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Posts Tagged ‘Steph Curry’

Pump the brakes on a Durant exit

VIDEO: Kevin Durant speaks after Sunday’s practice

SAN ANTONIO — The Thunder are three defeats away from kicking off the Summer Of Durant, which will be slightly less intense than the Summer Of LeBron (2010 version), because of course Kevin Durant will be the most desired free agent to hit the market since LeBron James.

But the closer you look, and the more you apply common sense, Durant stands a far better chance of staying in Oklahoma City than a tumbleweed does on a windy day. Because there’s one advantage the Thunder have going for them, one factor you cannot easily dismiss:

The Russell Westbrook factor.

Even if OKC doesn’t rally after being buried in Game 1 against the Spurs and get eliminated in the conference semis, Durant will probably feel he still has a chance to win with the Thunder and that’s because of Westbrook. Their roots run deep, and their chemistry on and off the court, by all accounts, is strong enough to convince Durant to give it one more try. The sensible solution is to stay linked with Russ, sign for one more year, and then that creates the Really Big Summer Of Russ And Durant in 2017, when both are free agents.

This way, Durant accomplishes three things: One, he gives himself a shot of making even more money a year from now when the salary cap rises; two, he knows he’ll still be in demand by contending teams in ’17; and three, he can continue riding with Westbrook well into the future either in Oklahoma City or elsewhere as a — compose yourself, now — package deal.

Not many A-list free agents would hitch themselves to a teammate with so much on the line, but then again, not many teammates have the bond that ties Westbrook and Durant together. Just a hunch here, but Durant probably believes he’ll never find a higher quality of co-star, and that likely includes Steph Curry; going to Golden State would be trading the known (Westbrook) for the unknown (Curry).

And really, Durant’s decision this summer is only about the Warriors or Thunder. Durant can sign with the Wizards, Lakers, Knicks or almost any other team in ’17 and still get the max or close enough to it. But if he wants to join the Warriors, he must do it now, because otherwise Harrison Barnes will swallow up a good portion of Golden State’s cap going forward.

There is another inducement that would keep Durant in OKC for at one more year: He’s comfortable in the city, OKC has a solid nucleus and the franchise is steered by a sharp GM in Sam Presti. But it starts with Westbrook; walking away from him would be difficult.

Just last week, the depth of their relationship was revealed when Durant ran to the rescue of Westbrook when Mavericks owner Mark Cuban declined to elevate Russ with the game’s greats, saying the point guard was just an All-Star.

When Westbrook was pressed for a response, he was waved off by Durant, who called Cuban “a idiot” while Westbrook sat back and allowed his friend to have the floor.

“Russ already knows that Kevin has his back,” said Nick Collison, who has been their teammate from the start, “but it’s just one more thing to say it publicly and take some of that on himself. It was definitely appreciated by Russ, for sure.”

Collison has had a point-blank view of the development of both players and how they’ve bonded. He noted how it’s not easy for two stars to always be in-step; history says that egos and agendas often get in the way. But that hasn’t been the case here. Even when Westbrook developed a habit of taking more shots than Durant, and caused outside observers to howl, Durant never took offense. On the contrary; he constantly harps on Westbrook never getting his due, and made a point to predict Westbrook would become the second Thunder player to win an MVP.

“They really appreciate each other,” said Collison. “There’s so much shared history. They’ve been through a lot together. They recognize how important each other is to the team. Look, there’s things that happen on the court that don’t always go over well, but they’ve always been able to figure it out. They have a common respect for each other and know how tough it is for them to do what they do. That allows them to get through anything that comes up.”

If Durant was looking to score his first big contract this summer, maybe money would get in the way. But he’s already had one big contract. And he’s making additional money in endorsements. And so Durant is one of the few NBA players who doesn’t need to seek the financial security of a long-term deal right away. He can go short-term and give OKC another try.

It’s the smart move this summer: Return for one more year, score a financial blockbuster later, and most important, keep Westbrook by his side.

 

Walton era begins with Lakers

VIDEO: Reaction on Luke Walton coaching the Lakers.

Luke Walton is coming to the Lakers and the only nit-pick that LA is raising is he isn’t bringing Steph Curry or Klay Thompson with him.

A year ago this time, Walton was the second assistant on the Warriors’ bench and seemingly a few years away, at least, from becoming a head coach in the NBA. He had only three years of experience as an NBA assistant. And Byron Scott had finished up his first season running the Lakers and no sense his job was in jeopardy despite just 21 wins, since the Lakers were in rebuilding mode.

But then, things happened. Walton’s stock soared suddenly, helped by a pair of events: Alvin Gentry left the Warriors last summer for the Pelicans, which allowed Walton to slide next to Steve Kerr; and Kerr missed the first 43 games this season with back issues, which put Walton in the big chair.

Timing, as they say, is everything, and in a flash, after going 39-4 while keeping the seat warm for Kerr, Walton found himself high on the list of every team looking for a coach.

The Lakers, from all accounts, are his dream job, and the two sides struck a deal late Friday for Walton to succeed Scott, who was fired last week. Part of the reason for Scott’s firing was the demand for Walton. He spoke with Knicks president Phil Jackson and was being considered by the Kings. The Lakers had to act now or risk losing Walton for good.

And now the question is: Was Walton’s amazing record with the Warriors due to Golden State being a polished and veteran team fueled by three All-Stars? Or did Walton show gobs of potential during his four-month stint? Maybe the truth is a bit of both.

Perception is everything, and the sight of Walton looking cool and composed with a clipboard, and standing next to Kerr when Kerr accepted the Coach of the Year Award the other day, weighed heavily in his favor. It also helps that Walton has been coached by Jackson and also Lute Olsen, and raised by his father Bill, a Hall of Famer.

Obviously Walton, 36, will step into a completely different situation. The Lakers have won 38 games the last two seasons and are loaded with young players and tapped out veterans. Yet: They’re expected to land a top-three pick in the lottery and now that Kobe Bryant is done, they have plenty of salary cap room and low expectations in the near future. That cushion will allow Walton to grow into the job.

For a team that just wrapped up a season of misery, this ranks as the first if only encouraging news of the year for the Lakers.

 

 

 

Morning shootaround — April 24

NEWS OF THE MORNING


VIDEO: The Fast Break — April 23

Poise, passion pay for Portland | Curry back in body, but in spirit? | Nowitzki chooses to keep fighting | Celtics’ Thomas bonds with Boston’s best

No. 1: Poise, passion pay for Portland — Things were slipping away for the Portland Trail Blazers late in their game Saturday against the Los Angeles Clippers, which meant their first-round Western Conference series also was slipping from their grasp. The Blazers couldn’t afford to dig their hole 3-0 deep and maintain any realistic hopes of coming back, and they knew it. That’s when desperation kicked in, in the form of a feisty point guard and follow-the-leader resilience of his teammates. Jason Quick of CSNNorthwest.com detailed Portland’s late-game resolve and push:

It’s when some of the Clippers’ warts became exposed – DeAndre Jordan’s free throw shooting, Blake Griffin’s rust among them – and when some of the Blazers’ uncanny ability to play above-and-beyond what conventional wisdom says a team of this experience and payroll should.

It’s when Portland closed on a 15-3 run to secure a 96-88 win to draw within 2-1 of the Clippers in this best-of-seven series.

It was the Blazers’ most important 3:52 of the season and that frenetic finish included a speech, a three-pointer, a steal and a dunk. And ultimately, it included a message.

“It says we want it,’’ Damian Lillard said. “ We aren’t here for fake just to say ‘We weren’t supposed to make the playoffs and we made it.’ We are here to compete. We are here to win. It said a lot about our team. We really showed some fight and some heart.’’

