Posts Tagged ‘Toronto Raptors’

Morning Shootaround — April 10


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played April 9

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Vogel’s gamble pays off | Casey unhappy with Raptors’ defense | Brown: Sixers need a ‘star’ in Draft | Cavs look ahead to next season

No. 1: Vogel’s gamble plays off for Pacers — The NBA world was abuzz yesterday afternoon after word came that Pacers coach Frank Vogel was benching his entire starting five of Paul George, Lance Stephenson, George Hill, David West and Roy Hibbert to give them some rest against the Bucks. Milwaukee gave Indiana quite a fight, but thanks to a late shot from little-used reserve Chris Copeland, the Pacers took home the win. That, coupled with Miami’s loss in Memphis last night, gave Indiana the No. 1 spot in the East again and may have proven Vogel’s move to be worthwhile. Our Steve Aschburner was on the scene in Indiana and has more on the game:

This was a risky move, risky on the verge of panic, for coach Frank Vogel to sit down – to rest, en masse – the five guys who have defined the Pacers’ largely successful season. But there they sat: Paul George, David West, Roy Hibbert, Lance Stephenson and George Hill, from beginning to end, mere spectators and cheerleaders Wednesday night at BMO Harris Bradley Center.After multiple consultations between Vogel and the players, among Vogel and President Larry Bird and the coaches — and a heads-up courtesy call to NBA headquarters in hopes of avoiding any fines — the Indiana coach shortened his bench by whacking his starters. He did, from the rationale he gave, what he should have done in February or March, if only the alleged wear, tear and fatigue from season’s first five months had shown itself before the sixth.

“We accomplished the purpose,” said George, who spent the game in warm-ups after getting in some conditioning and shooting. “We felt very comfortable with the group we had, that they were going to go out there and get us a win. It wasn’t like we were sacrificing the game. We game-planned. Coach really drilled and worked hard with the unit he put out there.”

Copeland missed just one of his eight shots, scored 18 and was good for four of the Pacers’ 11 3-pointers. Backup point guard C.J. Watson returned after missing 13 games, and his impact shouldn’t be understated; Indiana is 47-14 when he plays, 7-11 when he doesn’t. The Pacers outshot the Bucks and had 26 assists to 11 turnovers.

“Served the purpose,” said Vogel. “We got the starters the rest that hopefully will help them find their rhythm, and we let our bench guys get extended minutes so they could get comfortable. Evan Turner hasn’t been that comfortable in a Pacers uniform.”

How badly have the starters needed a breather? The math says very: the five Pacers have averaged 2,521 minutes, which might not seem excessive (32.8 per game). But compared to the deftly managed San Antonio Spurs, the difference is considerable. The five Spurs who have played the most have averaged 1,934 minutes. That gap of 587, doled out 30 minutes at a time, is nearly 20 extra games’ worth.

“It was a weird feeling, sitting out a game,” Hibbert said. “But I was really happy for those guys. They’ve been working extremely hard the whole season. To see them go out and play, and not have to worry about making mistakes and having the starters come back in, I was really happy for ‘em.”

Hibbert said getting the game off was both a physical and mental health day, and none of them seemed to need it more. The big fella hit some sort of wall Sunday against Atlanta, playing just nine minutes, going scoreless with no rebounds, then languishing on the bench through the second half in some sort of bad body-language funk. He was way more engaged in this one, encouraging the reserves, snarling toward the crowd a few times.

When Indiana visits the Heat on Friday, its starters will have gone five days – more than 120 hours – between games.

“We probably haven’t had that since the season started,” Stephenson said. “Any rest can help us right now.”


VIDEO: Pacers score a close win in Milwaukee

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No. 2: Casey fretting over Raptors’ defense — No team has been more of a surprise in the Eastern Conference this season than the Atlantic Division-leading Toronto Raptors. The team is just one win away from both clinching the franchise’s second-ever division crown and also tying the record for wins in a season. Despite all the good feelings of the season, though, coach Dwane Casey is a bit concerned about Toronto’s defense as it barrels toward the playoffs. Doug Smith of the Toronto Star has more:

They are a game away from matching two historic moments in franchise history; a win away from a division title, a victory away from equalling the win total of the best Raptors team ever — and the anticipation is building all around them.

But having watched his team scuffle through another bad defensive night against a vastly inferior opponent, coach Dwane Casey is more worried than celebratory.

“My whole goal now is to get better defensively going into the next couple of weeks because if we don’t, it’s going to be a short ride,” Casey said after the Raptors beat the Philadelphia 76ers 125-114 at the Air Canada Centre on Wednesday, Toronto’s second straight stinky defensive performance.

“Collectively, our defence has to step up. We can’t expect to outscore people 125-114 and have a game like that,” he said.

“It’s a mindset. You can’t look at their records, whoever we play. New York (Toronto’s next opponent) will be a little different but the other teams (minnows Detroit and Milwaukee also remain on the Raptors schedule) that are not in the playoffs, we can’t look at that. We have to play our game and look to improve.”


VIDEO: Raptors coach Dwane Casey discusses the team’s win over the Sixers

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No. 3: Brown: Sixers need a ‘star’ in the Draft — As a former longtime assistant coach of the San Antonio Spurs, Philadelphia 76ers first-year coach Brett Brown knows how drafting a go-to superstar can shape a franchise. He saw what Tim Duncan has done for the Spurs over the years and now that he’s leading his own crew, Brown knows that Philly needs a star in the 2014 Draft if it hopes to keep its rebuild project moving along quickly and smoothly. He talked with Tom Moore of the Bucks County Courier-Times about that, Michael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel and more:

“I think it’s important,” Brown said during a 10-minute interview after Tuesday’s practice. “I think it’s really important.

“Stars want to play with stars. And it’s too early to say anything about Michael (Carter-Williams) or what you can project Nerlens (Noel) out to be. Just because somebody’s chosen high in the draft doesn’t mean they’re going to be a star, either.”

The Sixers, who are likely to finish with the second-worst record, would have a 19.9 percent shot at the No. 1 overall pick and a 55.8 percent chance to choose in the top three. They also own five second-round selections.

One potential top-three pick, talented Duke freshman forward Jabari Parker, who said he might come back to school after an early NCAA tournament exit, has arranged housing for his sophomore year, according to a Duke source. While that doesn’t mean he’ll stay, it shows he’s seriously considering remaining a Blue Devil for another season.

Brown is eager to see rookie center Noel, who sat out the year as he recovered from a torn ACL, play one of the Sixers’ two summer leagues. Noel and Carter-Williams won an AAU national title as members of the Boston Amateur Basketball Club (BABC).

The Sixers acquired Noel with the No. 6 pick in last June’s draft from the Holiday deal and Carter-Williams went No. 11.

“They have had such a great history together in their Boston AAU days,” said Brown, a Maine native. “I can see how they have a bond, a connection, a relationship. Those things are priceless.

“I think it’s ‘hoop karma.’ To get two young players that are used to playing with each other at such a young age as our first-round draft picks last year and my own experiences in Boston — maybe something’s aligned where we can pull off something special together.”

Brown is adamant that Carter-Williams, who leads all first-year players in scoring (16.7 points), assists (6.3), rebounds (6.1) and steals (1.9), should become the Sixers’ first NBA Rookie of the Year since Allen Iverson in 1996-97.

“Absolutely zero (doubt in my mind),” Brown said. “And forget my opinion — look at his game and look at the stats. You can easily say — some people will — it’s because he played on a poor team or he played with the fastest (offensive) pace in the league or he got 34 minutes a night to do his thing. Those are true facts.

“But when you go a layer deeper and you say look at his game. Look at what he actually does. Project him out.”

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No. 4: Cavs try to look forward to next season — The Cleveland Cavaliers tried to make a big splash in the offseason, signing center Andrew Bynum, guard Jarrett Jack and swingman Earl Clark months after drafting Anthony Bennett with the No. 1 overall pick. The thinking was adding those pieces to a core that included All-Star Kyrie Irving and budding frontcourt player Tristan Thompson would equal a playoff berth. The exact opposite happened as Cleveland sputtered out of the gate, dealt with Bynum drama mid-season, fired its GM and, in short, failed to live up to every expectation. The Cavs’ playoff hopes officially ended last night and as Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon-Journal writes, being home for the playoffs stings a little more this time for the Cavs:

It seemed almost poetic in this season of uncertainty that one of the Cavs’ finest performances would be tarnished by their ultimate demise.The offensive efficiency was brilliant Wednesday, the ball movement was electric and the outcome was emphatic. Only none of it matters anymore, since the Cavs’ 122-100 victory against the Detroit Pistons was washed away 36 minutes later by the Atlanta Hawks’ victory over the Boston Celtics, thereby officially eliminating the Cavs from postseason contention with exactly one week left in the season.

“It’s an empty feeling you have now that your chances are done,” Kyrie Irving said. “You think about the things you could’ve done, should’ve done — it’s inevitable.”

“That type of basketball, the stuff we saw out there tonight, that’s the way we want to play most of the time,” Mike Brown said. “We’ve played that way quite a bit. We’ve taken our lumps at times, but our guys have gotten better and it shows.”

Only it all came too late to save their postseason lives.

