Posts Tagged ‘Terry Stotts’

Morning shootaround — Jan. 31




VIDEO: The Fast Break: Jan. 30

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Cavs take down Spurs | Rockets rip refs | Barnes bails out champs | McCollum carves niche
No. 1: Lue, Cavs take another step forward — It’s been barely a week and only five games, but Tyronn Lue has the Cavaliers playing with more zip and zest, according to Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com. The team is now 4-1 since Lue took over as head coach for David Blatt and was humming on all cylinders in taking apart the contending Spurs on Saturday night:

“I don’t put a lot of emphasis on it,” Lue said. “I just want to make sure our style of basketball is what we want to play. I know it’s a big game because it’s the San Antonio Spurs, but it’s only one game for us. If we take care of our business and do what we’re supposed to do, we don’t have to beat this team until June.”
Skeptics will say this was a classic case of an underpromise and overdeliver by Lue. If you set expectations low, you can control the threshold for what is deemed a success.

However, after watching the Cavs completely handle the Spurs 117-103 while playing a get-it-and-go brand of basketball that Lue introduced the team to when he took over a week ago, it’s easy to see the merit in Lue’s point.

If the Cavaliers can beat a great team such as the Spurs, albeit without Tim Duncan, just a week into playing this way and can look like the best version of themselves while doing so, how good can they look in four or five months, when the games really matter?

There was a lot to like about this game, starting with the offensive balance among LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, who all topped the 20-point plateau for the second consecutive game.

“I think our team responded well, playing fast, getting easy shots, Kyrie and LeBron attacking early, and then Kevin in the low post and making jump shots, so I thought tonight was a picture-perfect way of how we want to play,” Lue said. “The guys came out and executed it.”

***

(more…)

Lue’s big week — from Cavs’ assistant to 2016 East All-Star head coach


Tyronn Lue being named to coach the Eastern Conference All-Stars is the coaching equivalent of a player called up from the D-League on a 10-day contract suddenly being named a starter in the NBA’s annual showcase event.

Improbable as it sounds, Lue – who has been an NBA head coach for less than a week – will get to do in the 2016 NBA All-Star Game in Toronto on Feb. 14 what all-timers such as Jerry Sloan and Bill Fitch, and active veterans such as Dwane Casey and Terry Stotts, never have.

He and the Cleveland Cavaliers staff he inherited Thursday after taking over for fired David Blatt will be in charge, on the league’s biggest stage, of the East’s elite players.

Lue is 2-1 since replacing Blatt, and the most recent of those victories – a 115-93 victory over Phoenix Wednesday – left Cleveland with a 32-12, clinching the best mark in the conference through games played on Sunday, Jan. 31. That’s the cutoff by which the All-Star coaches are named.

Blatt was the coach of record for the Cavaliers’ first 41 games, but was fired with a 30-11 mark. Cleveland general manager David Griffin and owner Dan Gilbert came to believe, Griffin said, that the team wasn’t responding to Blatt in a way that would offer its best chance to win a championship this spring.

Earlier Wednesday, San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich was tabbed to coach the West All-Stars, by virtue of the rule prohibiting a coach from making consecutive appearances in the event. Golden State’s Steve Kerr handled that duty in the 2015 game in New York.

Morning shootaround — Jan. 11


VIDEO: The Fast Break: January 10

NEWS OF THE MORNING

The call for Cal to save the Nets | LeBron survives pregame plunk, lifts Cavaliers | Warriors stealing glances at all-time record | Lillard backs up his words with actions in win over Thunder

No. 1: The call for Cal to save the Nets — For what seems like the umpteenth time, there is a NBA coaching opening with John Calipari‘s name written all over it. With Lionel Hollins out as coach in Brooklyn (and Billy King reassigned within the organization), Calipari’s name has surfaced immediately as a possible replacement, even though he has routinely denied in any interest in leaving Kentucky. That won’t stop the rumblings about Cal being the right name for the job, writes Frank Isola of the New York Daily News:

The Brooklyn Nets will undoubtedly make the celebrity hire here because the team’s Russian owner, Mikhail Prokhorov, simply wouldn’t have it any other way.

That’s why John Calipari goes right to the top of any and all searches when you have a desperate billionaire who is looking to make a big splash calling the shots. Do the names James Dolan and Phil Jackson ring a bell?

Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé, who thinks he’s John Wooden because he once coached his daughter’s fifth-grade team to a championship, was ready to offer Calipari everything last summer before Coach Cal decided to return to Kentucky and wait for something better/more lucrative to come along.

Now it’s Prokhorov’s turn. Prokhorov woke up Sunday, looked at his terrible club and with his deep accent essentially mumbled: “I must break you.”

Billy King, the general manager, was reassigned while head coach Lionel Hollins was canned.

You don’t blow up your organization six weeks before the trading deadline unless you have a plan in place, right? Only Prokhorov, Nets CEO Brett Yormark and Dmitry Razumov, the owner’s right-hand man behind the Iron Curtain, know for sure.

Calipari is the primary target, according to several sources close to the Nets and Calipari. It will take a lot to get him, which means power and money, perhaps even a small piece of ownership. Remember, Cal’s not the desperate one here.

Calipari has been down this road before with the Nets and knows he’ll have to hire a smart general manager to handle the day-to-day business. The job requires heaving lifting. The Nets are in a complete rebuild without many assets.

The disastrous trade with the Celtics will haunt this franchise for a decade. Boston owns the Nets’ first-round pick in 2016 and 2018 and has the option to swap first-round picks in 2017. The Nets will have to start rebuilding through free agency and if we know one thing about Calipari it’s that he can recruit his designer suit off.

Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski digs into exactly what it might cost to get Calipari to Brooklyn, which surely will not come cheap if he’s right:

For the $123.2 million in luxury tax that Prokhorov has paid out, he’ll be toasted on the verandas and yachts of rival owners who’ve bathed in his wayward excesses. They pocketed his millions, pilfered his picks and beat the Nets senseless.

Prokhorov has drained his franchise’s natural resources – unloading seven first-round and 11 second-round picks in the five-plus years of deposed general manager Billy King’s regime. The Nets have no present, no future, no identity. They’re too impatient to hire an accomplished NBA GM and slowly, surely work themselves out of this ditch.

As much as anything, that’s why Nets CEO Brett Yormark is determined to repackage John Calipari as a franchise savior. The Nets couldn’t get star players to sell tickets and TV ratings, so he wants to try a star college coach. Again.

Yormark is pushing Prokhorov to reach back to the Nets’ Jersey roots, dust off a failed ’90s experiment and sell it as something sparkling and new. Twenty years ago, the Nets stunned everyone with a five-year, $15 million contract for the UMass coach. For Calipari to consider the Nets – and, yes, the Sacramento Kings, too – league sources tell Yahoo Sports that the teams have been informed of his asking price: 10 years, $120 million.

When Calipari spoke with minority ownership in Sacramento last spring, he told them that it would take an offer of $11 million-plus a year to get his attention, league sources said. Calipari turned down a 10-year, $80 million-plus offer with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2014, because he wouldn’t leave Kentucky with only an incremental raise on what is now an $8 million to $9 million annual package on campus.

Cleveland’s offer has become a baseline for Calipari’s contractual demands: He wants the 10 years and now the $12 million a year that Phil Jackson makes to run the Knicks.

Calipari’s sell will be this: As his old Kentucky stars – DeMarcus Cousins (2018), John Wall (2019) – become free agents, he’ll have the Nets positioned to sign them. His former players have largely kept excellent relationships with him, but there are those close to them who say that most of his ex-stars remain reluctant to committing to 82 games a year of Cal’s abrasive style. It wore out players fast in the 1990s in New Jersey, and Calipari would need to bring a different disposition to the NBA and prove that he’s willing to treat NBA players like men, not teenagers.

