Posts Tagged ‘Thunder’

Morning shootaround — Jan. 26


VIDEO: Highlights from games played Jan. 25

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Cavs’ biggest improvement has been mental | Might Kobe opt to play and delay surgery? | Horford, Hawks can’t stop, won’t stop … winning | Aldridge puts training camp in jeopardy by playing through pain

No. 1: Cavs’ biggest improvement has been mental — Trade away whoever you want. Tweak the roster however you want. But when you go looking for the real change in the Cleveland Cavaliers since LeBron James returned from who two-week rest hiatus, look no further than between the collective ears of these Cavaliers. So says LeBron, who insists that the greatest gains this group has made recently has been in their collective mentals … so to speak. Sure, LeBron has been on fire, looking more and more like the machine he was in Miami the past four seasons. The rest of the Cavs, though, have taken the necessary mental steps to assume the position as one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. Joe Vardon, of the Northeast Ohio Media Group, has more:

Dan Gilbert didn’t put 20,000 gold t-shirts on the seats at The Q just because.

The Cavaliers and Oklahoma City Thunder didn’t land on the slate of ABC’s first Sunday games this season for laughs.

Though it took place on Jan. 25, three full weeks before the All-Star Game in a regular season that starts before Halloween and goes past Easter, it truly was a big game.

And for once, the Cavaliers prevailed.

“We’ve improved, mentally more than anything,” LeBron James said yesterday, following Cleveland’s 108-98 win over the Thunder.

Remember, James called said once this was a “very fragile” team.

“Big game” is a cliché in sports, certainly on most nights when it’s applied to describe one contest out of 82 in the NBA. But it’s a point worth examining to measure how much James’ team has grown over the last several days.

First, and really it’s the reason this game was announced for ABC’s first Sunday slate back in August, it was a feature of the league’s last two Most Valuable Player winners in James and Kevin Durant — two stars who were picked to lead their teams to, excuse the word, big things this year.

With the Cavs and Thunder playing in opposite conferences, James and Durant only square off twice a year, unless they meet in the Finals as they did in 2012. Basketball fans were robbed of one James-Durant showdown when the Cavs’ superstar sat out with a sore knee on Dec. 11.

Next, and schedulers couldn’t have known this way back when, but Dion Waiters made his return to The Q after getting traded to Oklahoma City on Jan. 5. It’s a side-story, but a juicy one nonetheless.

Third (we’re building toward something here), those gold t-shirts draped over each seat at The Q. The idea, of course, is to make the organization and city look (and sound) good on national TV.

Free, gold Cavs t-shirts are reason to scream a little louder, a little more often. Of course Gilbert picked up the tab.

Add it all together: marquee individual matchup, the whole country watching, intriguing side stories, and nervous energy in the building (more so than on an average night).

The Cavaliers had played in that kind of cauldron of attention exactly twice this season. The first was James’ official return to Cleveland on opening night against the Knicks, which James said was “one of the biggest sporting events ever,” and on Christmas Day in his emotional return to Miami.

James and the Cavaliers failed. Twice.

“In those two games we did, yes, obviously, we did,” Cleveland coach David Blatt said. “I can’t deny that. Hopefully we learned from that.”


VIDEO: The GameTime’s crew discusses the Cavs’ play of late

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Morning shootaround — Jan. 19



VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 18

NEWS OF THE MORNING
KD, Thunder hit reset button | LeBron feeling fresh as ever | Cousins All-Star testimonials | Larry Sanders has every intention of resuming his NBA career | What makes the Hawks work at the top?

 

No. 1: Reset button pushed in Oklahoma City — The first half of this NBA season couldn’t have gone any worse for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Injuries to superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, for starters, derailed the normal plans. But at .500 near the halfway mark of their season and the main characters finally back in regular form, the Thunder have mashed the reset button with one of their toughest stretches of the season ahead. They are prepared as they could be for the gauntlet, writes Michael Wallace of ESPN.com:

By the time the Thunder put the finishing touches on a 127-99 rout of the Magic — after setting a franchise record with 79 points in the first half — the night was long done for the rotation regulars. But the reality is Oklahoma City’s work, essentially, is just beginning.

“Anytime you get a chance to sit out the fourth quarter, it feels good,” Durant said of the festive atmosphere around the Thunder’s bench down the stretch. “It’s good for us and great to see everyone smiling and happy after a win coming into the locker room.”

Durant, who had 21 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists through three quarters, enjoyed the scene from the bench too much to even think about coming back into the game to chase the two additional assists he needed to secure his first triple-double of the season.

But the reigning league MVP didn’t hesitate to make his strongest point of the night before he exited the visitors’ locker room at Amway Arena: “We have to keep fighting.”

The Magic didn’t put up much of a fight from the outset, which allowed the Thunder to cruise in the second half. That certainly won’t be the case over the course of the second half of the season. After posting their most dominant offensive performances in consecutive wins against Golden State and Orlando, the Thunder improved to 20-20 as they hit the midpoint of the schedule Tuesday in Miami.

The next four games on this five-game trip — at the Heat, Wizards, Hawks and Cavaliers — could either propel the Thunder firmly back into the playoff picture for the first time this season or push them into a sizable deficit that might be too steep to overcome in the ultra-competitive West.