The Cavs will be haunted this summer by their 4-12 November that included losses to the woeful Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers. They lost twice to the Boston Celtics and were embarrassed at home by the injury-ravaged Los Angeles Lakers.

Those are the types of losses that ultimately will deny the Cavs their first trip to the postseason in four years.

“One of the things that eats at me is the first couple of months, the transition we went through just not being able to win a few more games,” Brown said. “It’s tough and you have to play almost perfect basketball. It puts a lot of pressure on you as the year goes on. You wish you had some of those games back so we could experience playing past April.”

The Cavs were mathematically eliminated from the postseason before March concluded last season, and while a huge assist for their extension this season is the woeful Eastern Conference, the fact remains the Cavs played meaningful games in April and remained in the hunt until exactly one week remained.

That is progress from a team that won only 24 games last season …

“I feel good about the direction we’re going,” Brown said. “We have to keep understanding that every time we step out we have to grow and get better. … There will be times we’re going to take some steps backwards, but hopefully we don’t take too many steps backward these last few weeks of the season.”


VIDEO: Kyrie Irving talks about the win and missing out on the playoffs

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Bulls are reportedly close to signing former reserves Mike James and Lou Amundson to deals … Pau Gasol confirms it is unlikely he’ll play again for the Lakers this season … NBA commissioner Adam Silver sees ads on jerseys as both a “viable” source of revenue and an “inevitable” thing … The Bobcats’ Michael Kidd-Gilchrist talks about his ex-high school teammate Derrick Gordon, the UMass basketball player who recently came out as gay … Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman knew that Bulls center Joakim Noah was primed for a big game last night … Aaron Brooks has enjoyed his time in Denver and wouldn’t mind re-signing with the team

ICYMI of the Night: The Bulls’ Taj Gibson is one of the better finishers around the rim in the NBA, but Ronny Turiaf of the Wolves was having none of that last night … 


VIDEO: Ronny Turiaf gets up to deny Taj Gibson’s dunk … and his follow-up attempts

 

 

Blogtable: Finding a new playoff gear

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: All-NBA center | Coaches in danger | Playoff team needs new gear



VIDEO: Bobcats big man Al Jefferson talks about Charlotte’s hopes for a long playoff run

Which playoff-bound teams (give me two or three) will play up to another level in the grind of the playoffs? Who will have trouble playing as well as they are now?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: I start with the second question (ever notice how most respondents do?): Phoenix and Washington could suffer most from the just-happy-to-be-there approach, the Suns overachieving their way in (if they get in) and Washington desperate to qualify but with no real postseason experience. Atlanta figures to be a quick out but then, the Hawks haven’t played all that well anyway. Shifting into a better gear? Charlotte’s defense is suited to the playoffs and, if the Bobcats face the sideways Pacers, that could get interesting. Chicago always is a team to avoid, but that’s just the way the Bulls grind all the time, not due to any next level. I’d add Golden State, because their coach will feel urgency and the Warriors’ offense can get so dangerously hot.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: The Spurs, Thunder, Heat, Bulls, Clippers will rise. The Pacers, Raptors, Nets, Blazers will drop. Why? It’s pretty self-explanatory. The first five teams look like legit contenders while the latter four are not ready for the grind of the playoffs for one reason or another. In particular, the Pacers look like they’re ready to crater.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com:Oklahoma City has fought through Russell Westbrook‘s situation and injuries to two starters in the final quarter of the season, plus acclimating Caron Butler, so put the Thunder at the top of the list for teams that will play up. It seems weird to put Miami in this category, but the Heat have been coasting. They know what’s at stake starting April 19. Also give me Brooklyn’s vets. On the other side, I expect Dallas, if it gets in, will have trouble reaching another level. And, Toronto, with relatively little playoff experience, could be in for an early disappointment — especially with potential first-round foe Washington expecting Nene‘s return.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: The Heat will play up to another level. They can read a calendar as well as anyone. All that talk about the fatigue from carrying the trophy overhead for so many years? Ignore it. This will be the playoff Heat. Maybe someone beats Miami, but the Heat aren’t handing anything over. And the Thunder will play up to another level. Westbrook will be playing big minutes and won’t have to worry about back-to-backs, Kendrick Perkins should have his minutes up and Thabo Sefolosha will have been back about a week and a half and in a good rhythm.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: I’ll always look at defense to answer a question like this. The Warriors have gone through some controversy and have seemingly been treading water around the No. 6 seed for a while, but they’ve been the best defensive team in the Western Conference, with top-flight defenders on the perimeter (Andre Iguodala) and the interior (Andrew Bogut). That’s a formula for playoff success. For the same reasons, Chicago and Charlotte will be tough outs. Oklahoma City has had some defensive issues of late and could be in trouble if they match up with Phoenix, because no team has been more efficient against the Thunder this season.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: The Brooklyn Nets look like one of those teams you don’t want to tussle with in the playoffs. The same goes for the Portland Trail Blazers and Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference. All three have endured their fair share of troubles at some point this season and yet all three seem to have another gear they can get to in the postseason. I love what the Toronto Raptors are doing right now but I wonder if they’re ready for what coach Dwane Casey knows awaits them in the playoffs. They have put together a fantastic season that should be highlighted by an Atlantic Division crown. What comes after that, however, is the problem. A potential first-round matchup against either Washington or Charlotte could be a rough ride.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball blog: Waaaay back in October I was high on the Clippers and the Nets. And while Rick Fox and Sekou Smith may have made fun of me on the Hang Time Podcast for going all in on those teams, I’ve always felt that these were teams that would improve as the season went along, and I think they both have done exactly that. In the postseason, Chris Paul has always turned things up a notch, and now he has the players around him to be as dangerous as he’s ever been. And we’ve all seen how Brooklyn can handle Miami, so I think they’re in as good a place as they could be.

Blogtable: Pacers, Heat … then what?

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: The rest of the East | The MVP of the Clippers | Phil Jackson’s debut



VIDEO: The Starters break down John Schuhmann’s weekly NBA.com Power Rankings

> OK, so it’s Miami and Indiana. How do you see the rest of the East shaking out?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: No one should want to be No. 7 or No. 8, no matter how vulnerable Miami or Indiana has looked in recent weeks. That creates some serious pressure from down under in the East bracket even if the newly invigorated Knicks do not. Six games separate Nos. 3-8, which could make for a wild finish. But I expect the current order to hold. Toronto is the best of the bunch overall, followed by the ever-overachieving Bulls. Brooklyn and Washington each might think it is better off facing the Raptors, but then, there’s that nuisance of going back and forth through customs in a long series. Charlotte is just happy to be there and Atlanta, as the sub-.500 entry, is just lucky to be there. Viva la status quo! (Oh, and the Raptors, Bulls and Bobcats have the best chance of making upset mayhem in the conference semifinals, depending on matchups.)

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: Since the Knicks have won six in row, we know from past experience that things will soon turn bad. I don’t expect them to creep into the playoffs just because of Phil Jackson’s Zen magic. The Cavs are also dead. So we have the eight teams. It’s only a question of the order. I could see the Nets beating out the Wizards for No. 5. But do they want to walk into a possible 4-5 first round meeting with the meat grinder that is the Bulls? I could really look forward to a first round series between the Heat and Bobcats. Charlotte is a team that finally has a purpose and a direction and Al Jefferson could make things interesting.

Carmelo Anthony (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE)

Carmelo Anthony (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE)

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: Of course you have to be impressed with Toronto and the job coach Dwane Casey has done in the final year of his contract. And coach Tom Thibodeau and the Bulls, what more can be said about this group’s resiliency? But check out the Brooklyn Nets. Coach Jason Kidd has figured out a thing or two, not the least of which is how to stalk a sideline. The talent on this team has really shown itself since the calendar turned to 2014. Deron Williams has endured injury and struggle and is playing some of his finest ball of the season. Joe Johnson‘s been solid. Paul Pierce has seemed to finally embrace the journey. The addition of Marcus Thornton has provided a nice jolt. Put it all together and the Nets are a savvy, veteran ballclub that won’t wilt under pressure.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: The Bulls get past the Raptors, the Nets get past the Wizards, and the Bobcats stay in the top eight. Most of all, I see the playoff group is set. The Knicks have some forward momentum so breaking in wouldn’t be the biggest surprise. But the jockeying will mostly be within, the order of the first eight. One of the subplots will be getting to at least sixth to avoid a 1-8 or  2-7 with the Heat and Pacers.

