Posts Tagged ‘Steve Aschburner’

Silver open to tweaks of draft, playoff structure, ‘virtually everything’

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: Adam Silver explains the talking points at the Board of Governors meeting

NEW YORK – With a new NBA commissioner flexing his distinctly collaborative style, working without crises at a “peace time” Board of Governors meeting, the league’s leadership took no significant votes and made no major decisions this week during their two-day Manhattan conclave.

But they sure did a lot of brainstorming and spitballing.

Talk of tweaks carried the day when Adam Silver, not quite three months into the job that David Stern held for three decades, shared Friday with reporters some of the topics in play at this BOG. In committee reports and in general discussion of the full board, they ranged from the pros and cons of a proposed 20-and-under eligibility rule (two years of college, in other words) to new ways of seeding, re-seeding or otherwise modifying the playoffs bracket.

The owners talked about further transparency, both in officiating itself and in the process that oversees the league’s referees. They kicked around ideas great and small related to the draft and the lottery – the “wheel” concept that would have each team picking at each spot in the first round over a 30-year period, as well as a play-in tournament for the No. 1 pick – without pushing toward any conclusion.

Overall, as described by Silver, the tone seemed to be: Things are good. Anyone have any ideas on how we can make them better?

“The league is doing so well right now, I just want to be very deliberate and cautious any major changes,” Silver said, both directly and in various guise underlying a half dozen other comments. If Stern’s effectiveness as commissioner often boiled down to persuasion, arm-twisting and – when all that failed – swift, autocratic management, Silver publicly so far has come across as a facilitator and delegator, seeking out others’ expertise and respecting the work of the BOG’s committees on matters of competition, finance and other league business.

Oh, there were a few clear developments Friday. The NBA entered into a partnership with USA Basketball and the U.S. Department of Defense to support soldiers and their families “through basketball,” with an emphasis on transitioning the armed forces members back to civilian life.

Also, there was a change at the top: San Antonio owner Peter Holt stepped down as chairman of the Board of Governors after 18 months, because of personal commitments. Minnesota’s Glen Taylor, who held that post from 2008 to 2012, takes over again on an interim basis, with a vote for Holt’s successor to be held by the board’s October meeting.

No vote was taken on the Milwaukee Bucks’ pending sale for a whopping $550 million to New York hedge-fund billionaires Marc Lasry and Wesley Edens – the league’s vetting process is underway. But current Bucks owner Herb Kohl introduced the two prospective owners to the board Thursday. Silver said he knows Lasry personally – Lasry owns a small share of the Brooklyn Nets, from which he’d have to divest – and added: “I don’t anticipate there will be any issues, but we’re not there in the process yet.” The sale could be approved without a formal owners meeting, as quickly as in a month or so.

Silver is diligent about process, and why not? The league sets up committees to study its various issues and make recommendations, so there’s value in their findings. The new commissioner also has tapped into leaders from related fields as resources. This time, NCAA president Mark Emmert and Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke with the owners.

Dempsey’s presence pertained to the “Hoops for Troops” partnership, obviously. But Emmert was there to discuss the NBA’s age-limit for draft prospects and its impact on college basketball and the players.

Silver, at All-Star weekend and in interviews, has talked repeatedly about his preference for raising the eligibility age – he said Friday “a majority” of the owners share that view. He and the league, for practical purposes, have gotten out in front of the NBA players’ union on the topic. After all, it would have to be collectively bargained – written into the existing CBA as an addendum if an agreement were reached, Silver said – and much of the NBPA’s business is on hold while its search for a new executive director grinds on.

But Silver introduced a third party into the coming discussions. “What Dr. Emmert and I agree on is that the NCAA needs to have a seat at the table,” the commissioner said. “If we are going to be successful in raising the age from 19 to 20, part and parcel of those negotiations go to the treatment of those players on college campuses [and] closing the gap between what their scholarships cover and their other incidental expenses.”

Silver didn’t get into any specific incentives, financial or otherwise, that might affect the issue. But he didn’t rule anything out – kind of the theme of the afternoon. Blow through the conference divide to have 10 West playoff teams vs. six East? Open up the instant-replay process to give referees discretion to rule not just on an out-of-bounds possessions but also an unseen foul?

Silver wasn’t ruling anything out.

“This seems like a good time,” he said at one point in Friday’s news conference, “when you have a transition in leadership to take a fresh look at virtually everything.”

Here are some further details on the above:

  • The partnership supporting armed forces members will include exhibition games, clinic, speaking engagements and game tickets, though its primary focus will be the “thousands of service members returning from overseas duty.” Why the NBA? Dempsey, Silver said, ” told us was that basketball is the most popular sport among his troops, and it’s also a highly popular sport among the families of the troops.”
  • Silver had high praise for the league’s competition committee, which is studying playoff structure and other areas of the game with more than the hit-and-run approach of the past. It has moved “towards what I would call an NFL‑style format, where it’s a multi‑day meeting, focused attention from a cross‑section of coaches, general managers [and] owners,” Silver said. “We have a player representative there, as well, and these are the kind of issues where the last thing we wanted to do is make them based on one meeting, owners hearing arguments for the first time.”
  • While not tipping his hand on any tweaks that might blow across traditional conference lines, Silver did mention a factor cited in reverting The Finals this year to a 2-2-1-1-1 format. “You have a system that was designed before all teams traveled by charter,” he said, “and as travel becomes easier, it opens up more windows of opportunity for change.”
  • It is the competitiveness of NBA general managers that underlies the one-and-done scenarios and issues, Silver said. “It doesn’t surprise me,” he said. “If these great young players are available, our teams will draft them. Whether they’ll ultimately turn out to be wise draft picks is a whole separate issue.” Requiring two years after high school – in NCAA hoops, in the D League, in Europe, wherever – would get NBA scouts out of high school gyms, boost the college game, deliver to NBA teams more developed rookies and put players in a pro environment when they might be a little better equipped to thrive. But the NBPA still has to weigh in.
  • Silver wasn’t asked directly about “tanking” or, er, rebuilding teams whose seasons now are done. But he did take a question about playoff teams in the final days of the schedule manipulating their rotations in what appeared to be playoff-positioning. “I’d just begin by saying it’s the last area I think the league should be legislating, and that is minutes players play,” he responded. “I mean, we have some of the greatest coaches in the world in this league and highly sophisticated teams, and so it’s part of managing player time.”
  • Who’s to say that rest and recuperation aren’t the driving forces in the final week, Silver suggested. “We have a long playoffs,” he said. “It’s part of the drama over a seven‑game series. It’s the match‑ups, it’s the reactions. Again, it’s the pairings of particular players against each other. It’s sort of the chess playing among our coaches, and I think resting players becomes all part of that.”
  • Silver said that Milwaukee’s Kohl – who has owned the Bucks since 1985, has included in the sales agreement that the team remain in town, and has pledged that he and the new owners each will contribute $100 million to a new arena – was lauded by the board. “The owners were amazed at the personal contribution [former U.S. Senator] Kohl announced to the city of Milwaukee,” Silver said. “It’s unprecedented for an owner to make a $100 million contribution to his community.”

