Posts Tagged ‘Tom Thibodeau’

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

Morning Shootaround — March 1


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Feb. 28

NEWS OF THE MORNING

LeBron’s mask dilemma | Knicks eyeing Jackson as Woodson’s replacement? | OKC and Butler a perfect fit | Bulls confidence soaring during current run | Colangelo: “I tried to tank”

No. 1: LeBron’s black mask days appear to be over after just one game – Well, it was fun while it lasted, LeBron James in that black mask to protect his broken nose. Our Bleacher Report brother Ethan Skolnick broke the news that the NBA prefers LeBron wear the clear mask and no the black carbon-fiber shield he wore during Thursday night’s win over the Knicks. And according to Skolnick, this isn’t just the league being heavy handed. It’s more about them sticking to the precedent that’s already been established in regards to goggles and facial ware being clear so there is no advantage for the player who is forced to play with goggles or a mask (go figure):

In an email, Skolnick explained why the league prefers a clear mask as opposed to a black one: “The reason the league prefers the ‘clear’ is so that opponents can see a player’s eyes. They have set rules about goggles, which came into play with (Dwyane) Wade in New York in 2011.”

Defenders already have enough trouble stopping James. If they’re unable to read his eyes as a means of guessing where he plans to attack, guarding him would become even more impossible.

Still, this change will be a bummer for the Internet world. Twitter exploded with various comparisons, GIFs and Photoshop creations as King James donned the Zorro-esque mask in a 108-82 win against the New York Knicks Thursday night.

LeBron isn’t going to let the black mask go away without a bit of a fight. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reports that an appeal has been filed and that LeBron, while prepared to comply with the league’s request, would like to continue wearing the black mask. It’s complicated, of course, as is anything this seemingly trivial:

“It is our understanding LeBron used the black mask because a clear one he was comfortable with wasn’t ready,” NBA spokesman Tim Frank said.

James appealed the decision and is still trying to get clearance to wear the black mask because he likes the lightness and fit of it, a source said. He also said he liked the style and how it matched the Heat’s black throwback uniforms. It gave him no issues when he put up 31 points on 13-of-19 shooting in the Heat’s 108-82 win against the Knicks.

But James is preparing to use a clear mask Saturday, though he still may find a way to personalize it.

The black mask was a huge hit among fans, and James and several teammates posted pictures with it on social media. On Friday, the Heat started selling T-shirts with a masked James on them.

“Only LeBron can make breaking your nose look cool,” Heat forward Shane Battier said.

***

No. 2: Knicks eyeing Mark Jackson as Mike Woodson’s eventual replacement? – The Knicks are in the midst of an absolutely dreadful stretch right now, one that has brought into question the futures of almost all involved but especially coach Mike Woodson and resident superstar Carmelo Anthony. Anthony will make his own decisions about his future, this summer in free agency. Woodson, however, will see his fate decided by the Knicks’ big bosses. And if the fans get their wish, a familiar face would be the choice to replace Woodson. New York native and former Knicks point guard Mark Jackson, who happens to have a job coaching the Golden State Warriors right now, is the dream pick, according to Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News:

The big meeting took place right out on the Garden floor, for all to see.

Knicks president and GM Steve Mills and his top lieutenant, Allan Houston, were double-teaming Mark Jackson a little more than an hour before the Knicks pulled a no-show and were routed by Jackson’s Warriors, 126-103, on Friday night.

Go ahead Knicks fans, dream a little.

We can tell you on good authority, no job offer was made. We know this because it was just small talk, chit-chat among old friends.

But it was fairly obvious to everyone in the place that the Knicks have a crush on their old playmaker.

Early in the game, they paid tribute to Jackson on the big scoreboard with a nice video of his career, showing some of his highlights during his two-part career in New York.

Then came the ultimate tribute, at the end of the video, when the PA announcer introduced Jackson, saying, “Once a Knick, always a Knick.”

When they say that about you at the Garden, you know you’re family.

Even MSG Network seemed to be doing its best to give Jackson an inordinate amount of air time in its postgame coverage.

It sure does seem as if the Knicks have their eyes on Mark Jackson, out of Bishop Loughlin and St. John’s.

It’s not as if Jackson hadn’t been back at the Garden before this night. So their show of affection seemed a tad excessive.

But maybe the Garden was just sending signals about who it wants to coach down the line. Jackson got his win, which wasn’t very hard to do. His meal ticket, Stephen Curry, notched his triple-double and there were still two minutes left in the third quarter. His team rebounded nicely off a 20-point loss two nights earlier in Chicago.

Mike Woodson is walking around with a look on his face as if he knows the end is near. Well, after these final 23 games.