John Schuhmann, NBA.comThe Bulls have the easiest remaining schedule (they have six more games against the Sixers, Bucks, Celtics and Magic), so they should grab the 3 seed, with Toronto, Brooklyn and Washington finishing behind them in that order. There’s very little chance that Charlotte or Atlanta budge or win more than one game in the first round. Those 3-6 and 4-5 series should be a lot of fun (even though Bulls games are the ugliest in the league) and the teams with the experience (Chicago and Brooklyn) should have the edge. But I love that we have some fresh blood in there with the Raps, Wiz and future-Hornets.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: I think the eight Eastern Conference playoff teams we’ll see in mid-April are the same eight teams that are occupying those spots today. New York and Cleveland had their windows of opportunity to catch the Hawks for that eighth and final spot in the standings (the Hawks lost almost every time they hit for the floor for dang near an entire month and still had a cushion). Whatever that 3 through 8 breakdown is at the end of the this regular season is almost inconsequential to me. In fact, I joked to Lang Whitaker and Rick Fox last week on the Hang Time Podcast that we should go ahead and play the No. 3-vs-No. 6 and No. 4-vs-No. 5 series, whoever matches up in those spots, give the Pacers and Heat a first-round bye and tell the bottom two teams that we appreciate all of your hard work but there is no need in you getting your noses bloodied merely for our entertainment.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball blog: One of the teams that is currently in the playoff picture — but only one team — will not make the postseason. I think Atlanta is due for a run, after their long losing streak, and even as well as Charlotte has played of late, my guess is they’ll hit a tailspin as we head down the stretch. Which means? That’s right, Phil Jackson’s New York Knicks will make a late push and qualify for the playoffs. They don’t have their own Draft pick anyway, so why not go all out?

Simon Legg, NBA Australia: I think it will stay as-is, meaning that the Knicks won’t make it. The eight teams that are in there should stay, it’s just going to be a question of where they’ll all finish and who will secure third and fourth position –  and that hugely important home court for the first round. Charlotte and Atlanta seem to be the obvious candidates to finish in seventh and eighth, but the battle between Toronto, Chicago, Washington and Brooklyn will be intriguing. Just 2.5 games separates those four teams.

XiBin Yang, NBA China: The Bobcats really played some good games after the All-Star break. Al Jefferson has reached his summit of career, and he demonstrated that he could play some solid defense, if the coach is able to establish an effective system. Maybe they could make a leap in the last month. The schedule of Brooklyn is better. So, if the Nets continue to embarrass their opponents, maybe it’s not so far away to see them eventually seize a home-court advantage in the first round.

Morning Shootaround — March 7


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 6

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Leonard delivers against LeBron, Heat | James open to talking with Pacers’ GeorgeNoah has sprained thumb | Raptors to use retro unis next season | Hornacek proud of Suns’ improvement

No. 1: Leonard proves difference against LeBron, Heat — Third-year Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard has only been back in the San Antonio lineup since Feb. 26 after missing a couple of weeks with a broken hand. Since his return, the Spurs have gone 5-0 and won four of those games by 10 points or more. Last night, in the Spurs’ 24-point romp of the Miami Heat, Leonard proved crucial in frustrating star LeBron James all game long. Our own Fran Blinebury was on the scene and has more on Leonard’s impact on the victory:

Hitting the runway in his league-mandated attire, James clanked open jumpers, had layups roll off the rim and missed a dozen of the 18 shots he attempted.

Or just maybe it was the 6-foot-7, 230-pound Kawhi Leonard that he had to wear like an annoying hair shirt up and down the AT&T Center court all night long.

“He’s a good young player,” James said.

Yes, and Kate Upton would make an acceptable prom date.

Long, larcenous and learning how to assert himself in an orbit just outside the Tim Duncan-Tony Parker-Manu Ginobili triangle, Leonard is exactly the kind of disruptive force that would fit perfectly into the Heat’s attacking, pressuring, blitzing defense.

These finally are the Spurs as they hoped they’d be back when training camp opened with the scars still fresh from the painful seven-game loss to Miami in The Finals last June.

This is the Leonard that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich once labeled “the future face of the franchise” and yet the same Leonard that Popovich says still defers too much at times to the three veterans that anchor the lineup.

“I tell him, ‘The hell with those other guys. Just play your own game and forget about them,’ “ Popovich said. “He is just growing day by day. He is starting to feel confident in his role and taking pride in being a defender and a rebounder first. Then, [he needs to work on] letting his offense come naturally and not thinking about it too much.”

Leonard missed 14 games with a broken bone in his right hand before returning to the lineup a little more than a week ago and it’s since then — with improved health of the entire roster — that the Spurs have begun to look like a team that not only has an ax to grind, but is capable of swinging it deep into another playoff run. He officially got credit for five steals, but there were so many other times when he changed shots, altered passes, forced the Heat to try to go around him, effectively disrupting their rhythm.

“He was a pest,” said Duncan. “That’s what we need him to be. He stuck his hand in there, knocked some balls away, got some steals. He contested shots…So we need him to be that kind of guy.”

The guy who makes LeBron James rip off his uncomfortable mask in frustration and point a finger of blame at those form-fitting short sleeves on his jersey.

A tailor-made hair shirt for the occasion.


VIDEO: Kawhi Leonard talks about his play in the Spurs’ win over the Heat

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No. 2: LeBron open to chatting with Pacers’ George — As we mentioned in this space yesterday, Pacers swingman Paul George told BasketballInsiders.com recently that he hopes to one day talk with Heat star LeBron James about a variety of topics. Would James be interested in having such a conversation? According to Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com, LeBron has an ‘open door’ policy with other players on such a thing:

LeBron James would be open to mentoring rival Paul George this summer if he’s asked by the Indiana Pacers’ star, James said Thursday night.

In an interview this week with BasketballInsiders.com, George said he hoped he could spend some time talking to James this summer to get some advice.

“It would be great to be able to pick his brain, pick his mind and just talk about the game because I think he’s a player that can help me get to the next level and continue to keep going to the next level,” George said. “I wish some day we have that relationship where he is someone I can talk to — not during the season because I’m too competitive during the season — but maybe in the summertime.”

James’ Miami Heat and George’s Pacers have faced off in the playoffs in each of the last two seasons and currently are in a heated race for the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. James has worked out with rivals during past summers, notably the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Kevin Durant.

“Pick [my brain] like Hannibal Lector?” James said jokingly. “You know me, I don’t mind it at all. I don’t mind giving guys [advice], whatever he wants to ask. Guys know I have an open door/phone policy.”

***

No. 3: Noah has sprained thumb — All-Star center Joakim Noah suffered a thumb injury against the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday night and his status going forward may be in question. Nick Fridell of ESPNChicago.com has more on Noah’s injury, which is being termed a minor one:

UPDATE: Noah is expected to play tonight vs. the Grizzlies per coach Tom Thibodeau

Initial tests run on Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah’s injured right thumb revealed a sprain, according to a league source.

It is unclear whether Noah will have to miss any time or will be available to play Friday night against the Memphis Grizzlies.

Noah injured the thumb during Wednesday night’s win against the Detroit Pistons. He didn’t want to go into detail about the injury after the game, calling it just a “boo-boo,” but he did wear a protective brace on it as he headed out of the Palace of Auburn Hills.

The Bulls have to be extra cautious with the injury. Noah has become their most valuable player and is in the midst of the best stretch of his career. He racked up his second triple-double in three games in Wednesday’s win as a focal point on both ends of the floor. More importantly, Noah tore ligaments in the same thumb during the 2010-11 season and had to miss two months after having surgery to repair it.

The key for the Bulls will be to see how he responds to treatment. He has shown a high pain threshold in the past, having played with the ligament tear for almost a month before having surgery in December 2010.


VIDEO: Bulls.com takes a look at Joakim Noah’s impact on the team this season

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No. 4: Raptors to wear original jerseys for select games next season — Over on the All Ball Blog, our own Lang Whitaker has kept track of any and all possible uniform changes for the Toronto Raptors, with talk of a black-and-gold number the most common topic of discussion. While we have no idea if or when the Raptors will change their colors, one thing is certain: they are going back to the purple “dino” jerseys for select games next season. Raptors.com has more:

The Toronto Raptors announced today the return of the team’s original purple jersey for select home games during the 2014-15 season. The throwback uniform will be worn as the franchise celebrates its 20th Anniversary in the National Basketball Association.

“We are excited to bring back a piece of team history as part of our 20th Anniversary celebration,” said Masai Ujiri, President and General Manager of the Raptors. “Our fans have shown affection for the original purple uniform and I think our players will enjoy the chance to wear them next season.”

The front of the uniform top features the unique Raptors font in silver with the team’s dinosaur motif in action with basketball in hand. The uniform showcases the original team colours of Raptor Red, purple, black and Naismith Silver, the latter in honour of Dr. James A. Naismith of Almonte, Ontario, the multi-faceted Canadian who invented basketball in 1891. The uniform also features the unique jagged pinstripe design.

The club will announce details at later dates regarding 20th Anniversary events to be held throughout the 2014-15 campaign.


VIDEO: Raptors will go back to the ‘dino’ unis for select games next season

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No. 5: Hornacek proud of every player’s improvement on Suns — As another week of the NBA is nearly in the books, the standings continue to sport the Phoenix Suns in the middle of the Western Conference playoff chase. That something few thought we’d be able to say in early March about this Suns team, but Phoenix has taken pride all season in exceeding expectations. From new coach Jeff Hornacek to a rag-tag bunch led by Goran Dragic and Co., the Suns seem to have improved in every way imaginable from last season. As Paul Coro from The Arizona Republic notes, Hornacek has trouble picking any one player who has improved most:

When you are arguably the NBA’s most improved team, singling out which player has improved the most is like choosing a favorite child.

Suns coach Jeff Hornacek can’t do it.

“They’ve all done something more than they’ve done last year,” Hornacek said.

