Posts Tagged ‘Suns’

Suspensions for Pacers’ Butler, George?

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: Mike Scott and George Hill scuffle in the second quarter of Game 6 between the Pacers and Hawks

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — The Indiana Pacers will host Game 7 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse Saturday. But it remains to be seen if their biggest star, All-Star swingman Paul George, will be a part of the action.

Both George and reserve forward Rasual Butler stepped off of the bench and onto the court during a second quarter scuffle between George Hill and Atlanta Hawks reserve forward Mike Scott in the Pacers’ Game 6 win Thursday night at Philips Arena.

At least one expert on the topic, former NBA vice president of basketball operations Stu Jackson, believes a suspension is forthcoming for someone …

Hill and Scott drew technical fouls for their shoving match. George and Butler took small steps but remained in the bench area. But the league has historically held players to the letter of the law in these cases.

The rule states that “during an altercation, all players not participating in the game must remain in the immediate vicinity of their bench. Violators will be suspended, without pay, for a minimum of one game and fined up to $50,000.”

Jackson was the man who handed out one-game suspensions in the 2007 playoffs when then Phoenix Suns big men Amar’e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw left the “immediate vicinity of their bench” after Robert Horry body blocked Steve Nash into the scorer’s table in Game 4 of a series between the Suns and San Antonio Spurs.

“The rule with respect to leaving the bench area during an altercation is very clear,” Jackson said then. “Historically, if you break it, you will get suspended, regardless of what the circumstances are.”

Pacers coach Frank Vogel said he wasn’t worried about it after Game 6.

“I haven’t seen (the video), but somebody told me about it,” he said. “I’m not concerned with any suspensions until we hear something.”

Grizzlies deserve praise for grit, grind and playoff perseverance

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: Grizzlies scratch out a crucial win against the Suns

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — You’ll have to forgive the Memphis Grizzlies for scoffing at the idea of a short NBA regular season.

For a team that suffered through a tumultuous 15-19 start to 2013-14 after making the 2013 Western Conference finals, the Grizzlies 34-14 finish (which includes Monday night’s playoff-clinching win over the Phoenix Suns) is a testament to the power of the grit-and-grind movement the that has been cultivated in Memphis the past few seasons.

We counted them out early, there’s no shame in admitting it now.

But they persevered, kept the playoffs in their sights and battled their way through for that final playoff spot. The Suns are being praised for fighting their way into the playoff mix in a season that most of us assumed would end exactly where it did … in the lottery. It’s the way the Suns went about their business, though, that captivated the basketball-loving public.

This season, they were surprising, exciting and as entertaining to watch as any team in the league. Even though it goes against everything I believe in, this is one of those rare times where I would advocate a change to the traditional playoff structure, if only to watch the Suns play four or five more games.

Jeff Hornacek will get the love he deserves in the Coach of the Year balloting, just as Goran Dragic and Gerald Green will get their due during awards season. Their accomplishments will be appreciated in the end.


VIDEO: Zach Randolph talks after the Grizz top the Suns in Phoenix

The Grizzlies, whose style isn’t nearly as pleasing to the flash-and-dash crowd, are just as worthy of our attention. So while it’s fine to bemoan the Suns just narrowly missing out on the postseason, we should spend just as much time heading into the postseason appreciating the fine work of new coach Dave Joerger as well as Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Tony AllenCourtney Lee, Mike Miller and the rest of Memphis’ relentless crew.

“This is a culmination of not just this week or not just March or April, this is a culmination of everything we’ve been through since December,” Joerger said after the clinching win over the Suns. “For these guys, it’s a happy locker room, a relieved locker room and just a bunch of very proud guys with great chemistry.”

A Grizzlies front office that was second-guessed repeatedly (here and beyond) throughout the course of this season for replacing Lionel Hollins with Joerger (and other decisions) should be feeling good that their calculated risks paid off.

In a business notorious for the what-have-you-done-lately belief to determine a franchise’s success, the Grizzlies’ brass went against the grain and proved the haters wrong. They beat back every theory that said they shouldn’t finish the season with a playoff bid, and that includes the in-house data model constructed by vice president of basketball operations John Hollinger 

The folks who should be really worried about the Grizzlies grinding their way into the postseason live in San Antonio and Oklahoma City. The Spurs and Thunder are the ones who’ll have to deal with Randolph, Gasol, Allen and Conley by the weekend. They’ll be someone else’s headache in a few days and that’s an issue that every other team in the Western Conference playoff mix would admit to not wanting to deal with.

“No one wants to play Memphis in the first round,” an assistant coach for a Western Conference team told me weeks ago, long before the final spot was locked up. “With Z-Bo and Gasol you’re going to get your big men beat up right away. That’s not a good look for anybody. They’re attacking you in the middle and with that physical style. You have to survive them in a playoff series.”

The Grizzlies have added weapons this year in Miller and Lee, guys who can stretch the floor in ways the Grizzlies have not been able to in the recent past. Had Gasol not missed 22 games with injury, there’s no telling how high the Grizzlies might have finished in the standings.

With everyone healthy and the Grizzlies’ collective playoff experience, there isn’t a more dangerous team in the entire postseason landscape. They might not be the darlings that the Suns were all season, but the Grizzlies are certainly the sort of team anyone should be able to appreciate this time of year.


VIDEO: Zach Randolph scores 32 in the playoff-clinching win over the Suns

Comeback Player of the Year: Channing Frye

By Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com


VIDEO: Channing Fry is back after missing last season with a heart issue

There is a slump into the end of the season, and it doesn’t matter.