“I’m not aware of it, I’m coaching my basketball team, so I haven’t kept up,” Jackson said beforehand about his old team.

Of course he was playing dumb.

He called the Knicks “a dangerous team.”


VIDEO: Masked LeBron was great against the Knicks but will he make another appearance in black?

***

No. 3: Butler a good fit for Thunder on and off the court – The Thunder ended that skid with Russell Westbrook back in the lineup, courtesy of Kevin Durant‘s 30-point second half in a win over Memphis Friday night. But they’re focused on regaining their winning ways and more right now. Caron Butler is set to join the Thunder’s title quest now that his buyout in Milwaukee is complete and once he’s cleared waivers. As Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman makes clear, Butler is an excellent fit for the Thunder’s culture, on and off the court, and should be play an integral role in whatever they do going forward this season:

You’ve probably read or heard about all that he brings: toughness and experience, professionalism and character, defense and 3-point shooting.

But what few among us know is why Butler, free to sign with any team after being bought out by Milwaukee on Thursday, chose to come to Oklahoma City.

For now, all we can do is assume it’s because the Thunder gives him a chance to win his second championship. But there’s got to be something more.

That alone is something other franchises, like Miami, Indiana, San Antonio, Houston and the Los Angeles Clippers, also could offer. And the Thunder, for myriad reasons, couldn’t offer the most money or the most minutes or the biggest and best metropolis.

So what’s bringing Butler to OKC?

One reason could be the Thunder’s culture closely matches Butler’s mentality.

Butler would become only the second player the Thunder has signed after another team agreed to a buyout. Derek Fisher in the 2011-12 season became the first.

Both carried with them well-established reputations for being upstanding citizens, community-minded individuals and championship-driven players. Their attraction to Oklahoma City could say as much about the Thunder as it does about them.

It could say the Thunder is now a prime destination for players who want to win.

***

No. 4: Bulls confidence soaring after latest show of toughness – The Chicago Bulls take pride in their toughness. Coach Tom Thibodeau has instilled that in them from the start. And with leaders like Joakim Noah and Kirk Hinrich around to spread the message, it’s no wonder the Bulls are thriving during what would be tumultuous times anywhere else. They know that no matter the circumstance, no matter who is or is not in uniform, they will compete to the very end. They showed off that intestinal fortitude in an eye-opening comeback win over the Dallas Mavericks in Dallas Friday night. It was the Bulls’ eighth win in 10 tries. They are cut from a completely different cloth than any other team in the league in that regard, notes Nick Friedell of ESPNChicago.com:

The difference between the Bulls and many other teams in the league is that they rarely lose focus on what they are trying to accomplish. They believe in themselves and they believe in coach Tom Thibodeau’s system. They believe, no matter how good their opponent might be, that they can win each night. That’s why, when they got into a 16-point hole in Friday’s first half and had to knock down shots late in the game, their demeanor never changed. They never stopped believing that tough defense and big shots would be the elixir against a Mavericks team playing some of its best basketball of the season.

“I just think we didn’t panic,” Bulls forward Taj Gibson said, “I think guys understood what we have to do. … We’re just focused right now. Our defense is really clicking. Our offense is really clicking. Guys are really taking big-time shots, we’re never panicking late, we’ve been in this situation. Our poise is just through the roof right now and we’re really in a rhythm.”

That’s the key for Thibodeau’s team as it streaks into March. The rhythm Gibson talked about was missing before the turn of the new year. The same Mavericks team came into the United Center in late December and beat the Bulls by 22 points. Gibson and his teammates are finding ways to adjust on the fly, something that was apparent in the defining fourth quarter, when the Bulls tightened up their defense and held the Mavericks to only six makes from the field in 25 attempts.

“We’re tough whenever we’re playing defense,” Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler said. “Rotating, getting into the ball. I think that’s where the basketball starts for us. We let our defense dictate our offense.”

The Bulls are only going to go as far as their defense takes them this season. That’s why Friday’s comeback win meant a little more to them. They realized yet again that they have the ability to shut down good teams on the road — a trait that will serve them well in the playoffs. They realized that they could overcome their surroundings, as Mavericks owner Mark Cuban barked at officials under the basket and Dallas assistant coaches Mike Shedd and Mike Weinar screamed out most of the Bulls’ sets whenever Thibodeau made a call. It’s games like this, victories like this, that remind the Bulls just how important the little things are to winning.

“I feel like when people call you resilient that’s a compliment,” Noah said. “But we just got to stay hungry, stay hungry, keep this mindset, we got punched in the face early in the game, we stuck with it and we kept fighting. I think that’s what this team represents. We got one of our best wins of the year today.”