The Suns are vying for most improved team with Portland but with a completely different dynamic. The Suns had three players who were on the active opening-night roster for each of the past two seasons. They had a first-year head coach with a new staff. The canvas was blank for roles and reputations, creating an environment for many players who were still trying to prove themselves in their careers to advance as Suns.

As the sage veteran, Channing Frye was just trying to rediscover his game after a year away from basketball. He has seen the maturation in teammates around him and gives credit to that environment created by Hornacek and the front office.

“They felt like this year they’re going to get a real opportunity,” Frye said of his teammates. “We all do something different and so they’re flourishqing in that role. When you have a coach like Jeff, even though you make mistakes, you’re still going to get opportunities if you put in work outside the court. With some teams, they go in as the one piece and that piece is interchangeable and they don’t feel like they’re important. But everybody on this team is important. Everybody is doing the best they can and staying ready every night.” The reason we’ve been successful is, at any moment, somebody could get their chance so they’re staying ready. That is really the pressure for everyone to constantly get better and be ready and to really embrace what we’re trying to do.”

Frye calls it a tie for most improved Suns player between Gerald Green and Markieff Morris.

Green, on his seventh NBA team, was coming off two seasons in Russia and a season in Indiana that ended with him out of the rotation and on the trade block. Now, he averages more than 15 points, increasing his 3-point shooting percentage from 31.4 last season to 38.1 this season, entering Thursday night’s game, with 6.3 attempted per game.

“The coaches have really done a great job of putting us in places to be successful,” Green said. “Everybody gets an opportunity to go out there and play. Jeff has confidence in everybody. A lot of coaches don’t do that. He’s just so positive and has so much energy and faith in us.

“I still feel like I’ve got a lot to learn and a lot to prove. I still have so much that could get better.” I could get better at my ball-handling. I could get better at my defense. I could get stronger. I feel like my decision-making could get better. My pick-and-roll could be better. I’m blessed to have the season we’re having but to me, if we don’t make the playoffs, this season means nothing to me.”

Yet, each one of the three veterans has improved.

“You learn the game a little bit more,” Hornacek said. “The young guys learn more with their skills and adjustments to playing every night and more minutes whereas the veteran guys learn the little things, things that maybe they couldn’t score on in their first three or four years, they’re now knowing the little nuances of the game that they’ve seen over and over and over and they feel comfortable and maybe more relaxed.”

Dragic’s rise has been more celebrated because he turned into a star in the absence of Eric Bledsoe, who might have been a Most Improved Player frontrunner had he not been hurt twice this season to only play 24 games. Dragic’s perimeter shooting has been the vast improvement but he also has better command of the team in half-court offense and draws fouls more than ever.

“Goran has stepped his game up to another level,” Hornacek said.


VIDEO: Gerald Green and the Suns discuss their upset win over the Oklahoma City Thunder

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: LeBron James has been given the OK by the Heat to attend Zydrunas Ilgauskas‘ jersey retirement ceremony on Saturday … Great feature on everyone’s favorite Milwaukee Buck: Giannis Antetokounmpo … The Wizards are reportedly ‘likely’ to sign forward Drew Gooden to a second 10-day contract … Wolves center Nikola Pekovic is being kept on a strict minutes limit … Blazers All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge says he’s been forcing shots of late

ICYMI of the Night: With two blowouts in the books last night in San Antonio and Los Angeles, we figure it’s a good time to give Gerald Green some shine after his 41-point night against the Thunder …


VIDEO:Gerald Green scores 41 points as the Suns top the Thunder

Morning Shootaround — Feb. 18

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Report: Raptors interested in Rondo | Reports: Nets pursuing Jack, Hill | Report: Wolves, Grizz talking trade | Report: Knicks interested in Hawks’ Teague | Kidd went against D-Will in recent practice

No. 1: Report: Raptors showing interest in Rondo — Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry, in the midst of a career-best season, has helped Toronto climb to the top of the Atlantic Division standings and has the team poised to end its lengthy playoff drought. But Lowry is also an unrestricted free agent this summer and whether or not he’ll be with Toronto in 2014-15 is very much an unknown (our David Aldridge spelled out some details on his future there a few weeks ago). Lowry remains a target of the New York Knicks (see below) and his current team appears to have eyes on another star point guard. According to Ryan Wolstat of the Toronto Sun, the Raptors are in multiple point guard-related trade talks, the foremost being a discussion to bring Celtics All-Star Rajon Rondo to Toronto:

UPDATE, 11:43 a.m. ET: Now, it seems, the Knicks are getting in on the Rondo action, too, per this tweet from ESPN.com’s Marc Stein:

UPDATE, 11:08 a.m. ET: While Rondo continues to have his name tossed about in trade rumors, Sean Devaney of The Sporting News reports that it is unlikely that the All-Star guard will be dealt before Thursday’s deadline:

As has become the custom, any period of NBA trade activity features Celtics guard Rajon Rondo prominently. Also customary, though, is this: Sources told Sporting News this week that there is very little chance the Celtics find a deal involving Rondo this year.

“It really is the same thing, teams call about him but the Celtics want him and he wants to be the leader of that team,” one source said. “It has always been his intention to establish himself in that role, to be part of the rebuilding and to stay in Boston for a long time. Nothing has changed.”

The Toronto Sun reported that the Raptors also inquired about Rondo, but a source told Sporting News that, unless there is a multi-team deal, Toronto does not have the assets to land Rondo. Which has been typical of the conversations involving Rondo for the last two years — teams call and ask, the Celtics give an idea of what it will take to make a deal happen, and the conversation ends there.

Rondo can be a free agent in the summer of 2015, and while preliminary discussions on a contract extension were held, the sides were never close to agreeing to a deal. Boston’s long-term plan is to focus on the summer of ’15, when they might be able to pair Rondo with some member of that year’s free-agent class, which could include Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Roy Hibbert, Marc Gasol, Tyson Chandler, Brook Lopez and DeAndre Jordan — some of the league’s best big men.

Add the Celtics’ two picks in the stocked upcoming draft to that mix, and Boston will be ready to be a playoff team again after just a short retooling.

Of course, if the right deal comes up before that, the Celtics would make it. But it is unlikely that such a deal would include Rondo.

Here’s Wolstat’s earlier report on Rondo:

Ahead of Thursday’s trade deadline, the Raptors have been involved in talks with multiple teams that would change the team’s point guard situation significantly.

With the New York Knicks continuing to aggressively pursue Kyle Lowry, who has turned in a career season, Toronto has explored complicated deals that would bring back a replacement for the soon-to-be free agent.

It’s no secret Boston has dangled four-time all-star Rajon Rondo league-wide and while the asking price is steep, he has piqued the interest of Toronto’s front office, according to multiple sources. Toronto is eager to up its “star” quotient and is also enamoured with Rondo’s resume, particularly his four all-defensive team selections (two all-NBA first team). He has many backers in the organization.

Rondo would not come cheaply. Bulls.com’s Sam Smith said the price is believed to be “two unprotected first rounders” while one source told the Sun the ask is a combination of at least one lottery pick and talented young player.

Knicks owner James Dolan reportedly nixed a deal earlier in the season and Lowry responded by playing the best basketball of his career. He’s sixth in the league in three-pointers made, eighth in assists per game and sixth in win shares. With the future of star forward Carmelo Anthony uncertain, Dolan apparently has reconsidered as New York looks to improve its roster.

Sources confirmed that Atlanta is also aggressively shopping young point guard Jeff Teague, despite matching Milwaukee’s four-year, $32-million offer sheet to Teague last summer. Teague, who had a tremendous start to the season, has struggled mightily since the Hawks lost all-star big man Al Horford to injury. Teague could be a cheaper, fallback option in either Toronto or New York, should those team’s preferred choices fall through.

On the Boston side of things, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge is still mulling what to do with Rondo and the team’s many other assets:

“The public probably views us more as sellers than as buyers,” Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge told the Boston Globe recently. “But I do think that people around the league know that we have some good players — good veteran players, good young players — and lots of draft picks. I’ve had calls for both.

“I’ve had teams contact me with the idea of trying to acquire young players and draft picks, and I’ve had teams that have called that are looking to get some of those. And I’ve had teams that have called looking for some of our veteran players as well. I think it just depends on who you talk to, but I think everybody knows that we have a lot of young assets.”

Assets, yes. The Celtics potentially have as many as 17 draft picks over the next five years, 10 in the first round.

“Again, I think that we’ll be opportunistic. We’re just waiting for an opportunity to do something good. And I think it’s important, again — you can’t force these opportunities. You can’t just be so hungry for a deal that you try to do a deal. You’ve got to be patient. At the same time, you’ve got to be aggressive.”

In previous years, the Celtics were looking to add a piece or two that could help with a postseason push, but that isn’t the case now with the team 19-35, the sixth-worst record in the NBA.

“I think the difference between other years and this year is that there’s a lot of different directions we could go,” Ainge said. “In past years, we’re focusing on just getting better for the playoff run. And now, we’re looking for possibilities of flexibility, young assets, things of that nature, but, at the same time, [we’re] opportunistic for any deals that could come along and speed up our rebuilding process.”