Around Calipari, there are some who prefer him to take the Kings job, because there’s more of an infrastructure in place. Brooklyn has been left in shambles, with immense limitations on reshaping the roster. Nevertheless, New York is New York, and Calipari has never stopped thinking about redeeming himself in the pros. His enshrinement into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in September makes it even easier to justify the years of NBA losing that will likely prelude a turnaround, because he no longer needs to keep shining that résumé for Springfield.

For Calipari, the perfect scenario will be engaging the Kings and Nets in a bidding war. In that instance, Prokhorov could be hard to beat. So now, there promises to be two parallel searches for the Brooklyn Nets’ next GM and coach: one that includes traditional candidates; and one that is the dance with Calipari. There were cringes within the Nets over the PR ramifications, but ownership plans to use King as a consultant on the search process.

Between now and the end of the college basketball season, Calipari will issue his typical denials on a return to the NBA, but talks will be ongoing and the leveraging intense. Calipari has always wanted back in the NBA, and the Nets give him a chance for everything he wants: the money, the power, the geography.

***

No. 2: LeBron survives pregame plunk, lifts Cavaliers — LeBron James took a ball to the face during his pregame warm up routine before Sunday’s game against Philadelphia. He got the last laugh, though, finishing with a season-high tying 37 points and saving his best for the finish in the Cavaliers’ win. Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com explains:

Perhaps the signs were there during pregame warmups, as an errant pass plunked James in the face, leading to chuckles on social media.

The Cavaliers just didn’t look like themselves, far from the East’s best.

There were a few different chances to stretch the lead and turn the outcome into a laugher, just as they had done during the first two stops of the current six-game road trip.

But the plucky 76ers kept fighting.

In the NBA, though, fight and determination only take a team so far. Oftentimes having a four-time MVP, a player capable of single-handedly taking control, can erase an otherwise frustrating night.

That’s what James did, putting on a show for the near-sellout crowd in Philadelphia.

With the Cavs’ clinging to a two-point lead, 81-79, Cavs head coach David Blatt put his star back in the game.

James, who has traded the new-school “dab” celebration and his familiar “Silencer” for the mid-90’s “Raise the Roof,” lifted his team to victory before heading to Texas for a tough three-game stretch.

A 22-foot jumper ignited a 14-0 run, pushing the Cavaliers’ lead to a game-high 16 points past the midway point of the final period. James scored 12 of the 14 points during that stretch and did it in a variety of ways. There were pull-up jumpers, three-points bombs and circus layups.

James finished with 37 points, tying his season-high total, on 15-of-22 from the field. He also added nine assists, seven rebounds and two steals in 37 minutes. As James was scorching, the rest of his teammates were struggling, showing frustration on a cold shooting night.

James could sense it and took it upon himself to change it.

“I was able to get enough of a break to get a little energy,” James said after the game. “I understand when I go back into the game I have to make plays. They needed me to put the ball in the hole tonight, especially in the fourth quarter.”

***

No. 3: Warriors stealing glances at all-time record — The Golden State Warriors can’t help themselves. Even with the San Antonio Spurs hot on their trail and plenty of potential roadblocks between them and history, they refuse to be intimidated by the thought of chasing a 73-win season. They remain on pace to top the 72-win mark set by Michael Jordan and the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls. With a win over the Miami Heat tonight they’d be halfway there, writes Carl Steward of the Bay Area News Group:

With so many team and individual milestones to keep track of, it was easy to overlook that the Warriors’ 35th victory of the season put them halfway to 70 wins after just 37 games.

Another victory against the Miami Heat on Monday night at Oracle Arena will put them halfway to 72, the NBA regular-season record established by Chicago Bulls in 1995-96.

So is it OK to start talking about chasing the record yet? After all, the Warriors need to go “only” 38-7 the rest of the way to finish 73-9 and break the mark.

After Game 37 a year ago, the Warriors were 31-6, and they went 36-9 from there. That’s not far off from 38-7, so if nothing else, they are making it more plausible with each victory.

The Warriors will begrudgingly talk about the record if asked. But they still don’t really like thinking about it and won’t for a while.

“People ask us after games what it feels like to be whatever our record is at that point, and you get reminded where we are,” Stephen Curry said after the Warriors beat the Sacramento Kings on Saturday night. “But when we’re out there on the floor, we’re not playing like if we lose, we’ll be off the pace. There’s no pressure when we’re out there, so that’s a good feeling.”

The pressure is certain to mount if the Warriors continue to stay ahead of the Bulls’ pace, but that will be difficult in itself. Michael Jordan and Co. were 34-3 after 37 games and would win seven in a row from there to go 41-3 before their fourth loss. They did not lose in the entire month of January that season, going 14-0.

The Warriors would rather not know the specifics.

“We understand what the big goal is, but in the moment, we just try to play well and do what we do, and hopefully that means we’ll get wins,” said Curry. “You hope to bottle up those emotions as you go through the season, because you can’t fast-forward to April and think about if we’re going to be within striking distance of the record or whatever.

“We want to be healthy and we want to be playing well, and if we have an opportunity at the end of the season to go get it, we should go get it, because that’s a huge record most people thought could never be broken. So we’ll talk about that when we get closer. But for now, let’s stay in the moment and play free, play our game and have fun doing it.”

***

No. 4: Lillard backs up his words with actions in win over Thunder — A day after declaring his intentions for the franchise and the city of Portland, Damian Lillard backed up his words with decisive and explosive actions to lead the Trail Blazers past Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder. It was a vintage performance from one of the league’s most dynamic players. It also reinforced Lillard’s message, his vow to carry the team and city on his back, if need be, as they scratch and claw their way back to respectability. It was “Lillard Time” when it mattered most against the Thunder, writes Mike Richman of the Oregonian:

You have seen “Lillard Time” before. But not quite like this.

Damian Lillard scored 17 of his 31 points in the final 3:07 of the game, connecting on five three-pointers to power the Trail Blazers to a 115-110 comeback victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder Sunday night at the Moda Center.

“That was quite a performance by Dame in those two minutes,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “We were battling the whole game and he came up big. I mean, he hit five threes in two minutes. You don’t see that very often.”

While Lillard was spectacular, dropping long-range step backs with defenders right in his face and adding a familiar tap of his wrist in the process, the Blazers pulled out the win on the defensive end.

Lillard hit back-to-back threes to cut a seven-point Thunder lead to 107-104 with 2:11 left. After Thunder big man Steven Adams split two free throws, Allen Crabbe got in on the long range assault, hitting a three-pointer from the wing to cut the lead to one.

Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook pushed the lead back to three with two free throws, only to have Lillard tie the game at 110-all with a deep three-pointer right over the outstretched arm of Westbrook.

The Blazers defense backed up Lillard’s firepower. Al-Farouq Aminu came away with a key steal, tipping a pass from Thunder big man Serge Ibaka that led to a transition opportunity for the Blazers. Lillard, who had already made four three-pointers in the quarter, didn’t wait long to get another shot up, quickly hoisting a three-pointer from the right wing to put Portland up 113-110 with just over a minute remaining.

