Posts Tagged ‘Timberwolves’

Comeback Player of the Year: Channing Frye

By Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five contenders

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

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

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

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

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

Morning Shootaround — April 14


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played April 13

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Changes ahead in Minnesota | Dumars leaves conflicting legacy in Detroit | Gasol’s last ride in Lakerland | Pacers back in control of No. 1 | Grizzlies’ magic number is down to one

No. 1: Timberwolves head into offseason with many unanswered questions – It’s no secret. The Minnesota Timberwolves have a ton of work to do when this season ends, namely figuring out how to proceed with All-Star big man Kevin Love, head coach Rick Adelman and point guard Ricky Rubio. The futures of all three men will be in the crosshairs in the coming months, as the Star Tribune lays out … and if you thought things were sticky with Love, they might be even stickier with Rubio:

Three pending contract situations loom large for the Wolves heading into the offseason:

Kevin Love

Why don’t the Wolves just rip up his contract and sign him to a maximum long-term contract extension right now? Well, because they can’t.

Here are their options after they convinced him in January 2012 to sign a four-year contract that gives him an opt-out clause after three seasons and makes him an unrestricted free agent in 2015:
• They can sign him to a two-year extension in January 2015. It would keep him put until 2018, but he has no reason to accept that because he can sign for twice as much if he waits six months.

• When he opts out in July 2015 — a slam dunk, if you will — they can sign him to a five-year extension, one year longer than any other team. They also can give him larger annual raises, so he would be refusing an extra $26.5 million if he signs a four-year deal elsewhere.

Rick Adelman

Either he or the Wolves can choose to opt out of the final season of a four-year contract he signed in September 2011. Both parties say the issue will be addressed after the season ends Wednesday. There’s a two-week window at season’s end for either side to opt out.

If one side doesn’t exercise the opt-out for next season, the other side almost certainly will. Adelman is 67 and his wife, Mary Kay, has had health issues the past two seasons.

There’s a provision for Adelman to continue as a consultant if he doesn’t return to coach next season.

Ricky Rubio

The Wolves can negotiate a contract extension starting July 1 and they will make it a priority during a window that lasts through October. But this one could get complicated.

If former Wolves boss David Kahn insisted Love take a four-year deal so he could save his one five-year maximum “designated player” slot for Rubio, well, the third-year point guard hasn’t played nearly well enough to deserve it, even if he is finishing the season with a flourish.

Look for the Wolves to position themselves offering something less than the four-year, $44 million deal Stephen Curry signed or certainly the four-year, $48 million contract Ty Lawson received.

Both sides want a deal done, but the disparity between what each thinks Rubio is worth could create a situation similar to those involving Utah’s Gordon Hayward, Phoenix’s Eric Bledsoe and Detroit’s Greg Monroe. All three didn’t sign extensions last fall and this summer will test the restricted free-agent market. Their current teams will have the right to match any offer.

***

No. 2: Dumars leaves behind a conflicting legacy in Detroit – For the better part of his adult life Joe Dumars has given his life to the Detroit Pistons. He’s spent thirty years as a player and executive in the Motor City, living through and helping orchestrate some of the franchise’s highest highs while also being there for some of the lowest lows. Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press shines a light on the conflicting legacy the Hall of Famer Dumars will leave when he walks away, but insists that Pistons fans need to focus on the good that he helped facilitate more than anything else:

Dumars, now 50, treated players fairly, honestly and professionally. He kept them informed if they were on the trading block. He had them to his home, mentored the younger ones, shared laughs with the older ones. There’s a reason you’ve almost never heard a traded or cut player bad-mouth Dumars. That should bring applause as well.

True, the man who built the 2004 championship team has had his stumbles. Nobody now thinks Darko Milicic was worth the second pick in the 2003 draft (although plenty did then). And the 2008 trade for Allen Iverson (although partly about money) was a terrible turn. Josh Smith, Brandon Jennings and other recent moves are questionable, but you are limited when you’re a losing team with an impatient owner (more on that in a moment).

Remember, no GM is infallible. Jerry West is considered possibly the best ever. But he left the Lakers (and their L.A. allure) for Memphis, where his first team lost 54 games and his last, five years later, lost 60. The Grizzlies never won a playoff round in his tenure.

Milwaukee’s John Hammond was the NBA’s executive of the year in 2010; this year his Bucks are the worst team in the league. Danny Ainge, hailed as a Boston genius, traded his biggest stars last year; now the Celtics are behind the Pistons.

The job is a roller coaster. The salary cap is insanely frustrating. Dumars has won and lost. But if you think he suddenly lost his keen ability to evaluate talent, you don’t know him or basketball.

***


VIDEO: Joe Dumars is out in Detroit

No. 3: Gasol’s last ride in Lakerland is a somber one – Pau Gasol knows it wasn’t supposed to end like this. His ride with the Los Angeles Lakers included it’s fair share of drama, but it also included two championship parades alongside Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson. It was a glorious time, interrupted lately by drama, injury and losing in ways the Lakers hadn’t seen in … forever. And now comes, Gasol’s walk into free agency this summer, and in the view ESPN‘s J.A. Adande, Gasol’s emotional divorce from a franchise that helped make his career:

He’ll be a free agent this summer, which means this might have been his last home game at Staples Center. It certainly meant he felt the emotional impact. As the game drew to a close he reached toward the seat to his right and tapped teammate Jordan Farmar’s leg to signal that it was time for them to leave. Except Gasol wasn’t really ready to leave. He congratulated his brother, Grizzlies center Marc Gasol, then playfully shoved Marc away so he wouldn’t sweat on Pau’s nice, movie-ticket-taker- burgundy red jacket. He moved on to other players and coaches, stopped to talk to a couple of fans, then chatted with courtside regulars Jimmy Goldstein and Dyan Cannon.

He stopped and signed autographs for fans on the other side of the courtside seats. He leaned in behind a woman who took a selfie with her phone. He entered the tunnel and accommodated more fans who reached through the rails to have him sign programs, hats, tickets and — just when he was ready to cut things off — a fan who dangled a No. 16 Gasol golden Lakers jersey.

Finally he said no mas. 

“I gotta go in,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

He blew the fans a kiss with both hands, bowed and moved on to the Lakers’ locker room.

“I always appreciate the fans,” Gasol said. “You never know. The last couple years when I walked out of this building it’s been emotional. This year it’s been a little bit different because we haven’t been successful as a team, we had a lot of injuries, I haven’t been able to finish the season playing. So I kind of had it more in my mind.

“The last couple of years I didn’t know if I was going to be back. This year with even more reason, because now I’m a free agent. It’s just a way of me appreciating everyone and our fans.”

The fans showed their appreciation, giving him a warm cheer when he was showed on the scoreboard video screen late in the game. Will the Lakers do anything similar — something along the lines of the golden parachute they granted Kobe Bryant? The Kobe contract might actually preclude a Gasol gift by eating up too much salary cap room. Gasol can’t expect to match the $19 million he made this season; he might get about half of that, from what some general managers say. It’s also possible that the Lakers could sign him to a short deal that would give them the possibility of using him as a trade asset next season.

But a multi-year contract would alter any Lakers plans to make a big splash in the 2015 free agent market — or even to bring in the additional pieces the Lakers would need around Bryant and Gasol.

That’s why Sunday was the night for sentiment. Come July 1 it will be all business.

.***

No. 4: Pacers back in charge of No. 1 in the East – For all of the bellyaching that’s gone on in recent weeks and months about the Indiana Pacers and what they haven’t done, here they stand with one game remaining in charge of their own destiny and in prime position to secure that No. 1 seed they’ve been talking about all season. Did we all make too much of their struggles? Or is this just a product of a depressed Eastern Conference? Mike Wells, formerly of the Indianapolis Star and now working for ESPN.com, weighs in:

Patience. Execution. Discipline.