Said Ainge: “If our record were reversed, I think there would clearly be a different role at this point. But we are what we are. I think that I’m more concerned with how we’re playing, how individuals approach their job, who’s developing as a player and fitting in with our new coach and our system and how that will work. There’s a lot of things to consider.”


VIDEO: The TNT crew discusses Rajon Rondo working himself back into game shape

***

No. 2: Report: Nets interested in Cavs’ Jack, Lakers’ Hill — Neither the Cleveland Cavaliers nor the Brooklyn Nets are where they’d thought they’d be in the Eastern Conference playoff race when the season began. As such, both teams are reportedly interested in making trades and may end up doing business with each other — with the Los Angeles Lakers also thrown into the mix — as the trade deadline draws closer. Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports has news on a potential Lakers-Nets swap while ESPN.com’s Marc Stein and Ohm Youngmisuk has info on a Cavs-Nets trade being bandied about

Here’s Wojnarowski on a potential trade that could bring Jordan Hill to Brooklyn:

The Los Angeles Lakers have had discussions on a deal to send forward Jordan Hill to the Brooklyn Nets, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

The Nets have a $5.25 million disabled player exception that they can use in a trade or free-agent transaction until March 10, and could use a portion to absorb the remaining $3.5 million on Hill’s expiring contract.

Nevertheless, the luxury tax penalty on absorbing Hill’s contract would be extraordinary for Brooklyn: Nearly $17 million. Hill could give the Nets a capable power forward and center replacement for a run at the postseason, but ultimately ownership would have to be willing to sign off on expanding its record $190 million-plus combined payroll and luxury tax.

And here’s Stein and Youngmisuk on a trade between Cleveland and Brooklyn that would land Jarrett Jack in Brooklyn and Jason Terry in Cleveland:

The Brooklyn Nets are interested in acquiring Cavaliers point guard Jarrett Jack and have had discussions about a potential trade with Cleveland involving Jason Terry, according to sources briefed on the talks.

The Nets (24-27) emerged from the All-Star break sitting 3½ games behind the Atlantic Division-leading Toronto Raptors and want to upgrade their bench and backcourt.

Jack, 30, is averaging just 8.5 points on 39.7 percent shooting in 25 minutes a game in his first season with the Cavs after a strong 2012-13 season with Golden State.

Sources told ESPN.com that the Nets, eager to add a proven ballhandler and backcourt scorer to their bench rotation, are willing to take on the two remaining guaranteed seasons worth in excess of $12 million left on Jack’s contract despite the luxury-tax implications.

But it’s believed that the Cavs, if they decided to go ahead with such a move, would try to find a third team to absorb Terry’s contract. Terry, 36, has one season left on his deal after this one at $5.85 million and is averaging just 4.5 points on 36.2 percent shooting in 16 minutes per game.

***

No. 3: Report: Wolves, Grizz talking trade –The Memphis Grizzlies bolstered their team a few weeks ago with the additions of NBA D-League standout James Johnson and by pulling a trade for Celtics guard Courtney Lee. Both players have infused energy and 3-point shooting, respectively, to Memphis’ season and have helped get the Grizzlies back into the playoff mix out West. But despite that turnaround, Memphis is exploring a trade with the Minnesota that would send veteran small forward Tayshaun Prince and fan favorite Tony Allen to the Wolves for small forward Chase Budinger and guard J.J. Barea. Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports has more:

The Memphis Grizzlies are discussing a deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves centered on forward Chase Budinger and guard J.J. Barea, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Memphis wants to include forward Tayshaun Prince into the package and the deal could be expanded to include guard Tony Allen, league sources told Yahoo Sports. Components of a proposed deal are still fluid.

Memphis has been furiously trying to unload Prince and the remaining $7.2 million (2013-’14) and $7.7 million (2014-’15) on his contract, league sources said.

Minnesota general manager Flip Saunders is believed to want to add defensive toughness to his roster, and that would make Allen a natural to fill the Wolves’ void.

***

No. 4: Report: Knicks eye Hawks’ Teague, remain interested in Lowry– Back in mid-December, the Knicks nearly pulled off a trade for Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry, but that deal fell apart when New York’s brass balked at Toronto’s request for a future first-round pick. Despite that, the Knicks remain interested in trying to work a trade for the near-All-Star guard and have also shown interest in Hawks point guard Jeff Teague as well.

Marc Stein of ESPN.com has the scoop on the Teague talks:

Atlanta Hawks point guard Jeff Teague has emerged as an appealing trade target for the New York Knicks, sources with knowledge of the situation told ESPN.com.

Sources told ESPN.com that the Knicks, leading into Thursday’s 3 p.m. ET trade deadline, are calling all over the league in an attempt to upgrade at point guard.

Teague’s name has surfaced as a prime target given the Knicks’ increasing fears that their longstanding top choice — Toronto’s Kyle Lowry — will not be made available before the deadline, according to sources.

The Knicks have been chasing Lowry all season, as ESPN.com first reported in November. But sources indicate that Lowry and his advisers expect to finish the season in Toronto with the playoff-bound Raptors before he becomes an unrestricted free agent July 1.

Teague’s name has thus surfaced as a prime alternative, provided that the Hawks are willing to part with him.

The Hawks would have to be interested in Iman Shumpert – and eager to shed Teague’s long-term contract — to give New York any hope of assembling a package to land the point guard.

And Ian Bagley of ESPNNewYork.com has more on the Knicks’ continued interest in Lowry:

With the NBA trade deadline three days away, the Knicks continue to try to engage the Raptors in an attempt to acquire point guard Kyle Lowry, according to league sources.

The Knicks are offering packages including Iman Shumpert, Raymond Felton and Beno Udrih, sources say. They have been reluctant to include sharpshooting rookie Tim Hardaway Jr. or a future first-round draft pick in any deal. One of those two pieces is believed to be a prerequisite for Toronto to consider giving up Lowry.

“It comes down to, can they talk themselves into getting rid of a first-rounder or Hardaway Jr. for Lowry?” one league source said.

Recent reports have stated the Raptors are no longer willing to deal Lowry, content to see how the rest of the season plays out. Lowry has been one of Toronto’s best players, and dealing him would send a bad message to the fan base.

One scenario to keep an eye on, though, is the possibility of a three-team deal involving the Hawks and point guard Jeff Teague. Atlanta has all of its first-round picks in the next four drafts and could conceivably send one to Toronto to satisfy the Raptors’ demand for a draft pick.

League sources say a scenario in which Teague ends up in Toronto, Shumpert goes to Atlanta and Lowry winds up in New York has been discussed. Another scenario could have Teague ending up in New York. The conversations are believed to be preliminary.


VIDEO: Raptors coach Dwane Casey talks about trade deadline day nearing

***

No. 5: Kidd squares off against D-Will at Nets practiceTry as he might, Nets point guard Deron Williams hasn’t been able to consistently recapture in Brooklyn the style of play that made him an All-Star during his days with the Utah Jazz and the Nets’ days in New Jersey. In an effort to try and spark some of those old juices in his star, Nets coach Jason Kidd reportedly took to the court at a recent practice and squared off against D-Will, writes Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News:

Don’t let the tight suit fool you: Jason Kidd can still ball and still has those juices flowing.

During another disappointing and injury-riddled season for Deron Williams, Kidd stepped on the court and went head-to-head with the point guard in a spirited exchange at a recent practice, a source told the Daily News.

That’s one way to get through to the underachieving star: challenge him with Hall of Fame skills.

Exactly three years ago next week, the Nets acquired Williams in the franchise-altering deal with the Jazz, giving up a top prospect and two first-round picks for what GM Billy King called “the best point guard in the NBA.” It led to a debate about who acquired the better player at the 2011 trade deadline — the Nets with Williams, or the Knicks with Anthony.

But Williams has failed to live up to any expectations while battling injuries and confidence issues. Considering the MVP talk last summer, this season is probably the 29-year-old’s most disappointing, as he is averaging 13.3 points and 6.6 assists on 45% shooting. According to ESPN, the Nets turned down an offer to trade Williams to the Rockets, who were trying to package Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik.

“(Williams) is never going to get back to where he was in Utah,” Charles Barkley said recently. “His best days are behind him.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Pelicans coach Monty Williams doesn’t think Tyreke Evans or Eric Gordon will be dealt anytime soon … Sixers swingman Evan Turner is watching and waiting out the trade talks surrounding him … The Bulls still aren’t expected to do much at the trade deadline … Former Sixth Man of the Year Award winner Lamar Odom has signed with a team in Spain … The Celtics reportedly talked about trading Rajon Rondo to the Kings, but that discussion fizzled out … Portland is reportedly out of the running for the 2017 All-Star Game

ICYMI of The Night: The LeBron James All-Star Interview aired on NBA TV last night and it’s quite compelling, especially LeBron’s explanation of his early years with the Heat …


VIDEO: LeBron James opens up about his first season in Miami

Morning Shootaround — Jan. 28


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 27

NEWS OF THE MORNING

CP3′s return date still unknown | Nash suffers ‘tweaked’ back in practice | Report: No extension talks for Casey | La La Anthony thinks ‘Melo will stay in N.Y.