Durant and the Thunder don’t need 20-20 vision to see that though a .500 record might be sufficient to garner the sixth seed in the East, it’ll land you in the lottery in the conference in which they compete. It’s why Durant left Sunday’s game delivering fighting words, considering what his squad is facing.

Now that they’ve endured the worst and have broken even, the Thunder seeks to hit the reset button.

Hampered by injuries to Durant (foot, ankle) and Westbrook (hand) that caused the two catalysts to miss a combined 37 games, Oklahoma City has gone from a team that struggled to find seven healthy players for a game to the healthiest the team has been all season.

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Morning shootaround — Jan. 18



VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 17

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Kobe has thought of retirement | Warriors bounce back | Wiggins keeps rolling | Embiid worrying Sixers | Marshall tears ACL

 

No. 1: Retirement has crossed Kobe’s mind — It’s the word that the rest of the world jumped to as soon as he went to the floor back in April 2013 with the torn Achilles’ tendon. It’s the word that he’s been pushing back against over the long, difficult months of recovery. But now with a 32-minute per game restriction and still the pain that comes with trying to be his old self, Kobe Bryant admitted to Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times that early retirement is a long-shot, but still a possibility:

“I’d be lying if I said that it hasn’t crossed my mind,” he tells The Times. “Right now I doubt it … but anything’s possible.”
He emphasizes the right now (because, right now, the reality is so muddled and difficult that even the Black Mamba is having trouble wrapping his mind around it.

“My body is hurting like crazy, around the clock, and if I don’t want to do this anymore, I won’t do it,” he says.

Like an aging pitcher, he has been placed on a count, 32 minutes per game, which basically leaves him on the bench for one crucial stretch per night. Like a fragile relic, he also has been forbidden to play the second night of back-to-back games, which means he will miss at least seven more full games this season even though he’s not injured. There has even been talking of completely shutting him down in March if the Lakers fall completely out of playoff contention, which has essentially already occurred.

The most stunning part of these developments is that a man who has spent his entire 19-year Lakers career fighting to play every minute of every game — he even made two free throws after tearing his Achilles’ tendon, remember — has agreed to every current and potential restriction.
“I know everyone is surprised I’m not fighting all this,” Bryant says quietly. “But I’ve changed.”

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No. 2: Warriors reclaim their identity in Houston — One night after they barely showed up to put up a fight in Oklahoma City, the Warriors exploded for a 38-point guard third quarter in Houston and put James Harden under lock and key in what was supposed to be a showdown between Western Conference powers. As Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle noted, there was only one power on hand Saturday night and it was the league leaders:

Just 24 hours after the Warriors allowed season highs in points, field goals and field-goal percentage at Oklahoma City, they didn’t allow Houston to sniff those numbers.

Friday “night, we weren’t ourselves,” Warriors forward Draymond Green said. “We weren’t focused. We weren’t locked in. It showed in the stats, and it showed in the score.”

With Andrew Bogut and Andre Iguodala back in the rotation, the Warriors returned to the tenacious switching and gritty rim-protecting unit that has topped the league in defensive rating for most of the season. Houston shot just 42 percent from the floor, and the league’s most prolific three-point-shooting team was limited to 7-of-23 from behind the arc.

The Warriors returned to moving with a purpose and unselfishly passing on offense, getting double-digit scoring from five players, collecting 32 assists and shooting 54.9 percent from the floor. Most importantly, they returned to looking like the best team in the league — moving their record to 32-6 while snapping the four-game winning streak of the Rockets.

“We just wanted to get back to our identity,” Klay Thompson said. “It felt good to get back to what we do best.”

Thompson continued his hot streak, scoring 27 points and becoming the first Warriors guard with five blocked shots in a game since Baron Davis in 2007. Curry overcame six straight generally poor quarters to light it up in the second half and finished with 27 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds.

David Lee and Marreese Speights combined for 33 points and 13 rebounds off the bench. The Rockets were led by Howard, who had 23 points and 10 rebounds on a night when Thompson caused fits for James Harden, who managed just 12 points (4-for-15).

Wearing their slate-colored, sleeved jerseys — a Saturday tradition — the Warriors won their fourth straight against Houston — the first time they’ve done that since 2006-07 — and secured a season series road sweep of the Rockets for the first time since 1975-76.

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No. 3: Red-hot Wiggins lights Timberwolves’ fire in Denver — He was feeling a bit under the weather, but that didn’t prevent rookie of the year favorite Andrew Wiggins from continuing on his recent surge. The No. 1 pick in the draft bounced back from a poor shooting night on Friday to lead his Timberwolves to their second win three games in Denver and Jerry Zgoda of the Minneapolis Star Tribune had the details:

This time, they needed veteran guard Mo Williams not for the career-high, franchise-record 52 points he scored in Tuesday’s streak-busting victory at Indiana but for two strategic shots late in a game influenced in many ways by youngsters Andrew Wiggins and Robbie Hummel.

Still ill, but feeling better than he did Friday in a loss at Phoenix, Wiggins scored a career-high 31 points and delivered nine rebounds, four assists, three blocked shots and a steal in a 40-minute that might have left Cleveland Cavaliers fans muttering.