***

No. 5: Ex-Raptors boss Colangelo: “I tried to tank” – The Colangelos, the first family of basketball to many, has upheld the NBA shield for decades. But Bryan Colangelo, the former boss of both of the Phoenix Suns and Toronto Raptors, admitted committing the cardinal sin for a franchise when admitted to trying to tank with the Raptors a couple of years ago. Colangelo came clean on a panel discussion at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston. Colangelo said he did so during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, a move he said was a basic necessity for the Raptors, given their predicament at that time. USA Today Sports’ Sam Amick delivers the details:

As part of a Basketball Analytics panel in which a current proposal was discussed in which the league’s draft lottery system would be replaced by a structure in which the incentive for losing would be eliminated, Colangelo shared the sort of story that the NBA community is well aware is somewhat commonplace but that executives typically keep to themselves.

“I like (the proposal) because there’s no assurances (of getting a good pick) when you do tank,” Colangelo said. “Admittedly, I will say, I tried to tank a couple years ago.

“And I didn’t ‘come out and say, ‘Coach (Dwane Casey), you’ve got to lose games.’ I never said that. I wanted to have him establish a winning tradition and a culture and all of that, but I wanted to do it in the framework of playing and developing young players, and with that comes losing. There’s just no way to avoid that, but I never once said, ‘You’ve got to lose this game.’ “

Colangelo reflected on the ripple effect of that season, as the Raptors finished 23-43 and ultimately drafted Terrence Ross out of the University of Washington with the eighth pick. Because Toronto had finished with the same record as the Golden State Warriors, they had a coin flip to determine which team picked first.

Less than a year later, Colangelo was, in essence, replaced by former Denver Nuggets general manager Masai Ujiri. Colangelo stepped down as team president three months later.

“Just one less loss (that season) would have put us in a coin toss for (the Portland Trail Blazers’) Damian Lillard potentially (he was taken sixth), and that was a need that we had on our team that year, a point guard need,” Colangelo said. “So it would have kind of taken us on a whole different route in this rebuilding process, and of course if we had lost a lot more games we would have had better odds to get (the New Orleans Pelicans’) Anthony Davis, the big prize that year. We’re looking at it, and it didn’t work out.

“There’s no assurances (in the lottery). I do like the certainty of the (proposed) process. I think there are some merits to obviously take it to the next extent, except I wish we could start it sooner because there really is some ugly basketball being played.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Friday night was a bonanza for mercurial performances around the league. Not only did Kyrie Irving go off for his first triple double … but Goran Dragic scored a career-high 40 points in the Suns’ win over the Pelicans … and Jordan Farmar made Los Angeles Lakers fans forget their woes, at least for a moment, with a career-high 30 points of his own in a win over the Sacramento Kings … Rachel Nichols sat down with Nets center Jason Collins for an in-depth interview about the veteran big man’s journey back to the NBA … and finally, the “Fire Woodson” chants and boos are getting louder and louder at the Garden

ICYMI of The Night: Steph Curry, needed just three quarters to record a triple double and help the Warriors dump the Knicks at Madison Square Garden 


VIDEO: Steph Curry loves working at Madison Square Garden

Driving Oscar To The Hoop


VIDEO: The Starters pick movie roles for some of the NBA’s biggest stars

It was just last week when LeBron James had to disappoint fans in the basketball and cartoon worlds by shooting down rumors that he was getting ready to star in “Space Jam 2″.

Oh, what heartbreak not to have LeBron and SpongeBob SquarePants go toon-on-toon against Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny to settle the G.O.A.T. debate once and th-th-th-at’s all, folks!

But with the Oscars ready to tip off Sunday night, it occurs to us that there were plenty of movies released in the past year that could use a slam dunking NBA touch:

Monuments Men — Who needs a fourth stone head to construct a Mt. Rushmore in Miami when more than enough in their own granite-hard trio to chase a third consecutive NBA title? Everybody from Indiana to OKC and points all around are trying to steal away with the priceless Larry O’Brien Trophy, but LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are counting not one, not two, not …


VIDEO: LeBron James makes his famous ‘Mt. Rushmore’ comments to Steve Smith

Frozen — After winning the MVP award in 2011, Derrick Rose has the next two seasons of a budding superstar career put on ice with major injuries to both knees. A hopeful city of Chicago that was ready to usher in the post-Jordan championship era has turned cold.

American Hustle — When Rose went down on Nov. 22 and was once again lost for the season, everyone expected his teammates to roll over. They even traded away a big offensive gun in Luol Deng, but producer Tom Thibodeau has done a combover and is pulling off the greatest con since ABSCAM with the Bulls sitting at No. 4 in the East with home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference.

The Lego Movie — First-year general manager Sam Hinkie arrives on the job in Philly and promptly locks himself in his room, where he spends all hours of the day and night trying to fit together dozens of little pieces into something that will one day look like a competitive basketball team. Or a rocketship.