No. 1: CP3 works out, but return still unknown — The Los Angeles Clippers have done an admirable job of keeping things together since star point guard Chris Paul injured his shoulder on Jan. 3. L.A. has gone 10-3 during that span to remain in thick of the chase for the Pacific Division title. Paul continues to rehab and workout, but his return date remains largely an unknown, writes Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times:

Chris Paul got in a good, strong workout before the Clippers played the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday night.

Paul got in a good sweat shooting jumpers and runners. He got in a good sweat running up and down the court after he shot.

But Paul still is a ways away from playing because of a separated right shoulder.

The original timetable had Paul out up to six weeks, meaning he would be out another three weeks, returning sometime in mid-February.

“No one said there were any changes or a deadline or anything,” Coach Doc Rivers said. “But he feels great. I still think it’s All-Star break, in that area. I don’t think that changed.

“But he feels good. I know he’s shooting a little bit now. The fact that he can run and do the conditioning is great. But other than that, it still has to heal.”

Rivers said the final decision on when Paul will return will be up to the Clippers’ team doctors and head athletic trainer Jasen Powell.

And, Rivers said, Paul won’t be able to say he’s ready until he’s fully healed.

“On this one, this is one of those injuries where no matter how he feels, you still have to let it heal,” Rivers said.


VIDEO: Coach Doc Rivers talks about Chris Paul’s rehab work and more

***

No. 2: Nash ‘tweaks’ back, can’t practice yet — The good news for Los Angeles Lakers fans? Steve Nash‘s workouts in Vancouver with a trainer went well and he is healing up nicely from the nerve root irritation that has bothered him since Nov. 12. The bad news — if you want to take it as such — is that Nash tweaked his back in an unrelated injury and still isn’t able to practice. Trevor Wong of Lakers.com has more on the Lakers’ injury situation concerning Nash and others:

According to team spokesman, John Black, everything “went well” for Steve Nash in Vancouver while working with his trainer/physical therapist during the team’s 12-day road trip. Nash was expected to go through practice on Monday, but unrelatedly “tweaked his back,” and thus, did not participate.

“The plan for him is to have a practice on Thursday and he’s basically day-to-day,” Black said. “We’ll update you on whether he’ll play Friday based on how Thursday’s practice goes.”

Nash has been sidelined since Nov. 12 with nerve root irritation. Coach Mike D’Antoni remains hopeful the two-time MVP can return to the court again this season.

“I hope so,” D’Antoni said. “I hope for him. If anybody can do it, he can.”

Both Steve Blake (elbow) and Jordan Farmar (hamstring) have not been cleared for full practices yet, but are able to participate in basketball-related activities, as the two went through today.

“They’ll continue to ramp up through the week as they progress,” Black said. “Neither will play Tuesday or Friday, but the plan on them is to ramp up practices this week and we’ll update both of them at the end of this week.”

Blake was diagnosed with a torn collateral ligament in his right elbow and has been out since Dec. 13. Farmar, meanwhile, has been out since Jan. 3 after suffering a tear in his left hamstring.

“It was great,” he said. “I’ve been bored. That’s been the hardest thing. With this injury, you don’t feel too injured. It’s not painful; you don’t feel hurt. Just having to sit down, be patient and wait your turn, especially seeing them struggle, I just want to be out there and contribute.”

Xavier Henry (knee strain) went through some on-court work in Miami and was expected to be out another 10-14 days, but visited with a doctor today. There is no new update regarding his injury.


VIDEO: Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni talks about the team’s various injured players

***

No. 3: Report: Raptors not discussing Casey extension yet — When Dwane Casey took over as coach of the Toronto Raptors before the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, he was dealing with a team in the midst of a rebuild following Chris Bosh’s departure to the Miami Heat a season earlier. As such, the on-court product often struggled to show progress throughout his first two seasons on the job. But the Raptors appear to have turned the corner under Casey as they are 16-9 in their last 25 games and lead the Atlantic Division. Casey, despite winning his first Coach of the Month honors in December, is in the last year of his contract and is in position for an extension, but those talks haven’t happened yet with Toronto’s brass, writes Sean Deveney of The Sporting News:

With a 16-9 record in his last 25 games, a Coach of the Month award for December on his mantle and a legitimate opportunity to get the Raptors to the playoffs for the first time in seven years, Dwane Casey could hardly be blamed for pestering the Toronto front office for a contract extension.

But, as a source told Sporting News, that hasn’t been the case—there have been, “no really significant discussions,” on extending Casey’s contract, which runs up at the end of this season.

Instead, it appears that Casey and the Raptors will finish out what has been a decidedly strange year in Toronto, and re-evaluate. That’s perfectly fine with Casey, who would have no problem returning to his home in Seattle and focusing on lures and casts rather than Xs and Os.

“I never worried about having a job,” Casey said. “I say that with all sincerity. I never worried about losing a job, getting a job. Because I learned a long time ago how to fish.”

Casey says concern over his next contract has no bearing on how he is handling his team now. When the Raptors hired a new general manager, Masai Ujiri, in the offseason, there was speculation that Ujiri would immediately make a coaching change. But after meeting with Casey—the two have known each other for years—Ujiri decided to stick with the coach, for at least one more year.

“I tell players every day, whatever happens, happens,” Casey said. “I am going to get up and approach my job the same way every day, 6:30 till whenever, midnight or whatever it is, every day, regardless of how things are going, whether we are winning or not. My job is to get the ship ashore. That’s the best way for me to approach it.”

Ujiri said Casey would not be sized up by wins and losses, but by development. Oddly enough, though, development has coincided with a revival in the standings, with the Raptors playing much better on both ends of the floor, getting themselves above .500 and into first place in the Atlantic Division.

The Raptors are still developing. The winning is just an unforeseen side effect.

“It’s difficult,” Casey said. “The question has come up quite a bit. It’s the most difficult thing in sports, is have two second-year guys as our starters and trying to win and win the division at the same time. So we talk about the process, getting better every time we play or practice, moreso than wins or losses. The development of our young guys is just as important, believe it or not, for the organization as winning is.”

***

No. 4: ‘Melo’s wife expects him to stay in New YorkKnicks All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony has said he plans to opt out of his deal to test the free-agent waters this summer. He’s also said in previous interviews that he both wants to try out the free-agent wooing process and that he wants to retire in New York. So which one is true? His wife, La La Anthony, says she thinks her husband will ultimately choose to stay with New York. The Associated Press has more on the story, as does ESPNNewYork.com:

The wife of All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony says she thinks he will be back with the New York Knicks next season.Anthony has said he intends to become a free agent this summer. The Knicks can give him an extra year and some $30 million more than any other team, but their 17-27 record has created speculation he would consider leaving the team.

Speaking on “Watch What Happens Live” on Bravo on Sunday night, La La Anthony said she “definitely” thinks Anthony will stay in New York. She said he wants to stay and she supports him “where ever he wants to go.”

Anthony is averaging a team-high 27.2 points for New York, which acquired the Brooklyn native from Denver in a three-team trade in February 2011.

And here’s ESPNNewYork.com’s take on the story:

“I definitely think he will stay,” La La Anthony said in an interview with Bravo TV’s “Watch What Happens Live.” “I know that he wants to stay, and I support him wherever he wants to go.

“Listen, I used to live in Denver with him. If I can live in Denver, I can live anywhere. I just want him to be happy.”

La La Anthony playfully mocked those who speculate that she will have a heavy influence on her husband’s decision.

“I get blamed for everything. No matter what happens, it’s my fault,” she said. “[There are] all these talks if he’s staying in New York or not, [and] I’m somehow the mastermind behind if he stays or not.”

One potential destination is Los Angeles. The Lakers are among several teams, including the Chicago Bulls and Dallas Mavericks, that may have the requisite salary-cap space this summer to sign Anthony.

Kobe Bryant, a friend of Anthony’s, said Sunday that he will not be actively recruiting the Knicks forward to join the Lakers.

“Well, everybody wants to play in Los Angeles,” Bryant said when asked about Anthony’s potential interest in joining the Lakers. “I mean, New York is a beautiful place, don’t get me wrong, but it is colder than s— out here. You know, palm trees and beaches obviously are a little more appealing.

“All jokes aside, I think that players, when that time comes, will have to make the best decision for them and their families. I try not to think about it too much. If he wants to call me for advice later as a friend, I will be more than happy to give it to him.”

Anthony, who is in his 11th season, said Monday that his sole motivation is to win an NBA title.