“It’s almost astonishing his confidence level,” Wolves coach Flip Saunders said. “He just keeps continuing to get better and amaze and do everything, whether it’s offense, blocking shots, rebounds.”

Still just 19, Wiggins did that Saturday despite feeling what he called “just sick.”

“I still am a little, but I feel great,” he said. “We got the win, played hard, executed down the stretch. Nothing feels better than that. … We’ve had games on the line this year where we messed up and we didn’t finish it. Those were growing pains. Now we’re learning. I think we’re getting better every day now, every game. We’ve won two of the last three. That’s great for us.”

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No. 4: Embiid’s conditioning, attitude have Sixers worried — Even though he has yet to step onto the court this season as he continues to rehabilitate from foot surgery, Sixers rookie Joel Embiid has made quite a reputation for himself as a fun-loving guy on social media. But the team that made him the No. 3 pick in the 2014 Is now concerned that Embiid is not taking his conditioning and his pro career seriously enough, according to Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Embiid has a weight issue. Although the Sixers wouldn’t disclose his weight, a source said he’s close to 300 pounds after being 250 pounds at Kansas last season.

His work ethic is being questioned by some inside the organization.

And a blowup with assistant strength and conditioning coach James Davis is one of the reasons he was sent home during the team’s recent West Coast road trip.

So, who is Embiid?

“He’s a young, 20-year-old kid who is trying to figure his way into being a professional basketball player and learning life,” Sixers forward Luc Mbah a Moute said.

Mbah a Moute knows more about his fellow Cameroonian than anyone here in the United States. He spotted Embiid at a basketball camp in their homeland several years ago. The 28-year-old has mentored Embiid ever since.

“Obviously, you can see some of his immaturity [in] his tweets sometimes,” Mbah a Moute said. “But you can also understand how mature he is in certain situations the way he handled himself. . . . He’s a good kid, man.

“At the end of the day, it’s tough for him being in a situation where people can’t really see who he is as a person.”

***

No. 5: Bucks lose Marshall for season with torn ACL — The overachieving Bucks, who have already lost rookie Jabari Parker for the season, suffered another setback when it was determined that guard Kendall Marshall has a torn ACL and will be done until 2015-16. Todd Rosiak of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has the report:

For the second time in just over a month, the Milwaukee Bucks have lost a player to a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
Backup point guard Kendall Marshall is the latest, having suffered the season-ending injury to his right knee in the second quarter of the Bucks’ victory over the New York Knicks in London on Thursday. Rookie forward Jabari Parker tore the ACL in his left knee Dec. 15 in Phoenix.

The diagnosis was confirmed Saturday morning after Marshall underwent an MRI, and he said he expects to undergo surgery in two to three weeks after the swelling subsides.

“I didn’t know what it was but I knew it was something serious,” Marshall said Saturday as the Bucks returned to the practice court in preparation for Monday’s game against the Toronto Raptors at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. ” I could feel it buckle, pop and it was a pain that I’d never felt before.

“I hate to see injuries in sports, period. Our bodies are how we make our money; they’re our job, they’re our profession. At the end of the day, though, injuries are a part of our profession as well.

“That’s part of the risk so you have to be understanding of that and understanding of the process and be ready to get back.”

The 6-foot-4 North Carolina product had emerged as the Bucks’ backup point guard, and was averaging 4.2 points and 3.1 assists — second on the team to Brandon Knight’s 5.1 — over 28 games. Marshall also had posted career bests of 45.5% shooting from the floor and 88.9% from the free-throw line while also connecting on 39.1% of his three-pointers.

The timing of Marshall’s injury couldn’t have been worse considering the team waived No. 3 point guard Nate Wolters on Jan. 9 in order to be able to sign forward Kenyon Martin. That leaves Jerryd Bayless as the backup with O.J. Mayo and Giannis Antetokounmpo as other potential ball-handlers.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: With Austin Rivers on board, now the Clippers have their eyes on Tayshaun Prince…Now that he’s back in the lineup, it didn’t take long for Lance Stephenson to get right back to being Lance Stephenson... The Wizards big men show they can deliver too… Stephon Marbury says there was a time when he considered suicideKevin Durant made a dream come true for a young heart transplant patient.

ICYMI of The Night: Stephen Curry’s sick no-look pass demonstrates why he’s one of the best point guards in the game …:

VIDEO: Curry’s assist of the night

Morning shootaround — Jan. 17


VIDEO: Highlights from games played Jan. 16

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Blatt’s curve ball works wonders for Cavaliers | Russ goes wild on Warriors | Raptors are no match for Hawks | Kawhi’s comeback sparks Spurs

No. 1:Blatt’s curve ball works wonders for Cavaliers — Give David Blatt credit for recognizing a crisis and figuring out his own way of handling it, so to speak. All the denials in the world won’t make the Cleveland Cavaliers’ issues go away. The only thing that will quiet the current storm surrounding this team is winning. And the Cavaliers, after a 1-7 slide and six straight losses without LeBron James in the lineup, are suddenly on the other side, winners of two straight games after their Los Angeles sweep. They wrapped it up with Friday’s win over the Clippers. But the best move Blatt made came before Thursday’s win over the Lakers, when the coach threw a curve ball of his own into the mix and changed the tenor of things for all involved. Chris Haynes of the Northeast Ohio Media Group explains:

Blatt has acknowledged that he’s continuing to make adjustments and admitted to having room to grow in his first year as an NBA head coach. Part of coaching is about feel and instincts, gauging what the team needs at that moment in time.

