Posts Tagged ‘Tom Thibodeau’

Jeff Hornacek talks Suns’ 48-win season

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: The Suns’ Goran Dragic is a nominee for Kia Most Improved Player

DALLAS – The Phoenix Suns added their name to a very short list of teams to win 48 games and not make the playoffs. Their pleasantly stunning season has sparked increased debate about whether the NBA should look at ditching the conference model and put the 16 teams with the best record into the postseason.

Suns coach Jeff Hornacek vaulted to the top of the Coach of the Year discussion early on and, like his team, never faded. Phoenix was believed to be a team headed for major ping-pong balls come the lottery, a team constructed of journeymen and unproven parts expected to top out at around 25 victories.

The first-time head coach will have competition from Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau, Portland’s Terry Stotts, Charlotte’s Steve Clifford, Toronto’s Dwane Casey and San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich.

“Jeff is an awesome coach,” Suns point guard and team MVP Goran Dragic said. “He was a great player and he understands the game. As a coach, he sees things differently and he is always calm and gives us that extra confidence. He works hard with young players after practice and he gives us the strength to fight the whole season.”

Here’s how Hornacek views his rookie season on the bench:

Q: How did you manage to quickly establish a winning culture in a locker room with high turnover?

A: That’s the one thing going into this season we wanted them to do, just play hard, play together and for the most part they’ve done that. These guys care about each other, they’re a very close-knit team and that gives you an opportunity for success.

Q: How did Gerald Green, NBA.com’s choice as Most Improved Player, find success this season and bouncing in and out of the league?

A: Gerald is a guy who can get his shot off anywhere — and he does (laughs). He’s got great confidence in his shooting. He’s done a much better job of not just settling for the jump shot, but he’ll take it to the basket. If he gets a step and has a chance to jump, you know how good of an athlete he is, he usually gets the ball in the basket. He’s improved in terms of his consistency. It’s not where he’s jacking up 10 3s and making two of them. He realizes that if he’s not making them, he moves in and tries to take a different shot and that’s been big. I think that’s where a lot of his improvement’s come.

Q: It’s been said that you are the perfect coach for him and the system is a perfect fit. Do you agree with that?

A: He’s bought into what we’re trying to do, it kind of fits his style. We don’t mind running up and shooting quick 3s. I think his eyes light up when one of our point guards, Goran or Eric [Bledsoe], sprint down the court and he’s filling a lane. Guys have great confidence in him and they look for him now because they know he can get hot and make six, seven in a row. It’s a big part of what we do and he’s been great this year.

Q: You played for and coached under Hall of Fame Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. What aspects of his coaching style or philosophies did you incorporate into yours?

A: When we went into it I tried to take a little bit from all the coaches. With Jerry, it’s just go out there and try to play every play like it’s your last, that’s what Jerry always stressed and we’re constantly talking about that. We’re an inexperienced team in terms of playing games so those guys are learning on the fly of how to do that night in and night out, and then get to every play. You can’t have three or four plays that, ‘Oh I forgot,’ or ‘I spaced off’ or whatever it is because that’s going to be enough to cost you the game. Jerry was always on that: Play every play like it’s your last and we try to get that from our guys.

Q: Not sure if even you could have predicted the level of success the team had this season. What does it mean for the franchise when 20-something wins seemed to be the ceiling?

A: Well, the whole part of the rebuilding is you’re going to have steps. From a team that was supposed to win maybe 20 games, we thought if we can get to 30, 35, start establishing things, maybe next year make a push for the playoffs and the year after that get in the playoffs, the kind of stepping stones that you have to go through. Maybe we just skipped a rung. I think it’s great.

Q: Why were you able to skip a rung?

A: I don’t know. It’s always tough in the NBA, especially the way guys switch teams nowadays. The chemistry part is big. And our guys, we had 10 new guys, you never how that’s going to come together, they’ve gotten along pretty well. We emphasized in the beginning, you’re a bunch of new guys, you’re a lot of guys that have contracts that end this year or they end next year, so that’s always kind of a recipe for disaster when guys try to get individual, worried about their contracts. I told them stories about some of our guys from the past, that when you’re on a good team that’s when teams want you, that’s when they’ll pay bigger bucks if you’re on a good team. And so if we’re a good team, all that stuff will come, don’t worry about it, just play and try to win games and that’s what they’ve done. They’ve put it all aside and just played.

Q: When did you first see signs that your team could be pretty good?

A: Early in the season we lost a couple of close games to San Antonio and Oklahoma City at their place and our guys; when you’re in a rebuilding mode a lot of times guys are talking about, ‘hey, that’s a moral victory. Hey look, we played well.’ Our guys were ticked off, they were mad about it. So, to me, as kind of a competitive player, I think, I took that as a sign that, hey, we could be OK this year because these guys care and they want to win.

Q: You paired two point guards, Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, in the same backcourt. Why did you believe they could complement one another?

A: I just kind of envisioned it because I saw what Kevin Johnson and I went through way back in the day when you had two guards out there and we wanted to be an up-tempo team. We felt that the best way to do that is to have two guys you can outlet the ball to. We don’t need it in one guy’s hand when you can throw it to anybody. We just kind of, [general manager] Ryan McDonough, when we talked about if it could work, he said, ‘yeah I think it would be great getting them from one side to the other. Teams have to look at the mismatches. Someone’s going to have the advantage as good as those two guys are.

Coach of the Year: Gregg Popovich

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

Gregg Popovich once again has the Spurs playing at a high level. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)

Gregg Popovich once again has the Spurs playing at a high level. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)

If you took a poll of their peers and asked them to name, year in and year out, the best coach in the NBA, the same name usually would show up.

Gregg Popovich.

That’s what happens when you spend 18 years establishing roots and a philosophy in a Spurs franchise that produces four NBA titles, 15 consecutive seasons of at least 50 victories and the best record in the Western Conference three of the past four seasons.

“I think for everybody in the league, you hope to get to that point where the established players, Hall of Fame type players, play in a system together for a long time,” said Rockets coach Kevin McHale. “They know each other, know the amount of effort that it takes, know how to get ready for games and how to get ready for series and how to get ready to win championships. All those things come from some time. It’s been a phenomenal run. In my career in the NBA, it’s been the most sustained long run. It’s just amazing that Pop gets them to play the same way every year.”

But especially this year, when the pages on the calendar cry out that Tim Duncan is soon-to-be 38, Manu Ginobili is 36 and Tony Parker is 31. Especially this year when the Spurs have worn the scars of their devastating loss of a fifth championship that was in their grasp until the last 28 seconds of Game 6 of the 2013 Finals. Especially this year when Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Tiago Splitter, Parker and Ginobili all spent stretches of time on the shelf with injuries or assorted aches and pains.

“Even if you have talent in this league, it isn’t as easy as people think,” Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman said. “You have to get guys to come together and get them to buy in and find a way that they can play as a team.”

Popovich, the longest-tenured coach in any professional sport, has won Coach of the Year honors twice before in 2003 and 2012. But the work he’s done this season just might be his finest.

He is the first to tell you that the Spurs keep winning year after year because they have the talent, professionalism and unselfish nature of their Big Three to be committed to common team goals. But they continue to succeed again and again because Popovich has ingrained a system where the ball moves to find the open man and the best shot on offense and the defenders’ feet move to cut off open shots by their opponents.

The cast of supporting characters changes frequently, but what doesn’t is the requirement to stick to the same basic, demanding understanding of how the game is played. He won’t lower his own expectations, but will constantly raise your own.

This season Popovich has coaxed and nurtured the Spurs to 62 wins in the powerful Western Conference, all while carefully managing the minutes of his stars. Not a single player on the roster plays an average of 30 minutes per game. Parker is at 29.6, Duncan and Leonard at 29.2, Ginobili 22.8. Parker is the team’s leading scorer at only 16.7 per game, but the Spurs have nine different players averaging at least 9.1.

The Spurs are strong. They are deep. They are resilient and healthy going into the playoffs and ready again to drill into opponents what has been drilled into them — the sheer simplicity and brutal efficiency of playing one way.