“That’s the only thing I care about. Anything else is irrelevant to me when it comes to basketball,” he said. “Championship is the only thing that’s on my mind, is the only thing I want to accomplish, I want to achieve, and I’m going to do what I got to do to get that. That’s my motivating factor. Nothing else even motivates me anymore, just that.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: This was a bit of an early-afternoon publish on NBA.com, but our own David Aldridge delivers a solid oral history of Commissioner David Stern’s life and times in the NBA … A group of scientists are trying to determine if “team chemistry” is quantifiable … Bucks GM John Hammond gives his view on the state of the worst team in the NBA … Raptors swingman Terrence Ross gave the ball from his 51-point game to his mom … Sixers rookie Lorenzo Brown took part in an odd day-night double header — NBA D-League game during the day, and an NBA game at night

ICYMI of The Night: The Brooklyn Nets were more or less one inbounds pass away from closing the gap in the standings on the Atlantic Division-leading Toronto Raptors. Then the Raptors’ Patrick Patterson stepped in the passing lane and put that notion to rest …:


VIDEO: Patrick Patterson caps off a must-see finish in Brooklyn

Morning Shootaround — Jan. 22


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 21

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Durant boosts his MVP case | LeBron: ‘Tough’ for Heat when Wade sits | Carter reflects on Toronto days | Belinelli picked Spurs because of Ginobili | Bradley injured in loss to Heat

No. 1: Durant boosts his MVP case with play vs. Blazers — If you’re a regular reader of our Kia Race to the MVP Ladder on this very website, you know that it’s been a back-and-forth battle between LeBron James and Kevin Durant for the No. 1 spot. Durant, though, may have helped get a couple more votes — not just in our eyes, but in the public’s as well — with his monster performance last night in leading the Oklahoma City Thunder to a comeback win over the contending Portland Trail Blazers. Our own Jeff Caplan was on the scene and says that KD’s play sure looked MVP-like to him:

They’re piling on the Kevin Durant MVP bandwagon now as it barrels through Western Conference contenders with reckless abandon. Its latest victim, the Portland Trail Blazers, was left to dust off a 46-point onslaught and doff its cap as it rode out of town.

“The guy is the best player in the world right now. What can you say about him?” said Blazers forward Nicolas Batum, a salty defender who fended off the pain of a broken left middle finger better than he could Durant, the league’s runaway leading scorer halfway through the season. “When you watch him on TV, like, he is the best. When you guard him in the game, sometimes you have two guys on him and he makes the shot anyway.

“He’s the MVP. He’s the MVP,” Batum repeated, fiddling with his aching finger. “I mean, six years I have been in this league I have never seen a [performance] like that. Six years.”

Durant’s hot zone is the entire court. He blistered Portland for 11 points in the final 3:23, including a terrific drive through traffic and consecutive 3-point daggers from the top of the arc to give him six long balls on seven attempts. The Blazers’ 95-90 lead went up in smoke as did their lead in the Northwest Division. The Thunder (32-10), clamping down with an underrated or under-appreciated or simply under-talked-about defense, pulled out the 105-97 victory for their fourth consecutive win after briefly regrouping following Russell Westbrook‘s latest setback after Christmas.

They’ve knocked down Golden State, Houston, an improving Sacramento squad and now the Blazers (31-11).

Durant, classically and predictably, downplayed his brilliance and praised teammates for doing the hard work to set him up to finish things off.

“You know Perkins giving his body up for me, Serge [Ibaka] is giving his body up, Nick [Collison] and Steven [Adams] , our bigs are doing a great job of getting me open and, like I always say, it’s on me to finish,” Durant said. “So I have to put in the work before and after practice, shootarounds, in order for me to make those shots. My teammates do a great job of setting me up. It’s far more than just me; it’s a small part actually. What I do is more so plays coach [Scott Brooks] calls and the screens being set and the passes being sent. I think the end result is just on me, just trusting in the work and believing in the work to knock those shots down.”

“MVP performance,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “I mean, to score 46 points on 25 shots, 6-for-7 from 3s; I think he got two of his shots blocked. I mean it was a remarkable performance. He made shots when they mattered, he took his time, he didn’t force it, he just took what was there and made some great shots.”

“I just like our approach to the game,” Durant said. “We’re just playing hard. We’re moving the basketball. We missed some shots, but that happens. We’re just playing for each other. We just have to stick together no matter what. Defensively, I think we’re doing a good job of using our length. They hit some 3s and tough shots on us, but we haven’t gotten down on ourselves, we haven’t felt sorry for ourselves, we just kept playing and tonight is another case.”


VIDEO: Kevin Durant dominates down the stretch vs. Portland

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No. 2: LeBron: ‘Tough’ for Heat to fill Wade’s void — NBA followers are well aware the Miami Heat have made a concerted effort this season to keep the knee of star guard Dwyane Wade as healthy as possible for a long playoff run. To try and make that happen, Wade often rests in the second game of back-to-back sets and, to date, Wade has missed a dozen games this season to rest his knee. But last night’s game against the Boston Celtics marked the first time this season Wade had intentionally missed three straight game. As Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald notes, LeBron James said before the game that not knowing Wade’s status each game is proving ‘tough’ on the Heat:

With Dwyane Wade missing his third consecutive game to rest his knees, LeBron James said Tuesday that it has been difficult establishing a collective rhythm amid the uncertainty about whether Wade would be available from game to game.

“It’s tough,” James said. “Guys think it’s easy, but it’s tough. We have a team built on chemistry, built on rhythm. With so many of the guys being in and out, and the concern with D-Wade, it’s been tough on all of us. We’ve got to go in with the mindset sometimes that he’s not playing, as opposed to: Is he playing?”

Wade has missed 12 games, but this marked the first time he has skipped three in a row. He admitted feeling “a little soreness” in the knees on Monday but wasn’t available to speak before Tuesday’s game. One of the games Wade missed earlier in the season was because of flu, with “rest” listed as the reason for the 11 other absences.

“What we try to do is not predetermine and have expectations about it,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “You can’t predict it. You’re going to have some good days and some days where you don’t feel great. We know as long as we stick to the routine, he should get better, quicker and stronger. Now that we’re at home we can get back on the routine of strength training and conditioning.”

Miami entered Tuesday with a 5-6 record without Wade, compared with 11-2 last season and 14-3 in 2011-12.

“We’ve had a little more guys out than just Dwyane this year,” James said. “From a rhythm standpoint, it’s kind of hurt us. We’re a team that is built on rhythm and chemistry, and we’ve had so many guys out with injuries that it’s kind of hurt our performance.

“Me watching the film, some of the things we’ve been able to cover in the past is off. Last year, when D-Wade went out, we had Mike Miller to step in. Mike Miller was in the system for a while, so we could automatically fill that void. Now, with D-Wade out, it’s given more opportunities to guys that haven’t been in the system as many years or as many situations as Mike Miller.”


VIDEO: LeBron James talks about the Heat’s victory over the Celtics

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No. 3: Carter reflects on Toronto days — The Vince Carter era of the Toronto Raptors is one filled with mixed emotions for the player, the team and the fans. Carter burst onto the scene in the 1998-99 season and ran away with the Rookie of the Year trophy. From there came a memorable Dunk Contest performance, All-Star games, the Raptors’ first playoff series victory.  There were lowlights, to be sure, which led to acrimony between he and the team and ultimately led to him being traded during the middle of the 2004-05 season to New Jersey. As the Raptors prepare to host Carter and the Mavericks tonight, the swingman spoke with The Dallas Morning NewsEddie Sefko about his time in Toronto:

He’s as revered as any athlete in Toronto history who doesn’t play hockey, as evidenced by the dozen or so local reporters who wanted interviews with Carter after the Mavericks worked out at the Air Canada Centre practice court.

In short, he was basketball in this pucks-crazy town.

And Carter, in his second season with the Mavericks, has the memories embedded in his mind like snapshots.

“I remember when Vinsanity started, from an article [in the newspaper],” Carter said. “I remember when Half-Man, Half-Amazing started.

“I remember making the first basket here in history [at Air Canada Centre]. You can’t change that. Winning rookie of the year here, you can’t change that. Winning that dunk contest and putting Toronto on the [basketball] map, you can’t change that. Those are all historical to me. I put all three of those as one.”

At 37, Carter still gets airborne as well as some of the kids that have followed in his ozone layer. He threw down a remarkable dunk against Portland on Saturday, and he breaks out those jaw-droppers on occasion.

But when he walked into the Raptors’ practice gym, he could really appreciate the trip back in time to when his aerial “wow” moments were plentiful.

“Of all the times I’ve been back, this is probably just my second time to come back to the practice facility,” Carter said. “This is where everything was created. This is where it was all built. Me, the team, winning our first playoff game — this is where it started. This is where I can say Oak [Charles Oakley] grabbed me over there at the 3-point line and said, ‘Hey, I’m going to make you a player in this league.’ That’s where the memories were made.”

Carter played for Toronto from 1998 to Dec. 17, 2004, when he was traded to New Jersey. Carter’s jersey will be retired someday by the Raptors. It’ll happen after his career is over. It wouldn’t be surprising if Toronto signed Carter to a ceremonial one-day contract so he could retire a Raptor.

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No. 4: Playing with Ginobili helped Belinelli pick SpursA quick look at the season leaders in 3-point percentage reveals that new Spurs guard Marco Belinelli is fitting in quite well in Texas. Belinelli leads the league in accuracy from deep and is in the top 30 or so of 3-pointers made. His shooting touch has proven key for San Antonio as it is among the West’s leaders in wins as the Spurs are again chasing the No. 1 spot in the conference. Dan McCartney of the San Antonio Express-News details how Belinelli has fit in with the team and explains how he passed on bigger offers because he wanted to play with his idol — Manu Ginobili:

To hear the involved parties describe it, Marco Belinelli’s free-agent signing with the Spurs was less a transaction than a match made in basketball heaven.Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, always on the prowl for smart, competitive players to plug into his hive-like collective, had long admired the Italian combo guard.

“He’s not afraid to take big shots. He’ll make big plays,” Popovich said. “When he became available at the end of last season, that was our main goal to try and sign him.”