Almost Human — He’s almost tall enough to bump his head on the backboard, but has 3- or even 4-point range from practically anyplace on the court. Not since the menacing Gort touched down in “The Day The Earth Stood Still” has anyone appeared as unstoppable as box-office smash Kevin Durant.


VIDEO: Kevin Durant has simply been on fire in February

Vampire Academy — The front office in Brooklyn hatches a plan for world domination by forming an army around the walking undead creatures of 36-year-old Paul Pierce, 36-year-old Jason Terry and 37-year-old Kevin Garnett. But rather than biting opponents on the neck, they were mostly toothless, ineffective and scared nobody.

Paranormal Activity — It was one to thing leap over a Kia at All-Star weekend and turn every game into a slam dunking highlight reel. But Blake Griffin eventually tired of being typecast and under new director Doc Rivers has worked on his shot, expanded his repertoire and now does unearthly, inexplicable things that nobody thought possible just a couple of years ago.

Dallas Buyers Club — For all the money, all the bombast and all the talk about positioning the Mavericks to be big players in the free-agent market and getting Dirk Nowitzki a superstar playmate after dismantling his 2011 championship, Mavs owner Mark Cuban struck out on Chris Paul and Dwight Howard. Right now, he’s where he used to be: stuck in the sale aisle at Sam’s Club.

Gravity — He’s 35 years old, has played 17 full NBA seasons, has more miles on his odometer than a hand-me-down pickup truck and is trying to come back from a torn Achilles tendon and a fractured knee. Yet, 16-time All-Star Kobe Bryant simply won’t acknowledge what Isaac Newton learned sitting under the apple tree — what goes up, must come down.


VIDEO: Kobe Bryant talks during the All-Star Game about being a spectator this season

Philomena — When the losingest, ugliest, most painful season in modern team history finally and mercifully limps to the end, executive VP of player personnel Jim Buss fires Mike D’Antoni and at a star-studded Hollywood news conference. Buss then introduces a 68-year-old Irish widow with a vaguely reminiscent limp, wearing a gray wig and with a familiar twinkle in “her” eye and says Phil-omena is back to put everything right with the Lakers.

I, Frankenstein — Team president Larry Bird wasn’t happy enough with having the best record and the most fearsome, downright scary defense in the league that was sewn together with Paul George, Roy Hibbert, David West and Lance Stephenson. He performs more surgery in his lab by adding Evan Turner to bolster his Pacers bench and now thinks he’s ready to take down that other monster: the Miami Heat.

The Nut Job — Everybody in the world thought Dwight Howard was out of his mind for the way he slow-walked his ugly departure from Orlando and then bolted out the door of the royal Lakers, leaving $30 million on the table. But who’s crazy now as Howard rides tandem with James Harden and has the Rockets looking like one tough nut to crack in the playoffs?

Despicable Me — As if he hadn’t done enough already to polish his reputation as someone who cannot be trusted as the cornerstone of a franchise and leader to take the Kings back to the playoffs, DeMarcus Cousins doesn’t even bother to get one of his minions to slug Patrick Beverley in the stomach and just does it himself, earning a fine and one-game suspension.

Endless Love — Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and TNT sideline reporter Craig Sager team up for a buddy movie where they criss-cross the country in an old VW bus, stopping at thrift shops to buy old horse blankets and bedsheets while exchanging long hopeful questions and grumpy one-word answers.


VIDEO: Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has some good-natured fun with Craig Sager

The Wolf Of Wall Street — He bats his eyes at the Lakers. He flirts with the Bulls. He head fakes in the direction of any other would-be suitor that will glance his direction and then, Carmelo Anthony decides he’s got the world on a string living the high life … and hungrily signs on for a repeat performance of his lone wolf act. Then, the reviewers in the New York media give him a standing ovation and immediately declare the Knicks contenders.

Pompeii — After Isiah Thomas and Jerome James and Amar’e Stoudemire and Raymond Felton and Andrea Bargnani, a massive volcanic eruption like the one that came from Vesuvius in 79 A.D. hits Madison Square Garden. The past is finally buried under a blanket of lava, giving away at last to a new beginning.

Yoked To Amnesty, Boozer Grinds On


VIDEO: Steve Aschburner discusses the state of the Bulls

CHICAGO – It’s been said before (maybe in this very space) that Carlos Boozer is the prototypical modern professional athlete, his Under Armour matched by a top coat that is equal parts Teflon, Kevlar and calluses.