Pop’s way. Which proved to be the best way. Again.

The contenders

Doc Rivers, Clippers — The veteran coach made the cross country hop and immediately changed the culture and the attitude of the franchise. He demanded and got more out of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan and made a good team into a real playoff threat.

Jeff Hornacek, Suns — Getting his first chance as head coach, the last thing Hornacek wanted to hear was lottery talk. He took a disparate group of players and got them to share the ball and make the most of their ability. Nearly winning 50 games in the West is not to be undervalued.

Tom Thibodeau, Bulls — When Derrick Rose went down in the 10th game, he could have cursed the fates. When Luol Deng was given away to Cleveland, he could have thrown up his hands. Instead Thibodeau keeps grinding and now the Bulls are a fearsome matchup for anyone in the playoffs.

Steve Clifford, Bobcats — Another rookie head coach who gave the Bobcats what they’d been lacking for so long — an identity and a plan. He turned the worst defense in the league into one of the best (No. 6), made Al Jefferson the calling card of his offense and lifted Charlotte into the playoffs.

One gear: Thibodeau, Bulls continue to grind forward

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com

Tom Thibodeau's intensity has set the tone for the one-speed Bulls. (Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images)

Tom Thibodeau’s intensity has set the tone for the one-speed Bulls. (Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images)

CHICAGO – If the Chicago Bulls didn’t exist, NBA commissioner Adam Silver would have to invent them.

As this team rests its star players for a fresh start in the NBA postseason, as that team eyeballs the standings to scale its efforts on a given night to playoff positioning or lottery chances, the Chicago Bulls trudge forward, always forward.

Sometimes they march. Sometimes they plod. Every once in a while, the game flows more freely and you’d swear you saw swooshes on their work boots. But this is a one-direction, one-speed, one-gear team – forward, forever in overdrive – that doesn’t apologize when critics seize on that as a problem at this time of year: The Bulls play so hard all the time, so there’s no “next level” to which they can take their game in the playoffs.

Like that’s a bad thing.

So what if Chicago doesn’t click-clack through the shift gate like some exotic sports coupe flitting about the Riviera? Armored tanks, steamrollers and threshers seem to do fine without dual-clutch 7-speed gearboxes. So do Terminators, a.k.a., Tom Thibodeau.

“We’re not changing,” Thibodeau said after the 108-95 victory over Orlando in the Bulls’ home finale. “We’re trying to win games. … We’re not changing our approach: Every game, analyze what we’re doing well, what we’re doing not as well as we would like, make our corrections, move on to the next one, know the opponent well, keep moving forward. That’s all we can do.”

You could stump a few Chicagoans by asking to identify the source of the following quote: “It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.” Who said that: Michael Biehn‘s character in the original “Terminator?” Or a Bulls player, requesting anonymity, in describing Thibs?

Forward Taj Gibson didn’t take the unnamed route when he went there Monday.

“You guys have been around for a minute now,” Gibson, a top Sixth Man candidate, told reporters. “You guys should know that guy in the other room over there, he’s not going to tell anybody to take any rest. He’s old school. He doesn’t believe in that. He just believes in pushing forward.


VIDEO: The passion of Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau

“Like he said, ‘The finish line is ahead. You’ve got to just run through it. You can’t slow up, you can’t try to trot through. You’ve got to run full speed ahead through it and whatever happens, happens.’ He told us, ‘We want to walk through the fire together as a team, as a unit. Nobody’s going to take that from you. You’ve just got to keep walking through it. Don’t stop for anything.’ “

OK, so there’s no ring collection in the Chicago locker room. Backup center Nazr Mohammed is the only player to have reached The Finals, never mind win the title, and the Bulls’ collection of Larry O’Brien trophies has fit on the same shelf for 16 years now.

But then, Thibodeau and his crew aren’t preachy about their relentless ways – heck, it might scare off some free agents the way tales of Pat Riley‘s taped, full-contact, two-hour “shootarounds” used to. Grinding steadily forward simply is what has worked for Chicago.

There really wasn’t much choice, after the long-anticipated return of MVP candidate Derrick Rose ended just 10 games in. Rose’s second season-ending knee injury and the subsequent trade of All-Star Luol Deng threatened to do more than just slam shut this Bulls edition’s championship window. It had some fans luridly licking their chops over lottery slots. They, of course, were the ones who know nothing about Thibodeau.

The Bulls are 21-8 since the All-Star break and 34-17 since trading Deng in early January. Their defense is a constant, the relentless embodiment of their head coach. And though Chicago ranks ranks 28th in offensive rating (102.7), the Bulls lately have been almost breezy, scoring 100 points or more in five of their past seven.

With Gibson and Joakim Noah developing as scoring options, with shooter Mike Dunleavy moving into a starting spot up front and with D.J. Augustin dusting off his career as Thibodeau’s latest point-guard reclamation project, the offense has hit triple digits 14 times in its 29 post-break games vs. 11 times in the 52 before it.

Their 100-89 loss Sunday in New York snapped a seven-game winning streak, but at least it wasn’t the result of guessing at the Indiana-Miami flip-flopping atop the conference and trying to game the playoff seedings. If anything the Bulls Game 7 everything.

“It’s made us who we are,” guard Kirk Hinrich said after the Magic victory. “That’s just kind of the makeup of this group and the beliefs that [Thibodeau] goes by. Us as players, there’s something to be said about just coming in, preparing. You feel prepared, you’re confident, and that goes a long way.”

Dunleavy occasionally has rolled his eyes at the work-load demands he has faced under Thibodeau. Then again, the 6-foot-9 forward didn’t play on a .500 team in his first 11 NBA seasons, so he’s not complaining.

“Playing with high intensity like we do all year helps,” he said. “I certainly am going to keep the same approach in the playoffs. It’s just another game because I think we prepare for every regular-season game like it’s a playoff game. That’s the way we’ve been doing it, and hopefully we roll right through in terms of smoothness and transition into the postseason.”

Roll? Typically by this time each spring, the Bulls are limping and bleeding. Once the smoke and smell of sulfur from Rose’s latest demise cleared, though, the rest of the roster got and largely has remained healthy. As hard as Thibodeau pushes, they have become true believers in the ol’ “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” ethos.

“We believe in ourselves, we believe in our abilities,” Noah said. “We think we’re going to be a tough out. We’re going to go out there and give them hell.”

Forty-eight minutes of it, sometimes served up that way per man (see Jimmy Butler, 2013 postseason). All in one gear, at one speed.

Bulls’ Gibson adds scoring, flips switch of Sixth-Man chatter

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: Taj Gibson notches a double-double to help the Bulls defeat the Sixers

CHICAGO – Joakim Noah, who plays at a full-on froth for the Chicago Bulls, works his way to that boiling point with a very personal, specific routine of physical and mental preparation that has him literally bouncing on the court by tipoff.

So he marvels at the on/off switch his friend and teammate Taj Gibson has, coming in cold off the Bulls bench and then – wham! – impacting the game in almost no time at all.

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Noah said, eyes widening as he leaned back in his chair the other night. “He barely … I mean, I’ve seen Taj barely warm up and then he’s just dunking all over the place. It’s crazy. He’s very lucky to have that. Some people have that unbelievable gift.

“He’ll do things – he’ll lift weights before the game and get prepared, but it’s a lot easier for him than it is for me, I’ll tell you that.”

It’s a legitimate skill, catching up to a game already five, eight, 12 minutes old, stepping in among players already lathered and loose, when you’ve been sitting on the side in warm-up clothes. It’s one of the traits that has thrust Gibson into late-season conversations for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award.

Gibson’s individual development on the offensive end might argue for Most Improved consideration instead, or as well. But it has been the 6-foot-9 power forward’s work in reserve – along with Noah’s ascension and D.J. Augustin‘s makeover – that has helped pushed Chicago beyond the doldrums of the Derrick Rose re-injury and Luol Deng trade.

And in Gibson’s case, it comes from his ability to hit the game balling.