The round of applause Kohl received in the room reflected that, the commissioner said. Establishing a price of $550 million for what historically has been the NBA’s least valuable franchise might have had a little to do with the clapping, too.

Executive of the Year: Ryan McDonough

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: McDonough answers questions from fans

Architects and general contractors hear all the oohs and aahs. Demolition crews just try to get in and get out, completing their gnarly but necessary work without soiling the carpet.

Phoenix’s Ryan McDonough figured to be one of the latter, doing a lot more tear-down than build-up in his first full year as the Suns’ general manager. Only he axed and crowbarred his way to something pretty impressive, winding up as the choice here at Hang Time HQ as the NBA’s 2013-14 Executive of the Year.

Technically, none of us in the media votes for the EOY — that’s done by executives from the 30 teams. But McDonough would get points from anywhere for helping turn the Suns into one of the league’s happiest stories from start nearly to end. Don’t put too much stock in that flameout in the final week. The Suns nearly doubled last season’s victory total (they won only 25 then) and became only the second team to win 48 and miss the postseason since the NBA went to its 16-team format. Their record would have tied for third in the East.

This is a tale of the Suns rising in the West and the role McDonough played. In this year of (cough) “tanking” — more accurately described as avowed rebuilding — Phoenix was supposed to be bottom and center. McDonough made moves to clear the roster, open up salary-cap space and stockpile draft picks, rounding up a coaching staff fresh and upbeat enough to endure the losing without fraying.

Double their victories? Bah. Las Vegas oddsmakers pegged the Suns’ over/under at 21.5, a swoon from last season.

It didn’t take long for Phoenix to make the experts look silly. They won five of their first seven and were 17-10 by Christmas. They topped last year’s victory total before the end of January and were in sixth place a day after the All-Star break.

How did this all come together? Let us count the ways in which McDonough transformed-not-tanked:

  • He hired Jeff Hornacek as a rookie head coach, getting someone who, true, faced no pressure to win and brought a temperament suited to taking the expected lumps. But the former NBA shooting guard had played for and learned from some of the game’s most-innovative coaches – Jerry Sloan in Utah, John MacLeod and Cotton Fitzsimmons in Phoenix, Doug Moe in Philadelphia — synthesizing a strategy from them. Hornacek didn’t need to hitch himself to a franchise/superstar player, getting plenty of whole from the sum of Suns parts. His players feel ownership in the surprising results, while he hasn’t had to wrangle any massive egos.
  • Trading for Eric Bledsoe, though, was a big-time move, worthy of the most ambitious contender. McDonough liked Bledsoe’s rookie contract, sure, but he also liked the prospect of sticking him alongside Goran Dragic in the backcourt. That gave Phoenix maximum playmaking options and the tandem clicked — the Suns were 23-11 when the two started together.
  • Acquiring Bledsoe brought along veteran forward Caron Butler, who was so leery of suffering through a dreary season that he lobbied for and got a trade to … Milwaukee? Worked out OK for Butler eventually (he ended up in Oklahoma City), worked out better for the Suns, who got back backup guard Ish Smith. Smith has been a valuable and speedy reserve.
  • Let’s not forget the future first-round draft pick McDonough got for veteran Luis Scola, another fellow who preferred a backup role on a good team to a starting job with a projected loser. But wait, there was more: the Pacers also sent Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee to Phoenix. Plumlee has been a helpful big, but Green has been reborn — or sold his soul to ol’ Lucifer. The much-traveled wing with the rarely harnessed skills is a top contender to be voted 2013-14′s Most Improved Player.
  • Gifting center Marcin Gortat to Washington, along with Kendall Marshall, Shannon Brown and Malcolm Lee for injured Wizards big man Emeka Okafor and a future first-rounder. Everyone knew the prognosis for Okafor — out all season with a herniated disc in his neck — so nothing screamed “tank!” more than McDonough swapping healthy for hurt a few days before Opening Night. Washington has been thrilled with Gortat but you’d have to say he’s been valued there more than he’s been missed in Phoenix. Plumlee has plugged in fine and Gortat’s erasure — along with Jared Dudley‘s, a disappointment with the Clippers — has enabled the Suns to play faster.

McDonough didn’t have his fingerprints on all Phoenix improvements. Dragic is getting all-NBA attention, Markieff Morris earned himself a bunch of Sixth Man votes and Channing Frye might be Comeback Player of the Year if the league hadn’t replaced that with the MIP. All preceded McDonough in Phoenix.

But McDonough has served competing masters, positioning Phoenix well with picks and with money to woo free agents. Shouldn’t be long before our Exec of the Year puts down his crowbar and picks up a scalpel to tweak a team well past the tear-down stage.

The contenders:

Daryl Morey, Houston. Landing Dwight Howard, despite the once-glamorous Lakers’ advantages, was a biggie unto itself. But this darling of the analytics crowd has been wheeling and dealing creatively all along. The Rockets are a playoff handful for any opponent, any round, and might be set up best to take a real run at Carmelo Anthony should the Knicks scorer actually consider leaving New York.

Rod Higgins, Charlotte. Hiring Steve Clifford, another COY contender, was a move that smacked of the Bulls tapping Tom Thibodeau in 2010. Signing Al Jefferson proved to be a bigger win-win, dropping Big Al into the Bobcats’ culture to be a leader and an anchor, while eliciting the best performance of his career.

Neil Olshey, Portland. Did you know that Robin Lopez was going to have a breakthrough season? Or that Mo Williams would prove so effective off the bench behind Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews? The biggest benefit of those Olshey moves was calming LaMarcus Aldridge, the All-Star power forward who no longer makes noise about exiting.

Danny Ferry, Atlanta. Letting Josh Smith walk while opting instead for Paul Millsap, at a much better value (two years, $19 million vs. Smith’s four years, $54 million), was a heist for Ferry. So was the easy decision to match Jeff Teague‘s offer sheet from Milwaukee at a reasonable price — four years, $32 million — for a full-service point guard without most of Brandon Jennings‘ (three years, $24 million) flaws. Ferry also hired Mike Budenholzer, Gregg Popovich’s former right-hand man with the Spurs.

Masai Ujiri, Toronto. Sometimes it’s addition by subtraction, moving Rudy Gay to Sacramento to get the bump every team apparently does when unloading the skilled forward. And sometimes it’s the move you don’t make at all: Dwane Casey had one of those “expiring contracts” that don’t have much allure among coaches, and the guy who hired him (Bryan Colangelo) got deleted last summer. But Casey’s defensive bent and calm, mature approach were given enough time to pay off in the Atlantic Division crown.