The crowd was buzzing. National television was watching. And a season still had a pulse, even though months ago some players admitted they figured by late April it would be forgotten in a three-margarita-haze somewhere in Mexico.

Soaking up that atmosphere, Lillard asked his teammates a question.

“I huddled the guys up and said ‘Are you all ready to go home? … We are going to finish this out,’’’ Lillard recalled later.

It wasn’t so much of a motivating, rallying cry as much as it was a crystalizing moment for the team, a now-or-never type of awakening.

“He basically came in there and said ‘I don’t want my season to be over,’’’ [Moe] Harkless said. “I felt the same way, so I was right there with him. Just to know everybody on the court had the same mindset … I mean, that’s big time.’’

[C.J.] McCollum made one of his two free throws. And after [DeAndre] Jordan split his free throws, Harkless darted from the baseline to rebound and dunk a miss from McCollum with 55 seconds left to give the Blazers a 91-86 lead.
“That play by Moe sealed the deal for us,’’ Davis said.

Who knows how much Lillard’s now-or-never speech had to do with the Blazers’ strong close to the game? Or whether it was more the Clippers’ undoing in the clutch rather than the Blazers’ rising to the occasion?

Doesn’t matter. Inside the locker room, this team looks to and listens to Lillard, and he usually delivers with something that resonates.

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Hang Time Podcast (Episode 235) Playoff Time!

HANG TIME BIG CITY — I was sitting on the couch the other night, tuned in to the postseason, when I realized I didn’t know what day it was. Tuesday? Wednesday? It couldn’t be Monday, could it?

Welcome to the playoffs!

It’s that time of year, when every moment matters, when every game is must-see-tv. And the Hang Time Podcast crew has been on the ground from coast to coast checking out games, which was a great jumping off point for today’s podcast. 

But first, just as we began taping we found out about the tragic death of Prince, an artist we all grew up listening to and enjoying, and we had plenty of stories to tell as we paid our respects.

Once we got around to talking hoops, we went from the Thunder (and the Mavs) Dance Party to Atlanta’s impressive start, from the hot hot heat Miami has brought over the first two games to the Warriors and how long they should let Curry recuperate. We even talked about the Knicks and Lakers, and how those legendary franchises are moving forward without playoff participation.

Check out all that and more on Episode 235 of The Hang Time Podcast … Playoff Time!

LISTEN HERE:

As always, we welcome your feedback. You can follow the entire crew, including the Hang Time Podcast, co-hosts Sekou Smith of NBA.com, Lang Whitaker of NBA.com’s All-Ball Blog and renaissance man Rick Fox of NBA TV, as well as our new super producer Gregg (just like Popovich) Waigand.

– To download the podcast, click here. To subscribe via iTunes, click here, or get the xml feed if you want to subscribe some other, less iTunes-y way.

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VIDEO: Thunder/Mavs Game 2 All-Access

Morning Shootaround — April 10


VIDEO: The Fast Break — April 9

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Spurs trying to solve Curry and vice versa | Rockets’ brass will be evaluated at season’s end | What can Bryan Colangelo bring to Philly? | Should losing teams rest players?

No. 1: Spurs trying to solve Curry and vice versa After three games this season, and with another showdown looming Sunday, it’s clear the Spurs have targeted Steph Curry as the player they must stop. That’s not exactly breaking news; Curry is the league’s leading scorer and the heavy favorite to win his second straight MVP. But the Spurs bring one of the league’s top defenses and can throw multiple bodies in Curry’s direction, starting with Tony Parker and Patty Mills and at times they might surprise Curry with Kawhi Leonard.  Curry spoke about the Spurs on the eve of the final meeting between the teams before the playoffs with Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle

Stephen Curry thinks he figured out something in Thursday’s meeting with the Spurs, and he’ll get a chance to test his theory when the Warriors play at San Antonio on Sunday.

After scoring 14 points on season lows in field-goal (4-for-18, 22.2 percent) and three-point (1-for-12, 8.3 percent) shooting in the Warriors’ 87-79 loss to the Spurs, the Warriors’ point guard bounced back with 29 points on 11-of-19 shooting from the floor in Thursday’s 112-101 win.

“I just watched the film and made adjustments based on how they played me in San Antonio and how I thought they’d probably continue,” Curry said before Saturday’s game against the Grizzlies. “Instead of searching for the three, I was trying to keep them off-balance by getting into the paint and making plays.

“I just slowed down, really. Any game where somebody makes crazy adjustments like that, you’ve got to be able to take your time and figure out how you’re going to attack that space. I didn’t do it well in San Antonio, but I made the proper adjustments last game.”

Curry is averaging 11.1 three-point attempts per game, but with the Spurs switching on pick-and-rolls and running him off the three-point line, Curry made a concerted effort to get into the lane.

He attempted only seven three-pointers Thursday, and two were prayers at the end of quarters. It was the eighth time all season that Curry attempted seven or fewer three-pointers.

“I think teams have mimicked what the Spurs did the last time we played them in San Antonio,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said. “Teams really started jumping out at him and switching, so we’re seeing it more and more. They definitely have a plan, and they’re good at it. They’re obviously smart. To do something like that, you have continuity, understanding and togetherness, and they’re really good at it.”

Curry has gotten pretty good at handling it, too.

That’s one of the reasons that the entire basketball world will be tuned into Sunday’s game.

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No. 2: Rockets’ brass will be evaluated at season’s end With the Rockets qualifying as the heavy favorite to win the season’s most disappointing team award, are big changes coming? That question wouldn’t even be asked right around this time last season, when the Rockets were one route to an appearance in the Western Conference finals. But this season has been all sorts of hell, starting with the early firing of coach Kevin McHale and the failure to incorporate Ty Lawson into the lineup. It would be big news if Daryl Morey loses the GM job if only because Morey has a reputable track record. Anyway, owner Leslie Alexander must decide the fate of Morey and also interim coach JB Bickerstaff. Here is Calvin Watkins of ESPN.com …

Sources told ESPN that the Rockets believe every aspect of the organization — coaching staff, front office and, of course, their roster — must be subject to a thorough review in the wake of Houston’s slide to a 38-41 outfit that’s at serious risk to miss the playoffs after damaging losses this week to Dallas and Phoenix.

Houston won 56 games and reached the Western Conference finals last season.

Rockets owner Leslie Alexander has publicly acknowledged that Bickerstaff — who replaced Kevin McHale in an interim role just 11 games into this season — would have to be assessed at season’s end.

Significant roster changes are likewise expected, with free agent-to-be Dwight Howard widely anticipated to move elsewhere and little certain beyond the Rockets’ presumed intention to reload around star guard James Harden.

Sources say Morey, whose contract runs through the 2017-18 season, ‎also faces some uncertainty in the wake of the Rockets’ struggles. Morey’s ever-bold approach to roster assembly won deserved kudos for bringing Harden (October 2012) and Howard (July 2013) to Houston in quick succession, but team chemistry has been a rising concern this season given the well-chronicled deterioration of the Harden-Howard relationship and the failed offseason gamble on guard Ty Lawson.

“You’re asking the wrong guy about that,” Morey told ESPN in a recent interview when asked about his job security. “That’s Mr. Alexander’s choice and all I do is my job every day. He makes that call.”

After a 4-7 start, Houston made the stunning decision to part ways with McHale, who had barely begun the first year of a new three-year extension.

Bickerstaff has fared better, going 34-34 in his interim role, but Houston’s defensive frailties and repeated inability to hold big leads have conspired to put the Rockets on par with the Chicago Bulls on the list of this season’s most disappointing teams.

Bickerstaff, for his part, says he has not yet commenced discussions with management about his job status.