There is an All-Star at the same position as a threat, and it changes nothing.

Channing Frye should win Comeback Player of the Year — if such an accomplishment still existed — because he gave the imaginary award a real-world bottom line. He didn’t just lose last season, after all. He nearly lost a career. And there were moments, the Suns’ starting power forward would later concede while well on his way to the happy ending, when losing a career was the least of his concerns.

It’s Frye over Kevin Love of the Minnesota Timberwolves for the award — scuttled by the league after 1986-87 for too often celebrating players whose comebacks were drug related — because while Love is the better player and power forward, Frye is the better recovery to NBA levels.

Love missed 62 games last season after breaking two bones in his right hand, returning to the lineup, re-fracturing one of the bones and subsequently undergoing surgery. Frye missed all 82 with an enlarged heart, caused by a virus and detected during what he assumed would be a routine preseason physical.


VIDEO: Channing Frye talks with Suns.com about his comeback road to the NBA

Love returned to play 75 of the first 80 games of 2013-14, averaging 26 ppg, fourth in the league, and 12.5 rpg, third in the league, over that time. Bold numbers, sure, but the accomplishment for the Timberwolves is to finish .500.

Frye returned to play each of the first 80, averaging 11.1 ppg, fifth-best on the Suns, and 5.1 rpg, fourth-best. He played an important role on the team that, against all expectations, was in playoff going into the final week of the season — against all expectations.

A year ago, Love was facing speculation on whether he would one day leave Minnesota for free-agent riches. Frye was hearing the phrase “heart trouble” a lot and considering the possibility of retirement.

“Pretty close,” he said earlier in the season. “You had to think about it. But at the same time, I was like, ‘No, it’s not your time yet.’ I just didn’t feel it.’ “

He couldn’t exercise for a while. He felt about 80 percent when 2013-14 started, needing to get stronger and improve his timing, understandable obstacles but obstacles nonetheless. Frye himself wasn’t confident he would make it back to where he would play an entire season.

“There were times,” he said. “There were times when I wasn’t. But my wife and friends stuck with me. It was like, ‘Channing, you’re doing too many good things for it not to be getting better.’ It was me overall taking a different approach. Instead of getting heart-healthy, you’re getting everything-healthy. That really helped me out. It’s helped me during this year.”

Frye’s shooting percentages — both from the field and 3-point range — were in the mid 40s in November (46.5 pct, 41.1 pct 3-point FG), December (45.0, 42.9) and January (45.4, 42.1) before things dipped. In February, his field-goal and 3-point percentages fell to 40.3 and 32.9 percent, respectively, and in March, hit season lows of 39.3 and 28.6 percent. Still, even that slump cannot take away from what Frye accomplished: rediscovering his role as the Suns’ stretch-four, playing every game for the team that has become one of the upbeat stories of the league, and just plain playing again.

Five contenders

Kevin Love, Timberwolves — From 18 appearances last season to a healthy 2013-14. There’s also a possible top-five finish in two prominent categories that would ordinarily be enough to claim victory in this made-up award. But the Suns putting preseason predictions in the blender — with Frye as a starter in that success — plus Minnesota in the lottery changes the ordinary result.

Jared Sullinger, Celtics — Those concerns that the back injury that limited him to 45 games as a rookie were the pre-Draft red flags coming true? Sullinger responded by playing in 74 of the first 80 games and averaging 8.1 rebounds in 27.6 minutes. Red flag lowered.

Greg Oden, Heat — It’s just 22 games, and at nine minutes per, but look at where he came from. Oden wouldn’t win the award. Playing again should be noted, though.

Eric Gordon, Pelicans — Making 64 appearances hardly qualifies as iron-man territory. But that is 13 more than the previous two seasons combined and more than any time since Gordon’s rookie campaign of 2008-09. Gordon will finish third on the team in scoring, behind Anthony Davis and Ryan Anderson.

Shaun Livingston, Nets — This is more Comeback Player of the Generation, a Zydrunas Ilgauskas-Grant Hill kind of recognition, but if CPOY is a made-up award, the parameters can be as well. Livingston played 66 games last season with the Wizards and Cavaliers. But he fought back from years of major knee problems and now gets a big role in Brooklyn’s recovery from early implosion. That’s a career moment to appreciate.

Morning Shootaround — April 7


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played April 7

NEWS OF THE MORNING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hallelujah.

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

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

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

Key word there being spun.

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

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


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

***

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

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

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

The Suns sprayed in 11 of 23 3-pointers.

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

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

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

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

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


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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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


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

 

Morning Shootaround — March 31


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 30

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Struggling Pacers have hit rock bottom | Knicks finally ready to close in on 8th spot | Win or lose, Lakers facing crossroads this summer | The age of analytics or overload? | Haywood says one-and-done kids hurt NBA game

No. 1: Struggling Pacers have hit rock bottom after loss to Cavaliers — The Indiana Pacers have officially hit rock bottom. Sure, it’s a strange thing to say about a team that currently occupies the top spot in the Eastern Conference standings. But there is no other way to describe what the Pacers are going through after watching them get taken apart by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Their current state of affairs is not conducive to a long and productive postseason run. And after warnings being sounded from every direction, including Pacers’ boss Larry Bird, the struggles continue. Their lead in the standings over the Miami Heat has dwindled to just one game. And the Pacers have no explanation for how things have unraveled the way they have. Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star paints the picture:

On Sunday afternoon at Quicken Loans Arena, the Pacers searched for their first road win since March 15 but could not find it. Then, after the 90-76 defeat, they searched for something to explain this most mystifying late-season plunge that has left them holding a scant one-game lead over the Miami Heat.