 

Blogtable: Can’t miss this

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.


BLOGTABLE: Memories | One to watch | A surprise champ


San Antonio's Tim Duncan has played in 211 playoff games in his illustrious career. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE)

San Antonio’s Tim Duncan has played in 211 playoff games in his illustrious career. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE)

> A quick look forward: Other than KD and LeBron, who’s your can’t-miss performer for these playoffs?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.comTony Parker. No more resting, no more worries about point-guard rankings as individuals. None of that. Parker gets to quarterback the San Antonio push through the playoffs, and given his experience and the tools at his disposal, I think he’s going to remind people how valuable he really is.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.comBlake Griffin.  He’s taken his game to the next level and forced his way into the MVP conversation.  If he keeps it up in the playoffs, the Clippers are a real threat in the West.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.comChris Paul. He’s the rare superstar lacking a championship who doesn’t get hassled for having not won one. Think about that. That’s all we do is ask when so-and-so is going to finally win a title? CP3′s in his ninth season yet seems to stay removed from that discussion. He’s made it out of the first round only twice, in 2008 with New Orleans on a team with Tyson Chandler, David West and Peja Stojakovic that lost to San Antonio in Game 7 of the semis, and then his first season with the Clippers when they were swept by the Spurs. A run to the conference finals looks like it will take getting through Golden State and then Oklahoma City, a mighty task indeed, but it’s time for this superstar to get there.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.comHyland DeAndre Jordan Jr., Clippers. Already putting up big rebounding numbers and on a hot streak with blocks, now he may get the gift beginning of a first round with the Warriors down Andrew Bogut and, still, Festus Ezeli. With the pace Golden State and L.A. play at, a 20-rebound game by Jordan is very realistic. And even if the Clippers open against someone else, Jordan will continue his regular-season impact anyway.

John Schuhmann, NBA.comTim Duncan. At some point, this ride has to end, and we should appreciate the best player of his generation as much as we can, while we can. As a whole, the Spurs are brilliant, but it all starts with Duncan’s leadership and play on both ends of the floor. It will also be fascinating to see if they can get back to where they were last year and somehow redeem themselves for Game 6 and, for Duncan, the missed bunny in Game 7.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: There are a number of players I’m expecting to show up and show out in the playoffs, the leading two candidates for MVP, of course, headline the list. But I’ve enjoyed watching Joakim Noah perform as much as I have any single player in the league this season. His playoff breakout came last year, when the Bulls surprised us with that epic effort in that seven-game series against Brooklyn. Noah’s a better player now than he was then and I can see him chasing a triple-double every night in these playoffs. No one brings more raw energy and effort to the party than the Bulls’ big man.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball Blog: It’s not exactly like he’s overlooked, but one player I traditionally love watching in the postseason is Chris Paul. The game slows down, offenses become more halfcourt-based, and having a floor general like Paul becomes essential. As great as Paul is during the season, he turns up in the postseason and finds another level. It’s the playoffs where Paul takes over games, threatening triple-doubles and commanding games. And that’s must see TV.

Akshay Manwani, NBA India: Blake Griffin. His mid-range game, his post play and his athleticism all make him compulsory viewing material. Also, Griffin — who has been at the receiving end of some really hard fouls right through the regular season — will have his patience tested, perhaps, more severely in the playoffs. It would be interesting to see how he responds in the pressure cooker environment that are the playoffs. Chris Paul is undoubtedly the nerve center of the Clippers, but Griffin has to play big if the Clippers are to have a great run.

Aldo Avinante, NBA Philippines: I think it will be fun to watch Dirk Nowitzki. He has been relatively healthy all-season long, and after the Dallas’ absence last year Dirk knows he only has a couple of playoff runs left in him. He will surely try to make the most out of it. And with that sweet stroke and unstoppable one-foot fadeaway, it will be fun to watch him torment defenders on the big stage again. DeMar DeRozan is another player to watch out for, the athletic swingman could use the playoffs as his spring board to stardom a la Paul George and provide the fans a showcase of his vastly improved skills.

Stefanos Triantafyllos, NBA Greece: I don’t know how we should leave Paul George out of the equation. Especially after last year’s games against the Heat. Or Tim Duncan. He had a phenomenal regular season and it’s really interesting to see if he can carry on his second youth during the postseason.

Blogtable: A surprising champion

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.


BLOGTABLE: Memories | One to watch | A surprise champ


A darkhorse? Maybe not, but the Clippers could still be a surprise in June. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE)

A darkhorse? Maybe not, but the Clippers could still be a surprise in June. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE)

> Your definition, your choice, your reasoning: Your darkhorse pick to win the NBA title.

Steve Aschburner, NBA.comDo the Clippers qualify as a dark horse? I’d argue yes and pick them, because that insta-champion business – last witnessed in Boston in June 2008 – is no simple thing. Doc Rivers might wind up as the link from the last one to the next one if his ability to manage both his roster and the unique challenges of the postseason mesh just so. The Clippers clearly have the talent, both to survive the West and to topple the three-peat-aiming Miami Heat.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: In the past, the Clippers were just Lob City and a bunch of nightly highlight reel dunks.  In his first season as coach, Doc Rivers has given them a sense of purpose and direction.  He’s demanded and gotten more out of Blake Griffin.  He’s gotten DeAndre Jordan to play with confidence and consistency.  Of course, he’s got the best point in the game in Chris Paul running the show.  A healthy J.J. Redick gives them the outside shooting to keep defenses honest and Matt Barnes defends on the wing.  They are deeper than ever with Jamal Crawford again making a run at Sixth Man of the Year and get help from Darren Collison, Jared Dudley, Glen Davis and Danny Granger.  Rivers knows what it takes to run the playoff gauntlet and his ability to inject a new sense of personal responsibility and commitment to the task has these Clippers looking and playing vastly different than the past few years.  They are a dark horse, but one that you wouldn’t mind saddling up for a ride.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: Houston. The Rockets are remarkably young, but also remarkably talented. They’ve got the perimeter (James Harden) and the middle (Dwight Howard) covered by All-Stars, plus shooters all around. Omer Asik behind Howard provides 48 minutes of crucial rim protection. They can be their own worst enemy, especially defensively, but put it all together and they can give any opponent nightmares.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: I don’t put the Clippers in the darkhorse category, but a lot of other people seem to, so that’s the pick. The Clips certainly aren’t sneaking up on anyone — Blake Griffin, CP3, Lob City, Doc Rivers — but I’ve gotten the question a few times the last couple weeks: Is it possible someone other than the Spurs or Thunder would win the West? Sure it is. The team that was a realistic pick from the start of the season.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: I’ve wavered back and forth on whether to deem the Thunder a darkhorse or not. But my final answer is the Clippers. Their defense hasn’t really held up against good teams, but their offense is near unstoppable, especially if J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford are healthy.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: Can we really call a team with Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Jamal Crawford and Doc Rivers as coach really be considered a “dark horse?” I hope so, because the Los Angeles Clippers are my pick. They have all of the ingredients — star power, depth, balance, experience, etc. – needed to make their way to the championship round and win it all. We’ll find out of they are tough enough to endure the grind of making it that far. But there is no doubt in my mind that all of the pieces are in place. Blake’s work this season while CP3 was out and the overall improvement to DeAndre Jordan’s game are the two wild cards for the Clippers. They had to come back with those guys having improved their respective games for me to believe in them. And they did exactly what they had to do.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball Blog: My definition of a darkhorse is a team nobody is picking. My choice, well, that’s more complicated. I would have mentioned Golden State, but to me the Andrew Bogut injury might take them out of the running. I’ll throw a team out there: Houston. The Rockets strike me as a team that haven’t hit their stride just yet. They have it all: scoring, a strong interior presence, a tough perimeter defender, depth. Every year, there’s a team that gets hot and goes on a run in the postseason. Perhaps this spring we’ll see the Rockets’ red glare.