“It’s like that sometimes. When you see the ball go in a few times and then the team is defending you the way we defended and you just keep getting it back,” Lillard said. “You get a stop and you keep getting the ball back. I just wanted to ride it out and I was able to do it tonight.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: John Wall is doing his best to strike a balance while grinding through an injury-riddled season for the Washington Wizards … Spurs veteran David West had a special rooting interest in the Army All-American bowl over the weekend in San Antonio … Tired Jazz whip brutal Lakers, who worked without Kobe Bryant for the seventh time this seasonLuke Walton has fond memories of playing in Sacramento, dating all the way back to his high school days … The Detroit Pistons are eyeballing a top four spot in the Eastern Conference standings and all that comes with itZach Randolph and the Grizzlies keep it grimy and rolling at home

Morning shootaround — Dec. 20


VIDEO: The Fast Break — Dec. 19

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Bulls’ ‘transition’ game in crisis | Welcome back, Kyrie | Tweaking the Trail Blazers | Taking Celtics from solid to super

No. 1: Bulls’ ‘transition’ game in crisisJimmy Butler‘s criticism Saturday night in New York of new head coach Fred Hoiberg‘s work style seemingly peeled back the curtain on an issue that is costing the Chicago Bulls chemistry and ultimately victories. If, as Butler alleges, Hoiberg hasn’t been tough enough on the Bulls in practices or on game nights, the responsibility for that falls … everywhere in the organization. Certainly it’s on Hoiberg to do whatever it takes, even if riding herd on grown men isn’t what earned him this job via his success in college at Iowa State. It’s on the Bulls players, who have been less than professional in their preparation and focus on multiple nights, whether they’ve won or lost. And it’s on management – chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, VP of basketball John Paxson and Gar Forman – for giving the locker room the license to drift sideways last season during the Cold War with since-fired Tom Thibodeau, and still sees the team saddled with some of the bad habits that produced. Nick Friedell of ESPNChicago.com analyzed the team’s plight overnight:

First and foremost, it’s not every day that an NBA player calls out his head coach so publicly. Former Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau was a taskmaster, and the relationship between his players, including Butler, frayed last season before he was fired at the end of the season. But despite all the friction, no player ever called out Thibodeau publicly. They couldn’t stand him at times because of his domineering ways, but they always respected him because of his work ethic. Twenty-five games into Hoiberg’s tenure, he has to face the reality that his best player just called him out on a public stage.

While it has been clear to many around the team that the Bulls are struggling to adjust to Hoiberg’s style after five years under Thibodeau, that storyline, at least in the short term, will ride shotgun next to this one: How will Butler’s comments be received within the organization?

It’s possible that Butler might face some disciplinary action for calling out his coach in the media. But it’s also possible that Butler was speaking not just for himself, but for other teammates who also feel that Hoiberg’s style isn’t working for them. Either way, the foundation for Butler’s future as the face and voice of the Bulls will either be cemented or crushed by his comments on Saturday. They might serve as a turning point for a player who desperately wants to be seen as the focal point of the organization — a final vocal push to get out from underneath Derrick Rose’s long shadow.

Or, Butler’s comments may become the beginning of the end for a talented player who bit off more than he can chew within the organization. To say that Hoiberg has the full support of the front office would be an understatement. Bulls general manager Gar Forman and executive VP John Paxson have supported Hoiberg both publicly and privately at every turn. He signed a five-year, $25 million contract six months ago and is entrenched as the coach for the future.

But that’s where this saga gets tricky for the Bulls. Butler was supposed to be the future king of the roster, the player they would build around, after signing a five-year extension worth over $90 million in July. Along with Hoiberg, Butler was supposed to be at the forefront of everything the Bulls did. Now, those questions will be left under a microscope for the rest of the basketball world to see.

So with Monday’s game against Brooklyn looming before a couple days of practice and the Christmas date at Oklahoma City, the Bulls and their fans are waiting for the next shoe to drop like…

***

No. 2: Welcome Back, Kyrie! — As excited as NBA fans are for the Christmas Day slate of games, with Cleveland at Golden State as the holiday’s centerpiece, they ought to be at least a little jazzed about the Philadelphia at Cleveland matinee today. OK, the Sixers will be responsible for 50 percent of the basketball offered up at Quicken Loans Arena, but the game marks the 2015-16 debut of Cavaliers All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving. Back finally from his recovery from knee surgery, which ended his playoffs in June in Game 1 of the Finals, Irving hardly could be more eager. “I’m pretty [expletive] excited to be back out there,” he told reporters Saturday. Our man Shaun Powell wrote about Irving’s comeback challenge and so did Jason Lloyd, the Cavs beat man for Ohio.com:

It has been a long time coming.

He fractured his kneecap in Game 1 of June’s NBA Finals after fighting knee problems throughout the postseason. The Cavs and Irving remained cautious and conservative during his rehab. He was finally cleared for full practices a couple of weeks ago and he kept building for this moment.

It has been clear for about a week Irving would make his debut against the 76ers. Realistically it’s an easier opponent to begin against since they’re the worst team in the league and it will serve as a way for Irving to ease back into competitive basketball. He’ll be on a minutes restriction to start, but doesn’t anticipate problems falling back in rhythm with his old teammates.

“There is no specific reason on why now,” he said. “Just wanted to take the doctor’s precautions as well as our team’s precautions. Obviously, as a competitor, you want to get out there. But for me, I let go of all my selfish, inside emotions and just put them aside and did what was best for my body and did what was best for the team.”

The Cavs went 17-7 in Irving’s absence and remain atop the East despite not having a full roster for any game this season. They ended the Oklahoma City Thunder’s six-game winning streak Thursday night despite missing Irving, Mo Williams and Iman Shumpert.

That just reiterated to Irving a team that finds ways to win regardless of who is on the floor.

“There’ll be an adjustment period, but knocking the rust off is something I’m looking forward to,” Irving said. “It’s not like I’m coming in and just trying to take 15 to 20 shots right after I come off injury. It’s just trying to gel back in and continue to play the right way. My basketball knowledge, I’m pretty confident in coming in and not trying to overdo it in any single way and just be aggressive.”

***

No. 3:Tweaking the Trail Blazers — There was some player-on-coach criticism in Portland, too, though it didn’t rise nearly to the level of Butler’s comments about Bulls boss Hoiberg. Big man Mason Plumlee had made a plea after Friday’s loss in Orlando for the team to add variety to its 3-point-heavy attack. So by Saturday, Blazers coach Terry Stotts was responding to Plumlee’s remarks and the player was rephrasing some of the things he said or meant, as reported by Jason Quick of CSNNW.com:

After Saturday’s practice in Miami, Plumlee clarified that he wasn’t taking a shot at Blazers coach Terry Stotts and his offensive system, but rather pointing out the Blazers have to do more than just shoot threes.

“We have guys who are really shooting the three well, but you can’t live and die by the shot,’’ Plumlee said in Miami. “We have to add to it. I’m not being critical. Guys like Dame, CJ and A.C. do that very well, and we have to complement that in some way.’’

When the notion of broadening the offense was later brought up to Stotts, it was apparent the coach had heard Plumlee’s suggestion.

“Is that Mason’s interview?’’ Stotts interjected before the question was finished.

When told it was, Stotts had an answer ready.

“I’m open to expanding the offense, but the truth is we’ve been in the top 10 most of the year in offense, and offense has not necessarily been a problem,’’ Stotts said. “We are in the top 10 in 3-point field goal percentage … that’s a strength of ours. Our passing, moving and cutting has been good, so my biggest concern … obviously I’m always concerned about both ends of the court … but my biggest concern is where we are defensively and how we improve defensively.’’

Plumlee’s answer in Orlando was generated from a question asking whether the Blazers have figured out their identity. He noted on Saturday that his answer Friday suggested the Blazers could make defense one of their traits.

“I guess when I was saying that, I’m thinking offensively and defensively,’’ Plumlee said. “We got our butts kicked in the paint last game and it puts pressure on those guys to be perfect from three-point range. You can’t do that.’’

Plumlee also noted that he could help the Blazers in forging a more well-rounded offensive identity by becoming more consistent inside. He pointed to his last two offensive games –- 4-for-14 at Oklahoma City and 2-for-6 at Orlando – as evidence.

“As a big guy, you should be around 50 percent,’’ Plumlee said. “So, speaking to myself, I’ve got to convert better, because I’ve had opportunities. Just finishing plays and getting more second shots. Getting offensive rebounds. But we have to find some kind of presence other than three’s … I guess that’s what I’m saying.’’