“No, not at all, that’s not even a issue [or] a concern,” Bickerstaff said of his future prior to the Rockets’ loss to the Suns on Thursday night.‎

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No. 3: What can Bryan Colangelo bring to Philly? The Sixers haven’t officially named Bryan Colangelo as the successor to Sam Hinkie, who resigned last week, although it could happen by Monday. But that hasn’t stopped Philly from wondering if the team of Colangelo and Colangelo — no, not a law firm, but the father-son front office combo of Jerry and Bryan — can produce a somewhat drastic turnaround for the rebuilding team. Here is Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer on the possibilities …

Folks bashed the Sixers for nepotism, immediately after learning it would be Bryan Colangelo. They brought up that he was unable to win an NBA championship during his stops as general manager of the Phoenix Suns and the Toronto Raptors.

And they delivered perhaps the lowest blow of all, mentioning that he drafted 20-year-old Italian Andrea Bargnani with the first overall selection in the 2006 NBA draft. Let’s just say making Bargnani the first European to be selected first overall didn’t pan out. He never lived up to the hype surrounding that pick and is on his third NBA team.

But what the disappointed folks don’t mention is that Bryan Colangelo is a two-time NBA executive of the year. The 50-year-old first won the award in 2005 with the Suns. His second award came in 2007 with the Raptors.

“If you are the Sixers, you should be really happy about this,” said a league executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Plus it will be a seamless transition with Jerry and his son. Everything will be on the same page.”
That wasn’t the case with Jerry Colangelo and Hinkie over the last four months.

But aside from Bargnani, Bryan Colangelo has been known for excelling while making aggressive moves.

He drafted Steve Nash 15th overall in the 1996 NBA draft and traded him to the Dallas Mavericks in 1998 in exchange for Pat Garrity, Martin Muursepp, Bubba Wells, and a 1999 first-round pick that he used to select Shawn Marion.

He also drafted Amar’e Stoudemire ninth overall in the 2002 draft.

Some of his most noteworthy roster moves came during and after the 2003-04 season, when the team finished, 29-53.

In January 2004, he sent Anfernee Hardaway, Stephon Marbury, and Cezary Trybanski to the Knicks for Howard Eisley, Maciej Lampe, Antonio McDyess, Charlie Ward, Milos Vujanic, and 2004 and 2010 first-round picks. Then he signed Nash as a free agent that summer.

The following season, the Suns went 62-20 and lost to the Spurs in the Western Conference finals. Nash was named the league’s MVP, and Mike D’Antoni, now the Sixers’ associate head coach, was the NBA coach of the year.

That was the first of three Pacific Division titles and the first of back-to-back conference finals appearances for the Suns.

However, Bryan Colangelo wasn’t there to celebrate all that put in place due to a soured relationship with managing owner Robert Sarver, who bought the team from Jerry Colangelo.

So he took over the Raptors’ on Feb. 28, 2006. In 2006-07, the Raptors finished 47-35 and made their first playoff appearance in five seasons. It was also their first winning season since 2001-02.

Bryan Colangelo is also an architect of this season’s Raptors, who are the Eastern Conference’s second-best squad.

He selected DeMar DeRozan with the ninth pick of the 2009 draft. Colangelo hired Dwayne Casey as the head coach in June 2011. He drafted Jonas Valanciunas with the fifth pick of the 2011 draft two days later. Then, after drafting Terrence Ross with the eighth pick in 2012, he acquired Kyle Lowry in a trade with Houston Rockets in July 2012.

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No. 4: Should losing teams rest players? The Sacramento Kings are going nowhere except the draft lottery again, a fate that has been assured for weeks. However, that hasn’t stopped them from sitting players. DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo, among others, have “rested” as though they were veterans with minor ailments, awaiting for the playoffs to begin. Is that fair, especially since the NBA, beginning with this season, spaced games apart and reduced back-to-backs? The Kings are hardly the only non-playoff team to sit players for reasons other than injury; but some fans in Sacramento sounded off on it to Andy Furillo of the Sacramento Bee

At 12:31 p.m. Thursday, the Kings put out a news release that said DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo would not play that night at home against the Minnesota Timberwolves. It attributed the planned absences of the star center and flashy point guard to their need for rest. The two must have really been tired, because they just got a night off Saturday in Denver and a night off the previous Monday in Portland.

Along with Rondo and Cousins, another young man at Sleep Train Arena on Thursday night was tired. His name is Terrence Zwane, and he was tired of big-money players resting on nights like Thursday, when he paid $300 to sit in the lower bowl.

“I don’t think it’s cool,” said Zwane, 26, a legal assistant who attends about 10 games a year.

Zwane reasoned, accurately, that the salaries of Cousins, who is making about $15.9 million this season, and Rondo, who punches the clock for $9.5 million, are largely responsible for his high cost for a good seat. The abilities of the two, of course, are the reason Zwane was willing to spend the money. Then he came to the game and they didn’t play, and the team didn’t even make the announcement that they were not going to play until seven hours before the game, when the two players were as healthy as could be reasonably expected for the 79th game of the season

Resting a player for one or two games over the course of a long season, “if you need to do that,” makes sense to Zwane. Otherwise, in instances such as Thursday, “It’s really pointless, especially when you are paying them big money and we are paying big money to watch them,” he said.

Without Cousins and Rondo, the Kings understandably lost to the Timberwolves 105-97. Maybe they needed Thursday off to ensure they would be rested enough to play in Saturday’s final game at Sleep Train Arena, which is expected to be filled beyond capacity to celebrate 28 seasons there.

After Thursday’s game, Kings coach George Karl was asked what he would say to the fans, if he could say anything, about paying big money to see the game and then having Cousins and Rondo miss it to rest.

Karl was the wrong guy to take the question. It should have been directed to general manager Vlade Divac, but Divac wasn’t on hand, so the coach gave it a shot.

“I’m old school,” Karl said. “I like playing every game like it means something.”

But in the modern NBA, “everybody’s doing it,” Karl said about giving guys days of rest when it appears to people like Zwane that they don’t really need it.

“Philosophically,” Karl said, “I can see the good in why you do it, and I can see philosophically why the fans should be upset, why they’re upset.”

In addition to holding Cousins and Rondo out of the Minnesota, Denver and Portland games, the playoff-eliminated Kings rested Kosta Koufos, Rudy Gay and Darren Collison in Tuesday’s loss at home to Portland.

As Karl said, it is popular for teams to dial back on playing time for those who have been pounding the floorboards fairly relentlessly since October. Most of the time, the decisions to rest players are made collectively – between the front office, coaching staff and players – although it’s not known how the decision was made by the Kings.

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Not only does Kobe Bryant want the Warriors to break the Bulls’ record of 72 wins, so does LeBron JamesFred Holberg says the Bulls need to figure out a leadership command for next seasonBrent Barry was asked his opinion of the Timberwolves and also about the coaching position, and Bones was to happy to share his thoughtsCan Alec Burks stay healthy and help the Jazz lock up a playoff spot?

Morning shootaround — April 3


VIDEO: The Fast Break — April 2

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Spurs (yawn) set more marks | Running with Bulls proves hazardous | Pacers need to snap out of it | Jazz’s Exum waits, watches, learns

No. 1: Spurs (yawn) set more marks — San Antonio has been so good for so long – 19 consecutive seasons of 50 victories (or the equivalent in 1998-99’s 37-13 post-lockout finish), five NBA titles – that it hardly seems possible for the Spurs to top themselves. But they did that Saturday, beating Toronto to set a franchise mark for victories in a season and extend their perfect mark this season at the AT&T Center. Interesting that on such a memorable night, it wasn’t Tim Duncan, Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili leading the way but rather Kawhi Leonard (career-high 33 points) and LaMarcus Aldridge (31 points, 15 rebounds). As usual, Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News was there to chronicle it:

The Spurs’ 64 wins – next to 12 losses – set a franchise record, snapping a tie with the 63-win squad from 2005-06.