The Pacers didn’t always do those things Sunday afternoon against the Thunder, but they did just enough to move their magic number to clinching home-court advantage throughout the East playoffs to one game with a 102-97 victory. A Heat loss in either of their final two games or a Pacers victory at Orlando on Wednesday will give Indiana the No. 1 seed.

Hard to imagine that after the way the Pacers have played over the past month, huh? “We’re just trying to put together good basketball at this point and hopefully carry momentum into the playoffs, being positive and upbeat about where we are,” David West said.

The talk of being the No. 1 seed has died down from the Pacers after they spent the majority of the season discussing it with anybody who would listen.

Coach Frank Vogel brought it to his team’s attention days before their March 31 game against the San Antonio Spurs.

The Pacers had become too distracted reading their own clips, watching themselves on the highlights and believing stepping on the court would be good enough for them. Success went to their heads, and for a team that got to this point playing with a purpose, that was the worst thing that could happen to them.

Center Roy Hibbert looked around, noticing how teams like the Heat, Thunder and Spurs went about their business. It didn’t take long for him to realize the Pacers didn’t have that same professional approach.

“Most of us have never been in that position before,” West said. “Since I’ve gotten here and most of the guys, with the exception of Evan [Turner], everybody is sort of under-drafted, not drafted or simply passed over. Everybody’s attitude has been with the underdog mind-frame.

“Then you get out front, nobody doubts you because you have a five-game lead and everybody is pumping you up. I don’t think we handled that the best. Only way you can deal with it is to go through it and experience it. That’s what we’ve done.”

Indiana is at its best doing the little things, even if that meant staying silent about its goals: defending the pick-and-roll, talking on defense, moving the ball and having fun playing with each other again.


VIDEO: Indiana’s players talk about their big win over OKC on Sunday

***

No. 5: The Grizzlies’ magic number is down to one for the playoffs – Has it really come down to this, just one more win (in two tries) and the Memphis Grizzlies are in the playoffs for the fourth straight season? Indeed. The Grizzlies miraculous turnaround this season could come full circle with their next win. Ron Tillery of the Commercial Appeal sets the table:

The Griz only need to win one of their two remaining games — either at Phoenix on Monday or against Dallas in FedExForum on Wednesday — and they’ll lock up a fourth straight postseason berth.

“It’s amazing that we’re in this position,” Mike Conley said. “If you would have asked me in November and December, I don’t know. You didn’t know what was going to happen with the year. So we’re happy with where we’re at. We still have a lot of work to do but we’re looking forward to (Monday).”

Memphis moved to a game ahead of Phoenix for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Phoenix needs to beat Memphis to keep alive its postseason hopes. The Griz, though, own the tiebreaker against the Suns in the season series.

“It’s going to be a playoff atmosphere and that’s what you want,” Griz reserve swingman Mike Miller said. “We are real fortunate. I don’t know if the NBA knew it was going to turn out this way. For us to be able to control our own destiny playing two teams we’re chasing is lucky for us and it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Is there a double standard in the Portland locker room for Damian Lillard? … Concerns and excitement abound in Toronto, where the Raptors are chasing the franchise mark for wins in a season on their way to the playoffs for the first time in six years … The season is already over for Kings big man DeMarcus Cousins … Someone in the Nets’ big man rotation will have to sit and wait his turn in the playoffs, and it won’t be Mason Plumlee (if his recent work is any indication)

ICYMI: Steph Curry didn’t get the win but he got everything else he wanted against the Trail Blazers …


VIDEO: Again, the Steph Curry show travels anywhere

Morning Shootaround — April 12


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played April 11

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Heat win the numbers game over the Pacers | Pierce becomes the 18th player to reach 25,000 | Brewer the most unlikely 50-point scorer … ever? | Raptors ready to hang another banner | Clippers to get Crawford back tonight

No. 1: Numbers that matter favor the Heat in Pacers seriesLeBron James made sure the Miami Heat evened their regular season series with the Indiana Pacers, going off for 36 points in the Friday night showdown on NBA TV and making sure there were no doubts heading into the playoffs that the two-time NBA champs are ready for all challengers. But while the Heat own the numbers game over the Pacers, Miami Herald columnist Greg Cote believes there are quite a few assumptions being made about the two teams everyone feels are destined for a playoff rematch in the Eastern Conference finals:

The Heat’s game against the Pacers here Friday night understandably was billed as the battle for No. 1 — for the top conference playoff seeding as the NBA postseason fast approaches. It was supposed to be crucial because it would determine who would have home-court advantage in a deciding Game 7 in these teams’ inevitable Eastern finals rematch.

Nice, neat little story line.

Only one small problem with the premise.

It assumes both teams will advance that far, a presumption that seems mighty flattering right now to one of those teams.

The Pacers look disheveled and done, frustrated and finished. They look lost, their downward spiral continued by a decisive 98-86 Heat victory at the downtown bayside arena, an outcome putting Miami in control of that top seeding.

Here is why the outcome had to be so disheartening for Indiana fans and such a shot of adrenaline for Miami’s chances of a third consecutive championship.

The Pacers were the Pacers again, healthy, rested and supposedly re-energized after their fatigued starters recently were given three consecutive day off.

And the Heat still was not the Heat, not fully, not with Dwyane Wade missing a ninth consecutive game on account of a strained left hamstring.

Yet LeBron James with 36 points led his depleted champions to a resounding triumph that tipped on a 16-0 Miami run to open the second half.

The Heat has too much offensive firepower, even sans Wade, for light-scoring Indiana, which has too little in the way of a counter-punch. Pacers top scorer Paul George has not been anything special most of the second half of this season, and Miami seems to have discovered a weapon to stop Indiana’s Roy Hibbert, the 7-2 behemoth who is a lumbering slug against the rest of the NBA but tends to take a star turn against Miami.

The Heat’s not-so-secret weapon against Hibbert? His name is Udonis Haslem. He held Hibbert to a whispering five points and one rebound Friday. Haslem had fallen out of the rotation this season but seems to be a big factor again as the playoffs loom.

“It’s great to have U.D. back,” James said of Haslem. “He’s the heart and soul of our team.”

Haslem gave up 6 inches and 55 pounds to Hibbert but won the matchup with hustle, with knee burns on wood earned diving after loose balls. Haslem turns 34 in June, right around the time of the NBA Finals. With obvious affection, coach Erik Spoelstra calls him “our old warrior.”

“He set the tone early,” Spoelstra said. “It’s what going on in here, which you can’t teach.”

As he said “here,” Spoelstra tapped his finger on his chest, over his heart.


VIDEO: The Heat’s Chris Bosh talks about the win over the Pacers

***

No. 2: Paul Pierce joins the exclusive 25,000-point club – Not that he needed the boost, but is there any doubt that Paul Pierce will join the Hall of Fame club one day now that he’s scored his pass to the all-exclusive 25,000-point club, becoming just the 18th player in NBA history to reach that mark? It’s a nod to not only his elite scoring ability but also his dedication to the craft and the longevity it takes to reach such heights. Mike Mazzeo of ESPNNewYork.com helps put Pierce’s accomplishment into better perspective:

Pierce became the 18th player in NBA history to score at least 25,000 career points in Friday night’s 93-88 loss to the Atlanta Hawks at Barclays Center.

“I told him, ‘Welcome to the neighborhood,’ ” said teammate Kevin Garnett, who is also a member of the exclusive club.

” ‘Truth’ has been a big part of this league. He’s one of my great friends, best friends. We’ve had some accomplishments together, done some great things together, and tonight it was all about him. I’m happy for him.”

