Posts Tagged ‘Shane Battier’

Morning Shootaround — April 7


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played April 7

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Frank Vogel under fire in Indy? | Durant passes MJ … Suns pop Thunder | Warriors Jackson knows winning cures all | Battier still intent on proving his worth after all these years | Trail Blazers bolster Olshey’s bid for Executive of the Year

No. 1: Pacers coach Vogel under fire as slide continues – The Indiana Pacers’ 20-18 record over the past three months has thrown not only their season into a tailspin but also raised questions about their future under head coach Frank Vogel, at least in the eyes of some. Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star raises some startling questions about Vogel’s future with the franchise after yet another disastrous performance, a drubbing at the hands of the Atlanta Hawks Sunday night on their home floor. Benching Roy Hibbert for all but nine minutes, and Hibbert’s bristling during and afterwards, certainly adds more fuel to the drama that has become the Pacers’ season … one that doesn’t appear to be headed for a positive finish:

We know the Indiana Pacers are in trouble, big trouble, BIG trouble, but the question must be asked: Is Frank Vogel in trouble?

That might sound absurd given the job he’s done since he took over as an interim coach. The feeling here is, he’s this team’s long-term coach and should be allowed to correct the many things that have gone wrong with his team the last two months.

But know this: Vogel is not Larry Bird‘s guy.

Bird was hesitant to fire Jim O’Brien in the first place, and even after Vogel turned the team around and got them to play competitively in the playoffs against the Chicago Bulls, it took a couple of months before Bird was willing to give Vogel the full-time job. If you remember, Bird wanted Vogel to hire a big-time, experienced assistant, specifically Brian Shaw, before giving him the job.

Remember, too, that in mid-March, Bird took a swipe at Vogel during a four-game losing streak, opining that Vogel wasn’t hard enough on his team at times. Vogel said the comments didn’t bother him; I’m not convinced that’s the truth.

Would Bird come down from the front office and take over for the post-season?

Would he put it in the hands of Nate McMillan, the former Seattle head coach who is a Vogel assistant?

Bird didn’t put this team together to watch it go into the tank. From the moment the season began, he said, “We’re all in” while saying anything short of the NBA Finals would be a disappointment.

It was interesting, then, that in the midst of the Pacers’ humiliating 107-88 home loss to the Atlanta Hawks – winners of eight of their previous 29 games, by the way – Vogel channeled his inner Bird. With the Pacers trailing 17-3 and 6:05 remaining in a brutal first quarter, Vogel benched the entire starting five.

Hallelujah.

“They’re not getting it done,” Vogel said. “They’re not getting it done, we have to go to someone else, see if someone else can get it done.”

Vogel then did another un-Vogel-like thing to start the second half: He benched Roy Hibbert. Hallelujah, again. Hibbert was terrible, going 0-for-5 without a single rebound in 9 ½ minutes.

After the game, Vogel spun it by saying that he was thinking about resting Hibbert before the start of Sunday night’s game. Then, after watching Hibbert struggle – and watching somebody named Pero Antic light him up from the perimeter – Vogel pulled the plug.

Key word there being spun.

“I considered resting Roy before tonight’s game because he looks worn down,” Vogel said during a short, terse post-game press conference. “He’s a 7-2 player that’s played every game this year, which is very rare. He looks to me to be worn down. He’s giving good effort, but he looks to be to be worn down…I decided to play him, but when he got off to a slow start, I decided to rest him.”

Rest him? Now he’s just trying to spare Hibbert’s feelings. There’s no way Vogel would have rested Hibbert in a game that Pacers absolutely had to win in order to remain in the hunt for the No. 1 seed. No … way.


VIDEO: Paul George and the Pacers try to explain yet another humbling defeat

***

No. 2: Durant passes Jordan with 41st game of 25 or more but Thunder can’t stop Suns — What was supposed to be a night to celebrate Kevin Durant and his scoring streak — he passed Michael Jordan with his 41st consecutive game with 25 or more points — turned out to be yet another stellar performance from Goran Dragic, Gerald Green, P.J. Tucker and the stubborn Phoenix Suns team that refuses to exit the playoff chase in the Western Conference. The Suns win also highlighted a glaring deficiency the Thunder have been struggling to shore up with the playoffs just days away. Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman explains:

At a time when the Thunder is supposed to be fine-tuning for the playoffs, Oklahoma City still can’t seem to figure out how to be sharp defensively. Opposing guards are still slicing through the lane and opposing shooters are still left alone far too frequently.

Suns forward P.J. Tucker became the latest bit player to burn the Thunder, scoring 11 of his career-high 22 points in the fourth quarter. He made seven of nine shots, including four of five 3-point attempts. All four of Tucker’s 3s came from the corner, where Kevin Durant continuously got caught sagging off too far and closing out too slow.

The Suns sprayed in 11 of 23 3-pointers.

“We gave up too many open 3s in the corner,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “That’s a 40 percent shot, so we don’t want to come off on the corner. They roll hard. They penetrate so they get you in a position where you have to make sure you are stopping the ball first. And we didn’t get out to their shooters. But those are all correctable things, things that we’ve done well all year. We just had some bad moments tonight.”

Gerald Green, who erupted for a career-high 41 points in the Thunder’s last trip to the desert, finished with 24 points. He poured in 11 in the third quarter, nine of them coming on 3s.

When it wasn’t Tucker or Green taking it to the Thunder, it was Goran Dragic, the crafty point guard who gave Phoenix three 20-point scorers. He added a team-high 26 points, with 19 of them coming in a first half in which the Suns scored 62 points on 58.7 percent shooting.

Dragic was complemented in the backcourt by Eric Bledsoe, who missed the last meeting while recovering from injury. Bledsoe scored 18 points on 6-for-13 shooting.

“They give you trouble because they’re small, they attack, they get to the free throw line, they can make 3s and they’re desperate right now,” Brooks said. “They’re fighting for their playoff lives.”


VIDEO: Thunder star Kevin Durant surpasses Michael Jordan with his 41st straight game of 25 or more points

***

No. 3: Warriors Jackson knows he has to “just win baby” — Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson knows what he’s dealing with, and it’s a simple scenario. Win and all of the drama fades. It’s like the old Oakland Raiders saying goes, “just win baby.” (It certainly helps to have Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, the Splash Brothers, working overtime for you.) And for Jackson’s self-preservation on the job, the Warriors need to keep piling up the wins (now and into the postseason) to secure Jackson’s situation. At least that’s the way Jackson sees it. More from Tim Kawakami of the Mercury News:

“My job will be determined on winning,” Jackson said before an easy victory over Utah. “I’m fine with that …

“The talk about what these two (ex-assistants) have done, that has nothing to do with me.”

Actually, the dispatching last month of Brian Scalabrine after a philosophical dispute with Jackson followed by the mysterious firing last week of Darren Erman for a team violation has something to do with the head coach.

Jackson is responsible for everybody in that locker room, and if there are problems and failures, he is at some point accountable.

He also has been rightfully credited for re-establishing a sense of unity and defensive purpose on this team and for getting the Warriors into the second round of the playoffs last season.

But there has been grumbling about the team’s occasional lack of urgency and Jackson’s offensive system, which often bogs down in isolation sets with little movement.

Some of that grumbling has come from people in the Warriors front office, by the way.

At times, Jackson has reacted to the chatter indirectly by declaring that this franchise has a history of losing, is winning now and should act like it knows the difference.

On Sunday, when I asked how he’d describe his relationship with co-owner Joe Lacob, Jackson said there are no problems between them.

“You know it’s interesting, I’m reading ‘the dysfunction’ or whatever the term is for my relationship with this front office,” Jackson said. “That’s brand-new to me. And I’d be the first tell you if it wasn’t.”

Jackson then added that he and Lacob talked to each other for 15 minutes on the recent road trip.

Lacob told me in February that he was generally happy with Jackson’s performance but that he was disappointed by some of the home losses.

I also believe that Lacob would view a first-round loss as a sign that the team isn’t moving forward, which is death in the venture-capitalist universe.

