HANG TIME, Texas — Whether it’s Friday night in Charlotte, Saturday at home against the Sixers or even Game 1 of the first round of the playoffs, LeBron James will be coming back to a different game than he left.
More rough, more tough, more down in the dirt, use-everything-but-the-kitchen sink.
Because it worked in Chicago. Because it’s the only thing that put James on the wrong end of a scoreboard since Feb. 1.
Because the rest of the NBA is desperate.
If it wasn’t already with his third MVP, the 2012 NBA title and an Olympic gold medal, the 27-game winning streak stamped this as LeBron’s time, an era of contentment, fulfillment and waltzing up and down basketball courts to music that only he can hear.
When it got to the level where Danny Ainge was taking shots at his toughness and Pat Riley was responding quite earthily, then the point had already been made. Opposing defenses might as well be shooting spitballs at a battleship.
The only other answer, of course, is to bring him down by any means, which was the path taken by Kirk Hinrich and Taj Gibson.
James’ response was predictable, a variation of “How Dare They?” that was really no different from the indignant reactions of Michael Jordan when he was soaring above the game.
The irony and hypocrisy is that it was none other than Riley as the Designer Don of the Knicks in the 1990s who built on the Detroit Bad Boys approach and did as much as anybody to have enforcers Charles Oakley, Larry Johnson, Patrick Ewing and friends try to take a piece out of Jordan when they couldn’t stop him.
Everybody now will poke and prod and push and shove and flat out body slam James to throw off his shot or throw him out his comfort zone.
“We know what’s coming now,” said Miami teammate Shane Battier. “We know that’s Eastern Conference basketball, especially in the playoffs. Teams are going to try to make it a game without spacing, without pace and we’re going to try to do the opposite. We’re going to create a bunch of space and try to create tempo. That’s our strength.
“We know that every other team is going to view that Chicago game as some kind of blueprint maybe. That’s OK. We can play any style of basketball that’s required and I’m pretty sure LeBron can handle himself.”
In the end, that’s all that matters, how James handles himself. When opponents tried to body up Jordan, it only stiffened his own resolve. When anybody took him down to the floor with a bit of extra flourish, Jordan usually got back up and made them pay with a bit of extra mustard mixed with venom.
It is a different game now, one where it’s almost impossible to impede a player on the perimeter without setting off the kind of alarm sounds that accompany airport metal detectors. It’s why point guards have never thrived more at any time in the history of the league than today. The rules have been tweaked and rewritten to put less emphasis on brute strength and more on speed and skill.
The dilemma is that James, at 6-foot-8, 260, has the brute strength to overpower while giving up none of the speed and skill. Until somebody finds a way to put a muscle or two on Kevin Durant, LeBron is a cut above, in a class by himself.
Being so talented makes him singular and makes him a target and in the history of stars in any sport that does not make him special. The other guys don’t come to praise you, but to chop you down.
It’s a fact of life and complaining about a lack of whistles from referees or retaliating with a bull rush at Carlos Boozer will not stop it, only let them know that they’ve gotten under your skin.
Jordan channeled his anger into a raging fury that was belied by that photogenic smile that launched a thousand ad campaigns. Oh yes, we all wanted to be like Mike. But never ever forget that Mike, when provoked, could be a very bad man with a ball in his grip.
“We’re aware of what everybody’s game plan is against us,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “They want to prevent layups and dunks and highlight plays at all costs. That can mean hard fouls. We know that.”
Battier views from across the court and across the locker room and sees an awesome physical specimen and a supremely talented player who is finally at peace with who he is.
“I’m pretty sure,” he said, “that LeBron is ready for anything.”
He’ll have to be, since now the plan and the game is going to change.
Just when you thought the Chicago Bulls were out – out of the race as serious contenders in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, out of luck as a team hoping to push through two or three rounds of the postseason – they pull you back in.
Then they push you away.
And then vice versa.
Followed by switcheroo.
Again. One more time. Lather, rinse, repeat.
One week ago, the Bulls were the upstart darlings of the league, noble warriors who – undermanned and as shadows of their former selves – still found a way to thwart the Miami Heat’s bid for the longest winning streak in U.S. major professional team sports. They led with their chins, their hearts and their skinned knees to snap the Heat’s streak at 27. They did it with defense and a toughness that, if their fans squinted tightly enough, looked like throwbacks to the stuff Chicago deployed so well in leading the NBA in victories the previous two seasons.
Then the Bulls locked up down the stretch to lose in Dallas, scrambled to eke out a one-point victory over Detroit and blew another lead at Washington Tuesday night. By the end of that one, the squad Chicago had in its locker room or in street clothes somewhere – Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Richard Hamilton, Marco Belinelli, Taj Gibson and Kirk Hinrich (the first five injured, the sixth ejected vs. the Wizards) – was better than the crew on the floor narrowly closing out the game.