Pierce, Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant are the only four active players in the league to have reached the milestone.

“It’s better to be in the championship club obviously,” Pierce said when told of the comment from Garnett, with whom he won a title with the Boston Celtics in 2008. “Statistical things, they come and go. There’s gonna be players in the future that pass me up, but when you win, that lasts forever. It’s great. I’m gonna enjoy being part of history. It’s just a testament to my hard work and consistency over the years and good health.”

Pierce came into Friday night’s game just five points shy of reaching the mark. He knocked down a 3-pointer with 3:09 remaining in the second quarter to give him 25,001 career points. Pierce had started off 1 of 5 from the field before draining the milestone shot.

“It’s hard not to [think about it],” said Pierce, who finished with 13 points on 5-for-14 shooting. “Everybody’s talking about it. My family’s here, my friends that’s all they’re talking about, and I was the same way when I reached the 20,000-point mark. I remember I couldn’t hit a shot in the first quarter because I was pressing just to get it. I’m just glad it’s over with and I can just focus on the rest of the season.”

Pierce received a nice ovation from the home crowd after his accomplishment was recognized by the public address announcer.

The 36-year-old has averaged 21.3 points per game during his 16-year career. He spent the first 15 seasons with the Celtics, and currently ranks second on the franchise’s all-time scoring list behind John Havlicek.


VIDEO: Paul Pierce joins the 25,000-point club

***

No. 3: Brewer the most unlikely 50-point scorer ever? — Welcome to the 50-point scorer’s club Corey Brewer, we had no idea you’d be joining the party. Since you’ve never scored 30 points in a game in your seven seasons in the league … until Friday night, of course, when you smoked the Houston Rockets for half of a hundred. Brewer also joined the elite list of Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson and Rick Barry as the only players to score 50 points and collect six steals in the same game. The other three guys are either already in or locks for the Hall of Fame. Brewer … is not, as Ryan Feldman of ESPN Stats & Information explains:

Brewer is the sixth player in NBA history to score at least 50 points in a game without having previously scored 30 points in a game.

The lowest previous career high for a player to score 50 points in a game was 26 by Terrence Ross (earlier this season for the Toronto Raptors) and Tony Delk (in 2000-01 for the Phoenix Suns).

Brewer, in his seventh NBA season, is the most experienced player ever to score 50 points without having previously scored 30.

The only other players to score 50 before ever scoring 30 among players with at least two full seasons of NBA experience were Delk (fifth season in 2000-01) and Willie Burton (1994-95 season with the Philadelphia 76ers was his fifth season).

Brewer averaged 9.9 points per game in his career entering Friday, the fifth-lowest career scoring average for a player at the time of scoring 50 points. The lowest was Ross, who averaged 7.4 before scoring 51 back in January.

Brewer now averages 10.0 points per game, the fifth-lowest career scoring average for any 50-point scorer (including every career game for players after they scored 50). The lowest on that list? Walt Wesley (8.5 career points per game), who joined the 50-point club with the Cleveland Cavaliers during the 1970-71 season.

And let’s not forget about a few other notables:

Tracy Murray, who scored 50 for the Washington Wizards in 1997-98, averaged 9.0 points per game for his career.

Phil Smith and Phil Chenier both joined the 50-point club in the 1970s before ever scoring 30 in a game.

Dana Barros had eight 30-point games, all for the 76ers in 1994-95, his only season averaging more than 13.3 points per game. That season, he scored 50 against the Rockets on 21-of-26 shooting.

***

No. 4: Raptors ready to hang another banner with Atlantic Division title wrapped up – No one said it was going to be easy, the Toronto Raptors getting to the top of the heap of the Atlantic Division. After all, the Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks were both projected to finish ahead of them in the race this season. But as the sun rises this morning north of the border, it’s the scrappy Raptors (losers to the Knicks Friday night on their home floor) who have emerged victorious in the chase. Losing your way into winning a division title makes for a rather odd but satisfying celebration, according to Cousin Doug Smith of the Toronto Star:

The lone banner signifying Raptors success will soon have another flying next to it in the Air Canada Centre.

It was an odd celebration — barely a celebration at all — but the Raptors did manage to secure the second Atlantic Division title in franchise history on Friday night.

Coach Dwane Casey was deconstructing a 108-100 loss to the New York Knicks at about the same time the players were bemoaning a lost opportunity and the Atlanta Hawks were providing a helping hand by beating the Brooklyn Nets to hand the division to the Raptors.

So while there were commemorative t-shirts mandated by the league — Atlantic Is Ours, they said — there was hardly a raucous celebration raging in the locker room.

“It sucks that we lost the game, especially with us trying to hold on to the third spot (in the East) but it feels great to win the division,” said DeMar DeRozan. “I don’t think anyone would have picked us to win it, so it is definitely an accomplishment.

“The feel is we are still anxious, we want more, we aren’t satisfied with anything. We still have much basketball to play and have a long road to go.

“We want to take advantage of it, not just get there and say we got there and say we got there when people doubted us. We feel like we can go in there and make some noise.”

***

No. 5: Clippers Crawford set for a Saturday return – The best sixth-man in the business is set for a Saturday return, per Arash Markazi of ESPNLosAngeles.com. And it comes at the perfect time for the Los Angeles Clippers, as they welcome back Jamal Crawford in the lead up to the first round of the Western Conference playoffs:

Los Angeles Clippers guard Jamal Crawford practiced with the team Friday and is expected to play Saturday against the Sacramento Kings.

Crawford has been sidelined the past five games with a strained left calf. It was the same injury that sidelined him for eight of nine games last month.

The Clippers are officially listing Crawford as a “game-time decision” for Saturday but he is expected to play for the first time since March 29.

“I think it’s huge from a chemistry standpoint to get everybody back healthy,” Crawford said. “At that point we’d just be missing Danny [Granger]. Just to get back into rhythm after missing some [time] would be huge. You want to play your best heading into the playoffs.”

Granger, who has missed the past six games with a strained left calf, shot with the team on Friday and is hoping to return for the team’s playoff opener next week.

Coach Doc Rivers last week thought Crawford and Granger would be out until the playoffs started, but with Crawford coming back and Granger on track to return next week, Rivers could have a fully healthy roster for the first time this season just as the playoffs begin.

“I think it’s great,” Rivers said. “I think it’s great for him and the team.”


VIDEO: Corey Brewer goes off for a career-high 51 points

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Pacers have changed their tune now that the No. 1 seed seems to have slipped away …  The Warriors bounce back, bounce Lakers and clinch playoff berth … Pistons forward Charlie Villanueva is facing an uncertain future …  The Atlanta Hawks mourn the death of “Sweet Lou” Hudson …

ICYMI(s) of the Night: Steph Curry goes off again and Big Al Jefferson shreds the competition inside once more …


VIDEO: All of the Lakers found out the hard way what it means to deal with Steph Curry

 


VIDEO: Al Jefferson 32-point, 10-rebound night was routine work for the Bobcats big man

 

Six coaches who did not step up

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Mike Woodson explains why the Knicks are playing better lately

From the end of last season through the start of training camp there were a record 13 changes in front of NBA benches. While that large turnover practically preludes a similar number of axes falling this season, the world is becoming an increasingly impatient place and there are more than a handful of head coaches that could — or maybe should — be in their last month on the job and heading toward the door. Here are a half-dozen veterans who did not take charge this season:

Rick Adelman, Timberwolves — Nobody should question the ‘X-and-O’ credentials of the the veteran coach with 1,027 wins and an offensive mind who’s been able to make wine out of water with virtually every team he’s coached. But not in Minnesota. There have been legitimate extenuating circumstances with Adelman’s wife, Mary Kay, battling an illness, causing his focus and attention to be split. For whatever reason, the Timberwolves have not sunk their teeth into his teaching and become the playoff team that the league has expected for the past several years. With All-Star power forward Kevin Love heading toward free agency in 2015 — and the needy, glamor puss likes of the Lakers and Knicks salivating over him — the Timberwolves can’t afford another season of misfiring. There’s a need for a new voice, new direction and new promise if there’s any hope of keeping Love around for the long term.