“That’s not my call,” Jackson said when I asked him if a first-round loss this season should be considered a step backward.


VIDEO: Steph Curry and Klay Thompson run wild on the Jazz

***

No. 4: Battier proves his worth against Knicks – The Miami Heat’s win over the New York Knicks Sunday wasn’t a death-blow to the playoff hopes of Carmelo Anthony and his crew, but it was close to it. And as much as the Knicks can blame LeBron James (38 points), who outshined J.R. Smith on a night when the Knicks’ enigmatic shooting guard drained a franchise-record 10 shots from beyond the 3-point line,  they need to focus their attention on Shane Battier. The veteran forward’s defensive presence was a game changer for the Heat. Even after all of these years in the league, Battier remains intent on proving his worth to his teammates and coaches by playing the game the right way on both ends. David J. Neal of the Miami Herald explains:

The most eye-catching statistics from the Heat’s 102-91 win were from Smith, who attempted an NBA-record 22 three-pointers and made a franchise record 10 to finish with a team-high 32 points. The single-game record was previously held by Damon Stoudemire, who hoisted 21 three-pointers on April 15, 2005.

However, those numbers eventually meant little for the Knicks, whose playoff hopes were seriously damaged by the loss.

The Knicks trail the Atlanta Hawks by three games in the loss column with only four game left in the regular season for the Knicks.

Although Smith started the game sizzling, he went 0 for 5 from the field in the third quarter and 0 for 4 from three-point range. In that quarter, the Heat outscored the Knicks by that final 11-point margin, 25-14.

On the other hand, the Heat went ahead of Indiana by a game for first place in the Eastern Conference behind James, who finished with a game-high 38 points. Bosh added 14 and Allen 12 for the Heat.

Haslem recorded 11 rebounds, including three offensive boards, which tied him with Alonzo Mourning for the most in Heat franchise history with 1,505. Allen’s four three-pointers answered those by Smith. And Battier battled New York scorer Carmelo Anthony into 4 of 17 from the field and 13 points.

“He’s going to have big moments for us in the playoffs,” coach Erik Spoelstra said of Battier, one of his favorite players. “Does that mean it’s necessarily a consistent night-in, night-out rotation role, I don’t know. I can’t even attempt to answer that right now.”

The witty, erudite Battier — who played one second Friday against Minnesota and 5:31 last Wednesday against Milwaukee — said he laughed to himself when Spoelstra told him James would start the game defending Anthony then hand the sometimes unstoppable New York scorer over to Battier.

As they normally do, Battier and Anthony, who was playing with a sore shoulder, dished out hip checks and torso thumps to each other at a rate that, Battier said afterward, would have had both fouled out in five minutes if the referees called the game by the book.

“A game like [Sunday], I’m trying to prove myself to myself, and prove myself to my teammates,” Battier said. “That’s what keeps us all going. We’ve all been in that spot here unless you’re name is ‘James,’ ‘Wade,’ or ‘Bosh.’ But [that’s] the reason guys fight to stay in shape is this locker room. We owe it to each other.”


VIDEO: J.R. Smith went crazy from deep, but LeBron James and the Heat got the win

***

No. 5: Olshey’s case for Executive of the Year gains momentum – His name hasn’t been mentioned among the favorites. He’s avoided the publicity many of his peers have enjoyed this season, perhaps on purpose, choosing to retool the Portland Trail Blazers’ guts and gears without any of the fanfare normally associated with a rebuilding project of this kind. But Neil Olshey belongs in that conversation for Executive of the Year, writes Jason Quick of the Oregonian:

The Trail Blazers received a well-earned ovation Sunday after clinching a playoff spot with a 100-94 victory over New Orleans, the team’s 50th win this season with four more games left to play.

But nowhere to be seen, nowhere to be found, was the man who perhaps deserves the biggest ovation: general manager Neil Olshey.

They should start bubble wrapping the Executive of the Year trophy and addressing the box to One Center Court, because nobody in the NBA did more with less last summer than Olshey.

Robin Lopez. Mo Williams. Dorell Wright. Thomas Robinson.

It’s not Buck Williams for Sam Bowie, which still stands as the greatest offseason move in franchise history, but the haul in the Summer of 2013 will long be remembered as one of the most influential offseasons around these parts.

The beauty of it all is, few if any, saw it while it was happening.

The Blazers had a modest $11.8 million in cap room last summer and badly needed a defensive minded center, a backup point guard and some scoring pop off the bench. Getting a center figured to cost the Blazers most, if not all of their cap space.

Instead, Olshey got creative, and found a team that wanted to make a financially motivated deal: New Orleans. He worked a deal to get Lopez in exchange for Jeff Withey, who was the Blazers’ second round pick, a future second round pick and cash considerations. New Orleans, in turn, saved paying Lopez’ $5.9 million salary this season.

Lopez, of course, has been awesome. Each time I watch him play, I appreciate him more. He rebounds, blocks shots, sets good screens, has a reliable jumper, and he’s durable, having played in all 78 games. He is averaging 10.9 points, 8.5 rebounds and has 137 blocks, the most by a Blazers player since Theo Ratliff had 158 in 2004-2005. And the guys in the locker room love him.

Olshey should win the Executive of the Year award on the Lopez acquisition itself.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Suns point guard Goran Dragic is a music video star … Clippers super sub Jamal Crawford might not see any action until the playoffs … The Spurs need Cory Joseph to step into the void for Tony Parker … The Hawks’ fast start helps boost their playoff cushion over the Knicks … Mavericks veteran Vince Carter bounces back in style … Oh, by the way, benched Pacers center Roy Hibbert‘s got “nothing for ya!”

ICYMI of the Night: Surely, you didn’t miss J.R. Smith’s 3-point barrage against the Heat Sunday …. but just in case you didn’t see all of his record 22 attempts, you need to see his makes … 


VIDEO: J.R. Smith goes off from deep in the Knicks’ loss to the Miami Heat

 

Suns hot pick in NBA March Madness

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

The selection committee has done its job, the field is complete and now the intrigue starts all around the NBA — filling out those March Madness brackets.

But for a different kind of insanity, we thought it might be fun to go into a few arenas and locker rooms to ask one question: If the NBA playoffs were set up like the NCAA Tournament, who would be your Butler, a below-the-radar team capable of making a deep run?

Ray Allen, Heat: “In an NCAA format, one game and advance, anything is possible. Charlotte’s a team that would be dangerous. They can get hot. They’ve developed confidence. They play hard. They’re running a new system. Atlanta is a team that’s running a San Antonio offensive system and they play good defense. Both of those can really play defense. So if you put them in win-or-you’re-out format, teams like those that always play hard and don’t care about who their opponent is, they’re gonna be capable. There would definitely be more drama in that kind of a playoff system. Obviously, it would never get to that because of all the money that’s at stake over the long playoff series. But as players, you would appreciate it. You’d have to leave it all out there on the line. And every night — with the best players in the NBA going at it — it would really be madness. There would be some true grudge matches. Oh, that would be interesting.”

Mario Chalmers, Heat: “Dallas. That’s a team with weapons and can score.”

Roy Hibbert, Pacers: “In the East, I could see Toronto and Charlotte doing that. Even Chicago. In the West, Phoenix has played great a surprise people all year. Phoenix has a style of play that’s fast-paced and they have guys that are built for that.”


VIDEO: The Beat crew discusses the Suns’ solid season to date

Jeff Van Gundy, ESPN analyst: “Memphis. Because of the style they play. Who else plays like Memphis? Who else has those two big guys like Z-Bo (Zach Randolph) and (Marc) Gasol to beat you up and wear you down. That’s a team that could walk into a tournament setting, get on a real roll and just start knocking people out. And in the East I’d say Chicago for a lot of the same reasons. They don’t have those two big bangers in the low post, but with Noah and the middle and the aggressiveness and the ferocity that they play with, the Bulls could make a tournament very interesting and tough on everyone.”