Simon Legg, NBA Australia: I’ve been saying a lot lately that I think only five teams can win the title (two from the East and three from the West) so my selection probably won’t sound like a dark horse. Anyway, I’m going with the Clippers as the only team outside of the Spurs and Thunder who can win the West and then, challenge for a title. We all know about their credentials offensively and they have two top-10 players, but the aspect of their game that has impressed me the most this season has been their defence, the achilles heel of this team under Vinny Del Negro. Now, with Doc Rivers in charge, they have transformed into a top-10 defensive unit and thus, can challenge for a title.

Davide Chinellato, NBA Italia: I think the Nets really have a chance to hug the Larry O’Brien trophy in June. They were out of contention after a 10-21 start, but Jason Kidd somehow transformed a bunch of great players into a team around January and now they have the momentum, the depth, the experience and the talent to upset both Indiana and Miami and made it to the Finals. They need to be healthy, but they have a chance.

Adriano Albuquerque, NBA Brasil: I guess the Clippers qualify as a dark horse contender. The major favorites have to be Miami, San Antonio and OKC, though not necessarily in that order, right? Indiana, the Clippers and Houston are the dark horses. I pick LA’s representative. Their defense still isn’t all that great, but it’s much better than it was when the season started. They have a coach who has won a ring – one of only four championship-winning coaches still in the tournament – they added key veterans with Finals experience via free agency late in the season, and I feel that Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan have matured enough to absorb the punishment they will take from teams still questioning their toughness, especially Golden State, their opponents in the first round. Plus, it’s time for Chris Paul to take the wheels and lead a team past the second round, even if he has to beat Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to do it.

Blogtable: Fave regular-season moment

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.


BLOGTABLE: Memories | One to watch | A surprise champ



VIDEO: Derrick Rose sinks the game-winner to beat the Knicks on Oct. 31, 2013

> A quick look back: Your favorite moment of the 2013-14 regular season.

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: My favorite moment came way at the beginning: Derrick Rose’s high-arcing 12-foot game-winner from the right baseline over Tyson Chandler with 5.7 seconds left at United Center in the Bulls’ home opener. There was electricity and anticipation in the air that, alas, lasted only 10 games before the Chicago MVP candidate went down and out — again. Rose had looked good in October, leading Chicago in scoring (20.7 points a game) and hitting 44.4 percent of his 3-pointers, and everything seemed all right until … y’know. I’d also list the moments Greg Oden, Danny Granger and any other injured guy returned to action –- comebacks are a lot more enjoyable to cover than season-ending injury stories — and Shaun Livingston‘s continued ability to thrive in his revived career.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: Pick a moment, any moment, in any game when Joakim Noah was hungrily, frantically, feverishly passing, rebounding, scoring, pushing, shoving, diving to the floor, doing anything to help the Bulls win the next possession and the next game in a season that he could easily have let go.  For someone who has covered the league for nearly 40 years, Noah has been pure joy to watch.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: I harken to a game I witnessed on the Kevin Durant Experience. Go back to Jan. 22 at Oklahoma City. The Portland Trail Blazers were in town with a 31-10 record. They led 95-90 with 3:45 to go. Looking good. Then Durant went MVP. A driving layup gave him 37 points and cut the deficit to 95-92. A 3-pointer gave him 40 points and tied it at 95. Reggie Jackson and Kendrick Perkins made it 99-95 OKC. Then on consecutive possessions, the first with 48 seconds to play and the second with 26 seconds left, Durant drilled killer 3s from straightaway, giving him 46 points and 11 in the final 3:45. Afterward, the dejected Blazers all but handed Durant the MVP right there and then. “MVP performance,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “He’s the MVP. He’s the MVP,” Blazers forward Nicolas Batum said. “I mean, six years I have been in this league, I have never seen a performance like that. Six years.”

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.comSan Antonio’s 19-game winning streak. The consistency, the dependability, the way players who weren’t on the roster the season before stepped up, the tying for the sixth-best run in NBA history while maintaining a tight hold on minutes. It was all so Spurs-like. Oh, and everyone else was counting along more than the San Antonio players and coaches. Also so Spurs-like. Also worth remembering: Doc Rivers’ heartfelt return to Boston, the purple-splashed celebration at the opening night in Sacramento that almost wasn’t, Jerry Sloan’s tribute night in Salt Lake City. I’m sure there are other moments worth remembering that I am just not remembering.

John Schuhmann, NBA.comThe reception Paul Pierce got in his first game back in Boston (Jan. 26) was very cool. There are not many guys that have played 15 years in one city, and it was great to how much that connection means to the player, the franchise and the fans. Though Pierce played pretty poorly that night, every player would love to have a moment like that.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: That’s a tough one. We’re talking about an entire 82-game season and countless highlights and jaw-dropping moments. Picking one is nearly impossible. But it’ll be hard for me to shake the memory of TNT’s Charles Barkley walking in on my Hang Time One-On-One interview with Milwaukee Bucks rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo. The rookie’s jaw dropped, literally, and his eyes lit up. It was a totally impromptu moment that none of us caught on video because everyone in the room was so surprised it happened. Barkley told Antetokounmpo he needed to “eat a sandwich” before telling him how much he enjoyed watching the youngest player in the league play. Antetokounmpo was in disbelief for the next 10 minutes. He couldn’t get over his chance meeting with one of his idols. “Charles Barkley is huge,” he said before breaking into a wide smile.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball Blog: How about a look back quickly: Perhaps it’s because it’s still fresh on my mind, but that Memphis/Phoenix game the other night with a postseason trip on the line was incredible. Not only because the stakes were so high — it was essentially win or go home. But it was also because the quality of play was terrific — guys were sinking shot after shot, and it felt like they were almost willing the ball into the basket. If the level of play in the postseason comes anything close to that, should be an amazing postseason.