The best call Blatt made to get his team in the proper mindset against the Lakers was tricking his team into thinking they had practice the day before.

“(Bowling) didn’t seem to affect too many people’s jump-shots. This man (J.R. Smith) was throwing a six-pound ball around,” Love revealed. “Those events are fun. We were able to go out there and bowl, eat bad food and enjoy ourselves. It had us loose for the game.”

Loose hasn’t been a word affiliated with the Cavaliers of late; tense, or uptight would probably be better descriptors. There is a lot of pressure placed on this organization — from ownership, to management, on down to the players. It has been a tough road thus far.

Over the past month, the Cavaliers have either played a game off a single-day rest or participated in back-to-backs. It’s been that long since they’ve had two days or more off in between games. It’s good to get away sometimes.

Chemistry off the court is just as important as on the court. Or in a bowling alley.

“I was happy,” Kyrie Irving said after registering 22 points. “One thing that’s never seen on camera and I consistently say it, this is the closest team that I’ve been on. We always have fun whether we’re getting ready for a game or a practice or we go bowling, it’s a team activity that we just personally enjoy.

“We enjoy being around one another and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Obviously there’s things we’ve got to fix out there on the court, but relationship- wise, we couldn’t be any better.”


VIDEO: Kyrie Irving and the Cavs lit up Staples Center two nights in a row

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Reports: Lopez to OKC deal heats up

brook

One-time All-Star center Brook Lopez is averaging 14.6 points and 6.3 rebounds this season (NBAE via Getty Images).

If a rumored three-team NBA trade were to shrink to the more common two-team transaction, it might lose some claim to “blockbuster” designation. But it still could alter conference standings and generate headlines.

At the very least, it could keep social media abuzz. While Tweets a-plenty early Friday noted that the Charlotte Hornets’ involvement in a multi-team trade – center Brook Lopez going from Brooklyn to Oklahoma City, with Lance Stephenson winding up with the Nets – was dead, the Lopez-to-Thunder part remained very much alive as the morning played out.

Either Charlotte didn’t like what it purportedly would have reaped from the alleged three-teamer (guards Jeremy Lamb and Jarrett Jack) or Brooklyn reconsidered the acquisition of Stephenson.

But a deal that lands one-time All-Star Lopez in OKC still was looking probable. As our own John Schuhmann explained, moving Lopez as part of its rebuild while opening opportunities for Mason Plumlee are rock-solid motives for Brooklyn. And the Thunder seem committed to the idea of adding Lopez’s size and offensive game as a formidable third option alongside Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

Rapidly, it appeared that the move was getting down to the details, as reported by Yahoo! SportsAdrian Wojnarowski:

The Thunder and Nets are discussing a larger package for the one-time All-Star center that includes guard Jeremy Lamb and center Kendrick Perkins from the Thunder, league sources said. Young Thunder forward Grant Jerrett has also been discussed as part of the package, sources said. More players need to be included to make the deal fit into the salary framework of a trade.
The Nets have been working to find a third-team to take Perkins and his expiring contract, sources said. The Nets are willing to take a player back owed longer-term money whom they believe can help them.

There had been discussions on Lopez with Charlotte, Denver and the Los Angeles Lakers, but those didn’t gain traction, league sources said.

As for third-team options to slide into Charlotte’s vacated spot, Minnesota seemed interested:

Stay tuned. The Yahoo! report suggests the Nets want Lopez offloaded by the end of the weekend.

Update: The Nets seem to have hit the “snooze” button on whatever alarm clock they had set for this one:

Hang Time Podcast (Episode 184) featuring Vince Goodwill Jr.

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – If you want to know the fastest way to spoil something special in the NBA, just check the chemistry.

No championship team operates without good chemistry. No team harboring championship dreams, even the ones boasting the likes of LeBron James and Kevin Durant (the last two men to earn MVP honors, can overcome bad chemistry.

That would explain the presence of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Oklahoma City Thunder being involved in the three-team trade with the New York Knicks that went down Monday, a somewhat shocking player and asset swap that sent Dion Waiters from the Cavs to the Thunder, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert from the Knicks to the Cavs. The Knicks piled up more Draft picks and cap space that will help them continue the Phil Jackson-led chemistry tweak going on in New York.

They are all chasing the same thing the Detroit Pistons discovered when they waived veteran forward Josh Smith before Christmas and promptly ripped off five straight wins. They are searching for that cosmic mix that Vince Goodwill Jr. of The Detroit News describes on Episode 184 of the Hang Time Podcast.