Chandler Parsons, Rockets: “I like Phoenix as my Butler in the West, because they’re so explosive offensively. In transition they’d get out and they’d beat a lot of good teams. In the East, I like Chicago. They’re playing really well. Joakim (Noah)has been unbelievable for them. He’s doing everything, getting triple-doubles. Plus they’re such a good defensive team. Those are definitely two teams you don’t want to see in the NBA playoffs and in an NCAA Tournament type scenario with sudden-death, no way. Even Memphis, if they sneak in at No 8 in the West. That’s a team that could do a lot of damage. Us? We’re above that Butler level. We’re Florida. We’re Duke.”

Matt Bonner, Spurs: “Phoenix. It’s about style of play. It’s about scoring points from a lot of different places. It’s about playing at a fast pace. Definitely Phoenix.”

Shane Battier, Heat: “Who is that dark horse team? Really, still no one is talking about Houston. They have played fantastic and the Rockets would be a buzz saw to play in any single game or even a seven-game series. You know they’re gonna shoot 30 3s. If they get hot, that’s an amazing number to try to match offensively. And no one is really talking about them. The hubbub is OKC and San Antonio and the Clippers to a large extent. People are talking about Golden State and the Splash Brothers more than they are about Houston. I think Houston is a legitimate team.”

Michael Beasley, Heat: “Miami. That’s the only team I’m worried about, the only team I think about. I don’t even want to imagine nobody else making a run, nobody else doing nothing.”


VIDEO: GameTime’s crew discusses the Bobcats and Al Jefferson’s play

LaMarcus Aldridge, Trail Blazers: “I think every team in the West is capable of being that Butler type team. It’s so close, so many good teams. It just depends which week or two you’re talking about. We’ve seen that all season long. Remember how Memphis came in and beat San Antonio in the playoffs a couple of years ago? Golden State over Dallas a few years earlier. I think everybody is close and there are so many good teams in any matchup that in the NCAA Tournament arrangement, you might be able to play it three or four times and get a different team out of the West every time.”

Paul George, Pacers: “I think Phoenix. I think the Suns could do it because that’s a consistent team. They don’t rely on just one or two players to get most of their offense. They really spread things around. They really get after you all the time. They always play hard and bring it to you. They always want to attack. And in a tournament setting, they’ve got enough guys to make shots and make plays. They would just have to get hot at the right time, which we’ve seen from them this season. They’ve taken down tough opponents. They beat us twice, OKC. So that’s a team that could be very dangerous if it was tournament time.”

Dwight Howard, Rockets: “The Rockets. Despite anything that we’ve done and any games that we’ve won, I think in general we’re still a team that nobody’s looked at as a real contender. But you know, I like being the underdog. We’d like to keep ourselves being overlooked as much as possible through the end of the season and going into the playoffs. In a tournament, in the playoffs, we’re that kind of team that I believe and rise up and surprise people.”

Dwyane Wade, Heat: “I guess if look at the West, I’d say Phoenix could be a bracket-busting Butler. That’s a team that could get hot. Lot of weapons, lot of different people and ways to score and they don’t seem to let up. That style they play, they’re always going. In the East maybe the Bobcats. They play very well together. They’ve got a big man in Al Jefferson that can go 1-on-1 and can score. That’s a team that’s also been playing hard all year, been really gaining in confidence. So if you tossed them into a tournament setting, I’d say, yeah, they could go on a run.”

Danny Green, Spurs: “Phoenix. I was watching them play and they’re very dangerous at home. You know they don’t back down from anybody. They beat Indiana and OKC. We’ve lost to them this season. They love to get out and run. They move the ball fast and they don’t ever let up. If they’re healthy, they’re gonna come after you nonstop and they could do something like go on a run through a tournament. That pace of play is tough to deal with. Another team you’d have to watch out for is Dallas. They’ve got weapons and you’d always have to watch out for Dirk getting on a roll.”

Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers: “Oh, I wouldn’t want to do that. But if you want a dangerous team that maybe nobody would pick, I’d say Sacramento. They got a lot of weapons — Isaiah Thomas, Rudy Gay, DeMarcus Cousins, now Reggie Evans over there with some experience. Derrick Williams. They got a lot of pieces they can throw out there. If they get going, they could beat some people and go far. That’s a capable team.”

Wesley Matthews, Trail Blazers: “In the West anybody can beat anybody. You’ve got four or five teams with over 40 wins at this point in the season. You’ve seen teams go on runs with different styles. Houston went on a run recently. We went on a run earlier. Pick a day of the week. Anybody could be Butler.”

Francisco Garcia, Rockets: “I would say Phoenix, because they score in so many ways. I think everybody would take them lightly at the beginning of a tournament since they’re young and they don’t have a team filled up with All-Stars. It’s easy from the outside to overlook them. It’s only when you get out there on the court and see how hard they play and see how they are so good at moving the ball around and getting offensive from a lot of different places that you find out how good they can be. So if you put them in that kind of situation, where you get to play them only once, they could have a lot of success and make a run.”


VIDEO: The Starters talk about teams primed to make noise in the playoffs

Even Heat feel the heat in San Antonio

LeBron James is just 1-4 in his career in San Antonio (Noah Graham/NBAE)

LeBron James is just 1-4 in his career in Finals games in San Antonio (Noah Graham/NBAE)

SAN ANTONIO — There are nights on the long NBA regular season grind that you circle on the calendar the day the schedule comes out.

Sunbelt climes during a long, cold, snowy winter. Cities with family and friends. Places like Staples Center in Los Angeles and Madison Square Garden in New York, where the spotlight is extra bright and the courtside seats are filled with A list celebrities.

Then there’s San Antonio, where it might be nice to sip a tasty margarita on the Riverwalk. But the hangover from a visit with the Spurs can feel like a mule kick to the head for the Miami Heat, which is why their first trip back to the AT&T Center (Thursday night at 8 ET on TNT) since The Finals last June is more apt to make most of them flinch than celebrate.

While they eventually wrapped up back-to-back championships by beating the Spurs in seven games, Miami won just once in the three games played in San Antonio in The Finals last season. LeBron James is just 1-4 all time in Finals games played in the Alamo City, having been swept by the Spurs when he was in Cleveland in 2007.

“There’s memories, of course,” said James. “We just played them in The Finals and obviously just going, there is always a place of horror. I haven’t had a lot of success there in my career. But it’s always fun going against a very, very well coached, very well-machined organization and team with so many great players. It will be fun.”

Dwyane Wade tries to score against Tim Duncan (left) and Kawhi Leonard last June (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE)

Dwyane Wade tries to score against Tim Duncan (left) and Kawhi Leonard last June (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE)

This has been another season when the Spurs, led by a 37-year-old Tim Duncan, 36-year-old Manu Ginobili and 31-year-old Tony Parker , were supposed to be too old to contend. Yet in spite of a rash of nagging injuries, San Antonio is 44-16, just 1 1/2 games behind the Thunder for the best record in the Western Conference.

“I never buy into that,” James said. “I always been asked about that. I never bought into that. I never bought into the Celtic team with Ray [Allen] and KG [Kevin Garnett] and those guys that they talked about was too old, and the next thing you know, they’re in the Finals again. So I never bought into it.”

Dwyane Wade shrugged.

“It’s another tough game for us,” he said. “We have to step up to the challenge. We lost the first one on the road trip [Tuesday in Houston], and that’s a place where obviously everyone has a tough time playing. But we’ve shown that we can win there, so we got to go in there and play a great game for 48 minutes to win it.”

It did take about all the Heat could summon to squeeze out the one win they needed at the AT&T Center last June. They got a 109-93 win in Game 4 that was sandwiched between a couple of their most dismal games of the entire playoff run. They were hammered 113-77 in Game 3 when the Spurs bombed them with 16 3-pointers and then lost 114-104 in Game 5. Those are the kinds of performances that stick with a coach much longer than the wins.

“We don’t necessarily have really good memories of there,” said Erik Spoelstra. “We did drop two out of the three. The last game that we had there was a tough one. It was probably the worst game that we had over there. We had to really collect ourselves to go and have that energy to go and win two games at home.