The Chicago Bulls power forward has been a target for critics, be they ticket buyers, microphone wielders or keyboard jockeys, for most of his 12 NBA seasons and particularly so since the summer of 2010, when he was the Bulls’ consolation get in that offseason’s free-agent shopathon. If it wasn’t for a game that barked louder than it often bit (“Hold dat!”), it was for all those muscles that seemed more show than go.

For the past couple of seasons at least, Boozer has been the target of nearly non-stop speculation over Chicago’s likelihood of shedding him via the amnesty clause in the league’s latest collective bargaining agreement. Signed to a five-year, $75 million deal as a piece to an imagined Bulls championship, he and his salary have seen longer as an impediment to that. A segment of fans and media has grown impatient as each season passes, Boozer still in residence, emoting, slapping at the ball and sitting down the stretch of close games.

Look, we come here to assess Boozer, not to praise him. He does what he does. He is what he is and, for that matter, always has been. And at some point, you have to admire the tenacity and respect the unflappability.

“It’s easy [to tune out critics],” the veteran forward said Wednesday after putting up 15 points and 13 rebounds in a surprisingly uncompetitive 103-83 victory over Golden State at United Center. “That’s why I’ve been in the league so long. Twelve years, and just focus on what’s in front of you.”

Boozer is having another Boozer season, only slightly less so. His shooting percentage is at a career-low 45.5 percent and, though he’s making free throws more often than ever (77.6 percent), he’s taking a near-low of 3.0 per game. He has dipped to a just-average PER (15.0), using basketball-reference.com stats, compared to 20.1 for his first 11 seasons and 19.7 as recently as 2011-12.

And yet, Boozer almost is a mini-Timmy, much like the Spurs’ Hall of Fame-bound Tim Duncan, in his unfailing consistency for more than a decade. Compare his numbers per 36 minutes this season at age 32 with those he posted in his third year, 2004-05 in Utah at age 23, and across his career:

  • 2013-14: 18.0 points, 10.6 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.5 blocks, 7.6 FG, 16.6 FGA
  • 2004-05: 18.4 points,  9.2 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.5 blocks, 7.3 FG, 14.0 FGA
  • Career: 18.8 points, 11.0 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.5 blocks, 7.8 FG, 14.9 FGA

This season, Boozer fussed a little over being yanked down the stretch of close games, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau tending – as he had been for three seasons – to trust backup Taj Gibson‘s defense. He has missed six games to injury, compared to three in all of 2012-13. His accuracy is down, as noted earlier. His lift at the rim is almost non-existent many nights. And his on-court/off-court net impact is way off (minus-4.8) from his career mark (minus-0.7).

Still, Chicago is 12-6 when Boozer posts a double-double. A scout at Wednesday’s game said: “I like his game more than a lot these [other scouts]. He’s not a good individual defender but he’s all right as a team defender.” And through two tumultuous seasons of Derrick Rose injuries and the Luol Deng trade last month, Boozer’s constancy has been almost reassuring.

“He’s playing well. And we need it,” Thibodeau said Wednesday. “The thing is, I look at he, Joakim [Noah] and Taj as three starters. I look at their production at the end of every night, it’s very, very good. I think we’re getting great play up front, and that’s been a huge key for our team. The rebounding is huge for us. Then the fact that we can throw the ball in to Carlos on one side, to Taj on the other, that’s another weapon that we can go to.”

Said Boozer: “We bring the juice, man, we bring the juice to this team. It’s very … loud (laughs), very passionate and we try to hold the front down inside.”

The question remains open: Will the Bulls amnesty Boozer after this season? Conventional wisdom suggests that any time a team can clear $16.8 million off its salary cap and luxury-tax liability with minimal downside, it should. But paying Boozer all that money not to play or, worse, to post his 14 points and nine rebounds for some rival at a bargain, double-dipping rate might not set well with Jerry Reinsdorf, the Bulls’ cost-conscious chairman.

It could, in fact, feel like a luxury tax of its own, especially if Chicago doesn’t try to dredge out serious cap space for this summer’s class of free agents, focusing instead on 2014-15 improvement from Rose’s return, the luring of stashed Euro forward Nikola Mirotic and the draft.

Meanwhile, whether for the next two months of the regular season and however long the Bulls last in the playoffs or for 15 months of the same, Boozer goes blithely along. His curtain publicly seems as impervious as the great and powerful Oz’s, though teammates have peeked behind it.

“I’m proud of ‘Los,” Noah said, “because I know ‘Los is going through a lot. For him to bring the intensity he brings every night, with everything that’s said about him and the future, even playing time – I mean, there are a lot of issues that are probably frustrating for him. But for him to come out here, practice the way he practices, come ready to play every day, it shows what kind of guy he is and I really respect that.”