Afterward, because it was the latest but also a repeat problem, Gibson’s strained left knee was the one that got most of the attention. The backup forward/center already had missed 10 games in March. He returned to put up some sub-par numbers in seven games and now looked to be right back where he started.
“That’s what happens when you rush back to try to help your team win,” Gibson told reporters afterward, providing a quote that, if it hasn’t already, surely will rattle around Rose’s head if he still is contemplating a late-season comeback from knee surgery.
The difficulty, nay, impossibility of maintaining a healthy rotation and the heavy use of players who manage to participate has turned Chicago into a tractionless tease. Rose’s prolonged absence, beyond what almost anyone in or outside the organization anticipated, put everything on hold – except for the minutes logged by and exposure to mishap for those left behind.
“Next man up,” is what coach Tom Thibodeau keeps saying, but next man down is what dominates the conversation for media and fans, what with Chicago’s 158 man-games lost to injury in 2012-13. The result has been a start-stop-start-stop-start-aw, the heck with it sort of season. Last week’s rousing victory over the Heat, another down in Miami in January, even the recent exhilarating overtime loss to Denver March 18 hinted at a Bulls team that could make noise in the playoffs. Yet truly miserable losses to Charlotte, Sacramento, Cleveland and a stars-less Spurs squad suggest the only noise will come from Chicago’s imminent crash.
It leaves Thibodeau and his gauze-covered players in a tricky spot with two weeks left in the season: Gut out some East bracket maneuvering or settle in, grab what rest and rehab are available and make one final push in (through?) the first round. More and more, it’s looking like a decision that will get foisted upon the Bulls this season, like pretty much everything else has been. The 2012-13 season has kind of happened to them.
HANG TIME, Texas – So much for the notion that all of the energy and drama was sucked out of half the playoff bracket by the Heat’s 27-game win streak.
Suddenly the Eastern Conference is dripping with more subplots than a Russian novel with LeBron James complaining that the Bulls abused him, Taj Gibson cleverly telling the best player in the game that he’s too good to whine, Danny Ainge foolishly and typically wading into the middle of the war with his mouth and Pat Riley suggesting that Ainge should “shut the (expletive) up.”
Just like that, we’re back in the 1980s with LA Gear, parachute pants and an urge to sing “Beat It.”
Is the manipulative genius of Riley at work here with LeBron? Has the blueprint for beating the Heat been put on display? Does anybody actually need to light a fire under an imposing team that just went nearly two full months without losing?
Do we really have to wait three more weeks for the playoffs to begin?
Miami vs. Chicago. Miami vs. Boston. And you thought Indiana was the Heat’s only minor roadblock to The Finals.
Don’t we really have to pull for the Celtics to tumble into the No. 8 seed and open up against the Heat in the first round?
Before the opening tip, Riley and Ainge could square off at center court for an MMA bout, complete with the octagon cage.
Hopefully, the winner of that first-round street fight would then face Chicago in a series presumably played with helmets and full body armor.
Look, we can’t really blame James for feeling that the Bulls used him as a tackling dummy on Wednesday night. After all, he’s been raised and cultivated and ascended to his seat on the throne in this 21st century era that has become so polite and contact-averse that any day now you can expect the NBA’s discipline czar Stu Jackson to rule from the league office that defenders must play with their pinkie fingers extended, as if they’re attending a tea party.
“Let me calculate my thoughts real fast before I say [what I want to say],” James said after the game. “I believe and I know that a lot of my fouls are not basketball plays. First of all, Kirk Hinrich in the first quarter basically grabbed me with two hands and brought me to the ground. The last one, Taj Gibson was able to collar me around my shoulder and bring me to the ground. Those are not defensive and those are not basketball plays.”
Of course, those of us who were around in the 80s and 90s or have learned from the drawings on cave walls about the times when prehistoric figures named Oakleysaurus, Mahornasaurus and Laimbeer Rex guarded the paint with sharp elbows and pointed attitudes, know that those used to be routine basketball plays. As James is trying to climb the ladder of greatness to catch Michael Jordan, let him ask His Airness if he was ever given a bump or two at The Palace of Auburn Hills or Madison Square Garden.
All of the good will and gosh-almighty admiration for Miami and for James that was built up during the construction of the 27-game streak could go out the window if the Heat players start to believe they should be unchallenged physically and simply carried on the shoulders of tributes to a second consecutive NBA title.
“I think he’s too good of a player to do that,” Gibson zinged when asked about James’ complaints in a radio interview.
The big question is what in the world could ever have possessed Ainge to enter the fray. Then you remember that he was just being Ainge, agitator and instigator and never a finisher during his playing career.
“I think that it’s almost embarrassing that LeBron would complain about officiating,” Ainge said.