“But you know, the train goes on. We’ve got to collect ourselves. We’ve got to get some rest. We’re not making any excuses … They’ve dealt with a lot of adversity this season and yet you look at their record and they’re right there in the mix. It’s amazing.”

What might be more amazing is that Shane Battier is actually looking forward to getting back into the teeth of the Spurs vise.

“I always enjoy playing the Spurs,” Battier said. “It goes back to my Memphis days, my Rockets days, when I played a lot of games in San Antonio. Just because there’s no better mental challenge than playing the Spurs. Because they’re gonna put you in tough situations. It’s a thinking man’s game when you play the Spurs and that’s my kind of game.

“Ooooh, we knew last year it was going to be a very, very, very, very close series. That’s four ‘verys’ and it was probably closer than that. They’ve been the gold standard for a long time. It’s not so much physical with them. It’s the mental duress they put you under. To go through a series like that, when you come out you’re just exhausted, win or lose.”

The question is whether even NBA players and coaches and front office people ask the same question as the general public: When will the Spurs finally be too old?

“No question,” Battier said. “Yeah, you ask that all the time, every year. What’s in the water in San Antonio? The fact that they’ve done it for so long and everyone is just waiting for them to fall off and they haven’t — not that they care what everyone else thinks — it’s awesome. And I don’t have any answers.”

What The Contenders Could Use

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The trade deadline is Thursday afternoon, the race for the 2014 NBA championship is relatively wide open, and there are plenty of players available for the right price.

So, the league is seemingly ripe for a ton of action at the deadline. But the whole “the right price” thing could limit the number of deals that are made. Buyers may be hesitant to give up first-round picks for players that they’re only “renting” for a few months, and sellers may prefer to keep their guy if they’re not getting the assets they want in return.

But maybe a deal could be made that turns a contender into a favorite or a tier-two team into a contender.

Here’s a look at what those teams could use — from a numbers perspective – to put themselves over the top (in the case of the contenders) or in the mix (in the case of the next group).

OffRtg: Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg: Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg: Point differential per 100 possessions

Oklahoma City (43-12)

OffRtg: 107.6 (6), DefRtg: 99.3 (3), NetRtg: +8.3 (2)
The Thunder are the most complete team in the league, the only one that ranks in the top six in both offensive and defensive efficiency. And their bench has been terrific, even with Russell Westbrook‘s knee surgery forcing Reggie Jackson into the starting lineup over the last seven weeks.

The only lineup numbers that look bad are those of their original starting group, which has been outscored by 5.7 points per 100 possessions and which will be back together when Westbrook returns on Thursday. In 280 minutes, the lineup has scored just 97.5 points per 100 possessions, a rate which would rank 29th in the league.

In general, the Thunder have been much better playing small. In fact, they’re a plus-203 in 1,954 minutes with two bigs on the floor and a plus-204 in 694 minutes with less than two. Some added depth on the wings could make them even more potent.

Indiana (41-12)

OffRtg: 102.4 (18), DefRtg: 93.8 (1), NetRtg: +8.6 (1)
The Pacers are, statistically, the best defensive team since the league started counting turnovers in 1977. And that may be enough to win a championship.

But they’re a below-average offensive team and only seven of those have made The Finals in the last 30 years. The Pacers turn the ball over too much, don’t get to the rim enough, and aren’t a great 3-point shooting team.

George Hill is a key cog in that No. 1 defense and the starting lineup scores at a top-10 rate, but Indy could certainly use a more potent point guard, or at least a third guard that can create off the dribble. Their bench is better than it was last season, but it still struggles to score.

Danny Granger has a large expiring contract, but acquiring a player on a deal that goes beyond this season could compromise the Pacers’ ability to re-sign Lance Stephenson this summer.

Miami (38-14)

OffRtg: 109.8 (1), DefRtg: 103.4 (16), NetRtg: +6.4 (5)
Is the Heat’s defensive drop-off a serious problem of just a case of them being in cruise control most of the season? Their ability to flip the switch on that end of the floor will depend on Dwyane Wade‘s health and Shane Battier‘s ability to play more minutes than he has been of late. As much as rebounding is an issue, so is defending the perimeter. And if there was a way they could add another shooter/defender on the wing, it would help.

Rebounding is an issue. The Heat have rebounded better (on both ends) with Greg Oden on the floor, but he’s played just 78 minutes all season and compromises their offense to some degree. So he’s probably not going to neutralize Roy Hibbert in a matchup with the Pacers.

San Antonio (39-15)

OffRtg: 107.5 (7), DefRtg: 100.4 (5), NetRtg: +7.1 (3)
The numbers look good on the surface. Only the Thunder rank higher than the Spurs in both offensive and defensive efficiency. But their defense has failed them, allowing 111.5 points per 100 possessions, as they’ve gone 2-8 in games against the other teams over .600 (every team on this list, except Golden State). Last season, they allowed just 101.8 in 22 games against other teams over .600.

Injuries have played a role in their defensive decline and if the Spurs are healthy, they’re still a great team. But there’s no getting around that, going back to Game 3 of the 2012 conference finals, they’ve lost nine of their last 11 games against Oklahoma City and could certainly use more athleticism up front with that matchup in mind.

Houston (36-17)

OffRtg: 107.7 (5), DefRtg: 102.1 (9), NetRtg: +5.6 (6)
If there’s a fifth contender, it’s the Rockets or the Clippers, two more West teams that rank in the top 10 on both ends of the floor. Houston is actually the only team that ranks in the top five in both effective field goal percentage and opponent effective field goal percentage.

Their defense hasn’t been very consistent though, and it’s allowed 106.1 points per 100 possessions in 22 games against the other eight West teams over .500. And that’s why they might want to hold onto Omer Asik. One of their biggest problems defensively is rebounding, especially when Dwight Howard steps off the floor. Only the Lakers (15.8) have allowed more second-chance points per game than Houston (15.1).

Portland (36-17)

OffRtg: 108.7 (2), DefRtg: 105.7 (23), NetRtg: +3.1 (10)
Diagnosing the Blazers’ issues is pretty easy. You’re simply not a contender if you rank in the bottom 10 defensively. The worst defensive team to make The Finals in the last 30 years was the 2000-01 Lakers, who ranked 19th and who, as defending champs, knew how to flip the switch. They ranked No. 1 in defensive efficiency in the postseason.

Not only are the Blazers bad defensively, but the their bench is (still) relatively weak. Lineups other than their starting group have outscored their opponents by just 0.2 points per 100 possessions, the worst mark among the teams on this list (even Golden State). So they’re going to be tested with LaMarcus Aldridge out with a groin strain. They’ve been outscored by 8.3 points per 100 possessions with Aldridge off the floor.

L.A. Clippers (37-19)

OffRtg: 108.7 (3), DefRtg: 102.2 (10), NetRtg: +6.5 (10)
The Clippers are very similar to the Rockets. They rank in top 10 defensively, but have struggled on that end of the floor against good teams. Furthermore, though Howard and DeAndre Jordan rank in the top four in rebounds per game, their teams rank in the bottom 10 in defensive rebounding percentage.

Blake Griffin and Jordan rank 2nd and 3rd in total minutes played, and the Clippers basically have no other bigs that Doc Rivers can trust for extended stretches in the postseason. Though the Clippers’ injuries have been in the backcourt, they’re more in need of depth up front.

Golden State (31-22)

OffRtg: 104.2 (12), DefRtg: 99.5 (4), NetRtg: +4.7 (7)
The Warriors and not the Suns (31-21) are the last team on this list because they have a much better defense and a higher ceiling. They also have a much easier schedule, which could allow them to get into the 3-5 range in the West, going forward.

Golden State’s issues are pretty simple. Their starting lineup has been terrific on both ends of the floor, but their bench … not so much. Things have been a little better with Jordan Crawford in the mix; They’ve scored 104.5 points per 100 possessions with Stephen Curry off the floor since the Crawford trade, compared to the putrid 86.7 they were scoring without Curry before the deal. But one of their most important defensive players – Andrew Bogut – is banged up and their D falls apart when Andre Iguodala steps off the floor.