Tyrone Corbin, Jazz — It made sense at the time when veteran Jerry Sloan abruptly stepped down after more than two decades of running the show in Utah that ownership would want to try to keep the position in the family. Loyal soldier Corbin was the most logical choice for the job. There was a period of transition when the franchise was supposedly shifting from bottom rung playoff contender to laying the foundation of a youth movement. This was the season when that young lineup of Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter, Alec Burks and Trey Burke was supposed to begin sprouting. That hasn’t happened and it doesn’t seem that Corbin has a solid plan of what he wants to or a firm hand on the tiller. The Jazz rank in the bottom third of the league in offensive rating and 29th of 30 teams on defense. That could have the likes of Hayward looking to bolt as a free agent this summer, putting a dent in the building process. While general manager Dennis Lindsey can continue collecting Draft picks and adding talent, it’s now equally important to have a new leader to guide them.

Mike D’Antoni, Lakers — It is not realistic to think that Phil Jackson or the reincarnation of Red Auerbach could have made anything out of a Lakers roster that has been, for all intents and purposes, without Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash from start to finish. Yet even when Bryant was healthy a year ago, D’Antoni couldn’t find a way to make the Lakers offense a comfortable place where Dwight Howard might have wanted to stay and this season he’s been a nettle in the side of veteran All-Star and tireless professional Pau Gasol. Will a new coach be able to guarantee that a 35-year-old Bryant can recapture the magic next season or that Nash can squeeze even one more ounce out of his 40-year-old body? Hardly. But if only to send the message that to perhaps the most spoiled fan base in NBA history, it’s time for the Lakers to write off the D’Antoni era as a mistake and turn the page.

Larry Drew, Bucks – The real question should be what were the Bucks thinking by hiring Drew in the first place? It’s not like a track record of crash and burns in the first and second round of the playoffs in Atlanta made him a shooting star in the coaching fraternity. It’s not as if he’d carved out a reputation as a guy who had a distinctive, proven system for success or made a mark as a turnaround artist. Many of the Bucks’ problems run up through a front office that can’t seem to make up its mind about where it’s going and perhaps to club owner Herb Kohl‘s desire to sell the franchise that furthers a sense of instability. Larry Sanders seems to have gone off the rails and the raw talent of Giannis Antetokounmpo could be at risk if somebody doesn’t take control soon. And on top of all that, the Bucks are the worst defensive team in the NBA.

Monty Williams, Pelicans – Everybody from the New Orleans front office to his former mentor in San Antonio Gregg Popovich will swear that Williams has impeccable credentials and all the know-how to be as fine a young coach as there is in the NBA. Trouble is, he’s now finished up three seasons in the Big Easy and over the last two, there hasn’t been consistent or significant signs of progress. A team that was supposed to be at least a rising contender for one of the final playoff berths in the West has never been competitive. Sure, Anthony Davis is a fledgling superstar, but that’s based overwhelmingly on his own talent, confidence and experience. Yes, there have been a litany of injuries this season, but Williams has not been able to get the Pelicans to embrace or play with the defensive passion that he says is the foundation of his philosophy. They again rank near the bottom (27th) in the league. While GM Dell Demps has not exactly dealt him a full house, there’s a growing sense that Williams isn’t playing his cards right.

Mike Woodson, Knicks — Let’s face it. Phil Jackson didn’t take his new job as Knicks savior to come in and just make a couple of cosmetic changes. As soon as the horn ends on this dismal, underachieving season, the Zen Master pulls the lever, the trapdoor swings open and Woodson and any trace of 2013-14 vanishes. The truth is Woodson lost any real hold on his team and the locker room a long time ago and is only finishing out the season while owner James Dolan was negotiating to bring Jackson in as “The Fixer.” Are the rumors true about Steve Kerr? Could Jackson roll the dice and give wannabes Patrick Ewing or Scottie Pippen a chance? Jeff Van Gundy? Stan Van Gundy? Who knows? But if Jackson is going to have any chance of convincing Carmelo Anthony to stick around in New York because a new day is coming, he can’t try to sell him on the past.

Time To Step It Up For The Stretch Run


VIDEO: Carmelo Anthony talks about the challenges facing the Knicks

Now that the slam dunking, 3-point shooting and other wretched excess of NBA All-Star weekend is in the rearview mirror, even those of us who aren’t 7-footers can stand on our tip-toes and see the playoffs from here.

There’s jockeying the standings to be done: Races for the No. 1 seeding in both the Eastern and Western Conference, the long-shot hopefuls trying to sneak in at the No. 8 spot and the down-to-the-wire elbowing for home-court advantage in the first round.

While Kobe Bryant continues driving himself to make it back onto the court this season because, well, he’s Kobe Bryant, there are a handful of other players and teams who need to step up their games coming down the homestretch:

Deron Williams — After a slow start a year ago, Williams found his stride and finished strong, averaging 22 points and 10 assists per game in the second half of the season. While the Nets have picked themselves out of the bottom of the garbage heap of the East to climb into the No. 7 spot in the standings thanks to Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett finally starting to come around, the most expensive roster in the league isn’t going anywhere in the playoffs if Williams can’t bounce back again and lead them. Is it the ankles? Is it the lack of confidence that he has mentioned? Or is he simply at the end of the line as an elite level point guard in his ninth season? Williams has scored 20 points just once since Jan. 4 and has only two games of handing out double-digit assists in 2014. He was even challenged to a 1-on-1 duel by coach Jason Kidd at a recent practice to try to light a spark.

Carmelo Anthony — He doesn’t show an interest in defense and, yes, he can turn Knicks games into a circus where he’s in the center ring and everyone else watches him hog the spotlight and the ball. Yet if it weren’t for Anthony carrying the offensive load, New York would be buried deeper in the standings. His PER of 24.61 is the second best of his career. Even at 20-32, the Knicks are within striking range in the East and Anthony is going to have to find a way to lift up his teammates — and save the job of coach Mike Woodson — rather than just outshine them before going into his summer of free agency. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt if J.R. Smith stopped his clown show and got back to playing basketball at least part time.

Timberwolves — The clock is ticking. Not just on another season when the Wolves were supposed become a playoff team that is slipping away. It could — and should — be ticking loudly on the end of Kevin Love in Minnesota. Two more seasons until Mr. Double-Double can fly out of the icy north to a landing some place where they actually do more than just talk about making the playoffs. Healthy again, Love is back to putting up big numbers. Yes, he’s faltered at times down the stretch as the Wolves have lost a ton of close games. But it really is a case of not having a supporting cast around him that has shown much inclination for improvement. That’s you, Ricky Rubio. Reports have said G.M. Flip Saunders is willing to trade anybody on the roster except Love in an attempt to keep him in Minnesota. But as another year comes off the calendar, you have to wonder if it isn’t already too late.

Manu Ginobili — Sidelined since the end of the January with a strained hamstring, the San Antonio firecracker is scheduled to jump back into the lineup this week. He’s not on this list due to underperforming but for how much the Spurs need him back in their lineup to get the fire burning again. Tony Parker got a chance to get a head start on his All-Star break because he has simply looked worn out this season after going all the way to The Finals last June and then playing for the French national team in EuroBasket. Tim Duncan is showing more and more of his age at times and there are rumors that he is thinking of retiring at the end of the season. The Spurs have played miserably against the top contenders in the West — just a single win over a Clippers lineup without Chris Paul. They need Ginobili to come back strong and healthy and durable to be considered real playoff contenders again.