Said Gibson: ” As a whole, we all help him out. We all ride with him. We really don’t think about what the outside world says about us, ’cause we understand some people are going to go against us no matter what. … Thibs just tells him, ‘Don’t worry about that stuff. Go out there, play basketball and have fun.’ He’s having fun. He’s laughing all the time. In the back of your mind, you want to think about [criticism] but as a team, we try to take his mind off that.”

Morning Shootaround — Feb. 12


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Feb. 11

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Motivated LeBron backs up Rushmore talk | Latest loss strikes a nerve with Lakers | Bennett’s big night lifts Cavs | No comeback for Rose, Noah problem for Bulls

No. 1: Fired up LeBron fuels Mount Rushmore talk himself – Agree or disagree all you want with LeBron James and his assertion that he’ll be on the NBA’s Mount Rushmore when his career ends, you have to like what all of the chatter is doing for his game and the Heat’s season. The Heat might not be on their way to another 27-game win streak, but James has found the motivation needed to overcome the rough patches of this season. LeBron is feeling his words right about now, Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com writes, he’s walking the walk and backing up all of his own talk:

James’ seasonal slogan might just as well be what he said Tuesday, “I’m feeling good right now.”

He has the occasional frustration with a wayward loss, such as over the past weekend in Utah when he played a dud game. He’ll get a little irked when it’s mentioned that Kevin Durant may have closed the gap on him for best player on the planet status. But, generally, James has been skipping on air since he stood on top of the podium after Game 7 in Miami last June holding both gold trophies with that “what can you say now” grin across his face.

The mindset will eventually be challenged but not for awhile. Until then, James will be feeling quite good about himself.

That was at the root of why he was willing to declare in a recent interview with NBA TV that, “I’m going to be one of the top four that’s ever played this game, for sure. And if they don’t want me to have one of those top four spots, they’d better find another spot on that mountain. Somebody’s gotta get bumped.”

When James listed what he felt was the current NBA Mount Rushmore, he named Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Oscar Robertson. It is hard to decide which would create more conversation, James’ statement or his choices of the peer group.

Feeling so good about himself and put at ease by interviewer Steve Smith, James continued by claiming that he’d been cheated in the NBA Defensive Player of the Year voting the past two years.

“To be honest, I feel I’ve been snubbed two years in a row [on the award], and I’m serious,” James said. “And that’s one selfish thing about me … I feel like I should have won it.”

Yes, that is James insisting that he’s not getting enough credit for something. He’s just letting it all go. In the golden era of his career, he clearly figures, why shouldn’t he? He fears no reprisal and, at least now, isn’t too worried about any opponent.

“We’ll play anybody, it doesn’t matter,” James said as he was basking in the win. “It doesn’t matter who it is. We’re not running from anyone.”



VIDEO: LeBron James talks Mount Rushmore with Steve Smith

***

No. 2: Latest loss strikes a nerve with Lakers – Steve Nash exiting a second straight game with a nerve issue is problem enough for the Los Angeles Lakers. But dropping yet another game on their home floor is perhaps even more troubling for the Lakers, a team quickly falling down the rabbit hole of this season. Tuesday night’s loss to the Utah Jazz marks the Lakers’ sixth straight home loss at Staples Center, once a fortress of solitude for the team … but no more. Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times explains just how severely off track things are for Kobe Bryant‘s crew:

Home bitter home.

The Lakers used to consider Staples Center a haven of victories, a bedrock of five championship runs since the building opened in 1999.

Now they might as well play at a local park.

They lost to the lowly Utah Jazz on Tuesday, 96-79, falling to 8-15 at home and losing six consecutive games at home for the first time since 1992-93.

It’s the cherry on top of several scoops of problems.

Steve Nash left the game for good at halftime, felled again by the same nerve irritation in his back that sidelined him almost three months.

The nerve damage starts in the back and presents itself in his hamstring, making it feel as if it’s strained or pulled.

Whatever euphoria he felt last Friday — 19 points and five assists against Philadelphia on his 40th birthday — was almost absent after Tuesday’s game, though he tried to be upbeat.

“I think I need a little more time to get over the hump,” he told The Times.

He considered sitting out before tipoff but knew the Lakers were short-handed without six injured players.

Nash didn’t look quite right while he played, totaling two points and two assists in 17 minutes. He made one of four shots in his 10th game this season.

The Lakers are shrugging. They don’t know exactly what to do.

“I imagine it’s day to day. I don’t know anything else,” Lakers Coach Mike D’Antoni said of Nash’s status. “I haven’t really talked to him.”

Nash’s injury dented some mild excitement the Lakers felt before the game. They were expecting five of their six injured players back shortly after this weekend’s All-Star break.

The lone lingering one, though, was Kobe Bryant, who might be the last Lakers player to return, according to a person familiar with the situation.