LISTEN HERE:

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

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


VIDEO: The Detroit Pistons are on a roll right now that no one saw coming

Morning shootaround — Jan. 4


VIDEO: Highlights from games played Jan. 3

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Loss to Rockets have the Heat, Bosh falling in the East standings | Change in ownership looming, Hawks sell themselves on courts | Reality bites the Wolves

No. 1: Loss to Houston has Heat dazed — Funny how the NBA grind goes sometime. The Rockets went into their game with Miami wobbly from a 28-point thumping against  the Pelicans that was so bad, Rockets coach Kevin McHale benched his entire starting five at one point and remarked afterward: “I wish we never played again … we’re falling apart.” Then on Saturday they turned around and beat Miami by 36. The NBA season is weird that way. The other interesting subplot in this game involved Chris Bosh, who weighed a free agent offer from the Rockets last summer before returning to Miami. It was a hectic period for Houston. Essentially, they lost Chandler Parsons in free agency because they were chasing Bosh, who was born and raised in Texas (Dallas). With Bosh, the Rockets envisioned a starting five of Parsons, Bosh, James Harden and Dwight Howard and figured to make a much more serious run in the West. As it was, Bosh took the max offer and stand in South Beach. Well, things worked out well financially for Bosh, but here in Year One without You Know Who, the Heat have lost four straight and are in eighth place in the East, one game ahead of the Pacers for the final playoff spot. Their ninth set of back-to-back games will conclude Sunday against the Nets. Bosh is among those wondering where the next winning streak will come. He could’ve taken less money and won more games in Houston but refuses to re-think his choice. Jenny Dial Creech of The Houston Chronicle has more:

“I wanted to see if I could have that increased role and still be successful and it’s out there in front of me and it’s out there in front of this team so I just have to make sure I do my part and make sure we don’t lose track of whats important, as far as our effort and energy on the court,” Bosh said. “We have to continue to bring it, no matter what happens.”

Bosh’s role has increased and he has been relied on to bring more offense to the Heat. He went from averaging 16.2 points per game last season to 21.4 this season.

With the added offensive responsibilities comes better defense. Bosh said teams play him differently this year and he is trying to use that competition to become a better player in his 12th season.

“That’s all I’m trying to concentrate on, most of the time,” Bosh said. “It’s different every night and I have to read and react very quickly throughout the course of the game and figure things out.”

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No. 2: Change in ownership is coming, and so are Hawks — Well, look who’s in first place in the East all of a sudden. An unexpected season in Atlanta just turned up a notch when the Hawks went to Portland and had their way against the Blazers. They led for much of the night and kept holding off Portland and suddenly you must ask yourself: Are the Hawks for real? It looks that way. Not only are they leading the East, the Hawks have beaten some of the best teams in the West, including the Clippers, Mavericks, Rockets and now Blazers to win 18 of their last 20, including four straight. Paul Millsap scored 27 points and pretty much secured a spot on the All-Star team with another solid night and the Hawks once again used an offensive system built on finding the open man to confuse Portland,which was 18-2 and 9-0 against East teams at home. This comes on the heels of news that current Hawks ownership has agreed to sell 100 percent of the team. This might be the first time the Atlanta Spirit group agreed on anything. Since forming and buying the Hawks, the multi-layered group has clashed on issues. But after seeing the purchase price for the Bucks and Clippers, the owners have agreed to cash out in unison, which will only help hike the purchase price. The identity of the next owner remains to be seen but there is a chance the Hawks could change hands this season. And when that ownership swap happens, only then will the fate of Danny Ferry be decided. That’s the weird part about the Hawks and their first-place status. The guy who built them is in exile after a tumultuous summer, choosing to take a leave of absence. But you have to think Ferry will have an excellent chance to slide back into his office, given how the Hawks have played lately. We should also add that Jeff Teague is averaging 24 points and 8 assists over the last four games. Anyway, while it’s hard to single out one player on the Hawks who’s responsible for what we’re seeing, Millsap is having a strong season here in his walk year. The Hawks would love to extend not only him, but Al Horford, who’s deal has one more season left. Tony Jones of The Tribune has more on Millsap, the former Jazz forward:

The points. The rebounds. The career high numbers in assists and steals. The All-Star recognition of last season and the realization round the NBA that he’s one of the best power forwards in the league. None of it matters much to Paul Millsap. It’s nice and all and yes, he’s opened eyes since leaving the Utah Jazz two summers ago. But Millsap has been and always wants to be known for winning, and this may be his best chance.

As the calendar turns to 2015, Millsap and the Hawks have a common goal: Taking the Eastern Conference.

“We feel like we have a shot,” Millsap said. “We know that last year didn’t end up the way we wanted. We thought we should’ve won that seventh game at Indiana (in the first round of the playoffs). We want to go farther this year.”

Millsap is a walking nightly mismatch. Yes, he’s undersized as a 6-8 power forward. But he now possesses three-point range, and the ability to take bigger guys out with him on the perimeter. He’s never stopped rebounding the ball. Him and Al Horford are difficult to contain on the interior.

“When I first came to the team, my relationship with Paul was just a normal teammate to teammate kind of thing,” said Gordon Hayward. “But once I started playing more, and me and Paul started talking more, I got to know him a lot better. We got a lot closer. I’ve always admired how hard he works.”

Millsap figures to be a hot commodity once July rolls around. And with the way he’s played the last two years, deservedly so.