Adriano Albuquerque, NBA Brasil: My favorite moment of the season is still the shock and amazement of seeing the Philadelphia 76ers win their first three games in a row, especially that season-opening win versus the defending champions Miami Heat that included Michael Carter-Williams’ coming out party. Despite all the losing the young Sixers had to suffer during this season — especially that 26-game streak — “The Hyphen” and his peers can look back at that stretch and draw inspiration for climbing higher next season. Also, I loved that amazing Jeff Green 3-point shot with 0.4 seconds on the clock to beat the Heat in Miami. That was just ridiculous. And my third favorite moment was Carmelo Anthony hanging 62 points on the Bobcats to break the Knicks’ and Madison Square Garden’s scoring records.

Philipp Dornhegge, NBA Deutschland: Is it just me, or does everybody feel that you always miss the games with crazy endings? Therefore I’m super-glad that I did, in fact, watch the two Warriors-Thunder games live in which Andre Iguodala and Russell Westbrook hit game-winners. Intense games, playoff atmosphere, perfect endings.

Davide Chinellato, NBA Italia: I pick an All-Star moment, when Marco Belinelli won the Three-Point Contest. It was an historic moment for Italian basketball, and Marco totally deserved it because he made his way up from an end-of-the-bench guy in his first 2 seasons with the Warriors to one of the key role players in a team that can win the title. Putting my role as editor of NBA Italy aside for a moment, my favorite moment of the season is the second Heat vs. Thunder game. Those first minutes in which LeBron played like a monster are unforgettable.

Stefanos Triantafyllos, NBA Greece: OK, I cannot be objective about that. It’s not every day that you see a Greek player featured in the No. 1 of the NBA’s Top-10 highlight reel. So, my favourite moments were Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s coast to coast block-and-dunk against the Cetlics, and when he blocked twice Kevin Durant, forcing KD to call out the rookies’ skills.

One gear: Thibodeau, Bulls continue to grind forward

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com

Tom Thibodeau's intensity has set the tone for the one-speed Bulls. (Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images)

Tom Thibodeau’s intensity has set the tone for the one-speed Bulls. (Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images)

CHICAGO – If the Chicago Bulls didn’t exist, NBA commissioner Adam Silver would have to invent them.

As this team rests its star players for a fresh start in the NBA postseason, as that team eyeballs the standings to scale its efforts on a given night to playoff positioning or lottery chances, the Chicago Bulls trudge forward, always forward.

Sometimes they march. Sometimes they plod. Every once in a while, the game flows more freely and you’d swear you saw swooshes on their work boots. But this is a one-direction, one-speed, one-gear team – forward, forever in overdrive – that doesn’t apologize when critics seize on that as a problem at this time of year: The Bulls play so hard all the time, so there’s no “next level” to which they can take their game in the playoffs.

Like that’s a bad thing.

So what if Chicago doesn’t click-clack through the shift gate like some exotic sports coupe flitting about the Riviera? Armored tanks, steamrollers and threshers seem to do fine without dual-clutch 7-speed gearboxes. So do Terminators, a.k.a., Tom Thibodeau.

“We’re not changing,” Thibodeau said after the 108-95 victory over Orlando in the Bulls’ home finale. “We’re trying to win games. … We’re not changing our approach: Every game, analyze what we’re doing well, what we’re doing not as well as we would like, make our corrections, move on to the next one, know the opponent well, keep moving forward. That’s all we can do.”

You could stump a few Chicagoans by asking to identify the source of the following quote: “It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.” Who said that: Michael Biehn‘s character in the original “Terminator?” Or a Bulls player, requesting anonymity, in describing Thibs?

Forward Taj Gibson didn’t take the unnamed route when he went there Monday.

“You guys have been around for a minute now,” Gibson, a top Sixth Man candidate, told reporters. “You guys should know that guy in the other room over there, he’s not going to tell anybody to take any rest. He’s old school. He doesn’t believe in that. He just believes in pushing forward.


VIDEO: The passion of Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau

“Like he said, ‘The finish line is ahead. You’ve got to just run through it. You can’t slow up, you can’t try to trot through. You’ve got to run full speed ahead through it and whatever happens, happens.’ He told us, ‘We want to walk through the fire together as a team, as a unit. Nobody’s going to take that from you. You’ve just got to keep walking through it. Don’t stop for anything.’ “

OK, so there’s no ring collection in the Chicago locker room. Backup center Nazr Mohammed is the only player to have reached The Finals, never mind win the title, and the Bulls’ collection of Larry O’Brien trophies has fit on the same shelf for 16 years now.

But then, Thibodeau and his crew aren’t preachy about their relentless ways – heck, it might scare off some free agents the way tales of Pat Riley‘s taped, full-contact, two-hour “shootarounds” used to. Grinding steadily forward simply is what has worked for Chicago.

There really wasn’t much choice, after the long-anticipated return of MVP candidate Derrick Rose ended just 10 games in. Rose’s second season-ending knee injury and the subsequent trade of All-Star Luol Deng threatened to do more than just slam shut this Bulls edition’s championship window. It had some fans luridly licking their chops over lottery slots. They, of course, were the ones who know nothing about Thibodeau.

The Bulls are 21-8 since the All-Star break and 34-17 since trading Deng in early January. Their defense is a constant, the relentless embodiment of their head coach. And though Chicago ranks ranks 28th in offensive rating (102.7), the Bulls lately have been almost breezy, scoring 100 points or more in five of their past seven.

With Gibson and Joakim Noah developing as scoring options, with shooter Mike Dunleavy moving into a starting spot up front and with D.J. Augustin dusting off his career as Thibodeau’s latest point-guard reclamation project, the offense has hit triple digits 14 times in its 29 post-break games vs. 11 times in the 52 before it.

Their 100-89 loss Sunday in New York snapped a seven-game winning streak, but at least it wasn’t the result of guessing at the Indiana-Miami flip-flopping atop the conference and trying to game the playoff seedings. If anything the Bulls Game 7 everything.

“It’s made us who we are,” guard Kirk Hinrich said after the Magic victory. “That’s just kind of the makeup of this group and the beliefs that [Thibodeau] goes by. Us as players, there’s something to be said about just coming in, preparing. You feel prepared, you’re confident, and that goes a long way.”

Dunleavy occasionally has rolled his eyes at the work-load demands he has faced under Thibodeau. Then again, the 6-foot-9 forward didn’t play on a .500 team in his first 11 NBA seasons, so he’s not complaining.