Andre Iguodala — When the Warriors brought him in from Denver, the belief was that he’d upgrade the roster at both ends of the floor. They figured he’d be the slashing, penetrating force of the past, adding another scoring option and helping Stephen Curry distribute the ball and being a solid wing defender. While he’s helped move the ball and been solid on defense, the problem has been a lack of offensive production. He’s scoring just 9.6 points per game, the lowest since his rookie season in Philly. The Warriors don’t need him to challenge Curry or Klay Thompson as a big gun every night, but occasional flashes of firepower will be necessary if the team hopes to climb out of the No. 8 spot in the West and reach the preseason goal of a top four finish. Iguodala has scored 20 points only once since the opening week of the season.

Morning Shootaround — Jan. 18




VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 17

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Kobe’s return | Rondo returns | Durant explodes | Rubio’s thrill is gone | Red-hot Grizzlies

No. 1: Bryant has no intention of sitting out — It doesn’t matter that if his Lakers continue to plummet in the standings. It doesn’t matter if the team might be better off the long run — and for the end of his own career — by getting a high lottery pick and maybe a budding young star. It doesn’t even matter what legend Magic Johnson thinks. Kobe Bryant says he has every intention of returning to the court this season because, well, as he told Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com, he’s Kobe and that’s all he knows:

“The only thing I can afford to consider is getting better, getting stronger,” Bryant said before the Lakers’ 107-104 win over the Boston Celtics on Friday. “I can’t allow myself to think any other way. I can only think about the next step. To do anything else becomes distracting if you allow yourself, if you give yourself wiggle room to not push yourself as hard as you possibly can. To think about sitting out and this, that and the other, your motivation is all wrong. I refuse to think that way.”

Magic Johnson disagreed, as the former Lakers star questioned whether Bryant should come back at all this season in an interview with the Los Angeles Times this week.

“What is he coming back to? He’s not going to be able to stop the pick and roll, all the layups the Lakers are giving up,” Johnson told the newspaper. “He’s been hurt twice, give him the whole year to get healthy.”

In the same interview, Johnson called hiring Mike D’Antoni last season a “wrong decision.”

“Normally I don’t hear it until [the media] brings it up,” D’Antoni said, adding that he has never spoken to Johnson in person since joining the Lakers. “There’s voices everywhere, and it’s a hard job to do no matter what team you’re with. You do the best you can and you feel like every day is a new battle, and everybody has their opinion. There’s a saying about that. … So, that’s the way it is. You go on and do your job.”

Bryant, sidelined since Dec. 17 when he suffered a fracture of the lateral tibial plateau in his left knee during the Lakers’ 96-92 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies, said he will return this season so long as he is medically cleared.
“We’ll see where it’s at in February and see if it’s good to go,” Bryant said, pushing back his return timeline ever so slightly, with D’Antoni having recently said Bryant would be re-evaluated Jan. 27, at the conclusion of the team’s current seven-game trip while the Grammy Awards take over Staples Center.

***

No. 2: Rondo looks and feels good in first game of season — It was his first game in almost a year, but Rajon Rondo showed no ill effects of the surgery to repair his torn right ACL. Even though the Celtics let the Lakers close with an 11-0 run to win the game, the new team captain told A. Sherrod Blakely of CSNNE.com that overall conditioning in his biggest hurdle going forward:

“I felt pretty good,” said Rondo, who didn’t have any significant pain but knows that could change within the next 24 hours. “When I got back in the second quarter I got pretty winded, but that was expected. Other than that, I didn’t feel like I was limited to anything tonight.”

Rondo has reiterated time and time again that his conditioning, more than anything else, remains his biggest hurdle.
For the 19-plus minutes he played, Rondo didn’t appear to show any concern or apprehension on the floor relative to his surgically repaired right knee.

In fact, the biggest issue facing Rondo going forward doesn’t appear to be what he’s doing on the floor.
It has to do with what happens when he’s not on the floor for long stretches of time, something that will inevitably happen as long as he has to play with minute restrictions.

Prior to Rondo’s first game, head coach Brad Stevens said he would be limited to 18-20 minutes per game.
It is unclear how long he will have minute restrictions.
“Coach (Stevens) and I talked about my minutes, how we were going to spread it out, you know, five minutes a quarter,” Rondo said. “I think that’s the best way to do it.”

***

No. 3: Durant takes his game to new heights with 54 points — If there comes a times next May or June when Kevin Durant is raising the MVP award above his head, will this have been the night when he wrestled the trophy out of the grasp of LeBron James? K.D. took on the Splash Brothers Friday night and gave them a dunking with a career-high 54 points on just 28 shots and staked his claim in leading the Thunder past the Warriors. Berry Trammel of The Oklahoman says it was Durant’s best night ever:

“He’s a special talent, a superstar basketball player, an all-time great,” said Golden State coach Mark Jackson.
The game started as a sharpshooting duel between teammates. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, who put the gold in Golden State, seemed to be playing a solitary game of H-O-R-S-E in the first quarter.

But by game’s end, there was no doubt who wore the crown. This was Durant’s finest offensive game as a pro.
Durant made 19 of 28 shots and virtually matched the long-range bombs of Curry and Thompson. The Warrior backcourt duo each nailed two 3-pointers in the first seven minutes and each nailed three treys in the first quarter.
Curry and Thompson finished with a combined 63 points. Curry had 37, making six of 10 3-pointers; Thompson had 26 points, making six of nine deep balls.

But Durant finished five of eight on 3-pointers. His 19 field goals tied a career high. The only two times he’s made more than 16 baskets in a game, he’s gone 19 of 28 overall. Friday against Golden State and Feb. 2012 against Denver, when Durant scored 51 points in a 124-118 Thunder victory.

But this performance was better. That Denver team included Andre Iguodala, one of the NBA’s few defenders capable of giving Durant a rough time, but Iguodala missed that game.

Now a Warrior, Iguodala played 29 1/2 minutes Friday night but was no match for Durant.

“The great players, you can play great defense and he can have numbers,” Jackson said. “It’s just a question of making him work. He hit some tough shots, some incredible shots. Give him credit.”

Durant now is averaging a career high 30.6 points a game this season. He was asked to carry a heavier load when Russell Westbrook underwent another surgery just after Christmas, and Durant has responded. He’s averaged 36.8 points the last five games.

***

No. 4: Rubio says he isn’t having any fun these days playing ballRicky Rubio says a lot of the blame for the Timberwolves disappointing 18-21 start to the season should be placed on his shoulders. The flamboyant point guard admitted to John Krawcyznski of the Associated Press that he just isn’t enjoying playing the game this season:

“I’m going to be honest. I’m not feeling comfortable out there,” Rubio told The Associated Press after a light practice on Thursday. “I’m not being myself and the team is noticing. I just have to be back where I was, be myself. I’m working on that. It’s something that’s missing. It’s tough for me, too.”

Rubio’s shooting numbers have never been great, but harping on that always seemed to be nitpicking for a player who sprinkled magic point guard dust all over the court — slipping passes through a defender’s legs for an open 3-point shot, picking a player’s pocket to start a fast break and seeing windows open before the defenders knew what hit them.

Even when he wasn’t starting his rookie season, the arena would crackle when he stepped to the scorer’s table to check in and his teammates’ eyes would widen in anticipation of a passes that came from impossible angles. It was still there last season when he returned from a torn ACL in December, even though his body took some time to ramp back up to the NBA’s pace of play.