“Oh man, I felt that today,” Gibson said after boosting the Bulls against Philadephia on Saturday with 16 points and 10 rebounds in not quite 29 minutes. “It’s rough. Some days he plays me at the five-minute mark, some days I have to wait till the second quarter.”

This time, Gibson entered with three minutes left in the first and got busy with a rebound and a block. Later, as has been coach Tom Thibodeau‘s practice for a long time, he played the entire fourth quarter, scoring eight points, grabbing three boards and getting another block.

Gibson finishes on most nights because his offense has improved and his defensive versatility makes him invaluable on pick-and-rolls. But starting quickly is what matters most at the game’s front end.

“Luckily I just know my routine,” Gibson said. ” keep a good rhythm going on the sideline. I’m jumping up, I’m cheering, I’m directing, I’m doing a lot of stuff to try to help my teammates from the bench.”

He sits on hot packs, Gibson said, and stretches with every timeout while waiting his turn.

“I just stay active, stay mobile, ’cause you can get real stiff waiting,” said the fifth-year product of USC and Brooklyn, N.Y. “When I get in there, the first look I take, I just take it to get a rhythm right away. That’s what Derrick told me – I’ve got good people giving me good advice. And it works out.”

How well? Gibson has scored in double figures in 26 of his last 31 games, averaging 15.1 points on 47.3 percent shooting, with 7.2 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 1.32 blocks. The Bulls are 20-11 record in that time.

He is averaging career highs in points (13.2, vs. 9.0 in 2009-10), assists (1.3) and minutes (28.7). He has reset his career scoring high to 26 and hit it three times, has scored 20 points or more in 11 games and has 13 double-doubles.

He’s the poster guy for that old coach’s saying: “It doesn’t matter who starts, it matters who finishes.”  Gibson averages 10.1 of his minutes in the fourth quarter. He started 70 games as a rookie in 2009-10 – Chicago’s Tyrus Thomas era hadn’t worked out so well – but has been a reserve in 278 of 310 games since Thibodeau was hired and Carlos Boozer signed in the summer of 2010.

Their early work together earned Gibson a four-year, $33 million contract extension in October 2012. His recent work has earned Thibodeau’s praise and endorsement for that SMOY honor.

“The biggest thing for him is what he’s contributed to us winning,” the Bulls coach said. “I hate to lock into individual awards. I think players are recognized when the team has success. … The things he does for our team are all team-oriented.

“Plays great defense. Challenges shots. Guards everybody. Runs the floor hard. Sets great screens. Does his job. Offensively, gets deep post position. Gets a quality shot up. When a second guy comes, he makes the play. He’s gotten comfortable in pick-and-roll situations.”

You want advanced stats? When Gibson has been on the court, the Bulls’ offensive and defensive ratings have been 103.7 and 100.7 respectively. When he sits, those numbers droop to 99.9 and 101.3.

Gibson’s offense, meanwhile, has benefited from equal parts confidence and patience. He saw what defenses were yielding to him, video of last spring’s playoffs and such, and has begun to consistently take those shots.

The Sixth Man award typically favors guards and wing players, the guys who bring instant offense. Eight of the past nine winners, with the exception of Lamar Odom in 2011, have fit that that description. And the top candidates this year – Reggie Jackson, Markieff Morris, possible repeat winners in Jamal Crawford or Manu Ginobili – all tend to help their teams most at one end.

Still, Gibson, who gives the Bulls both quickie offense and defense, lights up at the idea of the recognition. There’s that on/off switch again.

“It’d mean a lot,” he said. “Coming from a guy that played on the Bench Mob my entire career since we got Carlos, so many different guys coming and going. Just being able to come in, play defense, go from a guy that’s just focused on defense and now my teammates are looking for me on offense, it’s just great. … The coaching staff believing in me, it would be a dream come true.”

Don’t expect Pacers to pace themselves

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: David West talks about the Pacers’ approach to the final stretch

INDIANAPOLIS – Tom Thibodeau, not given to chuckling, did just that as the question washed over him. The Chicago Bulls’ head coach shook his head and seemed truly flummoxed.

“I have no idea where that comes from,” Thibodeau said. “I really don’t. What, they should apologize for playing hard? Come on.”

The topic was the Indiana Pacers, the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 team and the Bulls’ opponents Friday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse (7 ET, League Pass). There have been rumblings in the media and the Pacers’ fan base that, maybe, coach Frank Vogel and his guys ought to be, well, pacing themselves better as the regular season runs out and the postseason nears.

Asking Thibodeau about easing through something is like asking Richard Petty if Jimmie Johnson ought to take some pedal off the metal while making all those left turns.

“It’s a long season. There’s going to be some ups and downs. You’ve got to navigate through things. Hey, they’re a terrific team,” Thibodeau said. “You can’t pick and choose when you’re going to play hard and not play hard. When you look at the teams I know… From my own experience, with Boston, that team practiced hard every day, they played hard every day. That’s the way it was.”

It stayed that way when Thibodeau got hired by Chicago. In 2010-11, his team tore through the season at a 62-20 record, securing the No. 1 seed all the way through the Finals if only it had advanced that far (the Bulls lost to Miami in five games one step short). In 2011-12, Chicago’s 50-16 again topped the East, making Thibodeau the fastest coach in league history to rack up 100 victories, though Derrick Rose‘s knee blowout stopped them in the first round.

Thibodeau faces criticism annually for running up minutes on some of his players, certainly during certain needy stretches of each season, and takes heat at least indirectly for the Bulls’ injury history in recent seasons. Yet he and the Bulls are praised for their effort, their energy and their overachievements.

While shrugging that off, Thibodeau claims to have done his homework on workloads and doesn’t feel he – or Vogel, for that matter – is overdoing a thing.

“I don’t see any negative from practicing hard. I don’t see any negative from playing hard,” Thibodeau said. “You’re building habits every time you step out there. I think you’ve got to develop a physical toughness and a mental toughness along the way. Because down the road when you do get there, there’s going to be a lot of fire that you’ve got to go through. And you’ve got to be prepared to deal with it.”

Vogel swats away talk of fatigue and rest with facts. “We don’t have anybody averaging over 35 minutes,” he said. “So I don’t think we’re overplaying guys. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with trying to win every night. Anybody who tries to convince me otherwise is crazy.”

There was, for instance, a piece on CBSSports.com Thursday (after Indiana’s loss in New York the night before) headlined, “Did the Pacers push too hard, too soon?” It focused on the tightened race with Miami for the East’s No. 1 seed, a goal of the Pacers since Opening Night but one that might not be secured until the season’s final week. If at all, as Ken Berger of that Web site wrote:

Of all the things that the Pacers worked on to try to get back on track, rest hasn’t been one of them. And now, with two of their 14 remaining games against the Heat, there may not be time.

Vogel was off just a bit in his numbers. All-Star wing Paul George tops the Pacers at 35.9 minutes per game, but that’s down from his 2012-13 average of 37.6. Lance Stephenson (35.8) is the only other Indiana player averaging more than 32 minutes and, like George, he’s 23 years old.

The focus on finishing first in the East has driven Indiana most of the season but mocked them a little lately. Since beating Portland on Feb. 7 to reach 39-10, the Pacers have gone 11-8 overall and 0-4 against teams with winning records. This is no time to get well, either, with six of their next season against playoff-bound teams, including Chicago twice, Memphis, Miami and San Antonio.

Then again, panicking isn’t restful either, as forward David West was quoted in the Indianapolis Star:

“We talked in film session today about how we’re not going to overreact to the perception coming from the outside,” [West] said. “I have full confidence in this group. If we had given up the one seed or whatever, that’s one thing. But one of the reasons we got off to a good start was in case we had a stretch like this.”

Thibodeau – whose team has gone 14-5 during the Pacers’ slump, making up only three games in the Central Division – talks of overwork the way MLB war horses Nolan Ryan or Jack Morris might talk about modern hurlers’ pitch counts. No hand-wringing or mollycoddling allowed.