“Playing with high intensity like we do all year helps,” he said. “I certainly am going to keep the same approach in the playoffs. It’s just another game because I think we prepare for every regular-season game like it’s a playoff game. That’s the way we’ve been doing it, and hopefully we roll right through in terms of smoothness and transition into the postseason.”

Roll? Typically by this time each spring, the Bulls are limping and bleeding. Once the smoke and smell of sulfur from Rose’s latest demise cleared, though, the rest of the roster got and largely has remained healthy. As hard as Thibodeau pushes, they have become true believers in the ol’ “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” ethos.

“We believe in ourselves, we believe in our abilities,” Noah said. “We think we’re going to be a tough out. We’re going to go out there and give them hell.”

Forty-eight minutes of it, sometimes served up that way per man (see Jimmy Butler, 2013 postseason). All in one gear, at one speed.

Hibbert, Hill stymie Pacers’ revival

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com

George Hill and Roy Hibbert have struggled with production since the All-Star break. (Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images)

George Hill and Roy Hibbert have struggled to find their way of late. (Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images)

There is a particular reason why the Chicago Bulls have mourned the absence of All-Star point guard Derrick Rose and, in healthier times, felt confident about their chances against the two-time defending champion Miami Heat:

Center and point guard. The two positions where Miami has seemed most vulnerable through its three-Finals, two-titles reign over the NBA. And the two positions where the Bulls, with Rose and Joakim Noah (even before Noah’s blossoming in 2013-14), held distinct match-up advantages.

And then there are the Indiana Pacers, where center Roy Hibbert and point guard George Hill have embodied and driven – in an especially vicious circle these days – their team’s struggle against the Heat specifically and in the season’s stretch drive generally.

Hibbert is the one taking most of the grief, an obvious lightning rod given his stature literally and in Indiana’s preferred scheme of things. He’s a 7-foot-2 center who has come up about 4-foot-11 of late, shrinking at the task of nailing down the East’s top playoff berth.

Over the past 10 games, Hibbert has averaged 9.0 points, 3.2 rebounds and 1.3 blocks while shooting 32.9 percent, all south of his expected numbers. His decline since the All-Star break is nothing short of alarming – from offensive and defensive ratings of 104 and 95 through his first 52 games, to 91 and 106 over the past 27.

And the past week went by almost without so much as a ping from the Pacers’ missing aircraft carrier: A nightmarish nine minutes, scoreless and without rebounds in a blowout loss to Atlanta. A game in street clothes in Milwaukee as part of coach Frank Vogel‘s rattle-whatever-cage-remains decision to sit out his starters. And just five points and one rebound in nearly 34 minutes in the smackdown in Miami, with the Heat taking apparent glee in finally solving their Hibbert headaches.

Hill, the team’s unassertive point guard – and one of the NBA’s few where “playmaker” can be subbed in as a synonym to mix up the phrasings – has been just as disappointing in the Pacers’ desperation to stop their swoon. Averages of 8.3 points and 3.4 assists, while hitting 42.4 percent of his field-goal attempts and 69.2 percent of his free throws.

He, too, has stepped into an open elevator shaft post-All Star break in some of the advanced metrics: true-shooting percentage down from 57.9 to 53.3, and a combo drop in offensive and defensive ratings from 117/98 to 110/112. If those were blood pressure numbers, the Pacers’ title hopes already would be dead.

All of this is a way of pointing out how challenging the Pacers’ matinee game against Oklahoma City (1 p.m. ET, ABC) figures to be Sunday. The gap between NBA Most Valuable Player favorite Kevin Durant and Indiana’s Paul George, a likely fourth- or fifth-place finisher, already is vast enough. But for Hill, matched up with the Thunder’s angry young man at the point, Russell Westbrook, it will be all he can do to hang on defensively, offense – no matter how badly Indiana needs a fix there – be danged.

For Hibbert, facing low-center-of-gravity Kendrick Perkins, relentlessly active Serge Ibaka and fundamentally sound Nick Collison is no way to get his game healthy. Last Sunday against the Hawks, Hibbert made Pero Antic look like Dave Cowens in his prime and had Pacers peeps excusing the (ahem) tough match-up. At Miami Friday, it was old reliable Udonis Haslem staying low, beating Hibbert to his spots and pushing him around to exploit that flamingo-like base the Pacers center seems to set.

Hill, George and the other Indiana players aren’t absolved when Hibbert struggles, either, given their lackadaisical entry passes and tendency seemingly to look away from the big man rather than establish him in the paint. Maybe they’ve grown tired of his soft left-handed hook shots and mid-range jumpers that rattle out, when what they crave is a nasty, rim-attacker who utilizes his greatest asset.

All in all, with the East’s No. 1 seed still remarkably in play, what might have teased at a potential Finals showdown – OKC vs. IND – looks more like a contender facing a calamity.

NBA offers some ref transparency, playoff ‘points of emphasis’

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com

Granted, it’s not always satisfying when the NBA issues an officiating verdict the day after a disputed play. Learning 18 hours later that, yes, a foul should have been called on that final missed field-goal attempt in Team A’s 1-point loss doesn’t change the W-L records of the squads involved and rarely calms fans who felt their team got jobbed.

But transparency beats opacity, even after the fact, so the league regularly has tried to review, interpret and explain its many calls and non-calls ASAP. One way to do that now, with the playoffs approaching and stakes and emotions getting ever higher, is through a follow of @NBAOfficial on Twitter. That account will provide updates and clarifications on rules and fouls in the closest thing to real time, while educating some fans on what does or doesn’t constitute an instant-replay “trigger.”

The Twitter feed was one of the reminders Thursday to media folks in the league’s 2014 basketball & referee operations WebEx online meeting. A fleet of NBA executives provided updates and answered questions about the season and looming postseason, including “points of emphasis” that will remain high on referees’ radar as the playoffs unfold.

Participating in the multi-media event: Rod Thorn, president, basketball operations; Mike Bantom, executive vice president, referee operations; Kiki VanDeWeghe, senior vice president, basketball operations; Joe Borgia, vice president, referee operations; and Don Vaden, VP & director of officials.

One thing fans might notice again this spring is a change that was initiated for the 2013 playoffs: Keeping referees together in the same crew to develop familiarity and continuity in their court coverage.

Traditionally, three referees come together pretty much randomly to officiate NBA games, compared to MLB umpires, who work most of the season in set four-man crews.

Vaden said that last spring, the league booked two referees as a tandem for each game, with the third official rotating through. “Ken Mauer and Ed Malloy worked every game together,” Vaden said, offering an example. “We’re more consistent in what we’re doing on the floor when we do that.”

This used to be standard procedure, Thorn recalled. “There was a time way back when crews were kept together,” he said. “There was a time when the same two referees refereed all the games in The Finals.”

In addition to the logical benefits of refs working together, Vaden mentioned some secondary ones off the floor in terms of reviews and communication.