“It’s basketball. I love it,” Rubio said. “But I’m just not having as much fun as it used to be. I know it has to be professional. But I just want to have fun. It’s hard to find it right now.”

***

No. 5: The Grizzlies are finally making their move –Just in case anybody forgot how important Marc Gasol is in Memphis, the All-Star center made a game-saving deflection to clinch a win over the Kings. The Grizzlies are now 3-0 since he returned to the lineup after a knee injury, have won five in a row overall and have crept back above the .500 mark and into the playoff picture in the West. Ron Tillery of the Memphis Commercial-Appeal has the details:

Gasol said later that he got fortunate on a gamble. But nothing about the Grizzlies’ season-high, five-game winning streak could be reduced to a stroke of luck.

The Griz (20-19) moved above .500 for the first time since early December and now they can claim a steadily improving defense. Memphis trailed 86-79 with 5:19 left and allowed Sacramento just one field goal the rest of the game.
Gay’s putback dunk cut the Grizzlies’ lead to a point with 38.9 seconds left. There had been no movement in the score when the Kings received the ball with 15.1 ticks remaining.

The Griz were as disruptive on the final possession as they had been the second half of the fourth quarter. Gay had the ball slapped away twice as he tried to attempt a game-winner from 15 feet. The Kings never got a clean look at the basket down the stretch.

“We’re making the right decisions at the right time,” Conley said after scoring a game-high 25 points. “I told the guys that it’s good to have games like this where you have a little adversity and come back. Those are the ones you learn from the most.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: J.R. Smith shows signs of positive life in Knicks loss … DeAndre Jordan wants to be more than just a dunker Jimmer Freddette could be turning a corner with steady playing time.

Free-Agent Barometer: Boom or Bust

Back in the hot fun of summertime, when there seem to be more dollars available than grains of sand, every free-agent signing is made to feel like a day at the beach.

Now, as we approach halfway mark of the season, it’s time to take the temperature:

GLOWING


VIDEO: Relive Dwight Howard’s signing with the Houston Rockets

Dwight Howard, Rockets — There are times when he is too passive and does not demand the ball enough from all of the inexperienced hands in the Houston lineup. But a healthy, happy Howard has been everything the Rockets hoped for when they forked over $88.5 million to lure him away from the Lakers. There is a bounce to his step and joy to his game that had been missing since the 2008-09 season in Orlando. With him in the middle and playing off James Harden, the Rockets are on track to eventually becoming a championship contender.

Andre Iguodala, Warriors — Don’t try to pigeonhole him or stick on a label as an elite defender or a greyhound that thrives in the transition game. He is simply a wonderful all around player that can do whatever is necessary in any situation. He was the spark that lifted the Nuggets a year ago to a franchise-best 57 wins and he’s moved to Golden State to become a difference-maker for the Warriors. For all of the (deserving) All-Star accolades to Stephen Curry and attention paid to Klay Thompson, Iguodala is the one that makes this fun and entertaining team truly dangerous.

Paul Millsap, Hawks — When it finally came time for the Hawks to cut the cord with Josh Smith, they went for his polar opposite. Not at all flamboyant, never trying to things outside his job description, Millsap comes to work every night and never leaves his team feeling shortchanged. His two-year, $19 million contract might have been the best free-agent bargain of the summer and he’s fit right in perfectly on the frontline in Atlanta. He’s blue-collar ways in the low post and on the boards has been needed even more since Atlanta lost Al Horford for the season.

Al Jefferson, Bobcats — One thing rookie coach Steve Clifford knew was that for the Bobcats to pick themselves up from their semi-permanent residence on the Eastern Conference floor, they needed a low-post presence to get some hard-fought points in the paint. He suffered an ankle injury in training camp and started slow, but once Jefferson got his legs under him, he’s averaged 16.8 points and 10 rebounds. It’s no coincidence that Charlotte (16 wins) is a sure bet to surpass last season’s 21-win campaign.


VIDEO: NBA Action catches up with Mavericks guard Monta Ellis

Monta Ellis, Mavericks — We won’t go as far as Dallas owner Mark Cuban to say that the jury is still out on whether Ellis or Howard is the free-agent catch of the season. After all, we’re pretty sure Cuban would make a 1-for-1 swap right now. As coach of the Warriors years ago, ex-Mavs coach Don Nelson called Ellis selfish. But the once shot-happy Ellis has reined some of his tendencies and found a comfortable home in Dallas. He’s averaging 5.8 apg and his upbeat production is keeping the Mavs alive in the West playoff race.

Kevin Martin, Timberwolves — Every team he’s played on throughout a 10-year NBA career has gotten efficiency and production. He’s one of those players who can give you 20 points a game on a minimum number of shots due to a knack for drawing free throws. There have been many things lacking for Minnesota during another underachieving run, but Martin has come through with the kind of numbers — 19.3 points per game — that were expected.

SUNBURNED


VIDEO: The Beat crew discusses where Andrew Bynum may end up next

Andrew Bynum, CavaliersSigning him to a two-year, $24 million contract (that was only half-guaranteed in Season 1) was supposed to make it a no-brainer for the Cavs. Of course, the no brain place continues to be between Bynum’s ears as he quickly alienated teammates, the coaching staff and the entire organization. He had a pair of 20-point games with 13 and 10 rebounds. But his biggest positive effect was as a payroll-slashing trade chip that eventually brought in Luol Deng.

Josh Smith, Pistons — Don’t let Joe Dumars near your piggy bank. Four years ago, the general manager wasted a Brinks truck full of money to bring in Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva and put the Pistons into a deep hole. This time Dumars dug deeper with his idea that he could give $54 million for four years to Smith and put him into a super-sized front line with Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. Smith has clashed with coach Maurice Cheeks, found himself sitting on the bench at the end of games and still takes bad shots at a high rate. Is anybody surprised?

Chris Kaman, Lakers — The money spent by the Lakers — $3.2 million, one year — could probably have been scraped up out of the sofa cushions in the luxury suites at Staples Center. But no matter how you slice it, the thought that Kaman was going to return to L.A. and help the Lakers in their most trying season was laughable in hindsight. Kaman has never found a way into the rotation, has frequently expressed his displeasure with coach Mike D’Antoni and now spends more time lobbing verbal bombs in frustration than tracking down rebounds or shooting.

IN THE SHADE

Tyreke Evans, Pelicans — With Jrue Holiday out of the lineup indefinitely with a stress fracture in his leg and the team still reportedly trying to trade Eric Gordon, this would be the time when Evans can step up and really shine. He’s been far from a bust and doggedly fought to keep himself in the Pelicans’ lineup despite the fact that he keeps reinsuring a sprained left ankle. But that $44 million, four-year contract raises expectations for more than 12.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game. At this point, the jury is still out.

Humbled Muhammad Wants 2nd Chance


VIDEO: Muhammad’s sterling D-League debut

RENO, Nev. — He’s not the first lottery pick to feel the slap of being told he was getting shipped to the NBA D-League.

But after a few days of self pity, Shabazz Muhammad came to the conclusion that it might be just what he needed.

“It’s giving me a chance to maybe reset and restart where I should have been coming into the NBA,” said the Timberwolves’ rookie after he scored 24 points for the Iowa Energy at the D-League Showcase. “I don’t think I was aggressive enough when I played in summer league. I don’t think I showed enough to the coaches and to the team that I was ready.”

The MVP of the 2012 McDonald’s All-American Game and regarded by many as the top player in his college class, Muhammad was drafted by Minnesota with the 14th pick last June. Following his underwhelming performance in the summer, he was sent home from the league’s rookie orientation. Reports said he had a female guest in his room.

“It was all humbling and it’s not the way I envisioned starting out my NBA career,” Muhammad said. “I know a lot of people have been looking at me because of the high profile that I had in high school.”