“When you study the teams that win it and you study the drive behind it… any team from when [Larry] Bird played or Magic [Johnson] played, Isiah [Thomas] played, [Michael] Jordan – all those guys had incredible drive. When you hear the stories about the incredible things they did – I know Kevin Garnett with us in Boston – there’s a driving force beind it. I think that’s necessary.

“There’s not a lot of difference between the elite teams,” the Bulls coach added. “It’s will, determination. That’s not something you develop once you get there. You’d better develop it all along the way.”

Vogel did admit to one area of overwork: George has been asked all season to lead the Pacers’ offense, while also serving as their best perimeter defender. It might be time to lighten his defensive load, Vogel revealed.

“Every time he goes 4-for-17, I tell myself we need to do that,” the Indiana coach said after Friday’s shootaround at the Fieldhouse. “So I would expect to see a little of that going forward.

“He’s such a competitive guy that he wants to guard the other team’s best player the whole game. So there’s a little bit of reluctance to take him off some of those guys, and that’s a good thing. But it’s also, I think, smart for our basketball team.”

Just don’t expect to see the Pacers pacing themselves.

Mental game opens new vistas to Durant

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: Kevin Durant had 35 points and 12 rebounds against the Bulls on Monday night (3/17)

CHICAGO – Kevin Durant had just done it again. The Oklahoma City thin man had just taken on one of his profession’s most stifling defenses, five (pick ‘em) of the Chicago Bulls’ most physical and resistant players and 22,000 partisans happy to enjoy Durant’s talents but determined to see him lose by night’s end, and he had beaten them all. Again.

Durant had spent a chunk of the pregame period with his legs encased in long black sleeves, hooked up to a contraption meant to promote circulation and healing. After all, he not only leads the NBA in scoring (31.8 points a game) but in minutes played (2,534) and arguably in workload shouldered.

Yet, 24 hours after a miserable 23-point home loss to Dallas, Durant dialed it up again and fended off the Bulls at United Center. He subbed back in mere seconds before Chicago drew within 76-75 with 10 minutes left and sparked OKC on a 13-0 run over the next six minutes that buttoned up the outcome. Durant finished with 35 points, 12 rebounds and five assists, and stretched to 32 games his streak of scoring 25 points or more. That’s the longest such streak since Michael Jordan did it for the Bulls in his breakout 1986-87 season.

Durant has averaged 34.9 points, 6.9 rebounds and 6.2 assists during the streak, while shooting 51.7 percent (39.2 percent on 3-pointers). The Thunder are 21-11 since it began, with a dip (6-6) coming since teammate Russell Westbrook returned from right knee surgery and triggered a readjustment.

“Russ goes down, Russ isn’t playing, Russ comes back in – you know, the constant is him,” said veteran forward Caron Butler, whose appreciation of Durant has only grown since joining the Thunder March 1. “He remained the same. To keep guys going, keep everybody on point.”

Durant, 25, has been performing at an MVP level all season, displaying all the skills and attributes with which NBA fans have grown familiar: Silky smooth shooting, remarkable vision thanks to his 6-foot-10 height, impeccable timing and touch to his passes and occasional explosions to the basket that can surprise everyone in the gym.

But he has added a consistency, owing to an ever-sharpening mental approach, that has taken it all to new heights.

Kevin Durant (Richard Rowe/NBAE)

Kevin Durant (Richard Rowe/NBAE)

“What impresses me the most is two things: His consistency and his ability not to worry about [a scoring streak],” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said late Monday. “I know when I had a three-game streak of four [points], I was worried about that next game and how I had to make my first shot. He’s not worried about it. He’s worried about playing hard and playing the correct way and finding ways to help his team win. He’s amazing and so consistent, he’s done this from Day 1, from November all the way through March 17.”

Said Durant: “It definitely takes mental toughness, especially on the road.”

You wouldn’t have known about his growing seriousness and depth from the wildly colored boxer briefs and socks with Pete Maravich’s photo on them Durant wore after Monday’s game. But it’s a topic that lately has been on his mind, one might say. While opposing teams cope with the mental pressure of facing an assassin like Durant, accounting for his every movement across 38 minutes or so, Durant more and more plumbs the depths and possibilities in his game that aren’t strictly by-products of his physical gifts.

It was something he talked about in a Wall Street Journal magazine feature (March 2014) in which several celebrities or reputed authorities were asked about their notion of power. Here’s what Durant said:

“Something that’s often overlooked in basketball is mental power. A game is 50 percent mental—mental toughness. Going through ups and downs during a long season, you have to really set your mind to have the power over everybody else—over opponents, fans, bad refs, tough games. You gotta fight through that. When I was young, I was always the skinny kid and got pushed around a lot, and my mental toughness goes back to that.”

And:

“…There will always be someone taller, someone stronger, somebody quicker. Having that willpower and extra fight is what’s going to set you apart. On the court there’s trash talk, you can hear fans trying to disrespect you, but just being quiet, never being too high or too low, is the most powerful place to be in a game.”

All NBA players have mental toughness to one degree or another, said OKC guard Derek Fisher, or they wouldn’t have made it this far. But when Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau talks about that trait in legendary players such as Jordan, Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing and others, it isn’t just hindsight. Mental toughness dripped off those guys like perspiration.

“It’s the reason why we talk about them the most,” Fisher said. “Because there are certain things they do that seem to mentally take themselves to a level other guys can’t. Everybody can’t show up night in and night out, from a mental standpoint and perform at a high level.”

It’s not just Kobe Bryant baring his teeth after a clutch shot in a close game.

“It’s in the daily preparation,” Fisher said. “The willingness to be the first guy at practice and the last one to leave. Taking the time to get extra shots up. Studying the game. Watching film. Taking care of your body. Kobe’s history of playing through injuries, that requires it.

“Kevin is exhibiting mental toughness every night. Not just showing up and, at the end of the game, he has 20 points but you didn’t really know he was there. He’s impacting the game at both ends every night.”

And stealthily getting 35 before folks feel the sting of his presence.

Nick Collison, another Thunder veteran, has been with Durant from the start back in Seattle. He’s an eyewitness to the growth, externally and internally, in the scoring star’s game.

“”When he first came in the league, he was like all guys – you’re just trying to find your way,” the backup forward said. “Now he’s at the point where he’s thinking, how can he help everybody be better? It’s not just in his play, it’s not just in his decision-making. It’s trying to talk to guys and trying to lift the team up. All the phases of the game, he appreciates the importance of that stuff now.”

One Western Conference advance scout Monday said he has noticed a peace in Durant’s game this season, compared to 2012-13′s edginess. “Last year I thought he was trying too hard. He was getting some techs doing things that were out of character, complaining,” the scout said. “Now he’s toned that back some, and he’s a beast. Maybe he felt he needed to get respect from referees or other teams or something. He’s got the respect. Now it’s all coming together.”

Said Collison: “We’re all human. We have things going on in our lives and we all have those stretches. But I think this year, his mind is free. He’s having a good time. And he’s more mature. That’s a big part of it too. He’s been around – he’s 25 now – and we all get a little more perspective as we get older.”

Where does Collison see the gain? In how locked-in Durant is now.

“More possessions being engaged,” he said. “Fewer possessions of spacing out. I think that’s all of us. It’s a long season, 82 games, and to avoid the distractions and always be engaged in the play that’s right in front of you… the more possessions you have like that, the better you are. A sign of that with him is, defensively, he’s taking less plays off. He’s in the right spot.”

Durant, asked about this before the game, admitted he still has work to do.

“That’s half of the game to me, is mental,” he said. “My focus every time I step on the court is, what am I thinking about?

“To be honest, there are some games where I think about what I have to do instead of what the team has to do, and that takes my focus off the big picture sometimes. But just staying conscious of what we need to do as a team and how I can help that is something I tell myself every time I step on the floor.”

And yes, he has sought counsel on this aspect, from some of the very best.

“I’ve talked to Karl Malone – he’s been a big help to me. George Gervin, those guys. Larry Bird, I’ve talked to him before,” Durant said.