Film Study: LeBron And KD, Head-To-Head

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The season is only 55 percent complete, so it’s way too early to make any kind of call in the MVP race. By leading the Oklahoma City Thunder on an eight-game winning streak without co-star Russell Westbrook and going on a ridiculous scoring binge along the way, Kevin Durant has seemingly taken the lead over LeBron James.

But this is the time of year when James led the Miami Heat to 27 straight wins last season, a streak that included a win in Oklahoma City. Head-to-head matchups could linger in the minds of voters, and the Heat have won six straight games against the Thunder, going back to Game 2 of the 2012 Finals. They’ll look to make it seven in a row on Wednesday night (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) in Miami, and will have another meeting right after the All-Star break.

Because Durant and James (mostly) play the same position, they truly are going head to head, though one typically defends the other more than vice versa.

In their two meetings last season, James defended Durant on 67 percent of Oklahoma City’s possessions when two were on the floor together. The only time he wasn’t Durant’s primary defender was in the third quarter of the Feb. 14 meeting, a game which the Heat led by 17 at halftime. Dwyane Wade took on Durant duties for most those 12 minutes.

Durant, meanwhile, only defended James on only 44 percent of Miami’s possessions when the two were on the floor together. Thabo Sefolosha was tasked with defending James most of the other possessions, though it was Russell Westbrook‘s job in the fourth quarter of that February game.

Durant and James were their team’s best defenders on their opponent’s best players. Both scored more efficiently when being guarded by other defenders.

Over the two games, when James was guarding him, Durant scored 0.95 (35/37) points per scoring chance (shot from the field or trip to the line). When James wasn’t guarding him, Durant scored 1.48 points per scoring chance (37/25).

When Durant was guarding him, James scored just 0.88 (15/17) points per scoring chance. When Durant wasn’t guarding him, James scored 1.71 (53/31).

Part of the discrepancy is transition opportunities when nobody was really defending them. But it’s clear that each was the other’s toughest matchup.

Nothing easy one-on-one

James is seen as the better defender, but Durant is so darn long. Though they totaled 140 points in the two games, neither guy could get anything easy against the other.

Here’s Durant in an iso against James, hitting a really tough shot.


VIDEO: Kevin Durant hits a tough, isolation shot vs. LeBron James

And here’s a James post-up, where Durant contests a 16-foot, step-back jumper…


VIDEO: Kevin Durant contests LeBron James’ step-back jumper

Easier against the other guys

In Serge Ibaka, the Thunder have another defender with the size and quickness to make things tough on James. But Ibaka only defending James on a couple of switches or transition matchups last season. Shane Battier has typically defended Durant when James has been off the floor, but doesn’t have James’ size and strength.

Wade and Sefolosha really can’t handle the job.

Here’s Durant going right around Wade for an and-one on an iso…


VIDEO: Kevin Durant breezes past Dwyane Wade in an iso situation

And here’s James muscling through Sefolosha on a weak-side duck-in.


VIDEO: Thabo Sefolosha can’t stop LeBron James on this play

Getting the ball out of KD’s hands

While James defended Durant more than Durant defended James, he would have more help from possession to possession. When Durant runs a high pick-and-roll or comes off a pin-down screen to catch the ball on the wing, the Heat will blitz a second defender at him to force the ball out of his hands.

Here’s one such play from the Christmas game last season, where Durant takes a handoff from Kendrick Perkins and immediately gets double-teamed, forcing him to give up the ball…


VIDEO: The Heat bring a strong double team at Kevin Durant

Here’s a link to the Thunder’s second possession of the Feb. 14 meeting, where two defenders chase Durant as he comes off a pin-down.

Durant on the move

So that Durant doesn’t have to go toe-to-toe with James or face double-teams so much, the Thunder can get him the ball on the move. Here, they use him as a screener and he gets an open shot off a flare to the right wing…


VIDEO: Kevin Durant gets open off a flare screen on the wing

Superstar decoys

When Durant is used as a screener, his defender has a difficult decision to make. If he leaves Durant (like above), he’s giving the league’s leading scorer an open shot. But if he stays at home on Durant, the ball-handler has an opening.

The Heat can use James in a similar fashion. On this play, Chalmers gets an opening, because Westbrook stays attached to James…


VIDEO: LeBron James is used as a decoy in the Heat offense

Forcing the switch

The Heat also use James as a screener to get him matched up with a smaller defender. Here, he gets Westbrook in the post, draws the attention of Perkins, and finds Chris Bosh for an easy dunk late in the Christmas game…


VIDEO: The Heat force the Thunder to make a defensive switch

A lot more than just one-on-one

Wednesday is a matchup of the two best basketball players in the world and will make some kind of impact on MVP voting. But how Durant and James play goes well beyond their defense on each other. It’s also about how their coaches and teammates set up their touches, how they take advantage of other matchups and how much help their defenders get from their teammates.

Blogtable: Your Ultimate Pro

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.


Team due to surge, slip | Ultimate pro | Knicks or Nets?


San Antonio's Tim Duncan (D. Clarke Evans/NBAE)

San Antonio’s Tim Duncan (D. Clarke Evans/NBAE)

Mike Woodson wants J.R. Smith to be a pro. Your choice for the ultimate pro?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.comTim Duncan. Next to him, the Rock of Gibraltar is J.R. Smith in full shot-jacking, shoe-untying, drama-queen mode. San Antonio’s now, Springfield’s soon enough, Duncan was 37 when he was 21, forever an adult on the playground.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.comTim Duncan. ‘Nuff said.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: Because I’m around him all the time and have now for years, my pick is Dirk Nowitzki. Total pro. Gives 100 percent every game. Plays through everything. And unlike just about every other athlete in any sport, he stands up in front of his locker after every single game no matter the circumstance and tells it like it is. No one is more genuine. Perhaps the most honest athlete, sometimes to a fault, of any athlete in pro sports.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: A lot of teams have at least one, so a single selection would be tough. And I won’t try naming all of them without going down every roster. But Shane Battier is that ultimate glue guy, smart and mature and always prepared. That’s a pro. Guys like Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin combine a special level of play with carrying themselves like pros. There are many others.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: It has to be Tim Duncan. He’s anchored the league’s best franchise on both ends of the floor and in the locker room for 17 years now. As he’s gotten older, he’s worked harder to stay in shape, so that there’s been little drop-off in his numbers. And his leadership, his willingness to be coached, has been the biggest difference between him and other superstars around the league. That’s been a key to the Spurs’ ability to, every year, bring in new role players that fall in line and seem to fit perfectly.

Shawn Marion huddles up the Mavs (Glenn James/NBAE)

Shawn Marion huddles up the Mavs (Glenn James/NBAE)

Sekou Smith, NBA.comFor all of the lives he’s enriched, careers he’s made, work he’s done on and off the court and the general excellence that has marked his entire career, Tim Duncan is, in my eyes, the greatest pro of all-time in any team sport. Seriously, he’ll never get the proper credit for doing it and doing the way he’s done it his entire career. But I’m not sure if I’ve digested the question properly. With Duncan as the standard, there are plenty of guys who embody the spirit of the question in some ways but not all. There is one other player, someone I feel is a bit underrated in this regard, that needs to be on the short list. Shawn Marion of the Dallas Mavericks doesn’t get the credit for being a guy that shows up year after mind-numbing consistent year and takes it to, as Mike Lowery said in “Bad Boys“, “takes it to the max, every day.” He’s had an exceptional career however you define it. He’s been at this longer than some of his current competition has been playing organized ball and while he’s never been a superstar, he has been an All-Star and a champion. Few players have stepped up to challenges, particularly defensively, the way he has over the course of his career. He was the unsung hero of the Mavericks’ championship run in the 2011 Finals (ask LeBron James) and has piled up career numbers and accomplishments along the way that might surprise you. His name is never mentioned when we’re talking about the ultimate, all-around, never-lets-you-down pros. But it should be, right near the very top.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball blogTim Duncan is so consistently and stridently consistent that I have joked for years that he may or may not actually be a robot. The fact that I have been able to make the same joke — regardless of the level of humor involved — for nearly a decade speaks volumes to Duncan’s constancy. Duncan may be a superstar, but it’s purely because of his production, almost in spite of his personality. Duncan has a great sense of humor hidden deep inside (check this out), but nothing is more important than process and preparation. I’ll take Duncan over anyone else any day.