He continues to have swelling and pain in his fractured left knee and figures to trail Pau GasolJordan FarmarJodie Meeks and maybe even Xavier Henry in getting back to the court.

***

No. 3: A breakout night for rookie Bennett lifts Cavaliers – It’s taken a while, months basically, but Cleveland Cavaliers rookie Anthony Bennett has finally decided to join the party. Bennett, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 Draft had his breakout game in a win over the Sacramento Kings Tuesday night in Cleveland. It was a much-needed breakthrough for Bennett, whose season has been anything but spectacular up to this point. While Michael Carter-Williams, Trey Burke and Victor Oladipo have all moved past him in the Rookie of the Year race, Bennett is doing well to just ease his way into the public consciousness right now. Mary Schmitt Boyer of the Plain Dealer explains:

Rookie Anthony Bennett drilled a 3-pointer and threw his arms up into the air to celebrate late in the Cavaliers 109-99 victory over the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday night at The Q.

“I was just having fun,” said Bennett, who registered his first double-double with career highs of 19 points and 10 rebounds in 29:45 as the Cavs avenged a 124-80 loss in Sacramento on Jan. 12 and improved to 19-33, winning three in a row for the first time since Dec. 7-13.

When was the last time he had fun on the basketball court?

“I don’t remember,” Bennett said. “Today?”

The timing was bittersweet as Bennett, whose selection as the No. 1 pick in the 2013 NBA Draft has been widely criticized, and his slow start undoubtedly contributed to the firing of general manager Chris Grant last week.

“I’m sure Chris Grant is smiling at home, and deservedly so,” said Sacramento coach — and former Cavs assistant under Mike BrownMike Malone, whose team dropped to 17-35.

Bennett, who had shoulder surgery before the draft last summer and was unable to participate in summer league, has been coming early to practice and staying late, working to regain the form that made him a star last season at UNLV.

His teammates celebrated with him after Tuesday’s breakout game.

“He played a heck of a game tonight,” Kyrie Irving said. “It was awesome. I was a fan.”

Added Luol Deng, who led the Cavs with 22 points, “He’s going to get it. These kind of games are going to come more often.”

***

No. 4: No return for Rose this season, Noah problem for the Bulls? – Hoops fans in Chicago have played this game before and lost, so there is no reason to dive in again this time. Derrick Rose, no matter how many times he hits the floor to shoot before the Bulls play, is not coming back this season. It is NOT happening … right? But if All-Star center Joakim Noah has his way, the dream of a Rose return is still alive. That said, if Noah keeps up his current ways (a triple-double Tuesday night in a win over the visiting Atlanta Hawks), it’ll be much easier for Bulls fans to stomach another season without Rose in uniform. Joe Cowley of the Sun Times delivers the details:

The door was closed — slammed shut months ago by Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau when he said Derrick Rose was lost for the season after tearing his right meniscus Nov. 22 and undergoing surgery.

On Tuesday, center Joakim Noah wedged his size 18 foot into that door, keeping the dream alive for a small minority that believes in unicorns, dragons and quick Rose recoveries.

Asked if he thought Rose could play this postseason, Noah said, ‘‘That’s not my decision. That’s nobody’s decision. It’s all about how he feels. Regardless of what happens, we’re going to be supportive.’’

It went by many different names last year: ‘‘The Return,’’ the Rose watch, the story that wouldn’t die. But in the end, the Bulls never ruled Rose out for the season in his recovery from a torn left anterior cruciate ligament, so hope stayed alive until the final minutes of a Game 5 loss to the Miami Heat in the second round of the playoffs.

The consensus on ‘‘The Return II’’ has been that there wouldn’t be one. But Noah’s comments came on the same day Rose was going through shooting drills with reporters watching, and the story gained legs again — little ones.

‘‘He’s working really hard,’’ Noah said. ‘‘He’s always around the team, being a great leader, showing support to his teammates. Just watching him work every day, I think, is extra motivation for us to go out there and go harder.

‘‘He’s doing a lot more than shooting around. He’s in the gym nonstop, just working on his body getting better. That’s what it’s all about. He’s a big part of this team. He has that mentality of having no regrets. Just give it everything you got. If you can go, you can go. If you can’t, you did everything you could to make it.’’

Thibodeau said Rose was running on the treadmill, but when asked if that was a new development, he quickly said no.

‘‘Still nowhere close to practicing or anything like that,’’ he said, ‘‘but he’s doing well overall.’’