“Just trying to see what their thoughts was in shootarounds and practices and games. See how they approached it and what they were thinking about when they were going out there performing. Just picking the brains of the greats can definitely help. I’m looking forward to growing as a leader, as a player mentally. I have a long ways to go, so I always ask questions.”

Which will leave his opponents with questions of their own. Mostly along the lines of, How are they going to stop this guy now?

Noah sears his way into MVP talk

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com

JoakimNoah_March13_575x275

CHICAGO – When Joakim Noah switched on screens a couple times Sunday to find himself against LeBron James, the world saw the Chicago Bulls’ adrenalized, frenetic 6-foot-11 center seizing the moment, squaring up and – wait, no, really? – clapping his hands almost in James’ face.

Here he was, isolated against the NBA’s three-time MVP, who had the ball in his hands, the rim 20 feet away and a game to win. Noah might as well have been throwing rocks at a grizzly bear or wading into traffic on the Kennedy.

Noah, though, didn’t see it that way. For an instant on the court at United Center, in some recess of his mind, he was back in Teaneck, N.J., a dozen years ago. James was a high school underclassman from Akron, Ohio, already having his every movement scouted and stalked as the NBA’s next big thing. Noah? He was the gawky kid with the frizzy hair shagging rebounds for James.

LeBron James, Joakim Noah (Issac Baldizon/NBAE)

LeBron James, Joakim Noah (Issac Baldizon/NBAE)

“I was a ball boy,” Noah said after a Bulls practice this week, asked about the famous Adidas ABCD basketball camp he first attended as a sophomore. He hadn’t done enough to earn a spot as a player, so he went with his high school coach and rebounded for James, Lenny Cooke, Sebastian Telfair and other phenoms.

Every once in a while, you hear about an NBA player who spent time as a ball boy, helping and staring a lot while navigating wet towels and giant men in locker rooms. This was different, though.

“At least they’re fetching things for guys who are in the NBA,” Noah said. “I was fetching things for guys who were my age. I didn’t have my own bed – slept on the floor.

“I could have been in France with my father [tennis star Yannick Noah], I could have been traveling with my mom [Cecilia Rodhe, Miss Sweden 1978] in the summertime. But I knew that was where I needed to be if I wanted to make it. My dream was to play at that camp, to play in college and to play one day in the NBA.

“Y’know, I think it gives me my underdog mentality. I cherish those times because those are the sacrifices I had to make. Even as a ball boy, it wasn’t humbling – I just knew I had to be there, because it gave me an opportunity to see where I needed to get to.”

James, Noah said, has not mentioned their initial brush in the years since and probably doesn’t remember it.

“I wasn’t ready,” Noah said. “Physically I was a late bloomer. Y’know, I was 6-5 and 140 pounds. They used to call me ‘Stick Man.’ “


VIDEO: Noah’s All-Star journey

> Bringing it every night

James, Dwyane Wade and the rest of the Miami Heat might have called Noah a few other things Sunday, after he helped Chicago beat them 95-88 with 20 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists and five blocks in 42 matinee minutes. The Bulls outworked Miami, getting 27 second-chance points, and Noah outworked everyone else in the building.

In fact, with his father beaming along with other family member in the stands, and with the red meat of the team he “hates” most as the opposition, the ever-emotional Noah seemed about to boil over a few times. He picked up one technical foul in the third quarter for playing keep-away on a dead ball with Miami guard Mario Chalmers. But the dude abided after that, with help from his friends.

“Sometimes I talk to him because you don’t want him to get another tech,” Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. “But he knows his limit. He’s been doing that for years. You really can’t tell him much. He’s ‘Joakim Noah.’ He’s going to do it regardless. But he knows his limits.”

Most of the time, anyway. There was the game at Sacramento Feb. 3, when Noah got bounced in the third quarter after arguing a phantom foul whistled against him. The anger seized up on him and he appeared to drop an F-bomb on each of the three officials before he was hustled off the floor. Noah apologized after the game, but it still cost him a $15,000 fine. It at least gave Noah the distinction of being the first player penalized under new commissioner Adam Silver.

San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, before Tuesday’s game at United Center, was asked if his roster of adults could accommodate a player who runs as “hot” as Noah.

“I think so,” Popovich said. “He is a highly emotional guy, but he brings it every night. It’s something that infuses the whole team. He sets a standard on the court for the team. Each of us is different, our personalities. He’s like the opposite of Timmy [Duncan] in that respect. Tim is the most introspective and non-emotional guy on the court, but the fire’s burning, just in a different way. … As long as it’s directed for the good of the team, which it obviously is 100 percent, I think it’s great.”

So does the Bulls’ marketing department, which sells the “heart of Chicago basketball” with a commercial that’s nothing more than super-slo-mo video of Noah in full emotional eruption. All spasm and gyrations, sweat and spittle, primal scream, arms pumping, body quaking.

“Does it sometimes go over the edge? Yeah,” former coach-turned-ABC/ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy said over the weekend. “But would you ever ask him to tone it down? Absolutely not. You have to accept that 99 percent of the time it’s a positive. The 1 percent of the time it’s a negative, you don’t overreact to that. Him and [Tom] Thibodeau, they’re both intense, passionate people. That’s why I think they’re perfect for each other.”

Thibodeau, who signed on as Bulls coach four years ago, had watched Noah from afar and seen the same frenzied guy. Then he went to work with Noah.

“You never want to take that away from a player,” Thibodeau said. “That’s his make-up. It’s who he is. When we were in Boston with Kevin Garnett, Doc [Rivers] once talked to him about [toning down his intensity]. By halftime, Doc was screaming, ‘Go back to being who you are.’ Whatever it is that makes you go, that’s what you’ve got to stay with.”

Noah’s game used to run on emotion and little else. He was a glorified energy guy chosen No. 9 by Chicago in the 2007 Draft, picked after Al Horford and Corey Brewer, his teammates with the Florida Gators. They had won NCAA titles together in 2006 and 2007, but Horford’s and Brewer’s games allegedly translated better to the NBA.

What people didn’t grasp was that Noah, a slow hoops learner in high school and college, would have the same trajectory as a pro. In his sixth NBA season, he became an All-Star. In his seventh, he did it again and has heard his name dropped in MVP and Defensive Player of the Year conversations.

“I think Noah is the best ‘non-scorer’ in the NBA,” Van Gundy said. “He’s not ever going to average 16, 17 points, but you have to take into account his defense, his rebounding, his passing. Tom’s not trying to force him to be something he’s not by scoring in the low post. He’s got him in the high post, initiating offense. It opens up the basket area for the rest of the guys, which really helps.

“Let’s face it, the special teams have those guys who can force double-teams. Chicago doesn’t have that. But you want hard-playing, unselfish, low-maintenance players, too, and that’s exactly what Noah is.”

> Learning to play smart

For someone whose game isn’t best measured by numbers, Noah, 29, has put up some stellar ones. With three triple-doubles in the last month, he became the first center to post three in a season – with assists as one of the categories – since David Robinson in 1993-94. Noah is averaging 12.2 points, 11.3 rebounds and 4.9 assists – 7.1 in his last 16 games – and is trying to join Garnett (six times), Charles Barkley (three) and Anthony Mason (once) as the only players since 1990-91 to average 12.0, 11.0 and 4.5 over a full season.

His knack for facilitating the offense and finding cutters has earned him a “point center” reputation of late, and Noah has gone beyond that.


VIDEO: Noah notches a triple-double against the Knicks

“He’s just playing smart,” Thibodeau said. “He’s playing from the high post a lot and when people get up on him, now he’s reading: Are they sitting on the pass and backing off? If they are, he’s going to make another play. So I think you have to play him honestly. If you try to take the pass away, he’s going to score. That’s what I like, he’s making quick decisions, that’s probably the most important thing.”

Thibodeau said that, contrary to some elite players who add particular moves or skills each summer, Noah has ratcheted up his game across the board. After four years of continuity with Thibodeau’s system, he has blossomed.