And that’s when the real fun started.
“Danny Ainge needs to shut the #$!* up and manage his own team,” Riley said in a statement released through a Heat spokesman. “He was the biggest whiner going when he was playing and I know that because I coached against him.”
Give Riley credit. The guy who copyrighted the term “three-peat” back in 1987 could have another T-shirt selling bonanza on his hands with the blunt “STFU” combined with that fireball Heat logo.
It might not only have been the first official statement in known team sport history to include the home-run word, but also the artful, Machiavellian Riley’s way of delivering a just-as-short message to LeBron ahead of the 2014 opt-out clause in his contract: I’ll always have your back.
At first, Ainge backed off a bit.
“Pat Riley’s right,” he said. “I should manage my own team. I complained a lot to the officials. And I’m right, LeBron should be embarrassed about how he complains about the calls he gets.”
But just before Friday night’s game against the Hawks, he could not resist one more shot:
“I stand by what I said. That’s all. I don’t care about Pat Riley. He can say whatever he wants.
“I don’t want to mess up his Armani suits and all that hair goop. It would be way too expensive for me.”
The man wins 27 consecutive games to propel the Miami Heat to the second-longest streak in NBA history, he finally losses for the first time since the Super Bowl and everyone jumps on the game’s most dominating force for complaining that refs should have been more liberal in calling the Chicago Bulls for flagrant fouls?
Right because in the NBA, no one does that.
Here’s a refresher as to what LeBron said after the Heat’s streak-ending, 101-97 defeat in Chicago:
“Let me calculate my thoughts real fast before I say [what I want to say],” James said after the game. “I believe and I know that a lot of my fouls are not basketball plays. First of all, Kirk Hinrich in the first quarter basically grabbed me with two hands and brought me to the ground. The last one, Taj Gibson was able to collar me around my shoulder and bring me to the ground. Those are not defensive … those are not basketball plays.
“I’m not sitting here crying about anything,” said James. “I play the game at a high level, I play with a lot of aggression, I understand that some of the plays are on the borderline of a basketball play or not. But sometimes, you know? I don’t know … it’s frustrating.”
For some reason, perhaps boredom, Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge provided his two cents on LeBron’s ref rant, calling it “embarrassing.”
“I think the referees got the calls right. I don’t think it was a hard foul,” Ainge said on WEEI Radio on Thursday. “I think the one involving LeBron against [Carlos] Boozer, that was flagrant. I think the officials got it right. “I think that it’s almost embarrassing that LeBron would complain about officiating.”
“I think he’s too good of a player to do that [complain]. You just play, two teams really going out there and play hard, going to the basket extremely hard and physical. … I didn’t try to collar him. I just fouled him. It wasn’t intentionally. I just tried to make a play on the ball, but I fouled him. When he fell, it looked like I collared him. I was really trying to grab him, just not hold him up. Nobody was intentionally trying to hurt anybody out there. When he said those comments, I was really shocked. But it’s part of the game, I guess.”
Shocking is the unnecessary negative jabs generated by LeBron’s comments after an intense and meaningful game which followed nearly two months of blowout wins, amazing performances and remarkable comebacks. And the Heat did this the last couple of weeks while being trailed by a national media horde.
Amazing the tiny cracks that opportunists will squirm through to get in their shots. During Miami’s 27-game win streak, LeBron averaged 27.0 ppg, 8.0 apg and 8.1 rpg. He shot 57.5 percent overall and 37.4 percent from 3-point range. He had 50 steals and 25 blocks, and was a whopping plus-344 — say that last one again, plus-344.
So thank you, Mr. Ainge and you too, Mr. Gibson, for your concern over LeBron’s foul frustrations, warranted or not.
Ainge might want to implore his battered club to stay out of that eight-hole or watch LeBron complain his way to a methodical sweep of his Celtics. As for Gibson, far more shocking than LeBron’s comments are his mostly stagnant season statistics — 7.9 ppg, 5.5 rpg and 68.7 percent from the free throw line — with that nice, little pay raise kicking in next season, and over the next four.
CHICAGO – This is the way a 27-game winning streak ends: With a lot of bangs and a few whimpers.
Undermanned almost beyond credulity, the Chicago Bulls stiffened defensively, tried to whack twice for every one they absorbed and toughed their way to a 101-97 upset over the Miami Heat that snapped the NBA’s second-longest streak of consecutive victories. The 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers’ mark of 33 in a row rests easy, which is more than can be said about Heat star LeBron James, who ended his night both battered and a little cranky.
The Bulls met arguably the NBA’s most imposing and unstoppable physical force with force of their own. Point guard Kirk Hinrich managed to grab the cow catcher, crash to the floor and live to tell about it when James barreled straight at him in the first quarter. In the fourth, Taj Gibson put James on the floor with a two-handed swipe as the Miami forward drove to the hoop. Initially and incorrectly ruled a flagrant foul, the refs got it right upon review but James didn’t appreciate going down, his legs twisted like a pretzel.