Again, the Pacers couldn’t find it.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” said Paul George, only after raising his head from his hands.

“I’m lost right now,” Lance Stephenson muttered under his breath. “I don’t know.”

“I don’t know,” David West said, the words struggling to escape from his gravelly voice, “what else we can do.”

The Pacers may not know what’s behind this latest stretch of basketball as they’ve lost five straight on the road, but know this – they have reached the lowest point of the season.

“Yeah, I would say,” West answered. “For us to be playing like this just as a group, just to be so out of sync and out of sorts – we just got to find an answer. Something happened and all of us are sort of searching for what that is and why we’re playing the way we’re playing and why we’re looking the way we look when we’re out there on the floor.”

Indiana, now 52-22, has played on the offensive end as if it’s an agonizing ordeal to simply put the ball through the hoop. For the fourth consecutive road game, the team could not eclipse the 37-percent shooting clip.

“We had trouble catching passes and trouble knocking down open shots,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “Our guys are out of rhythm right now. We got to figure it out. That’s what we gotta do.”


VIDEO: David West talks about Indiana’s loss in Cleveland

***

No. 2: Knicks close in on playoff spot — One huge road win could very well be the tipping point that allows the New York Knicks to finally catch and pass the struggling Atlanta Hawks for that eighth and final playoff spot they have been eyeing for months now. The gap has been closed, after the Knicks’ stunning win on the road over the Golden State Warriors. The way they did it, with Carmelo Anthony struggling through a 7-for-21 shooting night and with J.R. Smith, Amar’e Stoudemire, Tim Hardaway Jr. and others stepping up, only makes the stretch run more intriguing for the always dramatic Knicks. It’s down to one, as Marc Berman of the New York Post explains:

It’s down to one.

With Atlanta in free fall, the Knicks are lucky to be alive. And so they are very much, closing to one game of the final playoff spot with a 89-84 upset victory in a surprising defensive struggle over the Warriors at Oracle Arena, when they shut down Stephen Curry twice in the final 30 seconds.

The Knicks used rare gritty defense and a 15-0 run late in the second quarter to keep their postseason dreams alive. They had lost 10 of their last 11 games in Oakland before rising to the challenge — and bottling up Curry on the final possession.

“Our defense finally stepped up,’’ coach Mike Woodson said.

The Knicks moved to 2-2 on their five-game West Coast trip. With eight games left, the Knicks finish up the Western trip Monday in Utah. The Hawks face the Sixers.

“If we head home, get [Monday] night, it will be a great road trip,’’ Carmelo Anthony said. “We control our own destiny. I just hope we win and bring the same mindset and focus into Utah.’’

The Knicks had allowed 127 points in Los Angeles, including a 51-point third quarter, and 112 in Phoenix before buckling down in Oakland, where team president Phil Jackson continued to stay away.

Smith, who has been rising as a secondary scorer, finished with 19 points at halftime on 8 of 11 shooting and wound up with 21. Anthony finished with just 19 points but had four in the final 1:30. He shot 7 of 21. Amar’e Stoudemire was a beast on the boards, finishing with 15 points and a season-high 13 rebounds.

‘For us to bounce back after that loss in Phoenix, We did a great job tonight,’’ Anthony said. “It says a lot we can put this stuff behind us quickly.’’


VIDEO: Carmelo Anthony talks about the Knicks’ big win in Oakland

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No. 3: Win or lose the Lakers facing dilemmas at every turn at season’s end — As enjoyable as that win over the Phoenix Suns might have felt for Lakers fans who have endured an unthinkable season, the sad facts of this season remain. No matter what they do between now and the end of this regular season, this summer is setting up as a critical crossroads for the franchise. There is so much uncertainty that some of the starch is taken out of any of the good vibrations Chris Kaman and Co. provided with that surprising rout of the Suns. Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times sets the table for what the Lakers are facing:

The Phoenix Suns were in town and handed the Lakers much more to ponder beyond another surprisingly rare and easy victory.

The Suns couldn’t control Chris Kaman, lost Sunday’s game by a 115-99 score and offered the perfect time to explore some big-picture questions involving their past employees.

What will the Lakers do with Coach Mike D’Antoni?

What will happen with Steve Nash, who won two NBA most-valuable-player awards in Phoenix under D’Antoni? And what of Kendall Marshall, a first-round bust of the Suns who found plenty of playing time with the Lakers?

The answers in quick succession as of now — undetermined, staying and staying.

The Lakers have a dilemma with D’Antoni, who coached the Suns for five successful seasons. They still owe him $4 million next season and don’t want to look like a franchise with a coaching turnstile.

But Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol don’t support his small-ball offense and Lakers fans don’t support him, period.

So the team will decide fairly quickly after the April 16 regular-season finale — pay him to not coach the team, just like Mike Brown, or try to make it work next season.

General Manager Mitch Kupchak said last week he thought D’Antoni was “doing a great job under the circumstances,” but how great would obviously be revealed in coming weeks.

Nash sat out another game, which is no longer surprising for a player who appeared in only 12 this season.