“Keeping the guys together, traveling together, they can review more video of the games,” he said. “They’re easier for me to get a hold of than in the regular season. Even on off-days they’re together in the same hotels, so we can do a review from their last game and give them a preview of the game to come.”

The review process of referee performance has grown more thorough through the years, with a centralized group of eight reviewers in the office in New Jersey handling most of the heavy lifting. Teams also submit feedback, and the league has made it a priority to keep teams, players, coaches, media and fans in the loop with rulings and updated points of emphasis.

The selection process to work in, and advance through, the postseason is rigorous, Bantom said. From the regular-season pool of 62 referees, 32 are identified based on performance criteria to work the first round. That gets cut to 20 for the conference semifinals, 16 for the East and West finals and 12 assigned to The Finals. Guidelines in the playoffs include: no back-to-back games for officials, no more than three games worked in a week and, ideally, not reappearing in a series before Game 6 (loosened to Game 5 in The Finals).

Speaking about the NBA in general in 2013-14, with the transition from David Stern to Adam Silver in the commissioner’s office, VanDeWeghe said: “Our focus has been transparency and inclusion. We want to include more people in our discussions. Improve communications with teams, players, media and fans. We want to share more information and just the processes of what we go through. You can never tell where a great idea comes from, and we’d like to hear from you. This is our game together.”

The POE this postseason will largely be a continuation of those introduced back in October. Among them, Vaden spoke of:

  • Freedom of movement, including illegal screens.
  • Traveling calls, especially on the perimeter.
  • Point-of-contact plays, before, during and after shot attempts. “We have clarified the rule for teams, that if it affects the natural follow-through, even though the ball was released, we would penalize the defender,” Vaden said. “Hits on the elbow, we’ve gotten better at.”
  • Push or pull plays, physically redirecting an opponent.
  • Delay-of-game calls for handling the ball after it passes through the net. Said Vaden: “Everybody complained, but after about a month of the season, everybody’s running from the ball. The players have done a great job in adapting to this.”
  • Verticality. “It’s easy for us to call ‘A’ to ‘B’ movement,” Vaden said, referring to a defender who goes up in the air but not quite straight up. “As the season went on, we saw more of the defender turning in the air and [confronting the ball handler] with his side.” That’s a defensive foul too. But a scorer who wards off the defender with an arm, leads with a knee or elbow or even “displaces” the man so he cannot rebound can wind up with an offensive foul.

Borgia reminded participants that the NBA’s system of points and suspensions for flagrant fouls and technical fouls resets for the playoffs. The trigger numbers in the postseason are four points for flagrants, seven for technicals.

Several execs weighed in on “hand on the ball” interpretations, which came up again Tuesday on the final play of the Brooklyn-Miami game. That’s when LeBron James went up for what could have been a game-winning dunk, only to have the ball knocked loose – and his hand or wrist smacked, James complained – by Nets forward Mason Plumlee.

Plumlee was credited with a game-saving block and the league’s brass supported that call.

“Frame by frame, you can see that Plumlee got his hand on the ball before there was any contact hand-to-hand,” Thorn said. “That was basically LeBron’s hand coming forward and interlocking with Plumlee. A very, very close play. Very, very difficult to see. I think the refs did a great job in ascertaining what they did.”

Borgia attempted to simplify for the online audience what many folks don’t get quite right.

“If they hit a part of my hand or finger that is physically on the ball, that is considered hitting the ball and not a foul,” the referee-turned-supervisor said. “I think there is some misconception out there. … On a jump shot, most of the time the ball is more on your fingertips and not sitting in the palm of your hand. If someone hits the back of the hand, that would be a foul.”

Transparency, see. It might not alter a critic’s opinion of a call but it can aid in the understanding.

Panic button pays off for Pacers

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: Copeland’s last-gasp shot lifts Pacers over Bucks

MILWAUKEE – By the end of the night, the players and coaches of the Indiana Pacers could look you in the eye, smile ever so slightly and shrug, “What?”

As if it was the most natural thing in the world to play an NBA game that still mattered – the top seed in the Eastern Conference bracket still TBD – with all five starters healthy but banished to the bench.

But nobody was fooling anybody. This was a risky move, risky on the verge of panic, for coach Frank Vogel to sit down – to rest, en masse – the five guys who have defined the Pacers’ largely successful season. But there they sat: Paul George, David West, Roy Hibbert, Lance Stephenson and George Hill, from beginning to end, mere spectators and cheerleaders Wednesday night at BMO Harris Bradley Center.

After multiple consultations between Vogel and the players, among Vogel and President Larry Bird and the coaches — and a heads-up courtesy call to NBA headquarters in hopes of avoiding any fines — the Indiana coach shortened his bench by whacking his starters. He did, from the rationale he gave, what he should have done in February or March, if only the alleged wear, tear and fatigue from season’s first five months had shown itself before the sixth.

If you asked Vogel in February or March about his starters’ workload, the answer was the same: None of the Pacers was averaging more than a tick beyond 30 minutes a game. They were healthy, young and they could handle it.

Until, that is, they couldn’t. It took five losses in their six most recent games, eight in their last 11, a 20-18 record since Jan. 20 and a 23-point first half against Atlanta on Sunday to push Vogel to the unusual and non-guaranteed homeopathic remedy of enforcing a day off.

That loss at home to the Hawks had been “disturbing,” Vogel said 90 minutes before tipoff Wednesday against the bottom-feeding Bucks. What he was doing was a “dramatic move,” primarily to give the starters a breather but also to rattle the backups’ cage a little.

It could have backfired massively, losing to the team with the league’s worst record, “sacrificing” a winnable game while ceding even more ground to the Miami Heat in the East. But it did not.

By the end of the night, after Chris Copeland‘s drive to the rim with 1.2 seconds left won it, 104-102, after everyone in the Indiana dressing room exhaled and after the Memphis Grizzlies put down Miami 107-102, the Pacers could pinch themselves over this:

1. Indiana, 54-25, .684
2. Miami, 53-25, .679

They were headed to south Florida next, a 2-1 lead in the series already, with a chance Friday (7:30 p.m. ET, NBA TV) to pretty much seal the deal. After so much gnashing of teeth over their tumble – in the standings, yes, but also in confidence, trust and other team qualities – the Pacers were able to act like they knew this outcome was coming all along.


VIDEO: The Pacers discuss their thrilling win in Milwaukee

“We accomplished the purpose,” said George, who spent the game in warm-ups after getting in some conditioning and shooting. “We felt very comfortable with the group we had, that they were going to go out there and get us a win. It wasn’t like we were sacrificing the game. We game-planned. Coach really drilled and worked hard with the unit he put out there.”