Moments later, James drove one of his massive shoulders into a screen set by Chicago’s Carlos Boozer. That one was a flagrant foul, a spill of frustration not so much that the streak was about to end – it was 90-82 with 3:52 left – but that he was getting abused in the process.
“I believe, and I know, that a lot of my fouls are not basketball plays,” James told reporters afterward. “First of all, Kirk Hinrich in the first quarter basically grabbed me with two hands and brought me to the ground. … And you know, the last one, Taj Gibson was able to collar me around my shoulder and bring me to the ground.
“Those are not basketball plays. It’s been happening all year and I’ve been able to keep my cool. But it is getting to me a little bit.”
First things first: No one can blame James for disliking the thumping. But what Chicago did apparently was within the bounds of Doc Naismith‘s game – OK, maybe Doc Lecter‘s – because none of the Bulls got tossed or ejected. Not that their depleted roster could afford any ousters.
“He probably got a little frustrated,” Gibson said. “But you got to keep playing. These are two physical teams. The refs did a great job, because they let a lot of stuff go.”
Besides, what were the Bulls supposed to do? The NBA’s hottest team in, sheesh, 41 years was bearing down on them. And they were light in the loafers – no Derrick Rose, no Joakim Noah, no Richard Hamilton, no Marco Belinelli. Absent those players and their skills, Chicago’s only real alternative was to dial up the grit.
“Obviously having those guys out is not easy,” said Hinrich, who stuck in his nose and jaw wherever he could, from attacking James off the dribble with some – ugh! – inevitable results to ripping the ball away from Chris Bosh for a critical takeaway at 92-85. “But we realize, collectively, if we share the ball, team defense, have good energy and intensity and play with that edge, we’re going to have a chance to win some games. … We just grinded.”
That play where he grabbed James and all but tackled him? “I was just hanging on for dear life. Just didn’t want him to get the ‘and 1,’ ” Hinrich said. “You just don’t realize how powerful that guy is. With his speed and strength you can’t take anything for granted. I still feel I got the worst of it.”
Hinrich, at times in the second half, found himself guarded by James, the bigger man’s extra six inches and 70 pounds or so eclipsing his view of the basket. So what did Hinrich do? He drove left and got snuffed. He drove right and got snuffed. Then with just over two minutes left, Hinrich went up the gut again – and kicked the ball to Gibson on the left baseline for a 16-footer that made it 94-85.
“Kirk is one of the toughest guys I know,” Gibson said. “He has so much swag every day in practice. He’s a real vet. He doesn’t shy away from anything. He’s always in the middle, especially on big men – he switches out with centers. He really doesn’t care.”
Miami, throughout its remarkable streak, had played numerous teams that were missing key players: Orlando (no Nikola Vucevic), Cleveland (no Kyrie Irving or Anderson Varejao), Milwaukee (no Luc Mbah a Moute to guard James), Boston (no Rajon Rondo or Kevin Garnett). The point of which isn’t to sully the Heat’s accomplishment but to marvel at how hard and well these various depleted rotations play when their coaches’ options are limited, their minutes are high, everyone’s expectations are muted and the opponent is toting around a huge bull’s-eye.
The Bulls claimed streak-busting had little or nothing to do with Wednesday’s outcome. They were driven more by the 86-67 hairball they spit up against Miami at United Center on Feb. 21, back when the streak was just nine games old.
Said Gibson: “We didn’t like that. We felt like we got punked on our own court. They blew us out.”
If the players that end such a streak get credit. so does the fellow who coaches those players. From the outside, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau looks to have painted another masterpiece of X & Overachievement. But while Hinrich acknowleged, “Yeah, he was fired up,” other Chicago players saw or heard nothing different from their guy on the sideline.
“Honestly, the dude is the same every game,” said forward Luol Deng, who scored 28 points and made the most of those reprieves when James shifted over to Hinrich. “No matter who you’re playing. I didn’t see any difference. He’s intense. He’s always focused.”
It was that way for both teams Wednesday, but the only way out for the Bulls.
“We just came in with that dog mentality that we weren’t going to go soft,” Gibson said. “We really had it in the back of our head. Once the game came, we knew we had to do it. There was no talking. Guys just understood, to go out there and play hard. Take hard fouls when you need to.
“Every time we play that team, we try to send a message. They sent the message the last game we played them. So we had to keep pushing. Every time to play this team, it’s like a new testament.” a
A season without the Chicago Bulls’ electric point guard has put some hard minutes on players like Luol Deng and Joakim Noah, and made it even harder for the Bulls to score. Ranking 29th in the league in scoring at 92.7 ppg, the hardest-working team in the NBA might be on the verge of total burnout — if they’re not there already.