The 39-0 mark at home continued the best single-season streak in NBA history. The Spurs’ 48th consecutive regular-season win at the AT&T Center continued a streak rendered the longest active home streak in the league after Golden State lost a night before to Boston.

None of this information made coach Gregg Popovich’s postgame speech.

“There’s not much we’re allowed to care about,” guard Danny Green said. “We made the playoffs. We care about that. Being healthy and winning games in the playoffs – those are the things we care about.”

With the playoffs two weeks out, Popovich wasn’t much impressed by the Spurs’ seven-point win over a Toronto team resting All-Star guard Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.

He didn’t think his defenders did a good job of staying in front of the Raptors’ wing players. He thought his team’s offensive execution was satisfactory for only about a half.

Popovich said he wanted to get meaningful minutes for most of his starters, and accomplished that.

“We got that done,” Popovich said, “but we didn’t play great.”

Even so, the Spurs can go a ways in the playoffs with Aldridge and Leonard producing nights like Saturday.

It marked the first time the Spurs had two players reach 30 points since a Dec. 28, 2012 win over Houston, when Tony Parker and Tim Duncan hit that threshold.

Against the Raptors, no player other than Aldridge or Leonard reached double figures.

Yet the Spurs still doled out 28 assists, led by Leonard’s seven, proof that the ball still moved.

If Popovich seemed typically curmudgeon-like in his postgame comments, it wasn’t any big departure from his in-game demeanor. Consider his reaction when guard Patty Mills, on a 1-for-6 night from 3-point range, finally hit his lone long ball in the fourth quarter:

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Morning shootaround — March 20


VIDEO: The Fast Break – March 19

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Wizards owner says team can make playoffs | Ricky Rubio still showing growth | Sixers’ growth slower than that of their rival | Is Curry changing the game?

No. 1: Wizards owner says team can make playoffs — You can say the Wizards have been one of the more disappointing teams in the league and currently find themselves in the outside looking in regarding the playoffs. But Washington owner Ted Leonsis prefers to see the glass as being half full and believes the team can still make the playoffs, which mathematically is definitely possible. You wonder if “making the playoffs” sounds more like an ultimatum from the owner and whether heads will roll if Washington, which scored an upset over the Raptors last spring, fails to make the cut. Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post reports:

The Wizards have strangled and then revived their playoff chances more times than I can count. Most recently, they imploded in Chicago, then won four straight games. Then they lost five straight — including three on a brutal West Coast swing — before rebounding with three straight wins, two against playoff contenders. Don’t worry about these details: just know that when they reach the absolute precipice of disaster, they recover just enough to keep us interested until the next disappointment.

Washington’s schedule still looks forgiving; seven of its final 14 games are against truly awful teams. But only an extreme optimist could continue to have total faith in this team after the past few months.

Ted Leonsis is an extreme optimist.

During a radio appearance this week, Leonsis was asked serious questions about the Wizards future: about how this team could both miss the playoffs and lose its first-round pick, about his commitment to patience, and about how he would decide whether General Manager Ernie Grunfeld and Coach Randy Wittman deserve to be back.

“We’re going to make the playoffs,” Leonsis told Grant Paulsen and Danny Rouhier on 106.7 The Fan. “We have to believe that. We have to be focused on that. That’s all we’re looking at.”

Leonsis said this on Wednesday afternoon. That was before the Wizards beat the Bulls and Sixers to pull within a 1.5 games of the eighth seed. It wasn’t necessarily pretty; Washington tried like crazy to lose to Philadelphia on Thursday night. And the Wizards would still need to pass two teams to make the postseason. But Leonsis, like most of us, at least sees a path.

“This has been an outlier year, mostly because of how many injuries we’ve suffered,” Leonsis said. “We had a very poor road trip — Bradley Beal didn’t play at all — and then Bradley Beal plays 24 minutes [against Detroit] and the team just looks different. John Wall looks like a different player when he doesn’t have to be the first offensive scoring option, he can set other players up.

“And so we’ll take a look at how we end the season in the offseason,” the owner said. “But right now, we’re just focused on do we have our full contingent of players, can we play the kind of system that we want, can we amp up the energy defensively. And it seems trite, you hear this all the time, but we truly are in the mode of you’ve got to play one game at a time, and be totally focused and conscious of just that one impediment that’s in front of you tonight.”

 

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Morning Shootaround — March 6


VIDEO: Recap Saturday night’s eight-game slate

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Jimmy Butler returns | Beal injured | Mohammed: “I’m back” | Krause retires

No. 1: Jimmy Butler returns After missing ten games with a knee injury — during which his Chicago Bulls posted a 3-7 record — Jimmy Butler returned to action last night against the Houston Rockets. Butler picked up where he left off, as the Bulls got a much-needed win. As ESPN’s Nick Friedell writes, for a Bulls team clinging to postseason hopes, Butler’s return should be crucial…

Jimmy Butler didn’t miss a beat in the box score during Saturday’s much-needed 108-100 win over the Houston Rockets. After missing a month because of a left knee strain, the All-Star swingman racked up 24 points, 11 rebounds and 6 assists to help the Chicago Bulls snap a four-game losing streak. Butler did everything the Bulls needed him to do. He was solid defensively while guarding James Harden, and he gave the Bulls the scoring punch they’ve been lacking without him. But after the game ended, the proud 26-year-old knew there was something missing from his game that wouldn’t appear within the gaudy numbers.

“I need to get in there and run some laps,” Butler said. “I’m out of shape.”

It didn’t matter that Butler was winded. He gave the Bulls what he had when they needed a win to right their dwindling season. With Butler back and Nikola Mirotic reappearing after missing over a month because of complications related to an appendectomy, the Bulls finally appeared almost whole in a season in which their starting five of Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson, Mike Dunleavy, Pau Gasol and Butler had yet to play a game together all season. It’s no wonder why Gasol called Butler’s and Mirotic’s presence the lineup “critical.” Butler set an example early that the rest of his teammates followed.

“Jimmy makes a huge impact on both ends of the floor,” Gasol said. “Especially on the defensive end. His physicality and his activity and energy make a big difference because it kind of picks everybody up as well and sets a tone for the rest of the guys.”

Aside from Butler’s return, the key for the Bulls is that they found a team in the Rockets that’s even more dysfunctional than they are. Watching the Rockets make mistake after mistake was similar to watching the way the Bulls have played many times during the season. The teams combined for 43 turnovers, 25 of which came from the Bulls.

That’s why any optimism coming from the Bulls’ locker room has to be tempered by the fact that Chicago beat a team even more underwhelming than itself. The good news for Fred Hoiberg‘s beleaguered group: With 21 games left, Butler has the ability to serve as a stabilizer for a team that still talks about making a push into the playoffs. Butler’s return gives the Bulls something they haven’t had much of in weeks — hope.

“It’s huge,” Rose said of Butler’s return. “Whenever he’s got the ball, you got to stick both of us. It’s hard to pay attention to both of us when we’re on the court. And we get to catch the ball with a live dribble so that helps the team out a lot.”

***

No. 2: Beal injured — Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal has consistently been counted among the NBA’s most promising young players. For Beal, though, injuries have seemed to consistently hinder him from taking that next step. After breaking his nose in January, Beal had been playing with a protective face mask. But last night, after finally being able to take off the mask, Beal suffered a pelvis injury. As Jorge Castillo writes in the Washington Post, for a Wizards team fighting for a playoff berth, a healthy Beal is necessary…

He helped the Wizards record 64 first-half points in the crucial matchup between teams vying for one of the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. Then the evening went askew.