“He’s not getting a lot of iso’s or plays where he gets on the block and gets post-ups,” said San Antonio forward Boris Diaw, Noah’s teammate in international competition on France’s national team. “He’s getting points a different way, which is hard. But he’s a hard roller [on pick-and-rolls], he’s getting in the slots all the time. He’s smart, getting always in the right place at the right moment. And getting a lot of offensive rebounds and second chances.”

Said Noah:

“I’m just being myself. I’m working on my game. I’ve never felt so confident as a basketball player. Derrick [Rose] gives me a lot of confidence, too, always telling me what I need to work on, what type of shots I’ve got to take for when he comes back.”

It is a long way off, but Thibodeau and Noah are eagerly awaiting the day Rose returns from his second season lost to knee injuries. Maybe, Rose can throttle back some of his explosive fury thanks to facets added this season by Noah.

“That’s the plan,” Noah said. “I feel like I can affect the game in a lot of different ways. And I think Derrick can as well. I’m not worried about none of [the doubts about Rose's future], because I know his mind is in the right place and he knows my mind is in the right place. All the other stuff – the accolades and all that – it’s bigger than that.”

> Getting his due

The MVP talk – even if he’s destined to be no higher than No. 3 on anyone’s ballot, slotting in somewhere after Kevin Durant and James – makes Noah uncomfortable. He’d welcome the DPOY, though he’d never campaign for it, nor for all-NBA center status that will focus both on him and his matchup Thursday against Houston’s Dwight Howard.

Howard told NBA.com’s Jeff Caplan that he was looking forward to the matchup and planned to have fun against Noah when the Rockets and Bulls clashed. Noah talked about Howard as a guy he has known since high school, too, and who finally looks happy and healthy in Houston.

Noah, while healthier than he’s been in years (mostly avoiding plantar fascitis foot issues), isn’t quite ready to be happy. Not the way he’ll be if he, Rose, Thibs and the rest – minus friend Luol Deng (a midseason blow emotionally when he was traded) – get someday what Miami has.

In the meantime, he’ll get low in his defensive crouch and, whether it’s against point guards, centers or the best player on the planet, clap excitedly in the other man’s face. So what if he is risking the most glaring sort of embarrassment in those moments? (For the record, Noah and James split their little showdowns, Noah getting a stop and triggering a fast break once, James cutting by him for a left-handed layup on the other.)

“It’s the life we choose,” Noah said smiling. “Being in the public eye, playing basketball in front of a lot of people who are watching. I’m an emotional guy, that’s who I’ve always been, if there were 10 people at an AAU game or now. I’m not going to change who I am.

“I feel lucky. There’s not a lot of jobs where you can just make a play and scream as loud as you can. There’s nobody sitting at the office who’s going to stand up and scream. It’d be like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ “

It’s all going on for Noah these days, and he can’t help but share it.

Pop’s lesson to Thibs: Coach healthy stars


VIDEO: San Antonio wins its seventh straight game by toppling Chicago

CHICAGO – Gregg Popovich walked onto the court at United Center Tuesday night with a minute to go before the horn that sets everything – anthem, intros, tip-off – in motion. The San Antonio Spurs’ coach headed toward the far end and was met just past mid-court by Tom Thibodeau, his Chicago Bulls counterpart. The two men shared a quick, manly embrace, a few words and a couple of quick smiles before retreating to their respective benches.

There, Popovich huddled up with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, each one ready to go. Thibodeau glanced down the way at Derrick Rose, on the bench in a suit again.

The Spurs and Bulls coaches share a lot: gruff exteriors, no-nonsense expectations for their teams and highly watchable end-of-quarter interviews during network games. But they don’t share championship rings – Popovich leads 4-0 – and they don’t share good fortune in the availability of their best players.

“I was stunned the other day, I didn’t realize – I think it was the Miami game – someone said he had coached more games without Derrick than he had with him,” Popovich said before the Spurs’ breezier-than-the-score 104-96 victory Tuesday. “That just threw me back in my chair. I couldn’t believe it. I can’t imagine coaching more games without Tony and Tim and Manu.”

Yeah, well, he hasn’t had to. No coach in NBA history has had a trio of players for as many games (662) as Popovich has had Duncan, Parker and Ginobili.

Three teammates in Boston (Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish), in Detroit (Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer and Vinnie Johnson) and in Los Angeles (Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Cooper) actually  have logged more games together – 729, 711 and 663, respectively – but they did so for multiple coaches.

Duncan, Parker and Ginobili all are shoo-in or likely Hall of Famers, and, in regular-season games in which all three participate, they are 489-173, a .739 winning percentage. Compare that to Popovich’s 463-266, .635 mark when he has to get by with two, one or none of this Big Three. (And frankly, of the relatively few times none of the three has played – just 14 times since they’ve all been teammates – Popovich usually played a role by resting them. They’ve gone 4-10, per NBA.com statsmeister John Schuhmann.)

Just with Duncan alone – the best of the bunch – the numbers are telling. The Spurs’ two-time MVP and two-time Coach of the Year have been lashed together for nearly 17 seasons, with Duncan playing in 1,238 of the 1,391 games Popovich has coached. That’s 89 percent.

Wait, there’s more: Duncan has played in 885 of Popovich’s 952 career victories. That’s 93 percent. Their record together: 885-353, good for a .715 winning percentage. Popovich’s record without Duncan: 67-86, .437. Of course, that includes the 1996-97 season in which Popovich took over for Bob Hill, steered the David Robinson-sidelined Spurs to a 17-47 mark the rest of the way and put them in position to get lottery-lucky for … Duncan. Brilliant!

In the 17 years since Duncan arrived as a ready-made franchise anchor from Wake Forest, he has missed just 89 games. Popovich’s and the Spurs’ record without him: 50-39, .561.

Compare that now to Thibodeau, who took over in Chicago in time for the 2010-11 season. He and Rose clicked immediately and remarkably, producing a 62-19 record for the Bulls and the NBA MVP award for the 22-year-old Rose, its youngest winner ever.

But Rose suffered through a variety of ailments in 2011-12, followed by the torn ACL injury to his left knee that wiped out 2012-13. Followed 10 games into this season by a torn meniscus in his right knee and another season down the tubes.

Bottom line: Thibodeau has had Rose in only 130 of his 294 games as coach. That’s only 44.2 percent. The Bulls’ franchise guy has played in 99 of Thibodeau’s 192 victories. That’s 51.6 percent.

Rose’s and Thibodeau’s record together: 99-31, .762. Thibodeau’s record without him: 93-71, .567.

Thibodeau isn’t one to make excuses, but he did acknowledge some of the benefits of having your best player(s) available. Heck, he, Popovich and the other smart guys in the league understand that’s No. 1 on the list of keys to coaching success.

“There’s no question,” Thibodeau said. “It’s funny – Pop is always tweaking things – but the core of what they do has been the same for a long, long time. You can see, when you have the same players over and over, the different options that they get to. And how they play off plays. A lot of it is a split-second decision where you know what the other guy is doing and you know what he’s good at.”

Popovich said a lot of nice things about Thibodeau, too, in terms of being consistent, even “persistent,” in his approach and setting standards. But the Bulls roster has swirled around its coach in ways San Antonio’s has not, from Rose to Luol Deng to parts such as Omer Asik, Kyle Korver, Marco Belinelli, Nate Robinson, C.J. Watson and others.

Center Joakim Noah, on board through Thibodeau’s tenure but an evolving player in that time, said after Tuesday’s beating that the Spurs’ experience, stability and continuity remain huge advantages.

“They play for each other,” Noah said. “The way they cut, the way they screen, the way the ball moves. Thibs is right, the way they play the game, you can learn a lot from them.”

And you can win a lot with them.