***

No. 4:Taking Celtics from solid to super — The rebuild in Boston has gone well, fairly smoothly and relatively quickly. The Celtics are admired for the energy and teamwork they bring on most nights, and coach Brad Stevens already is considered one of the league’s best despite his modest tenure. But good doesn’t stay good for long, not in an NBA market so accustomed to great. Writing for SBNation.com, Paul Flannery looked at the challenges facing Boston as it tries to take the next, ambitious step:

When they play well together they can beat anyone in the league and when they don’t, they can get “exposed,” to use Stevens’ word from the Atlanta loss. One can look at their net ratings and other exotic measures and say that they’ve underachieved a bit, but it’s hard to look at their roster and reach the same conclusion.

The Celtics have a lot of solid players, but with the exception of [Isaiah] Thomas, they lack the kind of scorers who can take over games. Thomas has been great this season, but he’s the only one who is truly capable of creating his own shot in their halfcourt offense and his size limitations are an issue when teams switch taller defenders on him in the closing moments.

That’s not to say they have a bunch of scrubs. Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder are both having wonderful seasons, arguably the best of their respective careers. Every team in the league would love to have them on their side. Evan Turner has become a valuable and trusted reserve. Amir Johnson has been everything they hoped when they signed him in free agency and Jared Sullinger has put his career back on track. Marcus Smart was playing well before a knee injury kept him out of the lineup and Kelly Olynyk has had a breakthrough year defensively. (Seriously, he’s been very good on that end of the floor.)

That’s a solid team most nights, and Stevens has consistently said that he’s happy with the team’s progress. He hinted on Saturday that a lineup change may be coming and one possibility would be limiting David Lee’s minutes in favor of Jonas Jerebko and playing more smallball. Lee is the only regular with a negative net rating and the C’s have been more than five points better when he’s off the floor.

But that’s tinkering on the margins. If the Celtics are going to move beyond this stage then Danny Ainge will have to make a move. There’s been speculation for months — years even — about Kings center DeMarcus Cousins, but that seems unlikely at this juncture. There has never been universal agreement in the team’s front office that Cousins is the player to go all in for and it’s not even certain that Cousins would be available at all.

A knockdown shooter would definitely help matters, considering their woeful 33 percent mark from behind the arc, but there aren’t many of them available right now. Denver’s Danilo Gallinari, for example, can’t be traded until February. Not that the Nuggets have shown any interest in moving him either. The NBA’s version of parity has produced a number of interesting side effects and one of them is the notion that with more teams competing for playoff spots, there are fewer sellers than usual.

As it stands, the Celtics’ best chance to land a game-changing player is in this summer’s draft where they own Brooklyn’s pick without protection as the latest installment of the KG/Paul Pierce heist. In addition to their own choice, they also have Dallas’ first round selection (top-7 protected) and Minnesota’s first rounder if it falls out of the top 12 picks (doubtful, but not out of the realm of possibility). They’ve also got a bunch of second rounders with protections too numerous and complex to list here. Suffice to say, they’ve got a lot of picks coming and more on the way in the future from Brooklyn and Memphis.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Look out, rest of the NBA! LeBron James has a new obsession and all you can do while he pursue it is to line up and stand idly by: he’s working on his free throws. … No one needs to worry about the L.A. Clippers, according to point guard Chris Paul, except maybe the Clippers and their fans. … Kevin Durant, an unabashed Kobe Bryant fan, had a whole new batch of raves about the Lakers guard after their dinner together Friday night in OKC. … Trevor Ariza was just a local kid when he met Bryant, who eventually would become a teammate and rival, and he lauds the Lakers’ retiring star as well. … The Miami Heat have taken strides this season but aren’t quite ready to say “kumbiya!” … John Wall had to play a whole bunch of minutes to get Washington past Charlotte, but if the Wizards aren’t careful, Wall might join their long list of injured players.

Morning Shootaround — Sept. 28


VIDEO: James Harden and the Houston Rockets are ready to roar after a banner 2014-15 season

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Lillard ready to take control in Portland | Kupchak reiterates support for Byron Scott | Melo ready for end to long summer in New York | Grizzlies doubling down on grit and grind

No. 1: Lillard ready to take control in Portland — The leadership mantle in Portland is now Damian Lillard‘s and Lillard’s alone, as he enters his first training camp with the Trail Blazers without LaMarcus Aldridge, Wes Matthews and Nicolas Batum around to help shoulder the load. In preparation for his new role, Lillard made sure everyone understood that he was not only willing to take control and lead the way but ready to do so. Jason Quick of the Oregonian has the story …

One by one across the country, their phones lit up and vibrated, a text message arriving to members of the Portland Trail Blazers with an idea that could change their upcoming season.

For some, like Meyers Leonard in Portland, the number with the 510 area code was already programmed into his phone. Others, like rookie Pat Connaughton in Boston, were perplexed until they opened the message.

“Yo Pat, it’s Dame. We are going to San Diego to get the team together and to get ready for the season …”

The texts were from Damian Lillard, the lone starter remaining from a popular and successful Blazers team that disintegrated amid a summer of free agency and trades. Now, as the undisputed star of the team, Lillard was wading into his first wave of leadership.

It was August, and he wanted to get the young and unproven roster together before players started reporting to Portland in September. After some collaboration with teammates CJ McCollum and Leonard, Lillard settled on San Diego.

Soon, 11 Blazers – some complete strangers to each other– were booking flights and hotel reservations.

A Blazers player had never, in the franchise’s 45 years, attempted an off-season team-building event of this magnitude. Then again, this summer marked one of the biggest transitions in team’s history, a swift and purposeful dismantling of a talented squad in favor of a rebuild with cheaper and younger players.

Success this season won’t be judged wholey on wins and losses, but rather player development and growth. Among the more visible and tangible storylines is how and what kind of leader Lillard will be, and how much his influence could improve the team.

It’s why his August text could determine the course of this season.

***

No. 2: Kupchak reiterates support for Byron Scott — Byron Scott doesn’t have to look over his shoulder this season in Los Angeles. He has the full support of the front office, so says his boss, Mitch Kupchak. The general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers reiterated his support for Scott on the eve of what should be one of the most interesting training camps in recent memory for the franchise. Mark Medina of the LA Daily News has more …

For a franchise that usually evaluates itself on wins and losses, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak has shifted his expectations.

Though Lakers coach Byron Scott oversaw the team going 21-61 last season in what marked the franchise’s worst record in its 67-year-old history, Kupchak has not wavered in his support for Scott. Kupchak remained mindful of the Lakers missing an NBA-record 324 games because of injuries and a roster filled with unproven talent.

“He has more to work with this year,” Kupchak said of Scott. “I would think he would agree to that. So I’m hoping he’s rewarded with more W’s. I don’t expect him to conduct training camp any differently than he did last year.”

That will begin Tuesday in Honolulu. The Lakers’ nine-day camps will include seven days of practices and two exhibitions. Scott has developed a strong reputation for running conditioning-heavy practices in training camp, the latest one including three two-a-day sessions.

That partly explains Kupchak’s support for Scott, who has three years remaining on his contract. Kupchak praised Scott for the steady flow of Lakers players visiting the practice facility this summer for workouts. Even amid the losses, Kupchak also argued Scott improved the team’s culture.

“Under really tough circumstances, I thought he kept the group together,” Kupchak said of Scott. “They played hard every game and every practice was organized. He was always upbeat. I never sensed a down moment. When he went home at night, it had to hurt. But I thought he did a great job.”

***

No. 3: Melo ready for end to long summer in New York — When your names is tossed around the way Carmelo Anthony‘s has been all offseason, the start of training camp and actual basketball is welcome respite from the drama. Anthony said the drama is in his rear view as he readies himself and his team for camp, writes Daniel Popper of the New York Daily News

Over the past several months, Carmelo Anthony has sent mixed signals – publicly and privately – about his thoughts on the Knicks’ offseason.