XiBing Yang, NBA China: KG is that kind of person. Twelve years in Minnesota, 20+10+5 for numerous seasons — we’ve seen him do it all. He never complains, and gets himself ready for every night. He’s an old-school player. I have no doubt about the (now) old saying that every coach wants Kevin Garnett on the team.  You can’t find another player who made all of his teammates and coaches love him so much, while making his opponents hate him the same way.

Stefanos Triantafyllos, NBA Greece: In my mind the word “pro” goes hand-by-hand with one name, that of Ray Allen. He is the finest expression of professionalism. He works hard, takes care of his body, adapts to any kind of role, plays for the team and provides a perfect example for every young athlete. I’ve never seen him argue with a coach. He’s just always played at the highest level of intensity and concentration. It’s like watching a Bruce Lee film: he seems both calm and intense at the same time. And just remember that I haven’t even taken under consideration how good of basketball player he really is.

Adriano Albuquerque, NBA Brasil: First off, let me take this opportunity to remember Cheri Oteri‘s classic line on SNL and say everybody needs to SIMMER DOWN NOW! about J.R. The guy tries to mess around with some guys and untie their shoes and everybody loses their minds! It’s basketball, it’s all fun and games. It’s OK to let the guys play a little. Jarrett Jack threw Dorrell Wright‘s shoe to the stands last season and nobody made a fuss about it. Now, about that ultimate pro, I would go with Shane Battier. He is always regarded as one of those glue guys, he follows the blueprint set by his coaches, great leader, doesn’t complain about minutes, doesn’t ask for trades, knows his role … Has to be him, in my opinion.

Even Miami Could Be Vulnerable To Eastern Conference-itis


VIDEO: Chicago rolls to an easy home win against the Miami Heat

CHICAGO – Miami’s Shane Battier was offering what for a lot of NBA analysts would qualify as a “Eureka!” moment in assessing the disparity between the Eastern and Western Conferences.

In an age when anything simple can be dissected into something way more complicated, Battier’s theory initially sounded more insipid than inspired.

Never mind that he likely was right.

“More good players in the West?” the Heat forward said, rhetorically solving in six words what so far has been the great puzzle of 2013-14.

“[Longtime NBA coach-turned-broadcaster] Hubie Brown starts every clinic by saying, ‘This is the most important lesson in coaching: If you do not have good players, you will not win,’ ” Battier said, with a laugh. “You could come with the most fantastic scheme, you could have the best togetherness and ‘rah-rah’ but if you don’t have good players, you’re not going to win. I think there’s more talent in the West right now.”

And Miami and Indiana have more talent than the East’s 13 other members at the moment, explaining their 31-7 combined records and 8-1 combined mark against West foes (compared to their neighbors’ 18-62 mark).

Except the Heat didn’t have more good players Thursday night, not in their late game against the Bulls at United Center. Dwyane Wade was back at the hotel with flu-like symptoms and Chris Andersen wasn’t even in Chicago (personal reasons).

As a handicapping, it might not have been on par with the Bulls’ — no Derrick Rose, no Jimmy Butler — but it was enough for Chicago to win by 20, especially given the home court and the Bulls’ tendency to see everything Heat as a big red cape, motivation-wise.

As Joakim Noah said after his revved-up, 17-point, 15-rebound awakening, “The people in the city, there’s something when Miami comes to town. You wake up in the morning you feel it, the people in the city they don’t like the Miami Heat. We don’t like the Miami Heat. It always feels good to beat them.”


VIDEO: Carlos Boozer talks after helping the Bulls topple the Heat

There were three takeaways from Chicago’s 43-of-48-minutes mastery of the opponents it particularly loathes:

1. December ain’t May.

Since Miami’s Big Three era commenced in July 2010, the Bulls are 6-1 against the Heat in regular-season games at United Center. They are, more significantly, 2-8 against the Heat in Chicago and in Miami in the postseason.

And the truth is, given Rose’s absence again and the shifting – more like concentration – of power within the conference, the game Thursday meant far more to Chicago. If the two-time defending champions are going to peak for anyone on their four-game trip through the frigid Midwest, it’s going to be Indiana, not Chicago. The Bulls have been supplanted by their Central Division rivals as Miami’s top threat. Heck, a trip into sub-zero Minnesota to face an improved Timberwolves team might have Heat players quaking (or is that shivering?) more these days than a Rose-less Bulls squad.

2. The Bulls needed this.

The funk into which Chicago players fell, from the moment Rose’s right knee buckled in Portland after that long ordeal triggered by his left, was a deep, dark one. They’d been churning to re-adjust to Rose’s return but now they were throwing off losses — in overtime to lowly Utah, narrowly at Cleveland, at home against New Orleans in a triple-overtime drainer Monday — at an alarming rate.

Just having Rose around Thursday in the trainers room during and after shootaround, prior to his news conference to talk about his repaired right meniscus and second lost season, helped with the Bulls’ moods. Seeing Miami — a vulnerable Miami at that — helped even more.

“Lot of battles, lot of scars, lot of tough losses,” Noah said of his south Florida pals. “Lot of seasons ending because of them. Our team needed it.”

Noah needed it more than most. None of the Bulls’ emotions mean more to the team than their (mostly) high-energy center’s and he wasn’t especially enthusiastic about slogging forward without Rose again, this time lacking even the “carrot” that the point guard might be back by spring. LeBron & Co. – maybe the Miami jerseys alone – were his smelling salts.

3. Miami and Indiana could be the West. Then again, they could be the Bulls.

Which is to say, the Heat and the Pacers have more good players than their intra-conference rivals. But one, two or more of their good players could come up lame at any moment over the next five months, at which point they’re brought back to the motley pack. It’s that kind of season, it’s that kind of league.

Everyone saw what nearly happened to Miami in the 2012 playoffs when Chris Bosh went down with an abdominal strain in the conference semifinals against Indiana and only got healthy in the nick of time against Boston one round later. Or what happened to Oklahoma City last spring when Russell Westbrook tore a meniscus of his own in the first round against Houston. Or what the Heat has experienced this season with Wade’s ongoing knee soreness.

No team in the NBA is more than one significant injury away from its own personal Eastern Conference-itis. And that ought to keep most of them playing hard and focused.

Even the Bulls, without a one-time MVP, might find themselves with just as many good players as the next guy in some postseason series. That’s when motley maybe becomes manageable and the improbable starts to look possible.


VIDEO: Go inside the huddles during Thursday’s Heat-Bulls matchup

LeBron: The Evolution Of His Game

Editor’s note: As the NBA embarks this week on a new season, Miami Heat superstar LeBron James stands as the league’s most iconic figure. In Part Two of a three-part series on James and his place in the league, we take a look at how James’ on-court game has changed since he burst onto the scene straight out of high school in 2003 and how his early failures shaped the player he is today. 

In Part One (Sunday), we looked at the people who have helped shape James into an international marketing force and a difference-maker for at-risk kids in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. In Part Three (Tuesday), we’ll weigh in on where James stands in the greatest-of-all-time argument.


VIDEO: The LeBron Series — Growing Up

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – May 31, 2007 was the day LeBron James seemingly put it all together. In Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals in Detroit, James scored 29 of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ final 30 points in a double-OT victory that helped the franchise and its star reach The Finals for the first time.

As usual, James was nearly impossible to stop when he got into the paint. And no Piston defender was able to stay in front of him without help. But the difference on that night was that his jumper was falling. There was a ridiculous, pull-up 23-footer from the right wing to tie the scorein the final minute of regulation. There was an even crazier three in front of the Pistons’ bench to tie it with 1:15 to go in the second overtime.

The Pistons — one of the best defensive teams in the league — were helpless.