After a 5-8 February, Chicago is 3-6 in March, 36-31 overall after Thursday’s 99-89 home loss to Portland and tied for sixth place in the East with the Boston Celtics. Further slippage and the Bulls, just two games up on the Milwaukee Bucks in the dreaded eight-hole, could be faced with a first-round meeting against the Miami Heat.
“We got smacked,” Noah told the Chicago Tribune in assessing the loss to the Blazers, the West’s 10th-place team. “It’s really disappointing. We’re not playing great right now. It’s the final stretch and we’re not getting it done. We have to find a way.”
If the Bulls aren’t capable of scoring, they have to be able to bring their suffocating defense and that has not been the case. Portland shot 10-for-21 from the 3-point line and its 99 points is right at the average (99.4) the Bulls are allowing in March, six points more than their season average.
Road losses to playoff teams like Indiana, San Antonio and the Lakers can be reasoned away, as well as this week’s controversial home loss to Denver. But a 42-point undressing at Sacramento? And the loss to the sub-.500 Blazers, with just two road wins since Feb. 4?
How else to explain it than a team running on fumes?
Portland is the only team in the league with three players among the top 10 in minutes played. Chicago is the only other team with more than one player in the top 10. Deng logs more minutes per game (38.9) than anyone in the league. Noah ranks 12th.
Kirk Hinrich and Taj Gibson made welcomed returns Thursday night, although it failed to help the bottom line.
A savior might be the Bulls’ last hope to re-energize for the stretch run and the playoffs. His name is Rose. And only, well, you know who knows when, and if, he’ll play this season.
With 15 games left beginning with Saturday’s home game against Indiana, the Bulls are hoping to get a sign from above very, very soon.
HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – It’s Fan Night on NBA TV, and we have the Cavs and Bulls at 8 p.m. ET from Chicago.
The Bulls need to regain some traction, having spent most of February on the road and having lost six of their last nine games. The Cavs have a chance for a winning month, or at least a .500 month if they can split their final two games (they host Toronto on Wednesday).
Here are some notes to get you ready for this Central Division matchup, courtesy of NBA.com/Stats …
Is Taj Gibson the Bulls’ MIP (Most Important Player)?
Still, Irving has done it in about the same number of clutch-time minutes as Kevin Durant, and far fewer clutch-time minutes than the other guys in the top five. One reason is that Irving has the ball in his hands so much.
Irving has used (via shots, free throws, assists and turnovers) more than half of the Cavs’ possessions in clutch time, a mark that leads the league and is a big jump from his overall usage rate.
Highest usage rate, clutch time
Minimum 50 minutes
Rebounds aren’t enough
While the Cavs have improved offensively in February, the Bulls have regressed. They’ve been held to less than 75 points in three of their last five games, they rank 27th in efficiency this month and actually rank in the bottom four in three of the “four factors.”
Bulls offense, February
eFG% = (FGM + (3PM*0.5))/FGA
OREB% = Percentage of available offensive rebounds obtained
TOV% = Turnovers per 100 possessions
FTA Rate = FTA/FGA
It’s great that they’re the league’s best offensive rebounding team this month, but you’re still not going to be a good offensive team if you can’t shoot, you can’t get to the line, and you turn the ball over too much.
Missed a game last night? Wondering what the latest news around the NBA is this morning? The Morning Shootaround is here to try to meet those needs and keep you up on what’s happened around the league since the day turned.
The one recap to watch: After a Feb. 10 win against Denver, Boston was in the midst of a seven-game win streak and feeling good about its place in the East pecking order. But the Celtics’ five-game road trip West hadn’t gone as planned and they found themselves 1-3 with a date against the Jazz entering Monday. The Celtics had every reason to fold up shop, especially after looking listless at times in the first half and unable to contain Gordon Hayward most of the night. Never count out Paul Pierce, though, as he came through big for Boston as Celtics-Jazz ended up being our one to watch. Pierce showed off his Truth-y goodness in the win, particularly in the extra frame, where he scored seven straight in OT to salt away the victory:
Nuggets run Lakers out of Denver — Once Mike D’Antoni supplanted Mike Brown as Lakers coach, the assumption among some fans was that D’Antoni would employ the high-octane system he used in Phoenix in Lakerland and all would be right in the world. Yet as D’Antoni and the Lakers have learned time and time again this season, playing up-tempo isn’t the fast track to success for L.A. In fact, it’s the complete opposite and was proven so again last night as the Nuggets simply ran the Lakers out of Denver with a fast-breaking offense. Kevin Ding of the Orange County Register and Ramona Shelburneof ESPNLosAngeles.com have more:
Big picture, the Lakers have still gone 11-5 since the day of their clear-the-air team meeting in Memphis. But the feel-good sentiments were contrasted Monday night by some ongoing cold – or should that be “old”? – realities for this Lakers team.