The fourth-year sharpshooter exited with 6 minutes 17 seconds left in third quarter of the Wizards’ gut-wrenching 100-99 loss, after falling hard on his right hip when he collided with Pacers big man Myles Turner at the basket. Beal remained on the floor in agony for a couple minutes and needed assistance walking off to the locker room.

Beal, 22, was diagnosed with a sprained pelvis and didn’t return. He declined to speak to the media after the game and the team didn’t have an update on his status. Beal has missed 21 games this season because a shoulder injury, a stress reaction in his right fibula and a concussion.

Washington’s second-leading scorer, Beal is expected to travel with the team to Portland Monday for Washington’s three-game road trip, but whether he will play Tuesday against the Trail Blazers is uncertain. Garrett Temple would return to the starting lineup if Beal is ruled out. Temple tallied 11 points on 5-of-7 shooting in 26 minutes Saturday, shooting 24.6 percent from the field and 24.1 percent from three-point range. He has also shot 58.3 percent from the free throw line in his 10 starts since the break.

Gary Neal missed his 12th straight game Saturday with a right leg injury that he described as neurological. But the team, he said, was still unsure exactly what is wrong.

The firepower Washington holds with Beal in the starting lineup was evident Saturday as the Wizards posted 37 points in the first quarter. Beal finished 12 points on 5 of 13 shooting in 24 minutes before departing.

“We had gotten off to such slow starts the last couple games, I think we were down 12 in the first quarter in Minnesota,” Coach Randy Wittman said, referring to the Wizards’ win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday. “Just trying to get a better start and we did.”

***

No. 3: Mohammed: “I’m back” — The Oklahoma City Thunder had an open roster spot, and to fill that open slot, they went after NBA veteran Nazr Mohammed, who they had to lure out of what he called “semi-retirement.” In a first-person piece written by Mohammed, he explains why he returned, and what he thinks his role will be with the Thunder…

It’s official. “I’m back.” I’ve always wanted to say that…like I’m MJ or something LOL. I’m officially back in an NBA jersey, and I could not be more excited for this opportunity.

You may not have noticed that I have been in what I call semi-retirement. And by the way, I’ve been calling it semi-retirement for two reasons. The first is that a 37-year-old professional athlete doesn’t really retire; we just transition to our next careers. The second reason being that in pro sports, most of us actually “get retired,” either because the phone is no longer ringing for your services or you’re no longer able to accept playing for just any team. As a young player, your only desire is to be in the NBA. As you get older, your desire is to play for certain organizations with certain circumstances, making it a little tougher to find the right fit. Mine was a combination of all of the above. Most of the teams that I had interest in didn’t need my services, and I didn’t have the desire to go just anywhere. And some teams just didn’t want me.

With all that being said – DRUMROLL PLEASE – I am now a proud member of the Oklahoma City Thunder, the very team I competed for a Championship with in 2012. I was days away from turning “semi-retirement” into full retirement when I received word from Sam Presti that they had interest in me returning to OKC as a player. That quickly changed the course of my plans and forced me to do some real soul-searching to see if this was something my family and I wanted.

I believe in staying prepared for the opportunities that I think I want, whether they come to fruition or not. You can do no greater disservice to yourself than to secretly want something, but then be unprepared if the opportunity presents itself. I stayed prepared, but when I didn’t foresee any viable opportunities coming my way during “buyout season,” I contemplated shutting down my court workouts and facing the reality that my life as a basketball player was over. I started seriously considering accepting and starting one of my post-career opportunities. I even agreed with Debbie Spander of Wasserman Media Group to represent me if I chose to pursue broadcasting as my next career. But my agent, Michael Higgins, suggested that I give it a few more days to evaluate the landscape.

Like I said, I had a short list of teams that I would undoubtedly come out of semi-retirement for. Of course OKC was on my short list, which consisted mostly of teams I played for in the past. When I spoke to the Thunder, their first question was, “How does your body feel?” Anybody who follows me on social media knows that I’m probably a little addicted to my workouts. I’ve kept up my same training regimen (court work three to five times a week, conditioning, and lifting weights) with my guys at Accelerate Basketball, so I knew I was prepared physically. They happen to train Steph Curry too, so you know my jumper is wet right now LOL! After being a part of two NBA lockouts, I’m the master of staying prepared even when I don’t know when my season will start LOL. But the first thing I thought about was my family and whether or not they could handle me being away for the next few months when we were just getting acclimated to a new city and our new schedule (which had me as a big part of it for the first time in my kids’ lives). I knew I needed to talk to them before making a final decision. Regardless, I was shocked, flattered and excited for an opportunity to go into a comfortable situation.

I brought the offer to my wife and kids to see how they felt. My oldest son (10) is an OKC fan, so he was excited. And I better add that he’s a Steph Curry and Jimmy Butler fan too (he’d be mad if I didn’t include that!). My oldest daughter (13) was almost giddy with excitement for me. I’m starting to think they don’t love having me around, but I’ll save that for another blog down the road LOL. I also have a younger daughter (6), and she was very happy, although I’m not sure she truly grasps time and how long I will be gone. My wife, who knows how much basketball has meant to me, was very supportive. We’ve experienced mid-year trades and things like this before, so we know how to handle it. The only difference now is that the kids are older, and their schedules are a little more hectic with school, sports, practices, tournaments, etc. Now with me not being able to help out with that, more is on my wife’s plate. But we’ll figure it out. Whenever we get a day off, I’ll probably try to fly home, even if I just get to see the family for a few hours. We’ll do a lot of FaceTiming. When their schedule permits, they’ll be flying to OKC. We’ll make it work.

***

No. 4: Krause retires — The Warriors have been trying to put together the greatest regular season in NBA history, topping the 72-10 record of the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls. That Bulls team was constructed by general manager Jerry Krause, who this week announced he was retiring from scouting at the age of 76. K.C. Johnson from the Chicago Tribune caught up with Krause and heard some great stories, particularly about Michael Jordan and those Bulls…

Nicknamed “The Sleuth,” Krause’s second stint leading the Bulls didn’t start promisingly either despite inheriting Michael Jordan, whom Rod Thorn had drafted.

In Stan Albeck, he whiffed on his first coaching hire. And Jordan broke a bone in his left foot in the third game of the 1985-86 season, leading to the first of many spats between him and Krause when Jordan wanted to play sooner than he was ready. Krause, Jerry Reinsdorf and doctors ordered a more conservative approach.

“Do I regret that I had not a great relationship with him? You know what? We won a lot of (expletive) games,” Krause said. “Right or wrong, when I took that job I thought the worst thing I could do is kiss that guy’s (rear). We’d argue. But I remember about two years after I traded Charles (Oakley) for Bill (Cartwright). He and Charles were as tight as can be. He called over to me at practice and said, ‘That trade you made was a pretty damn good trade.’ I just looked at him and said, ‘Thank you.'”

Krause replaced Albeck with Doug Collins, a surprising hire given Collins had no coaching experience. It worked, and, augmented by the dominant 1987 draft that netted Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant, the Bulls kept knocking on the Pistons’ door.

When they lost to Detroit in six games in the 1989 Eastern Conference finals, Krause and Reinsdorf stunningly replaced Collins with Phil Jackson. Krause had hired Jackson as an assistant coach — one of his two Hall of Fame coaching hires along with Tex Winter — out of relative obscurity from the Continental Basketball Association.

“Everyone thought I was nuts,” Krause said. “I had a feeling about Phil. He has an amazing ability to relate to players.”

Jackson’s first season produced more heartbreak, a seven-game loss to the Pistons in the 1990 Eastern finals. Two days later, Krause said he walked into the Berto Center and almost the entire team was there, working with strength and conditioning coach Al Vermeil.