The Pacers’ All-Subs put up good numbers against a Milwaukee team down to eight players itself through injuries and the start of Larry Sanders‘ five-game suspension (drug-policy violation). Luis Scola scored a season-high 24 points with nine rebounds, flourishing like he seldom has off Indiana’s bench this season. Same thing with Evan Turner, the trade-deadline acquisition who had to be feeling Philadelphia after logging more than 41 minutes, jacking 18 shots and finishing with 23 points, nine assists and seven boards.

Copeland missed just one of his eight shots, scored 18 and was good for four of the Pacers’ 11 3-pointers. Backup point guard C.J. Watson returned after missing 13 games, and his impact shouldn’t be understated; Indiana is 47-14 when he plays, 7-11 when he doesn’t. The Pacers outshot the Bucks and had 26 assists to 11 turnovers.

“Served the purpose,” said Vogel. “We got the starters the rest that hopefully will help them find their rhythm, and we let our bench guys get extended minutes so they could get comfortable. Evan Turner hasn’t been that comfortable in a Pacers uniform.”

How badly have the starters needed a breather? The math says very: the five Pacers have averaged 2,521 minutes, which might not seem excessive (32.8 per game). But compared to the deftly managed San Antonio Spurs, the difference is considerable. The five Spurs who have played the most have averaged 1,934 minutes. That gap of 587, doled out 30 minutes at a time, is nearly 20 extra games’ worth.

It just could be that the Pacers are more ground down because their key guys haven’t had significant injuries.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen any guys ailing,” Copeland said, “but I know they needed a rest, because it’s a grueling season. A lot of ‘em are playing through a lot of things. You look at David West, he’s playing with Rocky’s glove, y’know? That shows the type of guys we’ve got. Nobody’s complaining about playing with injuries, but trust me – all five who sat out have something going on.”

Hibbert, in a robin’s egg blue sport coat and tan slacks, was officially listed as inactive because someone had to be. The other four watched in game gear but budged only to root, clap and mill around on the fringe of timeout huddles.

“It was a weird feeling, sitting out a game,” Hibbert said. “But I was really happy for those guys. They’ve been working extremely hard the whole season. To see them go out and play, and not have to worry about making mistakes and having the starters come back in, I was really happy for ‘em.”

Hibbert said getting the game off was both a physical and mental health day, and none of them seemed to need it more. The big fella hit some sort of wall Sunday against Atlanta, playing just nine minutes, going scoreless with no rebounds, then languishing on the bench through the second half in some sort of bad body-language funk. He was way more engaged in this one, encouraging the reserves, snarling toward the crowd a few times.

When Indiana visits the Heat on Friday, its starters will have gone five days – more than 120 hours – between games.

“We probably haven’t had that since the season started,” Stephenson said. “Any rest can help us right now.”

Nothing’s guaranteed now, either, except a big dose of irony: The Pacers’ staked out that No. 1 seed as a goal back in training camp so they wouldn’t have to win a big game in Miami come springtime. Now, in order to actually claim it, they have to win a big game in Miami come springtime.

Blogtable: Your All-NBA first team center

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.


BLOGTABLE: All-NBA center | Coaches in danger | Playoff team needs new gear



VIDEO: The Starters discuss whether or not Joakim Noah is an All-NBA first team center

> Who’s your pick for first team all-NBA at center? Do you have a dark horse nominee?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: Joakim Noah. Noah has been doing everything an NBA coach wants from a center – and more. He leads the Bulls in minutes, rebounds, assists, blocks and free-throw attempts – Dwight Howard leads Houston only in rebounds and blocks – and Noah ranks second on Chicago’s roster in steals. And did you notice “assists” on that list? Noah has been a true “point-center” in Tom Thibodeau‘s offense, picking up where Derrick Rose left off as a playmaker, finding cutters, resetting plays and driving to the rim when needed. He is hitting career highs in PER (20.0) and usage rate (18.6) and he leads all players, not just centers, with a 95.7 defensive rating.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: Dwight Howard. He has returned to his old Orlando-type form and has been the most consistent big man in the league. Noah gets some love for being the lead horse that kept the Bulls in the playoff race despite Chicago’s many injuries and trades this season.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: Tough, tough call. My top three picks were Dwight Howard, Joakim Noah and Al Jefferson. I eliminated Jefferson first for defensive reasons — he has only 74 blocks and has allowed 53.3 percent shooting at the rim. Through much consternation my first team all-NBA center is … Dwight. His 18.5 ppg on 59 percent shooting, 12.3 rpg and 7.4 net rating put him over the top. The do-it-all Noah has a net rating of 3.8, but a slightly higher PIE than Howard. He doesn’t score as much as Howard, but he runs the offense like a point guard and leads the Bulls in assists at 5.2 — that he only turns it over 2.4 times a game is in itself remarkable. As for a dark horse, is Anthony Davis a center? I love DeMarcus Cousins‘ offensive package, but his defense is more on par with Jefferson. DeAndre Jordan‘s 191 blocks, 13.8 rpg and 67.4 percent shooting make him my dark horse.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: Joakim Noah over Dwight Howard, eye test over statistics. Howard has better numbers in most categories and his positive impact in Houston cannot be denied even by the biggest D12 detractors, but Noah will get a lot of votes for third, fourth and fifth place in the MVP balloting. Rightfully so. He has set the tone for a team that continues to win with defense and deserves credit on offense for becoming such a good passer. I guess that makes everyone a dark-horse nominee. DeMarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan, Andre Drummond.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: Joakim Noah is, by far, the best and most important player on a top 4 seed. He’s the anchor of the Bulls’ second-ranked defense and though their offense stinks, it would be awful without him. Dwight Howard should be the second-team center, and after that, it’s hard to choose between Chris Bosh, Roy Hibbert and Al Jefferson. Bosh is the second-most important player on a team that’s won 53 games, Hibbert has anchored the league’s No. 1 defense, and Jefferson has carried an offense that has improved every month.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: I’m going with Chicago’s Joakim Noah. I think he’s put together the kind of season (on both ends of the floor) that makes him worthy of a first team all-NBA nod in what’s really a crowded big man field. Plus, when you consider the fact that he’s done it all season without being able to play off of an All-Star and MVP like Derrick Rose, that makes Noah’s effort this season even more remarkable. My dark horse nominee is Charlotte’s Al Jefferson. He’s been the anchor for a turnaround that simply would not have happened if he wasn’t wearing a Charlotte Bobcats uniform.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball blog: I don’t know how dark this horse is, and I haven’t filled out my ballot yet so I might change my mind, but I think Joakim Noah is my choice. Noah, Hibbert and Howard are, in my mind, the best defensive centers in the NBA. And while none of the three have been transcendent offensively, they’ve all been at least coherent. What sets Noah apart, at least to me, is that unlike the others, Noah is the undisputed heart of his team. With all the injuries and trades the Bulls have had this season, Noah has still come to play every night, and he never takes a play off.