“I just try to stay in the moment,” Millsap said. “We have a great team, and we have an opportunity to do some special things as a team this season. That’s all I’m focused on right now.”

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No. 3: Reality bites the Wolves after 11th straight loss — You’re tempted to yell “tim-berrrrrrrr” at the Wolves, but that would suggest they’re falling from a high perch. The reality is the Wolves were never high to begin with, and right now this young and injured team is clearly struggling. Not only are they playing a batch of rookies and second-year players, they’re missing three starters and playing in the West. That’s a recipe for what you’re now seeing, nights when the Wolves are barely competitive. For the second time in five days, they lost to the Jazz, and Utah isn’t exactly a powerhouse. All of a sudden, coach Flip Saunders is talking possible lineup changes, but is there really any way to fix the Wolves this season? Eventually they’ll get Ricky Rubio, Nik Pekovic and Kevin Martin hack from injuries, so that’ll help a little. But probably not a lot, not in the deep and very dangerous West. Basically, this season is shaping up to be as expected, with Minnesota playing young players and giving them room and time to grow, while taking it on a chin hard enough to land another high lottery pick next June. It will be considered a successful year if these young players are more consistent by February and March and making fewer mistakes. Until then, there will be more nights like Saturday, when the Wolves, who have only won once since the day after Thanksgiving, giving up 15 rebounds to guys like Trevor Booker and a career high 13 points to guys like Rudy Gobert. Jerry Zgoda of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune explains:

Saunders vowed lineup changes and other corrective measures to help right a listing ship. It’s one that tilted even further toward the horizon Saturday. Saunders lamented his young team’s lack of energy and willingness to compete against a Utah team that, while also undermanned, has won six of nine games.

“Energy comes from within,” Wolves rookie Andrew Wiggins said. “No one can tell you to play hard. You have to want to play hard.”

“They beat us on energy plays and they ripped in and took our hearts away,” Saunders said.

The Wolves also had no answer for Jazz point guard Trey Burke, who shook Friday’s 2-for-19 shooting performance (including 0-for-11 on three pointers) against the Hawks and scored a season-high 28 points.

“He’s be first team all-league if he played against us every time,” Saunders said of Burke. “Maybe I should’ve drafted him based on how he’s played against us and in this arena.”

“Like I told our guys, don’t think it can’t get any worse,” said Saunders. “It definitely can.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Byron Scott wants Kobe Bryant to shoot more, not less … Kobe took a shot at the AAU system, but didn’t KD and CP3 and LeBron go through that very same system? … Knicks still contemplating whether to shelve Carmelo for the year  …

ICYMI OF THE NIGHT: Jazz center Rudy Gobert made one of the best blocks of the season on Shabazz Muhammad…


VIDEO: Block of the night
 

Durant to return to Thunder lineup tonight


VIDEO: Kevin Durant was on fire before going down with a right ankle sprain Dec. 18

UPDATE, 11:41 a.m. ET: Following OKC’s shootaround in Phoenix, coach Scott Brooks has confirmed that Kevin Durant will play tonight against the Suns

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Kevin Durant is expected to finish the 2014 portion of this NBA season in uniform and not in street clothes. The reigning NBA MVP is set to return to the Oklahoma City Thunder lineup tonight for a matchup against the Phoenix Suns (8 p.m. ET, League Pass), according to a report from ESPN.com’s Marc Stein:

The Oklahoma City Thunder intend to bring back star forward Kevin Durant ‎from a six-game absence Wednesday night when they host the Phoenix Suns, according to sources.

Sources told ESP‎N.com that the Thunder have been operating under the premise that Durant would re-enter the lineup against the Suns after the club responded to the Dec. 18 sprain he suffered in his surgically repaired foot by taking it slowly.

Thunder coach Scotty Brooks is expected to formally announce Durant’s return to the starting five after Wednesday’s morning shootaround barring an unforeseen setback. Durant completed his first two full-speed practices since the injury Monday and Tuesday.

‎After Monday’s session, Brooks told local reporters: “He was very lively and active on both ends of the floor. He’s progressing well.”‎

Durant suffered a right ankle sprain Dec. 18, injuring the same foot he had surgically repaired after a Jones fracture was discovered during training camp. Durant missed the first 17 games of the season and has played in just nine of the Thunder’s 32 games this season.

With Russell Westbrook and Durant missing significant time due to injury early this season, the Thunder have struggled to claw their way into the West’s playoff mix. Win or lose against the Suns, the Thunder will finish the calendar year outside of the top eight in the West. At 15-17, they are 10th in the standings and two games out of the No. 8 spot.

 

Morning shootaround — Dec. 29


VIDEO: Check out all the highlights from Sunday’s action

NEWS OF THE MORNING

LeBron blunt assesment of Cavs | Wizards head West for test | Nets have all but given up on Deron Williams | Thunder players talk trust after latest loss

No. 1: LeBron’s blunt assessment of Cavs … it’s not good — The wobbly wheels on the traveling road show that is the Cleveland Cavaliers this season came all the way off Sunday in a loss to lowly Detroit. There’s no way to avoid it anymore. The Cavaliers are simply not playing good basketball these days. Even LeBron James has had to come to grips with that reality. He said so so in his postgame assessment of his team after that loss to the Pistons. Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com provides some context on what pushed the frustrated James over the edge.