Morning Shootaround — March 8


VIDEO: Daily Zap for games played March 7

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Pacers’ woes start from within | Other side to that coin was Rockets’ paybackPhil Jax rumors blow up in New York | Pierce sees Rondo as the next, well, him | Noah bored by whines about “tampering”

No. 1: Pacers’ woes start from within – To hear Indiana coach Frank Vogel, his team’s claim on the NBA’s best record this season put a target on the Pacers’ backs, turning them into every opponent’s favorite target. While that might be true to some extent, the slump in which Paul George, Roy Hibbert, David West & Co. find themselves now – after suffering their third consecutive loss in the 112-86 rout at Houston Friday – owes more to what Indiana isn’t doing at either end of the court the way it had through the schedule’s first four months. Only the Rockets and the Los Angeles Clippers have avoided a three-game losing streak now, with the Pacers turning to post-game meetings and some mirror-gazing to check theirs, as ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst wrote from Houston:

The Pacers have now lost three in a row for the first time all season and fallen back into a tie with the Heat in the loss column for the best record. But the chase for that top seed, which has been a Pacers priority all season, was not on their minds as midnight passed in that quiet locker room.

“We haven’t talked about the [No. 1 seed] in awhile,” Hibbert said. “We just need to win games at this point. Something has got to change. Something is going to be addressed.”

There were warning signs even when the Pacers were on a five-game winning streak recently as they had to work harder than expected to beat bottom-feeders like the Boston Celtics, Utah Jazz and Milwaukee Bucks.

“Every team we play is playing above themselves,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “Our guys can talk about being the hunted but it’s a different thing to feel it. These teams are coming at us with great force and we’re going to have to rise to the challenge.”

Teams running up the score against the Pacers is not normal. But over the last 10 games their league-best defense has not been league best.

They are allowing 46 percent shooting and 100 points per game in that span. In the first 40 games of the season when they distanced themselves from the rest of the league, they allowed just 41 percent shooting and just 88 points a game.

“We have to get back to what the Indiana Pacers used to be,” George said. “When teams came to play us, they knew it was going to be a long night.”

***

No. 2: Other side to that coin was Rockets’ payback – Twenty-six points isn’t 34, the number Houston’s players had in mind as a way to avenge their 33-point smackdown by Indiana in Indianapolis in December. The Rockets “only” pushed their lead to as many as 32 before settling for the final margin. But as Jonathan Feigen wrote in his Houston Chronicle blog, team and individual payback was very much in play, as the league’s hottest team in calendar year 2014 starts to sniff its potential:

“That’s all we talked about, every time out, every possession, how they blew us out,” Dwight Howard said. “We didn’t want that to happen. We wanted to get payback.”

Yet, as the Rockets put together a stretch [James] Harden would call their best on both ends of the floor, he could have been thinking of much more than just the third-quarter run to a 30-point lead.

“Always wanted to get back against them,” Harden said after scoring 16 of his 28 points in the knockout punch of a third quarter. “The third quarter was probably the best I’ve seen us play offense and defense in one quarter. We were rolling. These last weeks we’ve been rolling on both ends.”

At that moment, as the Pacers called time out the rout was certain, Harden could have been celebrating his own turnaround against the Pacers. When Harden was done for the night before the third quarter had ended, he had made 10 of 17 shots, including 4 of 7 3s. In his seven previous games against the Pacers, he had made 28.4 percent of his shots, just 24.6 percent in his three games against them with the Rockets.

He could have been thinking off the credibility the Rockets had added to their 2014 rise to a 22-6 record, the NBA’s best since New Year’s, a season-best seven-game home winning streak or their 12-2 record since the start of February when the only losses were in the second half of back-to-backs.

Had he thought of it with the pairing of a win against Heat to go with the blowout of the Pacers, he even could have been marking their season-long dominance of the Eastern Conference in Houston, with the Rockets 14-0 against Eastern Conference teams.

In many ways, however, he might have just enjoyed the clearer-than-ever signs of how much the Rockets have progressed in the months in between.

“We’ve been playing well since the beginning of the New Year,” Harden said. “We kind of got a feel for each other now. We’ve gotten better. We’ve gotten healthy.

“When we hold the ball and let them set up defensively, then they’re great. But if we play fast like we did and make plays for each other, it’s hard to beat.”

***

No. 3: Phil Jax rumors blow up in New York — The man had taken sabbaticals before. He roared off on his motorcycle after helping Chicago win its sixth NBA championship in eight years in 1998 and sat out the following season before acquiescing to coach Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant with the Los Angeles Lakers. He stepped away again in 2004-05 to recharge and get healthy, then came back for six more seasons and two more Lakers championships.

But Phil Jackson is going on three years now off the NBA stage and out of the daily sports spotlight, so it’s totally understandable that he might be getting a little restless. That restlessness might or might not – remember, we’re talking both rumors and Jackson weighing multiple options at this point in his life (age 68) – land him in New York, running or coaching the Knicks. Here’s some of what ESPN.com’s Ramona Shelburne wrote on the topic:

 Phil Jackson is “ready to go back to work,” a source with knowledge of his thinking told ESPN.com on Friday.

The former Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls coach has spent the last couple of years working to improve his health — which included several surgeries and a successful fight against prostate cancer — and writing a book. But the itch to return to the NBA in some capacity is strong.

While Jackson has made it clear to any team that has approached him that he prefers a front-office role that would allow him to shape and mold a franchise the way Miami Heat president Pat Riley has, he is open to the possibility of coaching for a short period of time if it was necessary in a transition period for a franchise with championship aspirations, the source said.

He would not consider any coaching position that did not have a significant guarantee of personnel power as well, sources said.

***

No. 4: Pierce sees Rondo as the next, well, himPaul Pierce, the beloved forward who returned to Boston again Friday in the jarring black-and-white of the Brooklyn Nets, has seen this Celtics movie before. He knows what it must be like for former teammate Rajon Rondo, who is used to better times and has to endure the losing and no longer sees respect or fear in foes’ faces. But Pierce doesn’t worry about the feisty Celtics playmaker because he sees better days ahead, per A. Sherrod Blakely of CSNNE.com:

“They’re a young team,” Pierce said. “They got a mix of some veterans, some young guys developing. They’re only going to get better.”

And a significant part of that improvement in Pierce’s eyes, is point guard Rajon Rondo.

Rondo continues to look more and more like the four time All-Star that he is, and not the player on the mend from a torn right ACL injury in January of last year.

On Friday, he had a team-high 20 points to go with nine assists and seven rebounds.

“Rondo is ready to lead,” Pierce said. “He’s leading them right now, moving them into the next generation of Celtics. Their future is going to be very bright.”

But in order to fully appreciate what awaits them at the end of the journey, first they must navigate a path that, for now, will be difficult when it comes to winning games.

Seeing the big picture when he was a young player in Boston wasn’t easy for Pierce who admits Rondo’s better prepared for what lies ahead than he was.

“Rondo understands,” said Pierce, adding “He understands a little more than I did at the time. When I first got here (in Boston), I was in rebuild mode, made the playoffs and went back to rebuild mode. Same with him (Rondo). He came in, we were rebuilding. We went through a phase where we were winning. Now he’s back in rebuild mode, but he’s still young enough to see it out to still be in his prime. I know the Celtics are going to do whatever it takes, to get back to that top level again.”

***

No. 5: Noah bored by whines of “tampering” – So what if it was true that, at some point during All-Star weekend, Chicago center Joakim Noah teased, suggested or even downright pleaded with New York’s Carmelo Anthony to consider signing with the Bulls this summer rather than the Knicks or the Lakers? If that’s “tampering,” the SEC needs to throw a net over the entire NBA for insider trading violations. After the summer of 2010, when Miami’s Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh came together after huddles and strategy sessions great and small … after the Rockets’ Chandler Parsons inundated Dwight Howard with text messages daily leading up to his choice of Houston over the Lakers … the reports that Noah told Anthony he’d be best off by choosing Chicago seem like so much trash-talking or idle banter. Knicks coach Mike Woodson needs to focus on Xs, Os, Ws and Ls, too, more than on some alleged he-said, he-said distraction. Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times addressed some of what seems much ado about nothing:

Noah was asked about the Anthony rumor after the morning shootaround and never denied it, but he chalked it up as nothing more than March gossip.