The Lakers were as slow as ever in letting the Denver Nuggets blow by them. Final score: Denver 119, Los Angeles 108.
Fast-break points? Denver 33, Los Angeles 3.
“Man,” Kobe Bryant said, “that’s a killer.”
The Lakers are last in the NBA in points allowed per game off turnovers, and that’s just how Denver took control of this game – also running off Bryant’s early missed shots. The Nuggets kept control with Dwight Howard shooting 3-for-14 on free throws and Bryant’s individual defensive effort lacking even as he rediscovered his shooting stroke.
Those who have been waiting to see what Los Angeles Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni’s high-octane offense looks like finally saw it Monday night.
Too bad it was the Denver Nuggets playing it.
All that great spacing and shooting and scoring D’Antoni’s teams have become known for over the years … yeah, that was George Karl‘s Nuggets running the Lakers off the court in a 119-108 win Monday night.
“They’re good,” D’Antoni said. “They spread you out and they shoot a high percentage.
“We just couldn’t catch ‘em.”
D’Antoni was glum after the loss, but not unusually so. That wistful, pining, ”If they could only see what I see?” quality he carried around with him during the first few months of his tenure on the Lakers bench is gone now. He’s either squashed it for good or put it in a place where it doesn’t bother him as much.
What’s become clear during the Lakers’ modest revival — they’ve still won 11 of their past 16 games despite Monday’s loss — is that they’re no longer trying to play like one of D’Antoni’s teams.
The coach — and his team — have adapted. Or at least accepted that the up-tempo style is not going to fit this team, this season. There are still elements of it that work, including the pick-and-roll game and the emphasis on spacing and rhythm. But the rest of it has kind of been shelved for now.
For the Lakers, it served as a reminder of the decisions they’ve been forced to make this year. The Nuggets’ run-and-gun style was the vision D’Antoni was hired to bring to Los Angeles. For now, though, with no training camp and injured, ill-fitting personnel, it’s just not to be.
The coach has taken a lot of criticism since he got to L.A. So have many of his players.
It’s way too soon to start praising him. The Lakers are still in great danger of missing the playoffs after Monday’s loss dropped them to three games behind Houston for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
But it’s not too soon to recognize that D’Antoni also has made some difficult sacrifices since taking the job — to his principles, his pride and his legacy.
“There’s no job in the NBA that’s easy,” D’Antoni said, refusing to make a sympathy play. “You don’t just fall out of bed and have things happen. It gets more complicated with injuries. I didn’t know Steve [Nash] was going to be out. I didn’t know Steve Blake was going to be out. I didn’t know Dwight wasn’t healthy 100 percent. So, yeah, there are some side issues. But everything is hard.”
Hawks’ Horford hitting his stride — When the Atlanta Hawks have been in the headlines on this site and others, the name heard most is Josh Smith and his future with the team as a pending free agent. While we were all focused on J-Smoove, his future and the trade deadline the last few weeks, Al Horford, the lone ex-All-Star selection on the Hawks, has been tearing it up. He’s averaging 24.6 ppg and 12.4 rpg over his last nine games and went wild last night against the Pistons, notching a 23-point, 22-rebound game in the Hawks’ win. Atlanta has won three in a row, sits at No. 4 in the East and much of that is due to Horford, writes Chris Vivlamore of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
Al Horford is completely over the hamstring strain that bothered him earlier this season. It shows.
The Hawks center is averaging 24.2 points and 10.0 rebounds with a .679 field goal percentage (55 of 81) over the past five games. He has scored over 20 points in each of those games, a career first.
“I think it just has to do with me being healthy and we are playing through me a lot more,” Horford said Monday before the Hawks played at the Pistons. That helps. I’m able to stay in the rhythm of the offensive.”
Horford said the hamstring is no longer limiting his running and jumping. He also dealt with a calf issue.
“When we have a lot of ball movement and high assists it gets everybody involved not just me,” Horford said. “When that happens I usually do pretty well. When we don’t and we stick, that is when my game gets affected and we tend to struggle as a team. It’s not hard to figure out that if we have a high assist total we are going to have a good chance.”
Report: Bulls may lose Gibson for 2 weeks — Bulls reserve forward Taj Gibson injured his knee in the second half of Chicago’s blowout loss to the Thunder on Sunday night. Now comes word, via K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune, that the Bulls’ depth — which has been hampered all season by the loss of star Derrick Rose – may suffer another blow following the results of Gibson’s MRI on Monday:
Taj Gibson celebrated the birthdays of Jerry Reinsdorf and Joakim Noah on Monday by having an MRI performed on his sprained left knee.