“I knew right then that we weren’t going to lose to the Pistons again,” Krause said.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: LeBron James passed Tim Duncan to move into 14th on the NBA’s all-time scoring list … Eric Gordon broke his right ring finger for the second time since January … Manu Ginobili returned from injury and scored a season-high 22 points, as the Spurs went to 30-0 at home … The Phoenix Suns are reportedly targeting Chase Budinger … While it’s not a full update on his status, Chris Bosh says he’s feeling goodChris Andersen says he’ll always remember his time in Miami … During a concert in Oakland this weekend, Prince gave a shoutout to Steph Curry

Morning shootaround — Feb. 28


VIDEO: The Fast Break: February 27

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Steph Curry is a baaad man! | Durant’s lapses costly to OKC | Pelicans’ Davis sits down again | Carmelo’s dwindling NY days

No. 1: Steph Curry is a baaad man! — Not all late-February, NBA regular-season games are created equal. That was readily apparent to anyone who attended, tuned into, listened to or heard about Golden State’s remarkable comeback overtime victory at Oklahoma City on Saturday night. This was one – from Andre Iguodala‘s too-cool-for-school sinking of two late free throws to force the OT to Steph Curry‘s audacious game-winner from 35 feet – that seared itself into basketball fans’ memories. Some behind-the-scenes Warriors drama was the focal point of the postgame story from ESPN.com’s Ethan Sherwood Strauss. Meanwhile, our man Fran Blinebury of NBA.com painting some vivid imagery of the night that’s worth recalling in the light of day:

Ice water has Steph Curry running through its veins. Penguins look at him and shiver. The other side of the pillow thinks he’s cooler.

This isn’t funny anymore. Because the basketball world is going to pull all of its collective muscles reaching for newer, bigger, grander descriptions.

The official play-by-play sheet called it simply a 32-foot pull-up jump shot.

And Everest is just a mountain.

When Russell Westbrook missed the jumper near the end of overtime, Andre Iguodala grabbed the rebound and shoveled it ahead to Curry, nobody inside Chesapeake Energy Arena or the rest of the TV-watching, tongue-swallowing world could imagine what would happen next.

Curry didn’t run, he walked. More than walked, he strolled. A casual, carefree dribble or two across the mid-court line and then a look, maybe just a glance, a motion as nonchalant as flicking a speck of dust off your shoulder.

From there?

That 3-point rainbow that gave the Warriors a stunning 121-118 win over the Thunder Saturday night was probably the flat-out coolest thing since Shaft. Can’t you hear Isaac Hayes and the theme music?

“He’s one bad …

“Shut your mouth.

“We’re talkin’ ’bout Steph!”

It was his 12th trey of the night and he became the first player in NBA history to make at least 10 from the behind the arc in back-to-back games. It gave him 288 3-pointers on the year, breaking his own league record with six weeks still left in the season. His 46 points gave him a scoring average of 43.6 for the week.

“Obviously what Steph did was — what’s the expression? — from the ridiculous to the sublime,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr. “That’s where we are at this point.”

The Thunder were just in a scramble to get themselves back down the floor to guard against a last shot, but not that kind. Not one from the Texas border. Andre Roberson was lost in transition and can be seen in the replays for eternity making a desperate and frantic run when he realized it was happening.

“Honestly, I don’t know exactly where I am,” Curry said. “It’s not like I’m calibrating it in my head: ‘All right, 38 feet, 37, 36. … It’s just literally you’ve got a sense that you’ve shot the shot plenty of times. You’re coming across half court and you’re timing up your dribbles and want to shoot before the defense closes in. That was pretty much my only thought.

“When I got the ball, I knew coach had said if we got a stop and a clean rebound, push it. I looked up. … There was about five or six seconds left and the way they had shuffled around in transition, I was kinda just go at my own pace and rise up. I got my feet set and watched it go in.”

The shot went in and allowed the Warriors to become the first NBA team to clinch a playoff berth in February since the 1987-88 Lakers. It was a franchise record 29th road win of the season.

Now, with 17 of Golden State’s last 24 games of the season home at Oracle, the 72-win NBA record of the 1995-96 Bulls is not only possible, but likely. Why not 73? Or 75? Over even running the table to 77?

***

 No. 2: Durant’s lapses costly to OKC — There’s a flip side to every incredible comeback story. Whether it’s a moment of panic, a detail left unattended, an inch too far this way rather than that or a timeout not called by a rookie NBA head coach, there are always several – sometimes dozens – bits of alternate realities that could have dramatically changed the outcome. Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman looks at Golden State’s stirring overtime triumph from the perspective of what went wrong for the Thunder:

Minutes before Stephen Curry dropped a 35-foot moonshot dagger straight through the heart of Oklahoma City, the Thunder controlled the clock, the ball and the game. As the final seconds of regulation ticked down, Kevin Durant secured a crucial inbounds pass, up two, and anticipated the foul that would set up potential game-clinching free throws.

But it never came.

The Warriors trapped and waited. Durant seemed to panic. And what resulted was the most crippling play in the Thunder’s heartbreaking 121-118 overtime loss to the Warriors.

Everyone will remember the incredible Curry shot. But what set it up was Durant’s turnover at the end of regulation, the worst of the Thunder’s 23 giveaways.

Down 103-99, Klay Thompson hit a layup to cut OKC’s lead to two with 11 seconds left. Russell Westbrook snared it right out of the hoop, raced to the baseline and immediately inbounded to an open Durant. Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala converged in the corner, right in front of the Thunder bench, and trapped.

OKC still had a timeout. So why didn’t Billy Donovan call it?

“I just basically told the guys, you have one timeout and if you can’t get it in quickly, go ahead and take it,” Donovan explained. “I probably should’ve helped Kevin there when he came inbounds. I think maybe he was waiting for a foul and maybe I could’ve jumped in and helped him.”


WATCH: Curry vs. Durant Duel In Oklahoma City

***

No. 3:  Pelicans’ Davis sits down again — The New Orleans Pelicans’ 2015-16 season has been littered with injuries like discarded beads and shattered hurricane glasses strewn about Bourbon Street after a weekend of revelry. The latest was frequent injured-list denizen Anthony Davis – the Pelicans’ brilliant young big man sprained a toe during warmups for Saturday’s game against Minnesota and was held out as a precaution from what became New Orleans’ 112-110 loss to the Timberwolves. John Reid of the New Orleans Times Picayune chronicled the Pelicans’ latest tale of ailment and woe, this one linked to Wolves rookie Karl-Anthony Towns‘ and Minnesota’s dominance in the paint (50 points scored from there) owing to Davis’ injury:

While Eric Gordon made his return on Saturday night after missing 16 games with a fractured right ring finger, Pelicans star Anthony Davis returned on the injured list.

Davis sprained his right big toe during pregame warmups and was held out from playing in Saturday night’s 112-110 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Without Davis, the Pelicans gave up 50 points in the paint and couldn’t hold a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter.

It was Davis’ seventh game he has missed this season due to injury. In all, 12 players have combined to miss a total of 162 games since opening night loss to Golden State in October.

”It’s crazy,” Gordon said about Pelicans’ persistent problem with injuries. ”You know A.D., he can do different things. He’s a dominant force inside and you definitely need that towards the end of the game.”

Gordon was called for a blocking foul on Andrew Wiggins with 3.6 seconds when the score was tied at 110. Wiggins made both free throws to seal the win for the Timberwolves.

”I tried to make sure my feet was out of the restricted circle, so it’s tough,” Gordon said. ”You definitely don’t want to get to that point where it gets toward the end of the game. Tonight, we mostly beat ourselves.”

In the fourth quarter, the Timberwolves outscored the Pelicans 18-4 on points scored in the paint. Minnesota also made 60 percent of their shots (14 of 23) and guard Zach LaVine, who won the dunk contest during All-Star Weekend earlier this month, scored 11 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter.