“What are you talking about, the gossip going on?’’ Noah said.

“You want me to address that? I don’t feel like addressing it. I really have nothing to say.’’

When asked if the story was accurate, Noah said, “Doesn’t matter. What does that have to do with our team now? It doesn’t matter.’’

[Coach Tom] Thibodeau did take exception to Knicks coach Mike Woodson telling a radio station that Noah broke league rules and was tampering.

“You know, legally, nobody can recruit anyone,’’ Woodson said.

“To me, it’s just a bunch of nonsense,’’ Thibodeau said. “We don’t pay any attention to it, just get ready for [the next game]. . . . It’s all nonsense. We’re just concentrating on our next opponent.’’

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Whew! They must be breathing easier in Milwaukee now, knowing that veteran Drew Gooden, on his second 10-day contract with Washington, won’t have vengeance on his mind when the Wizards visit Saturday night for the way the Bucks warehoused him last season (while paying him a whole lot of cash). … If Sam Malone could do it, maybe Paul Pierce could too: Open a bar or restaurant back in Boston when his playing days are over. Pierce was pondering the future Friday night. … Will Saturday’s clash with UNC be Jabari Parker‘s final home game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, or might he return for his sophomore year rather than enter the NBA Draft pool? OK, we’ll play along. … Knicks center Tyson Chandler didn’t really mean to mock Kevin Love‘s defense, Chandler said via Twitter a day later. … Patty Mills listened to Spurs coach Gregg Popovich — wise move, Patty — and grabbed 10 rebounds.

Clash Of Cultures Is What Separates Bulls Vs. Knicks, Melo Vs. Thibs


VIDEO: Bulls send Knicks, Melo to sixth straight loss

CHICAGO – Boil it all down – the hand-wringing over Knicks star Carmelo Anthony‘s future whereabouts, the wild guesses about Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau‘s long-term future and the grass-is-greener presumptions about one or both somehow coveting what the other has – and what’s left is pretty simple:

A clash of cultures. Anthony’s vs. Thibodeau’s. The Knicks’ vs. the Bulls’.

The gap between them had little to do with Chicago’s 109-90 pasting of New York in a Sunday matinee at United Center and everything that went on before, during and after that lopsided network game. It was more than just one team losing six straight and the other bagging its ninth win in 10 games, getting right to the respective organizations’ tone, vision and priorities.

The Knicks are of, and for, Anthony. He is the sun of their solar system, around which everything revolves. It’s the supernova, BIG MARQUEE approach that New Yorkers love. So fans at Madison Square Garden can’t have LeBron James now or Shaquille O’Neal or Michael Jordan back in the day? Fine – they’ll take a second-tier star and feed his dreams as if he is one of those guys.

And that’s what they have. Anthony is a prolific scorer who does the most important thing in basketball – he puts points on the board – without doing a lot of other things that matter on the very best teams. Like defense, intensity or making lesser players better.

Then there are the Bulls, who continue to draw admirers and win over doubters with their Three Musketeers approach. Already this season, they’ve taken two of the most severe hits a team can endure – another season-ending knee injury for MVP Derrick Rose and the trade of All-Star forward Luol Deng. The Bulls took those hits, their knees buckled even … but they have steadied themselves right into the third-best record in the Eastern Conference.

“Everybody knows what this team is going through, playing without our best player,” Bulls center Joakim Noah said after orchestrating his way to 13 points, 12 rebounds and 14 assists, his second triple-double this season. “Right now, our mentality is, we just want to get better playing those big games and do everything we can to play the best basketball possible. So when our young boy comes back, we’re ready.”

Ready for what? That barely matters. It’s the attitude evident in words spoken by Noah but straight out of Thibodeau in all his next-man-up glory.

Thibodeau is the guy who renders any personnel losses or roster shortcomings irrelevant in Chicago. As much as his players miss Rose as their offensive big gun or felt sorry for themselves and their friend Luol, on and off the court, in the days immediately after the trade, the Bulls have pushed forward with shark-like tenacity.

The Knicks, meanwhile, get lost gazing into their vast, shiny navel over whatever that day’s crisis might be, whether it’s yesterday’s shot-blocking or next summer’s free agency.

“It says a lot about their team, the character of the players in the locker room and their preparation,” New York center Tyson Chandler said after the game. “They obviously feel that they can win with whoever they throw out there. It wasn’t fun to watch, playing against them, but as a player, you can respect what they’re doing.”

Said Noah: “Y’know, people really counted us out. We’ve gone through a lot, and just to be in this position feels good. We’re happy with today. We’re not satisfied. We’re still hungry – I feel like we’re still the hungriest team playing in the NBA.”

Now compare that to Anthony’s comments after he scored 21 points on 8-of-17 shooting.

“It’s just hard to keep coming up with excuses about whys,” he said. “We’ve got to have some sense of pride just to go out there and compete. It doesn’t seem like we’re even competing right now. … It’s frustrating, it’s embarrassing. A winning attitude is just not happening.”

That’s it right there, isn’t it? A winning attitude doesn’t just happen anywhere. It isn’t happening in New York because it hasn’t been a priority of the team’s best players and of management. It didn’t happen in Denver when Anthony was there, either, in the way that the Nuggets needed.

George Karl, who coached Anthony to a string of Denver playoff berths but just one trip beyond the first round, talked with Harvey Araton of the New York Times recently about Anthony and his history of never really going “all in”.

… “I don’t think Melo understands that coming to work with the best attitude every single day is a precious commodity when you’re the best player. That’s not the same thing as playing hard. That’s bringing the total package, 100 percent focused on all the little things. Those are rare breeds. Kevin Garnett. Michael Jordan. LeBron didn’t always have it, but he has it now.

“Melo doesn’t get an A in that department — maybe not much more than a B-minus. It is, in a sense, the A.A.U. mind-set: We worked hard yesterday, maybe we can take a day off today. That’s why he really needs that player – the point guard or someone who takes on that role – to be the bridge from the coach to him.”

That’s why the talk about Anthony maybe signing with Chicago this summer troubles some skeptics, including this one. He is a culture unto himself who, so far, has swamped two organizations. Even if Rose returns as the player he was, the point guard’s personality isn’t dominant enough to prevent the Bulls from becoming “Melo’s team.” And all indications are, “Melo’s team” will be winning nothing, not now, not later, not with Anthony as the unassailed No. 1 option and presence, not with him on the dark side of 30.

Anthony increasingly needs to be the second- or third-best player on a contender, which will require him taking less money in a shorter contract if he’s even willing to leave New York. He needs a point guard more headstrong and established than him – the Clippers’ Chris Paul would be ideal or, as Karl suggested, Jason Kidd of about five years ago. He needs to bring as much good Melo as he can while shedding the bad Melo, in terms of ego, sideshows and what his old coach in Denver flat-out called selfishness.

Could Thibodeau’s drive and will impose itself on Anthony’s habits and sense of entitlement without any player-coach “bridge” from inside the locker room? Or maybe, could Noah be that guy? Anthony did call him the Bulls’ “quarterback” and “spirit of their team” Sunday.

But 11 years into his NBA career, he’s never done it. He’s been Allen Iverson with more size and less incorrigibility, a scorer who needs to have (and stop) the ball and a supporting cast fashioned around him.

Even if Anthony really wants to win – enough to leave New York, enough to give up serious dollars for four years and that fifth-year bonanza entirely – he would have to have the guts to seek out a possible champion with no assurances. He would risk signing with a better team but not the right team, getting himself two, three or even four rounds of playoffs but not necessarily a ring.

He would have to answer the question, what’s more important to him really: Two months each springtime, possibly without a payoff? Or 12 months guaranteed as a billboard in New York?

It comes down to a clash of cultures, instilled by Anthony and Thibodeau and embodied by the Knicks and the Bulls for all to see Sunday: Me vs. we.


VIDEO: Carmelo Anthony talks after the Knicks’ blowout loss in Chicago