Anthony’s concerns stemmed from Phil Jackson missing out on a bonafide star in free agency and drafting a project in 19-year-old Kristaps Porzingis with the fourth overall pick in June. But on Sunday, with Knicks training camp a day away, Anthony voiced support for the organization’s offseason moves.

“I was very excited about what we did this offseason. I liked the moves that we made,” Anthony said at his youth camp in Manhattan. “Was it any of the stars that we wanted to go after and go get? No. But the pieces that we got, I’m really intrigued.”

The Daily News reported in June that Anthony was unhappy with the Knicks’ decision to draft Porzingis, a pick that influenced Lamarcus Aldridge spurning the Knicks for the Spurs.

The Knicks wanted to play Aldridge at center to let Porzingis develop – something Aldridge was vehemently against. And at Team USA training camp in August, Anthony expressed frustration at how the entire situation unfolded, even saying he “threw” his headband when he found out the Knicks wanted Aldridge to change positions.

But now the offseason is in the past, and Anthony’s main concern will be returning from the season-ending knee surgery he underwent in February.

Anthony said Day 1 of training camp Monday will mark the end of a “long summer.”

“It’s been a long time coming,” Anthony said. “Just glad that I can be in the position I’m in right now.”

***

No. 4: Grizzlies doubling down on grit and grind — Small ball? Not in Memphis, where the rugged Grizzlies are holding on tight to their grit and grind roots. The rest of the league is welcome to tinker with smaller lineups and the pace-and-space revolution. When you have Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph anchoring your middle, there is no need to stray. Griz coach Dave Joerger isn’t interested in tinkering with what’s worked in Memphis for years, writes Ronald Tillery of The Commercial Appeal …

Joerger’s mantra this summer has been for the already tough Griz to get “nasty,” doubling down on the grit-and-grind mentality that has made the team a perennial Western Conference contender.

The Griz remain committed to a bruising brand of basketball that’s served them well even as the rest of the NBA has become obsessed with 3-point shooting.

NBA.com recently wrote in a 2015-16 season-preview of the Griz: “They’d rather stay true to themselves and hope to be in position once again to scare the next NBA champion in the playoffs. That champion is unlikely to be Memphis, but the Grizzlies will be scary.”

That assessment might be selling the Grizzlies short. Despite the recurring theme of the need for long-range shooting, the Griz return with more versatility, the same expectation of winning 50-plus games and a place among the elite in the Western Conference.

There will, however, be challenges to work through during camp if the Griz are going to make good on their promise to contend:

1. Sorting out the wing positions: No one would ever accuse the Griz of lacking depth. They are deepest at the wing positions, meaning Joerger has a nice problem in determining who will get the bulk of the minutes at shooting guard and small forward. Tony Allen, Courtney Lee, Jeff Green, Vince Carter and Matt Barnes are veterans with meaningful careers. Last year, Joerger settled on starting the 6-5 Lee at shooting guard and the 6-4 Allen at small forward to start the season.

The coaching staff acknowledged concerns about such a small lineup given small forwards around the league typically stand 6-7 and taller. Green, 6-9, joined the roster around midseason. He played off the bench but was quickly inserted into the starting lineup and then went back to the bench. Green never found his footing and was inconsistent. With Green participating in a full camp, it’s conceivable that he will start at small forward. Joerger prefers the longer, more versatile Green. The question at camp will be who will start at shooting guard. Lee is a 3-point threat. Allen’s disruptive defense and infectious energy clearly make the Grizzlies “nasty.” As for second-year guard Jordan Adams? That’s a different topic.

.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Raptors are ready to take a (minimum deal) gamble on former No. 1 overall pick and native son Anthony Bennett … Year 2 of the (Jason) Kidd experience in Milwaukee comes with great expectationsMarcus Morris is still taking shots at the Phoenix SunsKlay Thompson is already taking full advantage of Steve Nash in his role as the Golden State Warriors’ part-time player development consultantThe Thunder have hired an assistant coach, Royal Ivey, with deep ties to Kevin Durant

ICYMI: The best alley-oops from last season:


VIDEO: 2014-15 Top alley-oops

Report: Afflalo could play in Game 2

NBA.com staff reports

The Portland Trail Blazers had one of the better offenses in the NBA this season, ranking seventh in Offensive Rating and 10th in points per game. In their playoff opener against the Memphis Grizzlies, though, the Blazers managed just 86 points (and a 15-point first quarter) in a 100-86 Game 1 defeat.

Portland has been playing for a few weeks now without its starting shooting guard, Wesley Matthews. And although the Blazers swung a trade deadline-day deal to get Arron Afflalo from the Denver Nuggets, he missed the playoff opener as he recovers from a shoulder injury suffered late in the season vs. the Golden State Warriors.

Good news could be on the horizon for Portland (and its offense) as Afflalo may be able to suit up for Game 2. Jabari Young of CSNNW.com has more:

After enduring one of their most difficult nights on offense, a little help may be on the way for the Trail Blazers.

Arron Afflalo could return to the lineup for Game 2 on Wednesday against the Memphis Grizzlies.

Portland fell 0-1 in the best of seven first round series against Memphis with a 100-86 loss on Sunday night.

When seen afterwards leaving the locker room, Afflalo was asked if he’d be good to go in Game 2, telling CSNNW.com, “Yeah, I’m good.”

Afflalo, who suffered a right shoulder strain earlier this month against the Golden State Warriors, missed the last three games of the regular season while recovering.

Blazers coach Terry Stotts said Afflalo did partake in some shooting drills on Sunday morning, adding that it was good “he’s getting some range in motion.”

Afflalo was listed as doubtful for Game 1, allowing CJ McCollum to replace him in the starting lineup. McCollum struggled in his first career playoff start, scoring only two points on 1-for-8 shooting.

 

The Blazers could certainly use McCollum’s scoring off the bench, as the unit was outscored 33-21 in Game 1. Chris Kaman, Meyers Leonard and Allen Crabbe all finished with seven points each.

Morning shootaround — April 5


VIDEO: Highlights from games played April 4

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Streaking Celtics adopt ‘win now’ approach  | Grizzlies in fight for playoff positioning | Blazers must shore up their D | Dirk gives Shaun Livingston a pass for low blow

No. 1: Celtics make convincing playoff push — They very easily could justify missing the playoffs this season and then cashing in on their growing cache of draft picks, but the rebuilding Celtics have evidently decided to go for it. When Marcus Smart dropped a buzzer-beater Saturday night against the Raptors, it only confirmed as much. Boston entered Sunday with the No. 8 spot in the East, a half-game lead over the Heat, and to hear the players and brass, the playoffs are where this young team belongs. It’s a rather refreshing tone considering how much tanking has dominated the conversation in the NBA this season. Zach Lowe of Grantland did a study on the Celtics during this playoff push and here’s some of what he found out:

“The playoff-chasing Celtics of 2015 are a cute feel-good story — and little more. The rebuild is moving faster than expected, with a surprise run at the no. 8 seed in a dreadful conference, but there is a giant chasm separating this plucky, starless group from what it aspires to be.

“The important thing to remember about us,” coach Brad Stevens said in a sit-down with Grantland last week, “is that we have a long, long way to go.”

It says everything about the difficulty of rebuilding that Boston has absolutely nailed Phase 1 and yet has no clear path to 50 wins. Multiple rival executives described Boston’s trading spree of the last two years as “a masterpiece” in rebuilding. Contract timetables, injuries, and other variables made it impossible for Boston to deal its aging stars at peak sell-high times, and yet Danny Ainge still nabbed great value for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Rajon Rondo. The Celtics have as many as six extra first-round picks1 coming and oodles of cap space, they’ve drafted solid players across the first round, and they just acquired a dynamic young point guard — Isaiah Thomas — on the cheap.