For financial reasons, the Lakers currently plan to keep him next season, The Times has learned, eating the remainder of his contract ($9.7 million) in one swoop instead of waiving him and spreading the money out over three years.

It would give them more money to spend in the summers of 2015 and 2016, when they figure to be active players in the free-agent market amid such possible names as Kevin LoveLeBron James and Kevin Durant.

***

No. 4: The new age of analytics … overload or advantage? – It’s one thing for fans and pundits alike to debate the merits of advanced statistics, or analytics (if you will). It’s something altogether different, however, when players, coach and front office types are still haggling over the merits of that information and what it means in the overall matrix of the game. In Boston, where the advanced metrics movement got its start in the NBA, there is no better context than the one painted by All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo, former Celtics coach and current Clippers boss Doc Rivers and Celtics president and brain waves guru Danny Ainge. Baxter Holmes of the Boston Globe provides this illuminating take on where things stand by framing the debate:

Rondo has savant-like math skills and a well-documented interest in advanced statistics. But he has his doubts about SportVU.

“I don’t think it means anything,” Rondo said. “It doesn’t determine how hard you play. It can’t measure your heart. It can maybe measure your endurance. But when the game is on the line, all that goes out the window.”

Rivers, on the other hand, considers himself a proponent.

“There’s a really good use for it,” Rivers said. “There’s a use for us, each team, depending on how they play and how they defend. You can find out stuff.”

And while Ainge is also a proponent, he remains cautious.

“You have to be careful with how you utilize the information that you have,” Ainge said. “It is sort of fun and intriguing and I understand why media and the fans are intrigued by it all, but I think it’s blown way out of proportion of how much it’s actually utilized.”

Ainge’s point was echoed by several analytics officials employed by NBA teams who corresponded with the Globe on the condition of anonymity.

Naturally, none of them could speak in specifics about how their teams use the data, but many said that numerous challenges — such as how many variables can affect a player on any play — keep this from being an exact science.

“Our sport is just not a pretty sport for isolating things,” one official said.

Above all, several officials emphasized that how the discussion is framed is key, as analytics are often discussed publicly in black-and-white terms — “they’re great” or “they’re pointless” — when reality is in the middle.

One official wrote in an e-mail, “People don’t understand the limitations of the data and only focus on the articles that are written about it and the way it is ‘sold’ by the NBA and the teams that use it. Some of the data is much more along the lines of trivia as opposed to something that can be useful for an NBA team. But make no mistake, there’s plenty of good stuff in there, too.”

Another said, “The underlying data, I think, is incredibly valuable in the way that diamonds or gold under a mountain are valuable, but it takes a lot of effort and infrastructure to get at it and then take advantage of it.”

***

No. 5: Haywood: These one-and-done kids aren’t ready for the NBA — Few people can offer the perspective on the one-and-done dilemma that Spencer Haywood can. He changed the landscape for early entrant candidates in 1971 when the Supreme Court ruled in his favor, after he starred for two seasons at the University of Detroit, and allowed underclassmen to enter the professional ranks. In an op-ed for the New York Daily News Haywood explains why one season on a college campus is not sufficient preparation for anyone with aspirations of joining the game’s elite. In short, Haywood believes the one-and-done rule has to go, mostly because the NBA game is suffering because of it:

I jumped to the ABA in what would have been my junior year and won the ABA Rookie of the Year and MVP honors with the Denver Rockets. I had a fair amount of seasoning before I challenged the system. I wouldn’t have been able to handle the rigors of the NBA on and off the court after my freshman year.

The NBA is now strewn with underclassmen, most notably players who have left after their freshman year, who have yet to make a significant impact.

Look no further than last year’s NBA draft, when five freshmen — Anthony Bennett, Nerlens Noel, Ben McLemore, Steven Adams, Shabazz Muhammad — were selected among the top 15 overall picks.

How many are difference-makers for their respective teams? None.

How many are averaging double digits in points and minutes? None.

The high scorer among this group, McLemore, is averaging 7.5 points per game. The other players are all averaging less than five points and 12 minutes. Noel is out this season due to a knee injury.

Bennett, the No. 1 overall pick of the Cleveland Cavaliers, clearly needed more seasoning at UNLV and I told him as much before he made his decision to declare for the draft.

I live in Las Vegas and I saw most of his freshman year. I wish he would have listened. His NBA rookie season has been marred by being out of shape, injuries and failing to live up to the expectations of being a No. 1 overall pick. Averages of 4.1 points and 2.9 rebounds in 12.7 minutes per game aren’t exactly what the Cavaliers had in mind when they selected him with the top pick.

Will these players ultimately have long and meaningful NBA careers? Time will tell. But all of them would have benefited by staying at least one more year in college.

The first 30 years after the court ruled in my case, there were only three players who came out of high school early: Moses Malone, Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby. Moses bounced around a few teams before becoming an all-time great, but Dawkins had a stagnant, underwhelming career because he wasn’t trained well enough and Willoughby had a marginal eight-year career with six teams.

If you look at the current generation of players from Kevin Garnett to Kobe Bryant to Dwight Howard, only one player was able to make an immediate impact right out of high school — LeBron James.

The NBA is a man’s league. The transition from college to the NBA is huge, on and off the court. The players are faster, stronger and smarter. You’re playing an 82-game schedule, not to mention preseason and if you’re lucky, the playoffs. Suddenly, you’re a teenager going up against the likes of James, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George — all men — on a nightly basis.