He’s managed to get onto the floor in only 11 games for the Wolves, playing an average of just 3.8 minutes.

“On the one hand, you want to stay at the NBA level and hope that things can improve,” Muhammad said. “But after I got the news that they wanted me to come here to the Showcase, and spending some time with the Energy, it set in that getting a chance to run for some real minutes and play in game conditions was the best way for me to get better and to show the coaching staff that I’m committed to improving.”

Muhammad said he tries to ignore the hurtful and sometimes personal criticism that comes from social media.

“It’s easy to take shots at people and I guess it’s easier when it’s a guy like me that has a name that’s been out there for a while,” he said. “I can’t worry about that stuff or let it get to me.

“I believe I can be a productive NBA player. I know I wasn’t fully prepared and didn’t show all of the necessary things coming into this season. But that’s why I’m here now. I’m not gonna pout about being here. The goal is to prove that I can do all of the things the Wolves want and this is all part of that.”

Making A List, Checking It Twice …

We’re making a list, checking it twice. On Christmas Eve, it’s time to remember who’s been naughty or nice in the first two months of the 2013-14 season:

Naughty — Nets — There isn’t enough coal in Newcastle to fill up the deservingly drooping stocking that hangs over a forlorn and underachieving mantle in Brooklyn. Why would anyone think it would make sense to trade for 37-year-old Kevin Garnett, 36-year-old Paul Pierce, 36-year-old Jason Terry as part of $102 million-payroll and put the whole thing in the hands of a guy who had never coached a game in his life? Then Jason Kidd gets extra naughty by intentionally spilling a drink when he doesn’t have a timeout against the Lakers. They have a mediocre offense and the 29th-rated defense. Now they lose Brook Lopez to a broken foot. So it won’t be a Happy New Year either, Billy King.

Nice — LaMarcus Aldridge — From Damian Lillard to Nicolas Batum to Robin Lopez to coach Terry Stotts, there are many contributors to the rousing start to the season by the surprising Trail Blazers with the best record in the league. But no one has done more to elevate his game and his team to the elite level than Aldridge. He labored faithfully through seven seasons with a roster that virtually fell apart around his ears, listened to so much talk of trades and has come back to deliver a magnificent season that has him firmly in the MVP conversation.

Naughty — Knicks — Remember when they used to play basketball in New York? The Manhattan edition of the NBA can’t shoot, doesn’t rebound and Carmelo Anthony is saying the Knicks’ troubles are all in their heads. Would that be the heads of the players and the coach who can’t think to call a timeout in the final seconds to set up a shot? If things don’t turn around fast, Mike Woodson’s going to be the fall guy even though there have been enough injuries to fill an ER and the myth of the Knicks as true playoff contenders entering the season was no more real than a team of flying reindeer pulling a sleigh across the sky.

Nice — Suns — If you went to a Las Vegas sports book during training camp and plopped down a sizable lump of cash on the Suns to beat the over/under prediction of 21.5 wins, you’d probably be only a week or two away from returning to book a penthouse suite with your winnings. First-year coach Jeff Hornacek has his club riding the backcourt pairing of Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic with a rotating cast of other contributors to a 17-10 record and a spot right in the thick of the tough Western Conference playoff race. When the Spurs were in town last week, the entire Phoenix roster had played the same number of NBA games in their careers combined as 37-year-old Tim Duncan.

Naughty — Ricky Rubio — Sure, it’s fun to sit in front of the big screen TV and keep hitting the rewind button on the DVR to replay all of those behind-the-back, no-look, over-the-shoulder, through-the-opponent’s-legs, thread-the-needle, oh-my-gosh, how-did-he-do-that, head-on-a-swivel, slicker-than-a-greased eel passes that get his teammates easy layups and dunks. But come on, two years plus into your NBA career, you’ve got to be able to knock down a wide open jump shot when teams give them to you. Which they do and which you don’t. Which is a big part of the reason why your Timberwolves are healthy and still underperforming.

Nice — Kevin Love — After missing 91 games over the past two seasons to injury, Love’s return to good health and a nightly spot in the lineup has been a sight sweeter than sugar plums dancing in the Timberwolves’ heads. How does a guy who is always a threat to score 30 points and pull down 20 rebounds get better? He becomes a better passer, nearly doubling his assists to 4.2 per game. Outside of The King down in South Beach, there’s just nobody in the league you can count on more every night.

Naughty — Grizzlies — There are more excuses than places to hear the blues in Memphis. But the bottom line is that even before Marc Gasol was sidelined with a knee injury, the Grizzlies were going south. They simply haven’t bought into new coach Dave Joerger, still can’t shoot from the perimeter and Zach Randolph seems to have lost his inspiration. The Grind House was a fun place while it lasted.

Nice — LeBron James — Maybe the only thing that stops him from winning MVP No. 5 — and third in a row — is boredom. Not his. Ours. He’ll never completely win over the entire public the way Michael Jordan did simply because of the times in which we live. The age of social media allows critics to throw stones and pick nits. There has simply never been anyone this big and this strong and this fast and this complete with still such a large part of the meat of his career ahead of him.

Naughty — Westbrook critics — Now that Russell Westbrook has recovered from two surgeries, returned to the Thunder lineup and shown not the slightest loss of his swagger, is there anyone who still thinks Kevin Durant and the OKC franchise would be better off without him?

Nice —Kendrick the Bouncer — It had to bring a smile to the face — if not a tear to the eye — of every old school scrapper who’s ever laced up a pair of sneakers and just gone after it when Kendrick Perkins unceremoniously ran Joakim Noah out of the Thunder locker room. That’s enough of the 21st century touchy-feely, we’re-all-buddies atmosphere that persists these days. Not enough get-outta-my-face growling between rivals. A team’s locker room is its castle and the only thing that could have made it better is if Perk dumped him into a moat.

Naughty — Omer Asik — Let’s see. For two seasons in Chicago you were averaging just 13 minutes per game and getting relative peanuts. The Rockets signed you to a free agent contract that pays $25 million over three years and last season you started all 82 games and averaged a double-double. That’s nice. But then they signed All-Star Dwight Howard in July. He’s much, much better. You’re still getting your $25 million. Didn’t you read the line about you better not pout? So we’re making our list, checking it twice and — ho-ho-ho — you’re definitely on it.

Morning Shootaround — Dec. 23


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Dec. 22

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Sometimes Love isn’t enough | Stephenson spoils Indy return for Stevens | Pistons ride roller coaster | Wade’s Holiday surprise

No. 1: Timberwolves get monster effort from Love and still lose – Kevin Love has been toiling like this now for a while. He puts up monster numbers, epic numbers often, only to see his Minnesota Timberwolves come up short in seemingly winnable games. Sunday night was no different, with Love posting just the fourth 45-points on 65-percent shooting, 15-rebounds and 5-assist game since the NBA/ABA merger and the Timberwolves found a way to fumble away a late lead in regulation and lose to the Los Angeles Clippers in overtime.

It makes you wonder if the Timberwolves are ever going to figure things out with this particular group … Rick Adelman in charge, Love and Ricky Rubio leading the way and Kevin Martin, Nikola Pekovic and others as role players.

Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN.com ponders the thought:

It’s getting harder and harder to believe in Minnesota, even for those among us who were ready to anoint them as this season’s Warriors. It all looked so promising six weeks ago. The Wolves were quickly mastering Adelman’s read-and-react offense from the high post and perimeter, but could also bully opponents down on the block.

The defense wasn’t half-bad either. Through the end of November, the Wolves ranked 9th in defensive efficiency. They didn’t have a legitimate rim protector on the roster, but they had good size, Ricky Rubio’s pressure up top, Corey Brewer’s skills as a stopper on the wing, and a very large man in Pekovic who nobody wants to encounter in the paint.