“It was very Jordanesque,” Detroit’s Chauncey Billups said afterward. “That kid was on fire, it was crazy. He put on an unbelievable display out there. It’s probably the best I have seen against us ever in the playoffs.”

James was 22 at the time. That performance was six years ago. And in the six years since, that basketball prodigy has evolved into a much different and much better player.

The evolution has not been a straight path. While his game has expanded and improved year by year, there have been hiccups along the way. And everything has come under the intense scrutiny that comes with being dubbed as “The Chosen One” in high school.

From star to MVP

With his combination of size, skill and athleticism, James was ready to be a star from the time he was drafted at the age of 18. He lived up to the hype right away, becoming the third rookie in NBA history — Oscar Robertson and Michael Jordan were the first two — to average more than 20 points, five rebounds and five assists. And he did it with little variety in his game.

That night in Detroit, at the end of his fourth season in the league, all of James’ offense in the final 16 minutes originated from the top of the key. There was a single give-and-go through Zydrunas Ilgauskas in the high post, but everything else was James dribbling on the perimeter and either getting to the basket or pulling up for a jumper. Only one of his 18 baskets in that game came off an assist.

James’ shooting and efficiency
Season EFG% TS%
2003-04 43.8% 48.8%
2004-05 50.4% 55.4%
2005-06 51.5% 56.8%
2006-07 50.7% 55.2%
2007-08 51.8% 56.8%
2008-09 53.0% 59.1%
2009-10 54.5% 60.4%
2010-11 54.1% 59.4%
2011-12 55.4% 60.5%
2012-13 60.3% 64.0%
Career 52.4% 57.5%
EFG% = (FGM + (0.5*3PM))/FGA
TS% = PTS/(2*(FGA + (0.44*FTA)))

That was the kind of player he was. He attacked from the outside in.

“We tried to post him up at times,” says then Cavs assistant Michael Malone, “and sometimes he would, sometimes he wouldn’t.”

For opponents, the No. 1 priority was preventing James from getting into transition. If they could do that, the next step was keeping him out of the paint and making him a jump shooter. From his second year on, he was one of the best finishers in the league, shooting about 70 percent in the restricted area.

That accounts to 1.4 points a shot. Comparatively, his jumpers, even when accounting for the extra point he got when he made a three, were worth just 0.8 points. So defenders sagged off of him, went under the screen, and played the odds. Complicating things for defenders, though, was that he’s been a willing and competent passer since the day he entered the league.

“I tried to make him think,” says Shane Battier of his days guarding a younger James. “If he was instinctual, there’s not much I can do.”

The hiring of Mike Brown as coach in James’ third season helped him become a better defensive player. But though he was unstoppable at times and the most complete player among the league’s top stars, his numbers didn’t change much from his second season through his fifth. It was in his last two years with the Cavs when James really established himself as the best player in the world, becoming a better shooter and more efficient scorer.

He got into the paint more, got to the line more, and his jumper started to improve. And with a better supporting cast for their star, the Cavs jumped from 19th in offensive efficiency (in both 2006-07 and ’07-08) to fourth (in both ’08-09 and ’09-10). They held the league’s best record each year and James earned his first two MVP awards.


VIDEO: James claims MVP in 2009-10

Expanding his game in Miami


VIDEO: LeBron makes his famous ‘Decision’

James’ move to South Florida not only gave him two All-Star teammates but a coach who would finally get him to step out of his comfort zone. In that first season in Miami, coach Erik Spoelstra used pie charts to show James and Dwyane Wade that they needed to add more variety to their offense.

James in the post, last 5 seasons
Season Reg. season Playoffs
2008-09 5.3% 6.8%
2009-10 6.4% 6.3%
2010-11 8.0% 8.3%
2011-12 13.9% 15.3%
2012-13 11.9% 16.0%
% of total possessions, according to
Synergy Sports Technology

Though Wade clearly had to make bigger sacrifices, James saw his usage rate go down. He learned to play off the ball a little and even dabbled with a post game. His standard field goal percentage hit a career high of 51 percent in 2010-11, though his effective field goal percentage and efficiency took a dip because he shot fewer free throws and 3-pointers.

It was Season 2 in Miami that brought the biggest change in James’ game and, ultimately, his first championship.

“When we lost to Dallas,” Spoelstra says, “he put in a lot of time that summer, really to help us establish a back-to-the-basket post-up game.”

James began to work out of the post a lot more than he ever had and reduced his 3-point attempts. In The Finals against Oklahoma City, he shot just 7-for-38 from outside the paint, but he destroyed the Thunder inside.

And it was in that playoff run that Spoelstra and the Heat turned to the idea of positionless basketball. Thanks in part to an injury to Chris Bosh, they used more one-big lineups, with James essentially playing both power forward and point guard at the same time.

Last season, with Ray Allen adding more shooting to the rotation, the Heat assumed a full-time identity.

“Their situation has evolved where he has become the lead guy,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle says of James. “[In 2011], they didn’t have all that stuff sorted out and so we took advantage of that, and they’ve adjusted brilliantly since.”

James is the primary attacker, of course, but he has also become a pretty good shooter. After making fewer than 33 percent of his 3-pointers in his first eight seasons, he shot 36.2 percent from beyond the arc in 2011-12 and then 40.6 percent last season.

“The scouting report used to be he would lose faith in his jumper,” Battier says. “That’s no longer the case. That’s the biggest difference, but that’s a huge difference. It changes the way you have to guard him.”

“That doesn’t happen by accident,” adds Spoelstra. “That doesn’t happen by you getting your reps in games. That was a lot of repetitions before and after practice, and in sessions on his own.”

With his own shooting improvements and all the space he was creating for his teammates, the Heat became the best shooting team in NBA history last season, registering an effective field goal percentage of 55.2 percent.

The priorities when defending James are basically the same as they always have been. Defenders still don’t want to see him in the open court, and they still need to keep him out of the paint. According to SportVU data, the Heat scored 1.67 points per James drive* last season. The league averaged just 1.03 points per possession. (*Drive = Any touch that starts at least 20 feet of the basket and is dribbled within 10 feet of the basket.)

James can now attack opponents from the inside out, using his refined post game to bully himself to the rim or draw extra defenders and create open looks for his teammates. And when he does have the ball on the perimeter, he’s better able to punish defenses for sagging off.

“Those became pivotal shots in the San Antonio series,” Spoelstra says. “It was the only thing they would give us.”

The Spurs’ strategy of making James shoot from mid-range worked for much of the 2013 Finals. But the new James eventually came through, appropriately sealing Game 7 with a 19-foot jumper.

“I looked at all my regular season stats, all my playoff stats, and I was one of the best mid-range shooters in the game,” he said afterward. “I just told myself, ‘Don’t abandon what you’ve done all year. Don’t abandon now because they’re going under.’

” ‘Everything you’ve worked on, the repetition, the practices, the off-season training, no matter how big the stakes are, no matter what’s on the line, just go with it.’ And I was able to do that.”


VIDEO: LeBron , Heat hot early in Game 6 of 2013 Finals

Closing the deal

Improved post game? Championship No. 1.

Improved jumper? Championship No. 2.

Of course, James’ journey to the top of the mountain was not quite that simple, because he really was good enough to win championships in 2010 and 2011.

In his final year in Cleveland, the Cavs held a 2-1 series lead over the Celtics in the conference finals. But they blew it, with James shooting 18-for-53 (34 percent) over the last three games. In Game 5, his final home game in Cleveland, he shot 3-for-14 and acted like he’d much rather be somewhere else in the second half. Even if many doubted his championship mettle, that game was stunning.

In his first year in Miami, the killer instinct was there through the first three rounds, as James made several huge plays late in games against both the Celtics and Bulls. But then something changed in The Finals against Dallas.

He didn’t play terribly, but he played passively, more like a ball-distributing point guard than a 6-foot-8 freak of nature with the ability to take over games. In a six-game series, he got to the free-throw line a total of 20 times. Many wondered if he would forever be known as a superstar who couldn’t close the deal.