One and done players need the extra year to successfully transition off the court, too. A lot of these players are still acquiring life skills: Critical thinking, time and money management, self-discipline, moderation and simply learning to say no.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: After a season filled with turnover issues, the Thunder finally seem to be getting grip on their most glaring flaw … LaMarcus Aldridge and the Trail Blazers turn the tables and secure a much-needed win over their nemesis from Memphis … After missing 16 straight games is Kevin Garnett finally on his way back to the rotation for the Brooklyn Nets? … The Cavs, who are also chasing Atlanta for that eighth spot in the Eastern Conference standings, are hoping to get Kyrie Irving back sometime this week

ICYMI of the Night:  Brooklyn Nets swingman Joe Johnson doesn’t normally make a fuss when he does his business, but Sunday was a milestone day for the seven-time All-Star, who surpassed the 17,000-point mark for his career …


VIDEO: Joe Johnson hits a career milestone by reaching the 17,000-point mark

Suns hot pick in NBA March Madness

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Hall of Fame debate: KJ vs. Hardaway


VIDEO: The Hardaways through the years

 

They played the same position (point guard) at the same time (late-1980s to early-2000s) at the same high level (All-Star appearances) and were teammates for a summer, so it’s easy to see the 24 anonymous voters stacking Tim Hardaway against Kevin Johnson among the Class of 2014 decisions, even if it isn’t actually a balloting one-on-one. Both could make it to Springfield, Mass., or both could miss. Neither outcome would be a surprise in a year with the opening of several credible candidates — but no automatic — among the eight finalists from the North American committee.

Johnson, on the ballot since 2011, made it out of the initial round of voting for the first time, forward progress that can equal optimism for candidates in the search for hints in a secret election process. Hardaway, meanwhile, can find hope in the sustained support of being a finalist for the second year in a row.

But head-to-head, as part of the analysis by the 24 voters?

Johnson: Played 1987-88 through 1999-2000 with the Cavaliers and Suns, with 1998-99 spent in retirement. Averaged 17.9 points, 9.1 assists, 3.3 rebounds. Finished in the top five in assists four times, the top 10 six times. Second-team All-NBA four times, third-team once. All-Star three times. No NBA titles, 105 playoff games. Most Improved Player in 1988-89. Won a gold medal with the United States at the 1994 world championships.

Hardaway: Played 1989-90 through 2002-03 with the Warriors, Heat, Mavericks, Nuggets and Pacers. Averaged 17.7 points, 8.2 assists, 3.3 rebounds. Finished in the top five in assists four times, the top 10 eight times. First-team All-NBA once, second-team three times, third-team once. All-Star five times. No NBA titles, 56 playoff games. First-team all-rookie. Won a gold medal with the United States at the 2000 Olympics and the 1994 world championships.

Johnson: Sixth all-time in assists per game. The five ahead of him are either in the Hall of Fame now (Magic Johnson, John Stockton, Oscar Robertson, Isiah Thomas) or will be (Chris Paul). Among the rest of the top 10, No. 8 Jason Kidd and No. 9 Steve Nash also will be, with No. 7 Deron Williams needing a big turnaround and No. 10 Rajon Rondo needing more time. Hardaway is 12th. That is a big boost to the KJ campaign, with the counterweight that Mark Jackson was third in total career assists and received so little support three years in a row that he dropped off the ballot.

Hardaway: In a historic time in NBA history for guards — Michael Jordan, Magic, Stockton, Gary Payton, with Kidd coming fast — Hardaway was the only one to get a first-team All-NBA. That was 1996-97, when he joined Jordan at the top, with Payton and Mitch Richmond, another finalist this year, second-team and Stockton and Penny Hardaway on the third tier. The one time they both made the honor role, 1992-92, Tim Hardaway was second-team, Kevin Johnson third-team. (The three years before that, KJ made second when the only guards ahead of him where Magic and Jordan. Ranking high on the Best of the Rest level in that era has always been one of the unique selling points for Kevin Johnson in the Hall.)

Same position and same era — that’s a great compare and contrast for the Hall panelists heading toward the April 7 announcement of inductees, with 18 of 24 needed to join David Stern (Contributor), Sarunas Marciulionis (International), Bob Leonard (ABA), Guy Rodgers (Veterans) and Nat Clifton (Early African American Pioneers) as previously disclosed members of the Class of 2014. Spencer Haywood, Alonzo Mourning, Richmond and college coaches Nolan Richardson, Eddie Sutton and Gary Williams are the other finalists from the North American committee.

Suns center Len living Ukraine crisis from afar


VIDEO: Alex Len throws it down for the and-one

OAKLAND – Early Sunday, the New York Times reported that violence erupted in Ukraine at separate rallies backing and opposing the secession of Crimea, including a demonstration where pro-Russia supporters attacked with whips, while the Washington Post talked of another surge of Russian troops into the disputed peninsula.

And then Alex Len played basketball.

It has been like this for weeks now. Watch the news – sometimes via the United States networks, sometimes from Ukranian media, sometimes from Russian outlets – Skype with his family in eastern Ukraine, an area so far safely away from trouble. Play center for the Suns. Wake up the next day and continue the conflicted journey all over again.

Sunday, it was thinking about his homeland in conflict, hoping he will convince his grandparents to turn their planned visit to the United States in a couple weeks into something more long term and maybe even permanent, all before starting for the third game in a row as Miles Plumlee continued to be sidelined by a sprained right knee. The angst of worrying about family and friends, followed by 15 minutes against the Warriors at Oracle Arena with three points, three rebounds and two fouls.