Well, not really, but the confluence of such events seemed fitting for a star-crossed Bulls team these days. For every celebratory moment — a blowout win in Charlotte, Noah turning 28 — a somber one follows in the form of a convincing loss to an elite team or another injury.
At least Gibson’s MRI didn’t reveal a torn ACL, although it did confirm a sprained MCL that could sideline the defensive-minded forward up to two weeks.
Can Boston’s lockerroom change Crawford, Williams? — Depending on whom you ask, new Celtics Jordan Crawford (acquired via a trade with Washington) and Terrence Williams (signed as a free agent) are seen by some as one-dimensional players, talented-but-emotional players or young players in need of some veteran guidance … or a combination of the three. Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald brings up a great point in questioning whether the Celtics’ veteran core of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and the like can do anything to change the careers/league-wide outlook on players such as Crawford and Williams:
It is the common perception that the Celtics dressing room is a healing commune where those of questionable basketball reputation can be saved. A Lourdes of leaping, if you will.
So as the Celts return home today with Terrence Williams and Jordan Crawford — two players who would not have been available to them were it not for concerns about their approach to the game and the fact they did not entirely please previous employers — there is the expectation among some, and hope among others, that regularly observing Kevin Garnett and breathing the same air will improve their focus and make them better teammates.
The newest C’s have the opportunity to either prove the perceptions a lie or rip off the old tags and begin anew.
Pierce knows that altering the career course of another adult may be quite a bit to ask, but he also recognizes it’s part of his job as captain and accomplished veteran.
“I think you just try to feel things out with new guys,” he said. “I mean, at this point in the season you usually get a chance to talk to guys in practice, but there’s not a lot of practice time.
“But it seems like these guys, from what you’ve heard about them from other teams, it doesn’t look that way from what I’ve seen in the past few days.”
Doc Rivers is well aware of the upside of both Williams and Crawford, but he’s not banking on his regulars to make them fit into the Celtics’ system.
Beyond that, Rivers tries to avoid preconceived notions. He doesn’t want to read the labels on the players the Celtics acquire.“You know, one of the things I’ve learned is that I don’t listen to hearsay,” he said. “I really don’t. I never have.
“I’ve learned that lesson long ago. There’s been a lot of players who you hear are bad guys or are not great guys that I’ve had that have turned out to be great guys. And I’ve had some that people said were great guys and they’ve turned out not to be.
“So I just don’t ever listen to the hearsay. I give everybody a chance, and if they don’t become that, then they don’t become that. I leave it at that.”
He doesn’t listen even when the comments are coming from his close friend, Washington coach Randy Wittman, who pulled Crawford out of his rotation?
“No, I don’t,’ Rivers said. “I really don’t, because there’s always circumstances. He may be right in what they’re saying, but there could be other circumstances that we can’t see. So I just let it go, and if they turn out to be a bad guy, then they’re a bad guy. Some turn out to be good guys.”
Loss harms Colangelo, Raptors’ playoff hopes — Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo has done a decent job of attempting to salvage Toronto’s season given his trade to land Rudy Gay and his deadline-day deal to add point guard depth in the form of Sebastian Telfair. But last night’s loss to Washington not only dropped the Raptors 4 1/2 games behind Philadelphia for No. 8 in the East, but also dealt a bit of a blow to Colangelo and his future in Toronto, writes Eric Koreen of The National Post:
Monday’s game, a 90-84 loss to the Washington Wizards, did not help the Raptors’ chances. They are now 4½ games out of the final playoff spot.
It was a putrid game, particularly the first half, when the Raptors turned the ball over 12 times. Rudy Gay and Kyle Lowry both struggled badly from the floor.
While the loss was certainly disappointing, it does not do much to change the Raptors’ position: They are fighting for a playoff spot, even if they are unlikely to prevail.
“That was our goal going into this year,” Dwane Casey said. “We got started off on a rocky start and dug ourselves a huge hole to start the season. We didn’t go about it [the right] way. We kind of got to the point where we wanted to be as far as knocking on the door on the playoffs. I think those are the terms that I used as far as our goal in the building process. [Acquiring] Rudy accelerated that process. I’m happy with our team. I like the direction we’re going in. I like our core group that we have.”
The team’s reality will have untold reverberations on the future. At the nadir of the season, it looked like president and general manager Bryan Colangelo would have to take the fall. If the Raptors fail to make the playoffs this year, it will be the first time in franchise history they that have missed the post-season in five consecutive years.
However, minus the specific nature of some of the controversies and concerns that the team has dealt with in the season’s first two-thirds, where the team sits now is exactly where the Raptors figured they would be. In fact, the Raptors trading Jose Calderon and his expensive expiring contract for a dynamic wing player such as Gay would have been an ideal scenario heading into the year. It was, as Colangelo likes to say, part of the plan.
