year, said earning the franchise’s first postseason appearance since 2008 is the only goal.

“We’re at a crossroads with our organization, which way we are going to go,” Casey said Friday night at Dallas. “Right now we’re fighting like crap for the playoffs. I mean we’re right there. I know those guys in the locker room don’t want to hear anything else but competing for the playoffs because it’s all up for grabs.”

Same goes for Vasquez’s future. On his fourth team in four seasons,  Vasquez said he’s ready to plant some roots, somewhere.

“The biggest thing for me is just being happy and enjoying playing basketball,” he said. “I don’t think I was really enjoying playing basketball in Sacramento, so here I feel like I can re-find my identity and the way I play, the things I can do. Other than that, I can’t really control what is going to happen.”