“My family’s still over there,” Len said. “My grandparents. I still talk to them. It’s really confusing too, because if you watch Russian, American and Ukrainian news, everybody says different things about what’s going on over there. I’m not really into politics. For me, personally, I just want everybody to kind of stay together. It’s crazy. The country is just falling apart.”

Len was raised in Ukraine and played for the national team at the junior and, currently, senior levels, while also spending two seasons at the University of Maryland and turning into a possibility for the No. 1 pick in the draft thanks to a breakout 2012-13. The Suns took him fifth amid concerns about problems with both ankles that would follow him into his rookie season.

No Ukranian-born player had ever been taken higher, bettering Vitaly Potapenko going 12th to the Cavaliers in 1996. Len instantly became a major part of the Phoenix rebuilding, even with surgeries on both ankles that would cost him summer league and slow his progress into the regular season, and even as acquiring Plumlee and Gerald Green from the Pacers for Luis Scola turned into an important part of the Suns far exceeding most expectations. The important thing was that Len was getting more healthy, with the right ankle doing well and the left improving by the month, to where he is down to occasional pain.

Now, though, he spends hours at a time with his mind in another part of the world. Getting on the court, for games or practices, has become a refuge as Len has increased his workload to 9.4 minutes in 29 games.

“I worry about my parents. I talk to them almost every day on Skype,” he said, although his mother has spent a lot of time in Phoenix this season helping Len adjust to NBA life in a new city. “My grandparents. I ask them what’s going on, what’s the news. They update me every day, call me and tell me what’s going on.”

Len isn’t even sure if Ukraine, in the same Group C as the United States, will have a team for the World Cup of Basketball beginning Aug. 30 in Spain. He isn’t sure what Ukraine will have in ways more important than sports.

And even if there is a team, he is unsure he will play at a time when the focus will be in getting healthy and being ready for the Suns, his priority. No final decision has been made and he plans to meet with Ukranian coach Mike Fratello after the season. Len did say he will “most likely” leave the decision up to Phoenix.

Bledsoe plans to rejoin Suns within days

OAKLAND – Injured guard Eric Bledsoe said he expects to return to the Suns lineup on Monday against the Clippers or Wednesday against the Cavaliers at the latest, a critical roster addition for Phoenix that adds another layer of intrigue to the Western Conference playoff race.

Whether Bledsoe can go from missing nine weeks with a knee injury that required surgery to having close to the same impact he had in the first 24 games before he was hurt — 18 points and 5.8 assists while shooting 48.6 percent — now becomes one of the storylines of the season’s final quarter. The Suns, at 36-26, are the team success story of the league and are tied with the Grizzlies for eighth place in the West, a game behind No. 7 Dallas and five ahead of No. 10 Minnesota. Whether Bledsoe struggles to regain his rhythm or quickly assimilates could tilt the standings.

While the Suns said they expect a return Wednesday at home against the Cavaliers, Bledsoe has not ruled out Monday against the Clippers, his former team, in Los Angeles. The decision, he said Sunday before the Suns lost to the Warriors at Oracle Arena, will probably come Monday afternoon.

Eric Bledsoe

Eric Bledsoe has been out since Jan. 2 with a right knee injury.

“I can definitely look forward to it, see how I’m feeling at shootaround or whatever to see how it goes,” Bledsoe said. “If it’s there, I’ll go.”

Whether it happens Monday or Wednesday, coach Jeff Hornacek said Bledsoe will come off the bench “the first few games.” After that, Hornacek added, “I would guess at some point he might be back in that starting lineup because when he and Goran [Dragic] were in there we were pretty good.” But Hornacek publicly left open the possibility, however unlikely, that Gerald Green could remain a starter.

Bledsoe hurt his right knee Jan. 2 and underwent surgery to repair cartilage on Jan. 10. The Suns are 17-15 since then, plus 3-3 when he missed six other games with a bruised shin.

“It’s been tough to sit there and watch for two months now,” Bledsoe said. “It’s definitely been tough. But at the same time, it’s been exciting to watch. The guys go out there and fight every night.”

Morning Shootaround — March 3


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Mar. 2

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Riley speaks on Heat | Melo to the Bulls … at some point? | Spurs finally back to normal | Markieff Morris holds the key for the Suns | Stan Van Gundy is no fan of analytics

No. 1: Heat boss Riley sends cautious message about team, season — Perhaps it’s his personal history with trying to three-peat that’s on Heat boss Pat Riley‘s mind these days. Reality has a way of creeping into the consciousness for a man who has seen and done as much as Riley has over the course of his career. And that could explain his cautious message to Heat fans over the weekend, words spoken at a charity function, words that are sure to make their way to the locker room. And maybe that’s what Riley, always the master motivator, was trying to do all along. If he feels his team needed to be poked or prodded from on high, he took matters into his own hands. More from the Associated Press report:

“We’re playing very well right now, but every day you keep ratcheting up what you need to do to get ready for what you know is going to be an incredibly competitive playoff,” Riley said. “Right now, you have to keep in mind we have a long way to go.”

The Heat (42-14) will head into Monday’s home game against Charlotte winners of seven straight and 10 of 11. They still have to wait seven weeks before the playoffs.

“Everybody thinks it’s right around the corner. No, a lot of stuff can happen,” Riley said. “We’re in home-court advantage races, not only in the West but in the East. That’s not an objective.