So, where does that leave Colangelo?
In lieu of a franchise superstar — and Gay is not at that level — the person in charge of moulding the roster is arguably the most integral man in any basketball organization. Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment will have three options: pick up the third-year option on Colangelo’s contract; offer Colangelo an extension beyond next year; or decline to pick up the option, effectively firing him.
ICYMI of the night: If you’re a Laker-hater (or just a Nuggets fan), two plays from last night had to get your attention: JaVale McGee coming over to swat Kobe Bryant and Kenneth Faried powering home an alley-oop over Dwight Howard …:
All three wins have come on the road against good teams, and in none of them have the Clippers required a huge performance from one of their other starters. In fact, Blake Griffin has averaged just 16.3 points in the three wins. Eric Bledsoe, starting in place of Paul, has done a decent job of running the team, but has totaled only 11 assists.
The Clippers won the three games — and won them all comfortably –for the same reason that Paul has been able to sit the entire fourth quarter in nine of the 37 games he’s played in: They have the best bench in basketball.
Here’s all you need to know about the Clippers’ bench and why they’re a much-improved team: Last season, the Clips were outscored by 11.6 points per 100 possessions when Griffin was on the bench. This year, they’re outscoring their opponents by 11.7 points per 100 possessions with Griffin on the bench.
That’s a 23.3-point turnaround and that’s really what it’s all about. A good bench should build on leads, not lose them. That’s why the Bulls’ bench was so good the last couple of years, even though it didn’t have anybody who could really score. When Omer Asik, Ronnie Brewer and Taj Gibson were on the floor together, the Bulls shut down foes and scored enough to build on the lead the starters gave them.
With that in mind, here are the best benches in the NBA …
The Clips have a full, five-man bench unit that’s one of the best lineups in the league. In 243 minutes with Bledsoe, Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, Lamar Odom and Ronny Turiaf on the floor, L.A. is a plus-14.5 per 100 possessions.
Though Crawford is known for his offense, this is really a defensive unit that has only scored 102.8 points per 100 possessions, just a notch above the league average. But it has allowed only 88.3, making it the second-best defensive unit of the league’s 72 lineups that have played at least 100 minutes.
The question is how Grant Hill fits in. In Hill’s first game back, that unit only played six minutes together. And in the last three games, it hasn’t played together at all, though that may have more to do with Bledsoe starting.
Either way, it would be disappointing if coach Vinny Del Negro broke up such an effective unit. And it really could affect where the Clippers finish in the Western Conference standings.
Though Manu Ginobili has been neither healthy nor sharp, the Spurs’ bench continues to get the job done. It’s just tough to determine where the starters end and where the bench begins, because eight different guys have started at least nine games for San Antonio already. But coach Gregg Popovich‘s ability to mix-and-match lineups will little drop-off is part of what makes the Spurs’ bench so good.
The Spurs don’t have a full bench unit like the Clippers. Their latest starting unit is Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter. Their most-used lineup that includes at least three other Spurs has only played 38 minutes together, and that lineup includes Parker and Duncan.
This is why we’d rate the Spurs’ bench behind that of the Clippers. But San Antonio is still outscoring its opponents by a solid 5.7 points per 100 possessions with Duncan off the floor. That’s a very good thing. (more…)
CHICAGO – The updates are coming more frequently now, and with each one, ever so briefly, the clouds that have hung over the Chicago Bulls’ season part. That’s when the sweet sunshine comes beaming through.
Derrick Rose is coming back. Every day, every hour, every minute, heck, every second, Rose and the Bulls get closer to a reunion that is expected to transform their season and restore Chicago to its rightful place at or near the top of the Eastern Conference.
“He’s in drills every morning with me,” forward Taj Gibson said Monday after the Bulls’ blowout home victory over Cleveland. “Every morning, going full steam. It just feels like he never left. He’s doing everything that he’d normally do. It’s been great the last couple weeks.”
The progress has been steady, the pace consistent, with new challenges and freedoms added, each in their own time. One week, Rose is shooting flat-footed. Then he’s cutting laterally in drill work. Or dunking behind closed doors. Lately, Rose has been been participating in walk-throughs, even speaking up at halftimes.
The volume of the reports is intensifying, even if the timetable for the ex-MVP point guard’s first taste of NBA action hasn’t budged: Rose still isn’t expected back until after All-Star weekend, which means late February or early March.
Bulls general manager Gar Forman and coach Tom Thibodeau talked Monday of Rose’s next test: regular practice. Once he is cleared for that, he will be monitored closely both on the court and in recovery.
At the moment, Rose is doing “predictable contact.” “It’s knowing what’s coming,” Thibodeau explained to reporters. “He’s handled that part great. He’s done a little 1-on-1. But everyone has to be patient.” (more…)