After falling down by as many as 27 points en route to a 103-80 blowout loss on Sunday to the Detroit Pistons — a team that came into the game with the fourth-worst record in the league — LeBron James did not sugarcoat the current state of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“We’re not a very good team,” James said after the defeat dropped the Cavs to 18-12. “As far as on the court, we’re still trying to find our way as well. We’ve won some good games, we’ve lost some games. But right now, we’re just not very good in every aspect of the game that we need to be to compete every night.”

t has become a common refrain for James. Following the Cavs’ Christmas Day loss to the Miami Heat, he echoed the sentiment, saying, “We’re not that good right now.” The next day, after a comeback win over the Orlando Magic, James said Cleveland was playing “nowhere near championship ball.”

It was so bad against Detroit that the Cavs were booed off the court by their hometown fans during a third-quarter timeout amid the Pistons outscoring Cleveland 86-52 over the final three quarters. Despite being 11-6 overall at Quicken Loans Arena this season, the Cavs’ past three home losses have all come by 17 points or more — albeit the previous two routs were at the hands of the Toronto Raptors and Atlanta Hawks, the Nos. 1 and 2 teams in the East, respectively.

“I can’t tell you what it was,” Kevin Love said. “We need to play better in front of our home crowd, home fans, and it’s just unacceptable.”

***

No. 2: Wizards  head West for test — The Washington Wizards will find out exactly what they are made of to start the New Year, heading out for a Western Conference road trip that will give them a clear understanding of exactly where they stand in the league pecking order right now. A grueling five-game road trip kicks off tonight in Houston. This could be where the rubber hits the road for a team that has feasted on a favorable early season schedule, writes Jorge Castillo of The Washington Post:

The Wizards have piled up a multitude of those victories this season preying on the NBA’s weaker teams in a remarkably favorable opening third of their schedule. Through 29 games, they have played the second-easiest schedule in the NBA, the fewest road games, just eight Western Conference teams and zero Western Conference teams on the road.

Those statistics will change drastically this week, when the Wizards embark on their toughest trip of the season to face five of the top nine teams in the merciless Western Conference. The trek begins Monday in Houston against the 21-8 Rockets.

“It is a test,” Wizards forward Paul Pierce said following Saturday’s win. “We get a chance to play against some of the upper-echelon Western Conference teams. It will be a great measuring stick about where we are. We know we are an upper-echelon team in the East, but we know if we want to be champions, this is an opportunity with the East being wide open for us to get to the Finals, for us to gauge where we are as an elite team in this league.”

All five teams on deck are at least .500, and Washington has beaten just three teams currently at least .500, including the New Orleans Pelicans, whom they play to conclude the trip Jan. 5. The results suggest the Wizards haven’t been sufficiently tested, but wins against bottom-tier teams count the same, and unlike last season, Washington has rarely faltered against inferior opponents. They are 19-4 when favored.

“You got all 82 of them, and we play them the way they are on the schedule,” Coach Randy Wittman said. “We’d like to change the schedule once in a while, but we can’t. You just approach it, again, one day at a time. There’s always stretches over the course of the year that provides a tough challenge. I think our guys understand that.”

***

No. 3: Nets have all but given up on Deron Williams — So this is how it ends for Deron Williams in Brooklyn, huh? Benched by the Brooklyn Nets? This is now the way the story was supposed to play out for the former All-Star and supposedly elite point guard and franchise player the Nets built their team around. The Nets have all but given up on Williams just two years after making him the face of the franchise, writes Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News:

Considering how this relationship began, the fall of Deron Williams has been a stunning and debilitating change of course for the Nets.

It didn’t seem that long ago that they were eagerly handing him the keys to the franchise, basing each move on whether it would improve their chances of retaining the point guard. It wasn’t a question of whether they should offer Williams the biggest deal in the organization’s history, it was whether he’d sign it.

Williams did, of course, sealing his future on an iPad. It was trumped up as the seminal moment of the move to Brooklyn, a reason to believe the Nets had fully left behind those woebegone days in Jersey. Now they’re trying to get rid of him after just two seasons, reaching a conclusion that Williams comes up way short as a franchise player, even when healthy.

It has reached the point of coach Lionel Hollins putting Williams on the bench, warning Saturday that the 30-year-old needs to play better to earn more than the 20 minutes he logged in the loss to the Pacers.

Imagine that a couple years ago: Williams, the $100 million man, getting benched to clear up time for Jarrett Jack.

“(Hollins) is definitely right, we do need to play better,” Williams said, referencing himself and his high-paid partner on the bench, Brook Lopez. “We’re two of the highest-paid players on the team, so that’s our responsibility to play better.

“Hopefully we can accept that challenge — I think I do, and Brook does.”

***

No. 4  Thunder players talk “trust” after latest loss — Trust issues appear to be the latest topic of discussion in the Oklahoma City Thunder locker room. This comes after their latest loss, to the Dallas Mavericks, and their latest squandering of a chance to reach the .500 mark this season. It’s become a bit of a cycle in Oklahoma City, as Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman writes, these issues the Thunder have to sort out:

Here we go again.