“The objective, I think according to Coach (Erik Spoelstra), is that (we) stay on track with the defense and the rebounding, and I think we’ll be OK.”

Riley touched on several other topics during a brief meeting with reporters.

• On LeBron James: “The fact that he’s a confident player right now, probably the most confident player in the NBA, and it’s not born out of arrogance or born out of anything else other than the main thing, which is winning. He wants to win. That’s all it’s about.”

• On Dwyane Wade, who this season has been managing sore knees: “Dwyane is an 11-year veteran and he knows his way around the block. He knows what he has to do to get himself ready. Again, I go back 11 years with him, and I’ve seen him from the beginning to where he is today. He’s a smarter, more efficient in using his energy.”

• On not signing former Heat swingman Caron Butler, who signed with Oklahoma City on Saturday after being bought out by Milwaukee earlier in the week: “We love Caron. We reached out to him but he was very definitive with what he wanted and I don’t think it’s something we could have promised.”

• On 7-foot center Greg Oden, who has returned after missing nearly four years due to knee injuries: “He’s gone through a lot and I just cross my fingers, and knock on wood every day that he stays healthy. And if he does, he’s going to get better. And if he gets better then we’re going to be better. That’s why we brought him in.”

***

No. 2: Melo’s dilemma, Chicago or New York? — If Carmelo Anthony’s going to chase a championship at this stage of his career, Frank Isola of the New York Daily News suggests he start studying up on the situation in Chicago. Our Steve Aschburner has already highlighted the deep-rooted cultural differences between Melo and what he’s used to and what the Bulls are used to under Tom Thibodeau … and the gulf is wide. But time is running out on Melo and the Knicks, who fell hard against Joakim Noah and the Bulls Sunday. Melo has to have an escape plan in place and Chicago wouldn’t be a bad place to land, if chasing a title is truly at the top of his to-do-list:

A young fan seated behind the Knicks bench held up a sign encouraging Carmelo Anthony to consider the Bulls — again — when he weighs his free-agent options this summer.

“I saw a lot of signs,” Anthony said in delivering perhaps the best cryptic message of his career.

“It was a good sign,” he would later say. “I mean the kid went to art class … not the message.”

Anthony’s words are becoming more scrutinized, especially with July 1 drawing closer and his future already having been linked to the Bulls, among other teams.

He was admittedly “embarrassed” by the Knicks’ 109-90 loss on Sunday, yet also impressed with the Bulls’ resolve. Deep down, Anthony knows Chicago could be his best free-agent option.

The Bulls can offer Melo a stable franchise with a fierce, battle-tested roster as well as a superb head coach. The best the Knicks can do is the most lucrative payday, which may be too good to reject.

But if you take Anthony at his word, that winning a title is his top priority even if it means taking less money, well then there are few places better than Chicago.

“I don’t know, man. They always are a team who’s going to be there, who’s going to compete, who’s going to play hard,” Anthony said. “For whatever reason that is, I don’t know if it’s their system, if it’s Thib’s system. For whatever reason they’re always going to be there and compete.”

The Bulls apparently do have interest in Anthony, whom they pursued three years ago in a trade but couldn’t land. Chicago was not thrilled about dealing Deng, the emotional leader of the team whose personality and competitive fire would complement Anthony. Imagine if after all the assets the Knicks gave up to land Anthony he goes to the team that kept its core intact, has an MVP-caliber point guard and a brilliant head coach.

You better believe Melo sees signs. He sees a Knicks organization in utter disarray. He sees himself missing the playoffs for the first time in his career and it makes him sick to his stomach.

He sees LeBron James poised to win another title and sees Chris Paul with a loaded roster in Los Angeles.

The sign he should be looking for as it relates to the Knicks is a yellow one that screams, “Caution!” The Knicks’ plan is simple: re-sign Anthony and add a free agent the following summer. Makes sense. Maybe they’ll sign someone like Rajon Rondo, who has his own knee issues and who, unlike Rose, can occasionally be a head case. However, selling Anthony on the 2015-16 season is a risky proposition.

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No. 3: Finally, Spurs get back to normal with Parker’s return — Tony Parker‘s return to the lineup for the San Antonio Spurs didn’t necessarily make global waves in the basketball atmosphere. But it should have. The Spurs have not been their usual selves without him. And for months they’ve battled injury after injury to their core group, issues that all teams face in some form, fashion or another. Still, it caused more than a little teeth-gnashing in San Antonio. Dan McCarney of the Express News explains how Gregg Popovich and crew handled the mess:

Parker’s return brought an end to a two-month crisis, started by Tiago Splitter’s sprained shoulder against the Clippers on Jan. 4, during which the Spurs missed at least one and as many as four key players for 24 straight games. They went 16-8 during that span, dropping just one game further behind first-place Oklahoma City to sit 1 1/2 off the pace in the Western Conference standings.

While Spurs coach Gregg Popovich couldn’t care less about seeding — “It doesn’t matter. It never has,” he said after Sunday’s game — [Manu] Ginobili and Parker are thrilled.

“Sometimes you do have a lot of injuries during a season,” he said, “but not five core players together. Pop and the team really had to figure it out. Grab players and change positions. We had Nando (De Colo) and Cory (Joseph) playing (shooting guard) a lot, even (small forward). So it’s remarkable we managed to stay in the second spot with a good record. I’m proud of this team.”