But they have no stars and no clear path to getting one outside a major break in free agency or the trade market. The Celtics have made the leap to mediocrity so fast that they may have no easy way out. They’re still not good, but they’re not bad enough to get an early first-round pick — to get a clear shot at a star, in other words. Even if they lose this season’s slap fight for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot, they will likely pick in the late lottery — a range that looks like their draft ceiling for the next few seasons. “That’s a concern for all 30 teams,” Ainge says of being stuck on the treadmill of mediocrity. “It’s the nature of our league. You definitely need good fortune.”

The Celtics discussed holding off on the Thomas deal to deflate their win total, but decided after some debate that they could lose out — or pay a higher price — if they waited until the summer. “Ideally, he might have been someone you pick up in the summer,” Ainge says. “But someone else might trade for him. You might be in a bidding war. You have to move while the iron is hot.”

***

No. 2: Grizzlies in fight for playoff positioning — The most intriguing April drama in the West is about playoff positioning near the top. The Rockets now hold a half-game lead over the Grizzlies for the No. 2 spot, and why is that so important? Well, the No. 2 team will most likely get the Mavericks and avoid the suddenly-smoking Spurs in the first round. Memphis had successfully fended off all threats for the No. 2 spot until now. And while the race is hardly over, the contest between Memphis and Houston will only intensify, especially with Dwight Howard back in the mix for the Rockets (though on a minutes restriction). Here’s Michael Wallace of ESPN on the Grizzlies, who lost a tough game to the Wizards on Saturday:

“I don’t think it’s the toughest division in our league; it’s the toughest division in all major leagues,” Memphis coach Dave Joerger said. “Year in and year out, it’s ridiculous. So for our guys to get rewarded for their hard work, it would be positive.

“It’s what’s important to you. You hear about San Antonio, right? They don’t care about a division title. They don’t care about seeding. Well, we’re not them.”

While it’s all about the end game for the Spurs, who are going for their second straight championship and sixth in the past 16 years, the Grizzlies are still focused on the intermediate steps toward success. Winning an NBA championship remains the top goal for Memphis, but hanging the franchise’s first division banner in the rafters of the 10-year-old FedEx Forum along the way is a major priority.

The last time every team from an NBA division made the playoffs was in the 2005-06 season, when the Pistons, Pacers, Cavaliers, Bulls and Bucks advanced. That’s never happened in the NFL or Major League Baseball, although it’s occurred in two different divisions in the NHL over the past five seasons.

***

No. 3: Blazers must shore up their D or else — If you’re a Blazers fan you, must be thrilled with the way the team has hung in there in the rugged West despite missing Wesley Matthews and an inconsistent season from Damian Lillard and with LaMarcus Aldridge playing through a thumb that’ll require surgery in the offseason. Portland once again is in position to do damage in the playoffs (ask the Rockets, who are still stinging from Lillard’s series winner last spring), but not if they don’t clean up their biggest issue first: defense. Oregonian writer John Canzano, still stung by the Blazers surrendering 126 to the Clippers last week, discusses:

But on the other hand, Chris Kaman was willing to address the biggest issue that coach Terry Stotts whiffed on — atrocious team defense by the Blazers. The biggest problem for Portland if any of this should come to a Clippers-Blazers playoff series.

Decide for yourself which guy had the worse post-game peformance. I’m not up in the air. Kaman settled it when he said, “We scored 122 points. That’s not stopping anybody. And we didn’t stop them either, they had more points (126) than we did. We got hurt on transition and on threes.” He was only saying what everyone could obviously see at Moda Center.

I like Stotts. I championed his hiring. I banged the drum for his contract extension even before the end of last season. I like where he’s headed with this rig, but if he’s unable to get real about the deficiencies of this team and remains in denial, I’m concerned about the short-term prognosis for a team that has fought to this point.

***

No. 4: Dirk gives Shaun Livingston a pass for low blowDirk Nowitzki is usually a cool customer except when threatened with severe physical pain, as anyone else would (see Chris Kaman last week regarding Chris Paul). So at first, he was taken aback when he was whacked in the private area by Shaun Livingston. But when these things happen, you must take into account the history of the offending party. Livingston doesn’t exactly conjure up memories of flagrant assaults. And so, while Mark Cuban wasn’t in a forgiving mood Saturday, Dirk gave Livingston a pass. Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News has some golden quotes from Dirk:

Livingston, trying to defend Nowitzki in the post, was using his right hand to hand-check Nowitzki in the back. Somehow, his hand got in between Nowitzki’s legs and clearly caught Nowitzki in the groin area.

For the rest of the game, the AAC crowd booed Livingston every time he touched the ball and in the fourth quarter, Livingston and coach Rick Carlisle exchanged words briefly after a foul was called on J.J. Barea against Livingston.

Things escalated after the game when owner Mark Cuban talked to Golden State coach Steve Kerr and Livingston, then assistant coach Alvin Gentry, as they left the court.

Nowitzki had this to say about the play, which was reviewed and ended up with Livingston called for a flagrant foul, penalty one.

“Well, I give him the benefit of the doubt because he’s really not that type of player,” Nowitzki said. “He hasn’t been his entire career. I’m not really sure what he was trying to do there, if he was trying to get to the ball through my legs or anything. But like I said, he’s not a dirty player.

“But I really enjoyed his tight grip he got. I really enjoyed that.”

Nowitzki was laughing as he said that last line.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Paul Millsap’s shoulder injury should be defined a bit better today. The Hawks forward suffered the injury Saturday against the Nets and did not return in that game. … Boston’s Evan Turner has joined exclusive company: One of only 5 Celtics with 3 or more triple doubles in a season … All systems go for Paul George in his return tonight.

Morning shootaround — March 8


Video: Highlights of the games played Saturday, March 7

NEWS OF THE MORNING

LeBron ties club passing mark | Warriors, Clippers resume “friendly” rivalry today | Blazers in recovery mode after Matthews injury | Jazz finally getting more from Exum

No. 1: LeBron ties Cavs passing mark — It’s pretty impressive, when you really think about it: A 6-8 forward has as many assists for the Cavaliers as Mark Price. Such is the essence of LeBron James, whose eight assists in a victory over the Suns pulled him even with Price, the main point guard on those Lenny Wilkens teams that won a lot of games but couldn’t beat Michael Jordan in the postseason. LeBron’s court awareness has always been one of his strengths, and some might say a weakness, like when he passes up a big shot instead of taking it. Anyway, to be tied with Price, one of the best point guards of the last 25 years, is a compliment. Joe Vardon of the Northeast Ohio Media Group breaks it down, and how LeBron played without a headband:

James scored 18 points and eight assists and tied – but didn’t surpass – Mark Price (4,206) for the franchise’s record in career assists, even though James had those extra opportunities in a fourth quarter he was supposed to watch from the bench.

He added six rebounds and shot 6-of-16, with just three points at halftime. A three-pointer at 7:05 game him 10 points for the game, extending his streak of consecutive games in double figures to 626 games – third longest in NBA history.

So if you really want to reach, you could make a (flimsy) argument that James’ streak was saved by the headband. He only had two points before he tore it off.

James buried another three with 2:04 left in the fourth quarter that sealed the win for the Cavs by pushing their lead to 15. But it was a game that should’ve been sealed long ago.

It was the Cavs’ fourth game in five nights. A rugged four-game road trip lies ahead. A time for a light moment was needed. So Blatt was asked early in his postgame conference if he had noticed James ditched the headband.

“I did and I was wondering myself what happened,” David Blatt said. “But I did not venture to ask him because it seemed to be inappropriate at the time. But I hope you guys do, I’m going to read about it. I did notice that, actually. Kind of weird.”