VIDEO: The Fan Night Top 10 delivers a dazzling array of highlights for your viewing pleasure

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Charlotte Bobcats, following the lead of the Phoenix Suns, are simply playing too well to tank … Portland forward Nic Batum can’t fight it anymore, gives up the kudos to Kevin Durant as the best (one-on-one player in the league) … The streak continues for Kyle Korver, thanks to his work in his old stomping grounds … The Miami Heat’s core group is doing the heavy lifting right now and might have to the rest of this season

ICYMI of the Night: NBA TV’s Steve Smith dives deep with LeBron James in this exclusive interview, and yes, there’s more to the interview than the Mount Rushmore talk …


VIDEO: LeBron James talks about what motivates him with NBA TV’s Steve Smith

Emotions Well Up On Road-Weary Bulls


VIDEO: Bulls lose big to Kings in Sacramento

Some percentage of sports is acknowledged to be mental (or emotional or psychological or whatever words you choose to distinguish the thinking-and-feeling stuff from the physical). Fifty percent, some coaches will tell you. More than that – 75 percent – others may contend. Or as Yogi Berra allegedly liked to say, “Ninety percent of this game is half mental.”

The Chicago Bulls, at the moment, are all mental.

Before, during and after their 99-70 loss to the Sacramento Kings Monday night, the Bulls in fact were a hot mess. The most obvious and video-worthy of them was center Joakim Noah, who momentarily lost his mind after being banished in the third quarter with his second technical foul. Noah erupted, going into his own Al Pacino-esque, “You’re out of order! You’re out of order!” movie-courtroom rant, only he directed his wrath and his pointing at three referees rather one judge.

But the Bulls’ center, typically a ball of emotions in the calmest of times, has had plenty of company lately. Forward Carlos Boozer is irritated with his benchings in fourth quarters (he has played only 128 of his 1,314 minutes, less than 10 percent, after the third quarter). Coach Tom Thibodeau is frustrated that Boozer hasn’t absorbed the reasons for those benchings – primarily, backup Taj Gibson is a more stalwart defender, even as he improves offensively – and general manager Gar Forman is disappointed that Boozer shared his irritation with reporters before the team’s shootaround Monday morning at Sleep Train Arena.

Gibson, meanwhile, probably is confused by a wild-hair trade rumor that A) makes no sense for the Bulls, B) seems built off the flimsiest of dots-connecting, and C) makes no sense for the Bulls. Wing Jimmy Butler is flummoxed, or ought to be, by his miserable shooting – 36.8 percent and 27.6 from the arc, after 46.7 and 38.1 in 2012-13.

Reserve Mike Dunleavy should be feeling a little cranky about now, since – to use team chairman Jerry Reinsdorf‘s adjective – this “mediocre” trudge through the schedule wasn’t what Dunleavy imagined when he signed last summer, nor was the trade speculation hovering over him for the next couple of weeks.

And naturally, the whole lot of them sure are forlorn over the loss of point guard Derrick Rose to a second season-ending knee surgery and the subsequent trade of forward Luol Deng as a bag-it move to avoid luxury tax. Deng is heading toward free agency and was unlikely to re-sign at Chicago’s price, so why go into the onerous tax and lock in repeater status for, y’know, a mediocre season?

All of which illustrates that the NBA challenges players’ minds as much as, maybe even more than, their bodies. Mental toughness is a must for teams that want to not just survive but achieve, and really accomplish big things.

The same Bulls team that reeled in the immediate wake of Rose’s injury, losing 12 of 15 in a month’s span, had righted itself through some very physical tactics: Defense and effort. The Deng trade on Jan. 7 sent Noah into a funk, yet he appeared to channel his emotions then into rousing individual performances, stringing together double-doubles and growing his point-center role in the offense.

Now, however, Chicago is halfway through a six-game, 13-day “Ice Show” trip that forces the team out of United Center each year at about this time. A 2014 that began with nine victories in 11 games, bumping them above .500 at 21-20, has turned into a 3-4 slip since. They’re on the road through Sunday, they missed 56 of 78 shots against the Kings’ defense – the Kings’ – and their offense is off the rails (less than 90 points in four of the past five games).

The whole we’ve-seen-this-movie-before storyline, with Rose declared out till October, is wearing on everybody – players, coaches, management, fans – and the Bulls are stuck between their usual plucky selves and the upside-down allure of stumbling their way into the lottery for a deep draft.

Until the Bulls wrap their heads around what’s left of this season, and what it is they really want to be or achieve, there’s nothing physical (other than reliable health of the players who remain) that will help. This is mental.

“The one thing about this league – things can change quickly on you,” Thibodeu told reporters in Sacramento. “And they have. So it went from good to bad very quickly. And just as quickly as it has gone from good to bad it can go from bad to good again. We gotta change. We gotta have more urgency. We gotta work our way out of this.”

Actually, they need to think their way through it.

“We can’t get mired in personal dilemmas,” Thibodeau also said. “You got to get into the team. Get into the circle. That’s what we need to do.”