Said Parker, “It feels great to have everybody back. Hopefully, everybody can stay healthy and try to make a run at it. Everybody recharged their batteries. Everybody should be fresh. Every year I like our chances so as long as we stay healthy and play our best basketball when the playoffs come. That’s the main thing.”

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No. 4: Markieff Morris serves as Suns’ biggest key — The “Year of the Dragon?” Maybe not in Phoenix. Sure, Goran Dragic has been great this season for the Suns. He’s high on the list of most improved players in the league and also has earned a spot on the KIA Race to the MVP Ladder. But the Suns’ biggest key this season? That honor belongs to Markieff Morris. That’s right, Markieff Morris. Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic provides some context:

The Suns were piling up points early Sunday night, but their defensive stops could not keep up until Markieff Morris and Ish Smith entered the game.

Markieff Morris’ presence can swing a game, and it usually has been for the better — like Sunday night, when he posted 12 points, five rebounds and three assists in 14 first-half minutes to swing the Suns from trailing to a double-digit lead.

“Of maybe all of our guys, he’s probably the biggest key,” Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said. “If he plays well, we usually have a pretty good chance of winning the game. When he isn’t active, then we struggle. We rely on him a lot coming off that bench, and we run a lot of stuff to him. He’s a great passer. He’s probably one of our better passers on the team.”

The Suns need Morris to be aggressive in the post to create plays for himself and others, especially when Goran Dragic is resting. He has become a Sixth Man Award candidate by scoring in double digits in 21 of the past 22 games. The last Suns reserve to do that was teammate Leandro Barbosa, when he won the Sixth Man Award seven seasons ago.

The Suns have not strayed from the usual starting five except for injuries, using the second-fewest total of starters this season (seven) in the NBA. Morris’ connection with his twin, Marcus, makes it an effective bench unit with Smith pushing the tempo.

As a bench player, that sometimes means that Markieff Morris plays the rest of either half because he is going so well. He closes tight games with Hornacek usually trying to get a brief fourth-quarter rest.

“You say we’ll ride him out and see if he gets tired and he’s been able to get through that and finish a lot of games,” Hornacek said

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No. 5:  Van Gundy dismisses analytics crowd — John Schuhmann and the rest of the stats-loving/analytics crowd might want to cover their ears whenever Stan Van Gundy speaks, because he is not a fan. And that’s the politically correct way of saying that the former Magic and Heat coach has not been converted to the analytics age of the game. Not yet at least. Van Gundy went off o the analytics movement during his time at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston, expressing his displeasure with many of the folks who have championed the cause. Brett Pollakoff of ProBasketballTalk has more on Van Gundy’s analytics inquisition:

Van Gundy posed legitimate questions that would theoretically need to be addressed before the basketball purists at the NBA level take the data as gospel, and making sure that whoever is identifying certain play types and quantifying them knows basketball, and is doing that job to the specifications of a particular head coach.

“I don’t trust most of it,” Van Gundy said, beginning an exquisite rant on the topic. “I read some of the stuff that people write on ESPN.com, you know, I’ll read stats on pick and roll defense and stuff that came off Synergy or somewhere else — I don’t know who the hell is recording that information!”

“I read a thing in the playoffs last year that said that New York isolated like 17 percent of the time,” he continued. “I’m watching their games, they isolate half of the time, at least. So I don’t know who’s recording that. If there’s a pick and roll, and they throw it back to Carmelo and he holds the ball and isolates for eight seconds, that’s a pick and roll play, not an isolation? And a lot of pick and roll stuff … you know, I read a thing today from ESPN the Magazine on Paul George being the best pick and roll defender in the league on the ball handler. Look, a lot of pick and rolls … there’s pick and rolls designed to score, and there’s pick and rolls you run to get into something else. If you’re recording it and you’re treating those two things the same, then you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Van Gundy really does like the additional available data — he just needs to be able to trust that whoever is compiling it has the same standards basketball-wise that he does. Ironically enough, I overheard a statistician type at one of the panel discussions explaining to a colleague that of course he watches games — but only to enhance his data set.

“I mean, I do watch the games,” this person said, “to to try to pick up on some things that maybe my numbers aren’t catching.”

This is obviously completely backwards, and as far as Van Gundy is concerned, there’s simply no substitution for the eye test.

“To me, I think that a lot of the analytic stuff can be very useful, but if you’re using that in place of sitting down and watching film yourself and seeing what’s going on, you’re making a big mistake,” Van Gundy said. “And I don’t want to offend anybody, but I think one of the problems with analytics — I think it’s good; I used it, I love looking at it — but one of the problems is, there are a lot of people in a lot of organizations who don’t know the game, who all they know is analytics and as a result, that’s what they rely on. And they will use that to supersede what guys like us see with our eyes. And I think that’s a major mistake. There’s no substitute for watching film over and over and over again, and the only numbers I trust are the ones that my people believe.”

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Jimmer Mania is on and popping in Chciago … Some “tanking” going on in Orlando? … Andrew Bynum is reportedly ready for action and is saying it loud and clear, “I want to play” … Jeremy Lin goes up before the All-Star break but has come crashing down since … Thunder will work without two defensive cornerstones for the foreseeable future

ICYMI of the Night: The Phoenix Suns want you to know that the Los Angeles Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Golden State Warriors aren’t the only Western Conference playoff teams capable of going off from distance. They peppered the Atlanta Hawks from deep Sunday, raining down 15 made 3-pointers in smashing a pie in the face of their guests …


VIDEO: The Suns let it fly from deep in a win over the Hawks