The December schedule hasn’t been terribly friendly, but the Wolves have been terrible, their big home win over Portland last Wednesday the one strand of hope. The offense looks nothing like anything Adelman has ever presided over. Half-court possessions are labored affairs, slow grinds into post isolations for either Love or Pekovic.

Martin has battled a knee injury for much of the month and hasn’t looked like himself. As a linchpin of the corner offense, Martin is often a bellwether for Adelman offenses, and if he’s not producing, chances are the offense is dragging.

The Wolves’ 3-and-D guy, Brewer, is shooting 17.1 percent from beyond the arc. Meanwhile, defenses willingly slough off Rubio, practically begging him to shoot. With his confidence waning, Rubio is still racking up assists, but is less a playmaker than a reversal machine, swinging the ball to the second side without truly challenging the defense.

Speaking of defense, the Wolves have given up 106.6 points per 100 possession, a mark that would rank 28th in the NBA. Asked to identify the specific problem prior to the game, Adelman said, “We’re not guarding anybody.” Those big bodies now just look slow. Whether it’s Martin or J.J. Barea alongside Rubio, the Wolves don’t get much defensively at the 2. Brewer has conceded that his wayward shot is affecting his defense.

***

No. 2: Stephenson’s triple double trumps homecoming for Stevens – So much for that storybook homecoming for former Butler and now Celtics coach Brad Stevens. The Indiana Pacers, particularly Lance Stephenson, were having no part of the Holiday cheer. Stephenson collected his league-leading third triple-double of the season as the Pacers trounced the Celtics. Not bad for a guy who couldn’t help but dance a little bit (something Pacers coach Frank Vogel could have done without) on his way to yet another stellar performance.

Michael Pointer of the Indianapolis Star explains:

Stephenson finished with 12 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists and looked very much like a player deserving of his first All-Star berth. No other player in the NBA has more than one triple-double this season.

“I’m happy I did it,” he said. “It was in the flow of the game. My teammates helped me out. We played smart. It was easy because I know my teammates are going to knock down shots.”

Stephenson did get plenty of help, most notably from Paul George, who scored 18 of his game-high 24 points in the second half. Danny Granger, playing in his just his second game after returning from a calf strain, was 4-for-5 from 3-point range and had 12 points. Roy Hibbert had 15 points and 12 rebounds.

But his teammates acknowledged afterward that Stephenson provides them an emotional lift like no one else.

“He’s just starting the game off more aggressively,” George said. “In practice, he’s been great. We’ve seen it develop over time. Now, when he gets into the game, it’s second nature to him.”

Added veteran forward David West: “One of the biggest things for young guys in the NBA is that once you work your way into the rotation and you become a guy we rely on, that just fills you up. We give him a lot of room to go out and play his game. … He definitely keeps us on our toes and keeps things light. He’s able to just do something we’ll talk about on the plane. It’s just who he is.”

Vogel wasn’t thrilled with a couple of celebration dances Stephenson did after baskets, but didn’t have much else to complain about.

“He’s such a gifted passer and playmaker for us and a huge part of our team success,” Vogel said.

STEVENS‘The emotions are in coming back and seeing friends’

Stevens, the former Butler coach who left the school in July to join the Celtics, got a warm ovation during pregame warmups and his team kept it close for one quarter.

But after that, the Pacers (22-5) showed why they have the Eastern Conference’s best record. They outscored Boston 50-22 in the paint, got 40 points from their bench and held the Celtics to just 38.1 percent shooting (32-for-84) en route to an easy victory.

As the game ended, Stevens shook hands with Vogel, a rarity at the end of a NBA game. He also shook the hand of several Pacers players.

“It was just because we’re friends and we know each other well,” said Vogel, noting they also shook hands after the Pacers’ 97-82 victory in Boston last month. “I came down and told him he was doing a great job with that team.”

***

No. 3: Pistons’ roller coaster season confounds – If Maurice Cheeks had the answers he’d have pushed those buttons already. But he doesn’t and he hasn’t. And therefore, the curious ride of the Detroit Pistons continues as the coach and his staff try to figure out how to stop the roller coaster ride that is their season and stabilize things. That’s a lot easier said than done, however, as Vincent Goodwill of the Detroit News points out:

The last two home games, losses to the Houston Rockets and Charlotte Bobcats on consecutive nights over the weekend, is a clear example of nobody knowing which team will step on the floor on a given night.

“You know we’re still trying to get better,” Cheeks said. “As I said to our players, there’s going to be some good nights and bad nights. Last night (Friday) and (Saturday) was not our best.”

Cheeks believes the Bobcats loss led to the poor showing against the Rockets. The Pistons blew a 20-point lead to Charlotte on Friday and looking almost apathetic on Saturday.

“I believe there could’ve been some carryover,” Cheeks said. “I can’t discount that because it was a tough loss.”

Losing five of six at home is an unexpected circumstance, although there isn’t much shame in losing to the Miami Heat in a game where the champions were intent on sending a message.

But blowout losses to the Rockets and Minnesota Timberwolves are combined with come-from-ahead losses to the Bobcats and Portland Trail Blazers, mixed in with a win against the Brooklyn Nets that was tougher than it needed to be.

“I don’t know, I don’t know. I guess that’s determined when we go up and down the floor a few times,” said forward Josh Smith, when asked about getting a pulse on the team’s energy before games.

.***

No. 4: Wade surprises Union with Holiday ring – Heat guard Dwyane Wade has no problem mixing business with pleasure. He used Heat boss Pat Riley‘s annual Holiday party as his impromptu engagement party after officially popping the question to longtime girlfriend Gabrielle Union before they arrived at Riley’s affair. The surprise engagement was announced via social media. But Union showing up with a huge diamond ring on her finger added an extra dash of flair to the festivities, upstaging Riley at his own gig in the process, not that anyone was complaining about that. In fact, Wade popping the question was a bit of a team effort, so says Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald:

Wade proposed to Union before the party at his home and then announced the engagement on Twitter and Instagram.

Wade said his children helped him pop the question.

“We asked her to marry all of us, not just me,” Wade said. “It was a package deal.”

Wade and Union have dated since 2007.

“She was ready,” Wade said. “She had the ‘yes’ in her back pocket.”

At the holiday party, Wade then surprised his teammates with green custom-made sports coats commemorating their 2013 championship. The blazers featured the players’ jersey numbers on the sleeves and white Heat logos on the front pockets.

Wade said his inspirations for the unique mementos were the Masters golf tournament and Rasheed Wallace. Wallace famously had pro wrestling-style replica championship belts made for his Pistons teammates for winning the 2004 NBA Finals. Wade liked Wallace’s idea but wanted something a little classier.

Said Wade: “You know me, I’m always trying to do something different and out of the norm, and I started thinking about what have previous champions done … and then it came to be me, because of fashion and because of the Masters and how amazing it is when they win the green jacket and all the previous winners come back and take pictures with the green jackets and how prestigious it is … so I got with my stylist and created this Masters kind of feel.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Thunder fell victim to the red-hot Raptors and the schedule in their first home loss of the season Sunday … Much like their NFL counterparts, the Dallas Mavericks are having no problems scoring. It’s the defense that they are struggling with these days … The Hawks have brought big man Lucas Nogueira to Atlanta for treatment of his ailing knees.

ICYMI Of The Night: Kevin Love put up the stat line of the night and delivered the elbow of the week, but Blake Griffin got the win, the knot on his forehead and the shine on Nightly Notable …


VIDEO: Blake Griffin gets the shiner (on his forehead) and the shine in the end