“I definitely didn’t play up to the potential I knew I was capable of playing at,” James said of the Dallas series in a recent interview with ESPN the Magazine’s Chris Broussard. “So you could make any assessment — I froze, I didn’t show up, I was late for my own funeral. You can make your own assessment. I can’t argue with nothing.”

Less than a year later, James was faced with another moment of truth, Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals in Boston with the Celtics leading the series 3-2. That night, five years after that memorable game in Detroit, he had another breakthrough.

There were no signs of passivity as James racked up 45 points (on 19-for-26 shooting), 15 rebounds and five assists, sending the series back to Miami.

That was the night things changed, perhaps forever. Six games later, LeBron James had his first championship.

What was the difference between that game in Boston and some of the others that came before it? Only James really knows.

“The best thing that happened to me last year was us losing The Finals and me playing the way I played,” he said the night he won his first title, “It humbled me. I knew what it was going to have to take, and I was going to have to change as a basketball player, and I was going to have to change as a person to get what I wanted.”

The development of his  game, the development of the Heat’s system and the shedding of whatever mental roadblock was holding him back in 2010 and 2011 all contributed to James going from the best player in the world to NBA champion.

Staying at the mountaintop won’t be much different from getting there. Every season is a new journey, and James almost took a step backward this past June. If Kawhi Leonard didn’t miss a free throw in a critical and series-changing Game 6 of The Finals, if Bosh didn’t get a key rebound, or if Allen didn’t hit one of the biggest shots in NBA history, the scrutiny would have been right back on James for the two ugly turnovers he committed in the final minute of the fourth quarter.

That’s sports. And that scrutiny is what comes with having the kind of talent that no one has ever seen before.

Now, we see what comes next.

“I want to be the greatest of all-time,” James said as he began his quest for championship No. 3. “I’m far away from it. But I see the light.”


VIDEO: James fuels Heat’s back-to-back title run

Can Leftovers Make A Free-Agent Dish?

HANG TIME, Texas – OK, let’s say it’s the middle of August, we just won the entire Powerball lottery and, in a grand farewell gesture, outgoing commissioner David Stern says he’ll let us buy a new NBA franchise.

We can play our home games on Maui or Mars. We can have our team wear those tight-fitting jerseys with sleeves, just like the Golden State Warriors or even sprint up and down the court wearing Capri pants, if we choose.

There’s just one catch. The only players available to fill out our roster are those still dangling on the list of unsigned free agents. Now that Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Andre Iguodala, Andrei Kirilenko and even Greg Oden are long gone, is it too late to put together a respectable team? Or even one that could outperform the infamous 9-73 record of the 1972-73 Sixers or the 7-59 mark of the 2011-12 Bobcats?

So for all those last-minute bargain hunters who don’t start their holiday shopping until Christmas Eve, here are the Leftovers:

Antawn Jamison, Forward – The 37-year-old veteran is coming out of the lost season with the Lakers where he played 21.5 minutes per game and showed that he can still shoot enough from the wings to score in double figures. After 15 years in the league, he’s still a reliable enough producer and ranks higher in efficiency rating than even two regular members of the starting lineup for the two-time champion Heat (Udonis Haslem and Shane Battier). The Leftovers will have to put points on the board somehow.

Lamar Odom, Forward – You’ve got to have faith that Odom hasn’t simply lost the spark and lost interest after his past two dismal years. Following the horrible flameout in Dallas, last season was supposed to be a shot at redemption as a key role player and solid influence in the locker room with the Clippers. Odom was particularly ineffective in the first-round playoff loss to Memphis. The birth certificate says he won’t turn 34 until the start of next season, but the odometer has racked up more miles than an old pickup truck. The Leftovers will keep believing that you don’t simply forget how to pass, rebound and do the little things and give Odom another chance.

Cole Aldrich, Center – After being taken with the 11th pick by New Orleans in 2010 and traded to OKC on draft night, Aldrich has never been able to establish himself as anything more than a space eater at the end of the bench for the Thunder, Rockets and most recently the Kings. Aldrich finally got onto the floor for 15 games in Sacramento at the end of last season and pulled down a respectable four rebounds in 11 minutes of playing time per night. He’s the epitome of the old adage: “You can’t teach height.” That’s why he’ll keep getting chances and the Leftovers are hoping that this is the one that will pay off.

Mikael Pietrus, Guard – We’re going to plug the swingman into our lineup in the backcourt and hope to ride that streaky outside shooting and penchant for playing in-your-face defense for production at both ends of the court. He played just 19 games last season with the Raptors before tendinitis in his knee forced him to the sidelines for good in the middle of March. But he’s too young (31), too athletic, too active, too disruptive on defense and potentially still too good not to have him on our side.

Sebastian Telfair, Guard – In a league where it has become increasingly critical to have an elite level point guard running the offense, you don’t simply find them in the discount bin. There’s a reason why the Clippers have gone from pretender to contender and his name is Chris Paul. From a free agent list that ranges from 35-year-old Jamaal Tinsley to 25-year-old Rodrigue Beaubois, we’ll split the difference and take the 28-year-old Telfair. He’s never lived up to the advance hype because though he’s quick and small, he can’t finish at the rim and has only recently become dependable as a mid-range shooter. His size hurts on defense, but he puts out the effort and when you’re a Leftover that’s good enough.

So Stevenson Wants To Play With LeBron?

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HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – It would be the ultimate form of “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Only not as you think.

Remember, it was the pitbull-defense of DeShawn Stevenson who helped the Dallas Mavericks throw a wet blanket over a fourth-quarter-shrinking LeBron James. Those 2011 Mavs still stand as the first and only team to beat LeBron’s Heat in the playoffs.

It was also the last time Stevenson played an integral role in a team’s success. He hit key 3-pointers throughout the title run, but left Dallas a bumbling mess after the championship and headed to the Nets as a free agent before being traded to Atlanta as part of the Joe Johnson deal.

Stevenson, 32, is a free agent again after the Hawks waived him a few days ago, as Stevenson himself let it be known via Twitter:

Stevenson cleared waivers on Sunday and if the above tweet didn’t make it clear where he wants to play a 14th NBA season, in this tweet he actually makes a plea to the team’s best player to get him there:

Hey everybody wants to play with LeBron, including Greg Oden. Shane Battier did. Ray Allen took half the pay to play. Others have said, heck yes, they’d consider the Heat. But Stevenson’s outreach is intriguing (OK, hilarious) on multiple fronts, the least being the Heat’s relative lack of need for him. What’s amazing about the plea to help him get work with the two-time champs is Stevenson’s past loathing of LeBron.

Perhaps you recall this T-shirt Stevenson wore on the Mavs’ way out of Miami the morning after winning the title on the Heat’s home floor?

Of course, Stevenson’s disdain for LeBron goes way back to his days as an antagonist with the Washington Wizards. Back in the good, old days (2008) when the Wizards still actually made the playoffs and when LeBron still played for his hometown Cavaliers.

The best part of this ridiculous little feud between a career role player who started it by calling James “overrated,” is when it really jumped the shark by LeBron saying that responding to a negative comment made by Stevenson would be akin to Jay-Z acknowledging Soulja Boy.

So, of course, Stevenson invited Soulja Boy to Game 3 of their ’08 playoff series, which Soulja accepted. Jay-Z surprisingly countered by quickly recording a little number with lyrics dissing Stevenson and reportedly playing it a hot Washington D.C. night spot.

It is slightly interesting that Stevenson then went on to sign with the Nets, a franchise that boasted a minority owner named Jay-Z until the rapper recently moved into the sports agent arena. So who’s to say that Stevenson now can’t join his former nemesis LeBron in South Beach?

For LeBron, who posterized former Mavs pest Jason Terry after a monster alley-oop slam in Boston last season, surely he’s received hundreds of “LOL” texts on his Galaxy smartphone.

But hey, this is the NBA where amazing happens, like Stevenson wearing 2011 championship bling and not LeBron. And Stevenson should be happy with that because the odds of him joining LeBron in Miami are slightly less than Chris Riley hiring Soulja Boy to play at her husband’s surprise 69th birthday party come March.