***

No. 4: Carmelo’s dwindling NY daysCarmelo Anthony remains out of sync with the New York Knicks and vice versa. When the irrepressible scorer has been at the peak of his powers, the Knicks generally haven’t been ready to win. And by the time they are, frequently enough to contend for a playoff berth, a high seed and more, Anthony will be past his prime. That’s the dilemma Harvey Araton explored in his column for the New York Times Sunday:

… Anthony is as polarizing a figure to Knicks fans as any politician. That smile in Indiana undoubtedly fueled critics’ claim that he cares more about his brand than his much-discussed chances of winning a championship.

Amateur psychological evaluations aside, nobody knows what is in Anthony’s head, or heart.

However relative Anthony’s personal or team aspirations are at any given moment, he can only talk himself into believing he can attain both during his remaining contractual years in New York with the most optimistic of arguments.

Clearly, Anthony wants to stay in New York, but come July, he will be watching to see if [Phil] Jackson can land an impact free agent — not the best bet in a limited class and with impending cap space everywhere.

Miami, the Knicks’ opponent Sunday, could be the kind of team Anthony would consider waiving his no-trade clause for, although Chris Bosh’s health uncertainty could complicate the matter. Either way, Pat Riley — Jackson’s Heat counterpart, fellow septuagenarian and rival — will be more invested in retooling, not rebuilding.

Riley would probably at least be able to promise Anthony a return to the playoffs, something Jackson, in all likelihood, could not. Rebuilding is a process, not a proclamation. Consider teams like Detroit, Milwaukee, New Orleans — well ahead of the Knicks on the trail of developing talent yet still straining for mediocrity.

If Jackson can procure a young asset and a draft pick in a trade, Anthony will have pardoned himself for the original sin of forcing the Knicks to unload a bundle of resources on Denver when he might have signed as a free agent for the following season and cost the Knicks nothing.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The opportunity to add greybeard Andre Miller will mean the waiver wire for guard Ray McCallum. … Thunder assistant coach Monty Williams will remain on indefinite leave while dealing with the tragic death of his wife Ingrid in a Feb. 10 car accident, OKC head coach Billy Donovan said. … Lot of frustrated Bucks fans will disagree, but a case can be made that big-ticket free agent Greg Monroe has been neither the solution nor the problem for Milwaukee this season. … Golden State is ahead of the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls’ pace for setting the NBA mark for most victories in the regular season. … ICYMI: LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki and other NBA stars took to Twitter in the aftermath of Curry’s logic-defying, back-breaking game-winner at OKC. …

Morning shootaround — Feb. 20


VIDEO: Top 10 Plays from busy Friday night

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Lillard out-MVPs the MVP | Spurs bid Kobe adieu | Playoffs (PLAYOFFS?!) fading for Knicks | Mavs need more from Matthews

No. 1: Lillard out-MVPs the MVP — It was offered as high praise, but when Golden State coach Steve Kerr invoked Steph Curry‘s name as a way of lauding Damian Lillard‘s electric night against his Warriors — “He looked like Steph Curry out there” – it felt a little wrong. For one night, the Portland Trail Blazers guard deserved to stand alone in the spotlight, not sharing it with the NBA’s reigning Most Valuable Player or Portland’s stunning 32-point throttling Friday of the league’s defending champs. Even the Blazers’ surprising 28-27 record, far better than a lot of so-called experts imagined, could wait in the kudos line behind the point guard for whom there wasn’t room on the Western Conference All-Star team. Here is some of Oregonian beat writer Joe Freeman‘s report:

An undeniable reality surfaced during the 48 hours leading up to the most prolific individual performance of Damian Lillard’s career.

He felt like crud.

His legs were rubbery. His feet ached. His body wasn’t quite right. In two Trail Blazers practices following a weeklong All-Star break, Lillard committed turnovers in bunches and hoisted more bricks than he could count.

So on Thursday, after a particularly forgettable display, the two-time All-Star turned to assistant coach Nate Tibbetts with a surprising statement.

“Every time I feel like this,” Lillard told Tibbetts, “The next day, I just always have it.”

And he certainly had it Friday night. In one of the best individual performances in franchise history, Lillard recorded a career-high 51 points, a career-high six steals and seven assists to lead the surging Blazers to a stunning 137-105 victory over the Golden State Warriors at the Moda Center.

Lillard was so good, he did the unimaginable — he upstaged the Blazers’ startling 32-point victory over a seemingly invincible team poised to finish with the best record in NBA history. With a barrage of deep three-pointers, slick slashing layups and pull-up jumpers, Lillard was virtually unstoppable, making 18 of 28 field goals, including 9 of 12 three-pointers.

Lillard started hot, scoring or assisting on seven of the Blazers’ first nine field goals. And he finished even hotter, recording 21 points in a dazzling fourth quarter that had the Moda Center rocking like no other time this season. During Lillard’s most breathtaking stretch of the game, midway through the fourth quarter, he scored 13 consecutive Blazers points, breezing past the 40-point mark so fast he said he couldn’t remember doing so…

“He got into a zone twice,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “At the end, it was just ridiculous.”

And any outsider who watched Lillard during the 48 hours leading up the game, when he was bricking shots and tossing turnovers, would have been stunned.

Lillard said he was restless Friday, eager to fix his body and settle his mind, and he unintentionally altered his game-day routine. Following the Blazers’ morning shootaround, he hopped in the cold tub at the practice facility for a frigid 15-minute soak, then moved to the steam room, where he joined Al-Farouq Aminu for a 15-minute steam.

Afterward, he drove to his Lake Oswego home, slipped a splint on his left foot and took a nap, which he rarely does.

“I usually don’t even take naps,” he said. “I got up and I just felt good.”

Before he knew it, Lillard was driving to the Moda Center ahead of schedule. He strolled into the locker room about 3:50, roughly 30 or 40 minutes earlier than normal, and ran into Ed Davis, the only other person in the room. They shot the breeze for a while and Lillard killed time before going about his normal routine. By the time he started hispregame workout, his felt his mojo creeping back.

“When I did my routine before the game, I just felt good,” he said. “Going side to side, when I was pulling up off the dribble, I just felt in a good rhythm. The ball felt good in my hands.”

Lillard shot chart

***

 No. 2: Spurs bid Kobe adieu — Competitive to the end. How it had gone for most of Kobe Bryant‘s clashes with the San Antonio Spurs over the years is pretty much how it went in his final meeting with Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, coach Gregg Popovich and the rest Friday in Los Angeles. Across two decades of regular-season and postseason showdowns, Bryant and Duncan faced each other 82 times – the equivalent of a full NBA season – with the Spurs’ big man owning a 43-39 advantage. Then again, Bryant was quick to point out their head-to-head in playoff series: “Four to three.” The principals had met shortly before the All-Star break but this time was for the last time, so it’s worth reviewing, per the San Antonio Express-News’ Jeff McDonald:

The Lakers star was as competitive as ever, at one point popping a dislocated finger into place so he could finish this game. As has been the case for much of the 37-year-old’s farewell tour, the Spurs got the best of the Lakers, winning 119-113.

“It’s been fun competing against those guys for all these years,” Bryant said after scoring 25 points in his Spurs swan song. “I’ve truly enjoyed it. They’ve pushed me to fine-tune and sharpen my game.”

In many ways, Friday marked the end of a rivalry two decades in the making, between two players emblematic of their generation.

“We’ve played against each other for so many years,” said Duncan, who had 12 points and 13 rebounds for his first double-double since Jan. 3. “It was always a great game against him. You knew you had to bring your A game, because he’s going to bring the best out of you.”

Even toiling for a Lakers team that could not avoid its 46th loss Friday, Bryant refused to go down without a fight.

Benefitting from the absence of All-Star Kawhi Leonard, out for the second straight game with a calf injury, Bryant finished with 25 points.