***

No. 2: Warriors, Clippers resume “friendly” rivalry today — The referees, as well as fans, are always on alert when these two teams play. So much bad blood, as well as memorable contests, have happened when the Clippers and Warriors suit up and today shouldn’t be any different. While both teams are virtually set for the playoffs, the intensity should manage to rise anyway. Here’s Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle, who spoke with Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green (Blake Griffin‘s favorite opponents) setting it up…

“It’s going to be a good game,” Bogut said of ABC’s feature game Sunday against the Clippers. “We don’t like each other, and it’s kind of one of those throwback games from back in the day, when there were flagrants and technicals and all of that type of stuff. Hopefully, there isn’t any of that (Sunday), but it usually goes that way at one point of the game.”

Green said: “This is two teams that over the past few years have come into their own and are fighting for something. When you’re fighting for something, (chippy) stuff tends to happen. When you’ve got two talented teams, the more physical team will probably win the game. That’s the way you have to approach it.”

As sexy as the point guard matchup is between Stephen Curry and Chris Paul, games between the Warriors and Clippers — once dormant franchises, now consistently competing for the top spot in the Pacific Division — are almost always decided by the teams’ big men.

The Clippers won last season’s first-round playoff series, when Bogut was sidelined with a broken rib. When he missed the matchup this Christmas, the Clippers’ starting big men beat the Warriors’ starting posts by 11 points and 16 rebounds in a 100-86 victory. When Bogut was in the lineup in the teams’ first meeting this season, the Warriors’ bigs won the night by eight rebounds, by a plus-21 to a minus-31 plus-minus rating and by a 121-104 final score.

***

No. 3: Blazers in recovery mode — One of the trickiest things to do is adjust after a key injury, and do it in the final weeks of the season. For the Blazers, life will be different without Wesley Matthews, gone for the season with a torn Achilles. Matthews was a dogged defender and one of the team’s more reliable 3-point shooters. Coach Terry Stotts will be challenged to make the adjustments and weave Arron Afflalo into the mix quicker than he expected. How will this get done? Mike Richman of the Oregonian offers some clues …

For all the uncertainty surrounding the Trail Blazers in the wake of Wesley Matthews’ season-ending Achilles tear, the situation isn’t wholly uncharted territory for head coach Terry Stotts.

When Stotts was an assistant coach with Dallas during the 2010-11 season, the Mavericks lost a key starter to a season-ending injury and regrouped to win the NBA title.

On Jan. 1 2011, Mavericks starting small forward Caron Butler ruptured his right patellar tendon. He missed the remainder of the season and Dallas’ title run.

“We’re a team of good individual players, but we’re a team first,” coach Rick Carlisle said told reporters in Jan. 2011. “We’ve got to pick up the slack as a group.”

“We will ask other guys to step up,” Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told NBA.com days after Butler’s injury.

Sound familiar?

A similar sentiment has emanated from the Blazers in the last few days following Matthews’ injury.

“We can have multiple guys come in to still help the team play at a high level,” Blazers point guard Damian Lillard told reporters on Thursday night.

Butler was 30 when he was injured. He was two years removed from two All-Star seasons in Washington, but still an important part of the Mavericks veteran group that had serious title hopes.

“He was a starter, a big part of what we were,” Stotts recalled of Butler at the time of his injury on Saturday before the Blazers faced the Timberwolves. “We struggled a little bit, but obviously we won a championship.”

The Mavericks were 25-8 when Butler was injured, but lost seven of their next ten games, including a six-game winless streak.

After the the losing skid, which dropped Dallas to 28-15, the Mavericks found a groove. They won 29 of their final 39 games and earned the third seed in the West playoffs.

Much like the Mavericks of four years ago, the Blazers in 2015 struggled immediately following a major injury. In its first game without Matthews, Portland lost to the worst team in the Western Conference on Saturday night.

Like Portland, the 2011 Mavericks had a veteran solution to fill the injury void.

***

No. 4: Jazz finally getting more from Exum — These are somewhat important days for teams that are either out of the playoffs or headed that way. It’s a good time to take stock in the players on the roster, find out who might stick and who might not, and also get a better read on rookies. That’s what the Jazz are doing, and they’re thrilled to report that Dante Exum is starting to come around. It’s been a mostly lost year for Exum; he was one of the more heralded rookies in the class of 2014 who never managed to get significant playing time or a role in the rotation. At least now, he’s starting to turn the corner and can use the final 20 or so games as a launching pad into next season. Aaron Falk of the Salt Lake Tribune reports about Exum’s defense, which is getting rave reviews …

Before Dante Exum heard his name called and walked across the stage at the Barclays Center on draft night, the Utah Jazz front office had questions.

Would he defend?

Could he defend?

“When we watched Dante’s tape before the draft, one of the questions we all had was ‘Can he defend at all?’ ” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said this week. “Because he didn’t. He just kind of hung out.”

Late in Exum’s rookie year, as he returns to the place where he was picked fifth overall last June, the Aussie point guard has done his best to quell those concerns.

“That’s one of his strengths right now,” Snyder said.

The 19-year-old Exum has had plenty of ups and downs in his first season as a pro. He’s not in any Rookie of the Year discussions. And when you scour most rookie rankings, Exum’s name rarely sneaks into the top 10. Exum is only averaging 4.5 points and 2.3 assists in about 20 minutes per game.

“It’s not like he’s putting up great numbers statistically,” Philadelphia coach Brett Brown said. “But he’s solid. You can see he’s moving in the right direction. … I think with his length, you watch him over the years, he’s going to be something special.”

And there’s a reason the teenager has started 19 straight games for the Jazz, with his 20th likely a matchup against Brooklyn’s Deron Williams on Sunday evening.

“Dante is trying to contribute any way he can,” Snyder said. “He’s figured it out. He knows right now [defense is] something I can do that’s going to get me on the court and is going to help my team.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Tyler Johnson, diamond in the rough, is strong again for the Heat, helping Miami to a comeback win over Sacramento … The Pacers really have more wins than anyone since Feb. 1? … Gary Neal is starting to come through for the Timberwolves …

Morning shootaround — March 6


VIDEO: Highlights for games play March 5

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Blazers lose Matthews for season | Parker taking “baby steps” | What about JaVale? | Hawks meet Cavs tonight in battle of East’s best

No. 1: Blazers lose Matthews for season — The Portland Trail Blazers got a big win at home last night on TNT, beating another Western Conference playoff team, the Dallas Mavericks, 94-75. But the bigger story for the Blazers was the loss of starting shooting guard Wesley Matthews, who went down in the third quarter with a non-contact injury to his left leg. The Blazers eventually announced that Matthews had suffered a torn achilles and he would miss the rest of the season. Matthews had started every game this season for the Blazers, and was averaging 16.2 ppg. For a team with championship aspirations, the loss of Matthews will be tough to overcome, writes Jason Quick in the Oregonian

The injury is officially a ruptured Achilles, but to the Portland Trail Blazers, it was a breaking of their heart. To the people of Oregon a punch to the gut.

How important is Wesley Matthews to the Trail Blazers?

Owner Paul Allen, moments after Matthews was carried off the court, went back to the locker room to check on him. I’ve watched Greg Oden‘s knee explode. Watched Brandon Roy hobble off the court. And seen Rudy Fernandez carted out, immobilized on a stretcher.

And never have I seen Allen move from his courtside seat.

Matthews is that type of player.

He doesn’t just make three-pointers with the best of them. He makes this team.

He has an unbelievably positive attitude. Sometimes, I believe, he wills the Blazers out of slumps with his sheer belief that the Blazers are the best team in the West.

He holds teammates accountable, willing to call them out if he sees an effort, or an attitude, not meet his standards.

And he sets an admirable example with his tireless and determined work ethic. I’ve seen some great, hard-working professionals put on a Blazers uniform – Scottie Pippen, Joel Przybilla and Roy among them – and none of them outwork Matthews.