Thunder players are talking about trust.

That, of course, has become the go-to buzzword whenever the ball stops moving, the offense breaks down and Oklahoma City suffers the same type of avoidable loss as it did in its 112-107 defeat at Dallas on Sunday night.

“We just got to do a better job of trusting our sets, actually running our sets with pace, trusting each other and I think we’ll be all right,” said Kendrick Perkins.

They keep saying it.

When will they learn to do it consistently?

“I don’t know. We just got to figure it out,” said Reggie Jackson. “We got to figure something out or we’re going to continue to have disappointing losses.”

The Thunder squandered another chance — its third this season — to climb to .500 after delivering a head-scratching final four minutes and allowing Dallas to snap its two-game winning streak.

In that game-deciding stretch, the Thunder went 2-for-6 and had three turnovers.

“We had some tough breaks at the end of the game,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “We just got to get better. We got to get better. We got to do a better job of executing. We got to do a better job of getting better shots down the stretch.”

Russell Westbrook’s final four minutes were as forgettable as anyone’s.

Westbrook had two of his team’s turnovers over that span and missed both of his shot attempts, including a point-blank layup that would have trimmed Dallas’ lead to one with 1:17 left to play. After his first turnover, Westbrook compounded the giveaway by committing a costly foul 90 feet away from the Mavs’ basket. He delivered it against Dirk Nowitzki, while Dallas was in the bonus.

Nowitzki stepped to the line and swished both shots to break a 102-102 tie with 3:25 remaining.

The Thunder never saw the lead again.

An overly aggressive Westbrook later committed another unnecessary foul on Nowitzki with 1:05 left to play, and Nowitzki again made both shots, this time to put the Mavs ahead by five.

It characterized Westbrook’s night, as his customary hustle and relentlessness allowed him to finish with 18 points, nine rebounds, nine assists and five steals. But his refusal to settle for the smart play resulted in him shooting 6-for-23 from the floor while committing five turnovers.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Carmelo Anthony has a sore kneeKobe Bryant returns to action looking to be more (wait for it) patient … The Minnesota Timberwolves’ Ricky Rubio is weeks away from mounting his own comeback … Everything in Chris Kaman‘s life changes now … Angry Clippers will see a different Utah team tonight in Salt Lake City … It appears that Chris Bosh is ready to return to the Miami Heat? … Charlotte Hornets point guard Kemba Walker speeds up his process by slowing down …

Morning shootaround — Dec. 22


VIDEO: Highlights from games played Dec. 21

NEWS OF THE MORNING

LeBron’s influence rubs off on Waiters | Jordan goes above and beyond for the Clippers | What happens when attack mode goes wrong for Westbrook, Thunder?

No. 1: LeBron rubbing off on Waiters? — A few weeks ago, folks questioning whether or not the Cleveland Cavaliers as presently constituted could reach its full potential this season. How quickly that narrative changes when things go well, and when LeBron James spreads his gospel of playing the right way to the likes of Dion Waiters and others. LeBron’s influence on Waiters, one of the targets of criticism when things go awry in Cleveland, was on full display in a win over the Memphis Grizzlies. Joe Vardon of The Northeast Ohio Media Group has more:

Waiters contributed 13 points in the fourth quarter, doing so one game after he didn’t play a single minute in the second half of a win Friday.

“I mean, he’s learning every day,” James said of Waiters. “He’s a young guy. He hasn’t experienced much in this league. For him to have a game like he did today, we needed it. We needed a spark off the bench. He was aggressive, he was decisive with what he wanted to do, and it was a huge, huge boost for our bench.”

In typical Waiters fashion, when the 23-year-old was approached after the game by reporters, he was several feet from his locker and on his way out of the locker room with the hope that he wouldn’t have to talk after the game.

When James’ prediction about being a scapegoat was brought up to Waiters Sunday, he said: “I don’t remember all that, though. I remember that but I don’t remember that.”

As only Waiters could.

Waiters, the former No. 4 overall pick for Cleveland in his third season, has gotten himself in trouble for wanting to shoot too much off the dribble instead of getting shots within the flow of the offense.

He’s been dinged for not paying attention defensively. He landed in hot water by skipping the national anthem in early November and originally citing his Muslim faith as the reason, then clumsily clarified his reason a few days later.

Sources said that Waiters was unhappy on Dec. 11 in Oklahoma City when Blatt chose to start Matthew Dellavedova in place of the injured James.

In Cleveland’s 95-91 win over Brooklyn Friday night, Waiters scored four points in seven minutes; Blatt left him out in the second half to ride the hot hands of Mike Miller and Shawn Marion.

It’s been a season of adjustments for Waiters, who was moved to the bench in favor of Marion after just three games.

“I was really happy to see what Dion did tonight, and believe me, it had very little to do with the points that he scored,” Cavaliers coach David Blatt said Sunday. “When he’s engaged and when he is playing freely and when he’s not allowing himself to be disturbed by other things, Dion can really play basketball and I thought he did a great job tonight.”

Waiters’ locker at The Q is next to James’ locker.

(more…)