Late in the fourth quarter, with the Spurs clinging to a five-point lead, Bryant dislocated a middle finger tracking a loose ball. Lakers trainer Gary Vitti popped the digit back into place, taped it to his index finger, and Bryant returned for the final 1:56.

“He’s played through stuff that nobody will ever know about,” Popovich said. “He’s a warrior.”

Bryant made one field goal with his finger injured, a runner that pulled L.A. within 111-107 with 1:23 left.

Later, in what will go down as the final shot of his career against the Spurs, he fired up an airball 3-pointer.

Bryant’s career against the Spurs was over, and Popovich had trouble pinpointing how he felt about it.

“In some ways, it will be great,” Popovich said. “In other ways, we will miss him a lot. The whole league will miss him. But I won’t have to worry about guarding him, that’s for sure.”

***

No. 3:  Playoffs (PLAYOFFS?!) fading for Knicks — At 22-22, the New York Knicks were looking like this year’s version of the 2014-15 Milwaukee Bucks, who took an Andre the Giant-sized stride from horrible (15-67) to respectable (41-41) in a single season, boosting themselves all the way into the playoffs with a few nips and tucks (and, in the Bucks’ case, a new coach in Jason Kidd). But now Knicks fans have begun to puzzle at the gaps between victories, their team sinking fast at 23-32 with no optimism in sight. Losing to crosstown rival Brooklyn Friday night brought on the best in New York critics, focusing on the worst of Knickerbocker basketball. Consider snippets here of New York Post columnist Mike Vaccaro:

That was the Nets — not the Thunder, not the Clippers — who rattled off a 20-2 run in the third quarter to turn a five-point Knicks lead into a 13-point Nets lead. That was the Nets who, after letting the Knicks draw within three points early in the fourth quarter, put them away with an immediate 10-0 surge.

That was the Nets who made the Knicks look so enfeebled, so non-competitive, so slow, so …

“We didn’t execute. On either end,” interim coach Kurt Rambis said. “That’s disappointing.”

Yes. That is one word. Here are a few others: Putrid. Lousy. Rotten. Unwatchable.

Playoffs?

Playoffs? Are you kidding me?

This is no longer a regression. The Knicks had lost 10 out of 11 heading into the break, the season already had gone sideways, the postseason already was looking like a longer long shot than Chuck Wepner.

You could talk yourself into anything you wanted to: the floor had started to tilt on the Knicks when Carmelo Anthony tripped over that referee’s foot. Kristaps Porzingis was dealing with the rookie wall. All of that. And to add red meat for the masses, Fisher was sacrificed. Is there more of a time-honored solution for turning things around — at least for a week or two — than axing the coach?

The Knicks had been off since Feb. 9. They were rested. They were as healthy as they had been in weeks. The first time these teams played, in December, the Knicks took a 30-point lead by the midway point of the second quarter.

Those were the heady days — hard to conjure now — when every small victory the Knicks posted was celebrated, because anything — just about everything — compared to last season’s 17-win dumpster fire could be celebrated as progress. That was before anyone figured this could end up in the playoffs, when just not watching stink rise up from the Garden floor was worth rejoicing.

Yeah. That feels like an awfully long time ago.

***

No. 4: Mavs need more from Matthews — When Dallas owner Mark Cuban reacted to the DeAndre Jordan switcheroo last summer by throwing even more guaranteed money, in a longer free-agent contract, at damaged-goods Portland shooting guard Wesley Matthews, it didn’t just seem impulsive; it seemed like retail therapy, the sort of things shopaholics do to self-medicate in times of unrelated stress. It even seemed a little out of character, given the red flags that were unmissable thanks to Matthews’ season-ending Achilles surgery last spring. So what the Mavericks are getting – or missing – from Matthews deep into his comeback season isn’t any big secret, but it is a legitimate concern, given how much time and money remains on his four-year, $70 million deal. Tim McMahon of ESPNDallas.com looked at the gap between Matthews’ production and compensation:

The Mavs certainly aren’t getting their money’s worth right now. They must get much better bang for the buck from their highest-paid player to have any hope of being more than first-round fodder — and perhaps even to make the playoffs.

The fact that the 29-year-old Matthews is struggling through the worst season of his career can’t be considered surprising. The history of players coming back from torn Achilles tendons, if they come back at all, is frighteningly poor.

It was an expensive vote of confidence from Cuban in Matthews’ remarkable will and work ethic. It was also a vote of confidence in the Mavs’ support staff — specifically head athletic trainer Casey Smith and athletic performance director Jeremy Holsopple — and the new medical technology that wasn’t available to players whose careers were ruined by a ruptured Achilles in the past.

And it was a decision made with the long term in mind.

“We didn’t sign him for this year,” Cuban said recently when asked if Matthews’ extended slump concerned him.

Not that Matthews, who surprised many by making good on his vow to play in the season opener less than eight months after suffering his injury, is looking for excuses for his struggles. Nor does he expect Mavs fans to have much patience in him if he doesn’t perform well.

“I’ve got to play better,” Matthews said after scoring only five points on 2-of-10 shooting in Friday’s overtime loss to the Orlando Magic. “I take that onus up. I take that ownership. I will.”

Matthews’ value to the Mavs can’t be measured simply by his stats. He’s a tremendous teammate who leads the Mavs in minutes played, a respected voice in the locker room and a proud defender who readily accepts the challenge of guarding the opponent’s best perimeter scorer on a nightly basis.

But Dallas desperately needs Matthews, who established himself as one of the NBA’s premier perimeter shooters the previous five seasons in Portland, to snap out of his offensive funk.

Matthews gave the Mavs one really good offensive month. He averaged 15 points and hit 42.5 percent of his 3-point attempts in December, numbers that were pretty close to the norm during his five-year tenure with the Trail Blazers. Matthews was plus-89 in those 14 games. Not coincidentally, the Mavs had their best month of the season, going 9-5.

The Mavs are 9-13 in games in which Matthews has played since the calendar flipped to 2016. He has averaged only 10.7 points during that time, shooting 37.4 percent from the floor and 30.5 percent from 3-point range. He is minus-69 in those 22 games.

It’s not trending in the right direction, either. Matthews is minus-55 in six February games, averaging only 8.8 points per game. Not coincidentally, the Mavs are 1-5 this month, sliding to 29-27 overall, putting them four games behind the Memphis Grizzlies for fifth in the Western Conference and giving them only a 1 1/2-game cushion before falling out of the playoff pack.

“This is not a Wes thing. This is a team thing,” coach Rick Carlisle said, downplaying concerns about Matthews’ slump.

Matthews sat down the stretch of regulation Friday night. He played the entire overtime, missing both of his shot attempts — a driving layup and an open corner 3 that both would have tied the score.

“I’ve been making those shots since I’ve been in the league. As soon as I get frustrated, it takes away from everything else that I can do on the court. When I start doing that, then I’m selfish. I’ve just got to continue being me [and] stay confident, which I am. I’m not worried about it. The team trusts me. Coaches trust me, and I’m going to work my ass off.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Dallas’ loss in OT in Orlando included a few sweet-nothings between big man Zaza Pachulia and wing Chandler Parsons. … Don’t think the Golden State Warriors didn’t learn anything from their loss to Portland Friday, or what it had in common with their four previous defeats. … If Thursday’s trade deadline didn’t scratch your itch for player movement, enjoy what transpires in the coming days of “buyout season,” as noted by our own Shaun Powell. … Then there’s the guy in Cleveland about whom trade rumors never seem to end, deadline or no deadline, writes our man Steve Aschburner. … Ricky Rubio enjoyed all the trade gossip – with a certain exception. … The guy most likely to be moved by the deadline was not. So what’s next for Dwight Howard?


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