Few throughout the years have been as banged up as Matthews. He once played the last half of the season on an ankle the size of a grapefruit, waiting until after the season to have surgery. His elbow has been battered. His side has been bruised. And this season, he famously hyperextended his knee – elicting gasps from the Moda Center crowd – only to return later in the game, bringing a chuckle to coach Terry Stotts on the sideline.

Wesley Matthews is, quite frankly, the heart and soul of the Blazers.

And now, it no longer beats. Out for the rest of the season.

***

No. 2: Parker taking “baby steps” — One season ago, San Antonio’s Tony Parker finished sixth in MVP voting. This season, he’s struggled with injuries and, even after returning, hasn’t been able to consistently play the way he did last season. Now back and healthy, with the playoffs looming, Parker hopes the worst is behind him, writes Dan McCarney in the San Antonio Express-News

It was the type of move that has been seen only rarely from Tony Parker in his star-crossed 14th NBA season, a lightning quick crossover that left his defender grasping at air followed by an aggressive drive to the basket resulting in two free throws.

Coming against Sacramento’s Andre Miller, who will turn 39 in two weeks, Parker wasn’t about to gloat. After looking more than a little aged himself during his recent slump, how could he? No, he was pleased simply for a glimpse of his old self with 19 points in Wednesday’s victory over the Kings.

“I’m not going to take credit (for crossing Miller up),” he joked at practice on Thursday. “I’m just happy I shot 50 percent (8 for 14). Baby steps. Baby steps.”

And perspective. Two solid games, sandwiched around one dreadful performance, does not constitute a turnaround for Parker, just as the Spurs cannot be declared as having recaptured their championship mojo with a three-game win streak that includes two victories over the lowly Kings.

But unlike his 19-point outing at Sacramento last Friday, in which he scored 11 points in the fourth to inflate his production, Parker was steady pretty much throughout Wednesday’s rematch before the game got out of hand in the second half. Less important than the numbers was the manner in which they were produced, with Parker using the blend of mid-range shooting and around-the-rim accuracy that made him a six-time All-Star.

“(Coach Gregg Popovich) was joking, saying ‘I don’t remember the last time you shot a tear drop’ and I said, ‘You’re right,’” said Parker, who hit two of his trademark floaters in the third quarter alone.

“Sometimes you go through those times and you don’t know why you don’t know how to play basketball any more. It happens and so our job is to get back in rhythm, get back the way I was before I got hurt.”

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No. 3: What about JaVale? — One of the better players to become available in the last few weeks was former Nuggets big man JaVale McGee, who was traded at the deadline to the Sixers and then waived on Sunday. Yesterday it appeared for a few hours as though McGee was heading to the Celtics, until that deal fell through. As Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski writes, McGee is apparently looking to land somewhere he can can control his contract next season, while teams that have been interested in McGee have wanted the same option…

McGee visited the Celtics this week and had been inclined to sign there, only to have his agent, B.J. Armstrong, and Celtics general manager Danny Ainge become unable to move past that deal point on Thursday afternoon.

For McGee, the plan is to sign a deal that provides him with a player option on the 2015-16 season – something teams, including Boston, would prefer to be a team option. That way, if McGee plays well, teams won’t be so vulnerable to lose him this summer.

McGee had courted interest from multiple playoff contenders, including the Golden State Warriors, Dallas Mavericks, Toronto Raptors, San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls, league sources told Yahoo Sports. Toronto general manager Masai Ujiri signed McGee to a $48 million extension in Denver, and remains interested in offering him an opportunity to join the Raptors for a playoff run, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Nevertheless, McGee’s insistence on holding onto his freedom for the 2015-16 season could cause some teams to resist committing to him for the rest of this year and the playoffs.

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No. 4: Hawks meet Cavs tonight in battle of East’s best — The Atlanta Hawks have spent this week celebrating franchise hero Dominique Wilkins, unveiling a statue and reminding everyone of how much he means to the franchise. But now the conversation turns back to the court, as tonight the Hawks host the red-hot Cleveland Cavaliers in what could be an Eastern Conference playoffs finals. And in Atlanta, they don’t mind pointing out that as good as Cleveland has been in the new year, the Hawks still have a healthy lead in the Eastern Conference, as Mark Bradley writes for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The Hawks lead Cleveland, LeBron’s latest team, by 10 1/2 games with 22 to play. But the Cavaliers, to give them their due, have won 20 of 24 and beat Golden State last week and Toronto on Tuesday. Naturally, this has inspired many in the media to proclaim the Cavs the East’s best team — even if the standings don’t reflect anything of the sort.

Any sign of a Cleveland uptick was bound to become an uproar, given that the Cavs have LeBron and the hoops world revolves around him. And I’d also submit that the Hawks, who’ve won five straight after that post-All-Star flop-apalooza against the Raptors, aren’t playing quite as well as when they were winning 35 of 37. But it’s not like they’ve turned tail at the sound of LeBron’s approaching footsteps. This isn’t a team easily cowed.

If the Cavs win Friday, we’ll be treated to six weeks of the The-King-Has-Reclaimed-His-Throne stories. If the Hawks win, we’ll be buffeted with It’s-Only-A-Matter-Of-Time-Before-The-King-Reclaims-His-Throne. Because he’s LeBron, he and his team will always be granted the benefit of every doubt. But I have fewer doubts about these Hawks than I do LeBron’s Cavs. At last check, 48-12 trumps 39-24.

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: After missing 8 free throws against the Rockets on Sunday, LeBron James has adjusted his free throw shooting formGoran Dragic loves the relationship he has with Dwyane Wade in Miami … The Timberwolves made some moves, picking up Justin Hamilton and waiving Glenn Robinson III … The Hawks have signed Jarrell Eddie from the D-League to a 10-day contract …

Morning shootaround — March 2


VIDEO: Highlights from March 2 of all the action around the NBA

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Harden humbles James, Cavs | Another blow for already bruised Bulls | Blazers’ Lillard back in rhythm | Warriors are true believers after Boston comeback

No. 1: Harden humbles James, Cavs — The real “King James” stood up Sunday. And the crown didn’t fit the head of LeBron James, not on this day and not with James Harden and the Houston Rockets prevailing in an overtime thriller that lived up to every second of the billed MVP battle between the superstars at the center of this epic race. Statement game? Absolutely. Harden said so and our very own Fran Blinebury weaves the tale of the rise of the man who would be (the new) king:

Rough. Tough. Physical. Contentious. Dirty.

“Yeah, it’s like street ball,” said James Harden. “You grew up playing games like that.”

If Harden keeps growing up any faster, they’re going to have to raise the rafters of Toyota Center just so he doesn’t go straight through the roof.

He’s scored more points in a game this season than he did Sunday. Grabbed more rebounds. Dished out more assists. Played more artistically.

But never been more ferocious, more driven.

You’re damn right that 105-103 overtime win means more when it comes against LeBron James and the Cavaliers.

As messages go, this one couldn’t have been delivered more emphatically if it had come wrapped around a brick and tossed through a plate glass window or attached to a flaming arrow.

“M-V-P.”

While there may still be a horse race for the award this season, there’s no doubt which thoroughbred is now galloping ahead of the field.

Less than 72 hours after James stated his case by outscoring Golden State’s Stephen Curry 42-18 in a routine win by the Cavs, Harden provided his response.

James scored more points (37 to Harden’s 33), but took far more shots (35 to 18) to get them. Playing without point guard Kyrie Irving, James controlled the ball like a yo-yo on a string and tried to do too much. Playing without center Dwight Howard, as he’s done for much of the season, Harden simply opened his arms wide to embrace all of the things that had to be done.

“Every time you watch [Harden] play, you’re watching history,” Rockets Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon had said a few hours before the tip. “He’s doing something spectacular. Every night the best defensive player on the other team has to guard him and also the game plan of the other team is how to stop him. And he’s still finding a way to be effective and giving them an opportunity to win every time. So he is definitely the MVP.”

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