Belinelli, meanwhile, said he had more lucrative offers than the two-year, $5.6-million deal he eventually signed with the Spurs. But the opportunity to play for one of the best teams in the NBA, alongside long-time idol Manu Ginobili, was too good to pass up.

“I know money is important,” he said. “But I’m a young guy and I want to improve my game. Money will come. I just want to win.”

In no other area does Belinelli’s hoops IQ manifest itself better than his consistent ability to create space for himself by moving without the basketball.

Nearly 84 percent of his buckets are assisted, while he’s taken just five isolation shots all season — and missed them all. That’s a tribute to the Spurs’ emphasis on ball movement, and their wealth of willing passers. But Belinelli does his part with tireless movement, which results in more than 40 percent of his made field goals per Synergy Sports (defined as off screens, cuts and hand offs).

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No. 5: Celtics’ Bradley could miss next gameWith a combination of Rajon Rondo at point guard and Avery Bradley at shooting guard, the Boston Celtics can boast perhaps the best defensive backcourt in the game. However, Rondo has played in just three games this season (he returned from season-long ACL surgery and rehab on Friday) and is still getting his bearings on the court. But it seems that Rondo will have to work with a new running mate in the backcourt after Bradley suffered an ankle injury last night in Miami and could miss at least the next game, writes A. Sherrod Blakely of CSNNE.com:

The Boston Celtics were having a tough time with the Miami Heat early on, and it only got rougher following Avery Bradley going down with a sprained ankle injury.The 6-foot-2 guard was unable to return as Boston went on to lose 93-86 to the Heat.

While it is unclear if Bradley will play in Wednesday’s game against Washington, Celtics head coach Brad Stevens didn’t sound too optimistic.

“He didn’t seem like he was walking great,” Stevens said. “If I had to guess, I’d say no (he won’t play) but it would be a guess.”

Bradley limped off the floor early in the second quarter and immediately headed to the locker room with team trainer Ed Lacerte next to him. Moments later, team officials said he would not return.The 6-foot-2 guard, who has started in all 43 games this season, has had an injury-riddled career up to this point.

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Magic center (and Shootaround fave) Nikola Vucevic isn’t sure when he’ll return to the lineup Ricky Rubio has fun playing catch with little girl during the middle of last night’s Wolves-Jazz game … Warriors forward Andre Iguodala isn’t a big fan of playing in national TV games … Good look at the longstanding feud between Raptors fans and their former star, Vince Carter … Solid profile piece on Commissioner David Stern and his legacy in the NBA … Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau is pushing Taj Gibson for some Sixth Man of the Year love

ICYMI of The Night: Nets play-by-play man Ian Eagle makes just about any dunk call sound great and his label for Andray Blatche‘s slam over Kyle O’Quinn gives this dunk a little extra oomph: 


VIDEO: Andray Blatche powers home a jam over the Magic’s Kyle O’Quinn2014/01/21/20140121-daily-zap.nba

Morning Shootaround – Jan. 12


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 11

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Report: Knicks interested in Miller | Turkoglu impresses Doc | Report: Toronto plans to keep Lowry | Drake Night a success | Meeks nears court incentive

No. 1: Report: Knicks interested in Miller — The New York Knicks are finally hitting their stride and much of their recent success can be linked to the return of point guard Raymond Felton. Felton has missed a lot of time this season with a lingering groin injury, which conceivably could return at anytime. The success the Knicks have experienced with solid point guard play makes their reported interest in the Denver Nuggets’ disgruntled Andre Miller reasonable, as ESPN’s Marc Stein reports:

You’ll recall that the Knicks were originally at the front of the queue trying to trade for [Kyle] Lowry in mid-December when the Raps were shopping him hard in the wake of the Rudy Gay deal with Sacramento. The Knicks are now said to want to work their way into the bidding for Denver’s very available Andre Miller, but the same problem that doomed New York in the Lowry chase a month ago — limited assets to offer — doesn’t bring much hope.

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No. 2: Turkoglu impresses Doc — Longtime NBA veteran Hedo Turkoglu has made it known to contenders that he still wants to play in the league after he was waived by the Orlando Magic a little more than a week ago. He’s received interest from both teams in Los Angeles and recently put on a show for Clippers’ head coach Doc Rivers, according to Arash Markazi of ESPN Los Angeles:

The Clippers also brought in forward Hedo Turkoglu for a meeting and a workout Thursday. They liked what they saw but don’t plan on signing him anytime soon. The Clippers would have to cut a player to make room for any new additions.

“He made shots from everywhere,” Rivers said of Turkoglu. “He looked good. It was a good workout, but we’re not doing anything anytime soon, but he did look good.”

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No. 3: Toronto plans to keep LowryAfter the Toronto Raptors traded Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings, reports out of Toronto suggested that it was the first of many deals as new general manager Masai Ujiri planned to tear-down the current roster. But since the trade, the Raptors have surged and now lead the Atlantic Division with a record of 18-17. Now reports say the Raptors plan to keep point guard Kyle Lowry, who recently made his first appearance on our Kia MVP Ladder. From ESPN’s Marc Stein:

For the first time, there are certifiable rumbles emanating from Toronto suggesting that the Raptors might well keep point guard Kyle Lowry for the rest of the season. Word is new GM Masai Ujiri continues to resist locking into any sort of firm position — leaving open the possibility of a Lowry deal if the offers suddenly get sweeter — but team officials appear to be growing increasingly comfortable with the idea that it’s better to go for what would be just Toronto’s third playoff berth in 13 seasons rather than try to do the absolute uber-tanking it would take from here for the 17-17 Raps to get [a top draft pick].

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VIDEO: Drake announces Raptors starting lineup

No. 4: Drake Night a successThe Toronto Raptors made a great decision when they decided to name rapper Aubrey ‘Drake’ Graham their global brand ambassador. The first of what one would assume will be many Drake Nights was held at the Air Canada Center last night. Drake announced the starting lineup, wore this amazing suit and sat courtside next to the Raptors bench. Best of all for fans who attended the game, the Drake Night shirts which were given to each fan at the game are now selling on Ebay for $150+. Erik Koreen of The National Post writes a great recap of the night:

The great thing about Drake — and there is no irony in the use of “great” here — is the dichotomy that defines him. Sometimes, he is just so darned earnest, such an emotional open book. To the openhearted, that is wonderful; to the jaded, it is a bit embarrassing. And then sometimes, he is able to wink at that.The guy has a sense of humour about himself, which is a large part of his appeal. He charms you into liking him. If he took himself as seriously as it seems he does in his confessional lyrics, it would be absurd. The fact that he embraces the mockery, and even takes part, puts the hip-hop artist standing in as the Toronto Raptors’ global brand ambassador just on the right side of tolerable.

As soon as you want to give him, and this whole idea of him representing the Raptors, the benefit of the doubt, the preposterousness of the whole arrangement looms again.

“Tonight isn’t a Drake show. It has nothing really to do with Drake,” Drake said before Drake Night, an evening that was a glorification of Drake’s brand, only tangibly related to the Toronto Raptors’ 96-80 win over the Brooklyn Nets.

“It has nothing really to do with me. I’m just going to be sitting there. The fact that people want to come out, participate, get a free t-shirt: if that’s what it takes to put people in the stands, than every night could be Drake Night if you want.”

To be fair, Drake was  involved throughout the whole evening, not content to just sit in his courtside seats. That was a frequent criticism of Jay-Z during his short tenure as a minority owner of the Nets. Drake took over from long time public-address announcer Herbie Kuhn to introduce the Raptors’ starting lineup. Within, Drake shouted out Scarborough Town Centre, noted that Kyle Lowry kind of looks like Chris Tucker and called head coach Dwane Casey “dashingly handsome.” (“That’s not what my mirror says,” Casey said after the game) He was clearly having some fun.

During the first quarter intermission, Drake joined the team’s cheerleaders and second-string mascot, Stripes, to toss t-shirts into the sold-out crowd. At halftime, Drake’s official DJ, Future the Prince, played a brief set. After which, Drake gave out some branded Jordan sneakers, as most of the sold-out crowd looked up at the 27-year-old star in awe. Most importantly, he was visibly into the game as DeMar DeRozan took it over in the third quarter.

“I think we’re just trying to give people something exciting to look at and give them an atmosphere that’s just a little bit more invigorating,” Drake said.

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No. 5: Meeks nears court incentiveMost NBA contracts are laced with incentives. Play this many minutes, get this much money. Start this many games, get this much money. It’s a typical practice and allows teams to have some confidence that they won’t pay a player too much for limited contribution. It also allows a player to earn his worth. In Los Angeles, Jodie Meeks is more than halfway towards some pretty nice incentives from the Lakers, according to Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times:

Injuries have opened up an opportunity for Lakers guard Jodie Meeks, who has started 30 of 37 games this season.

Meeks is now more than halfway to hitting an incentive in his contract that would reward him with an additional $200,000.

According to his agreement with the Lakers, Meeks has a base compensation of $1.45 million for the 2013-14 season.

If he averages at least 20 minutes through a minimum of 70 games, Meeks will earn an additional $100,000.

Meeks hit a similar incentive last season, averaging 21.3 minutes a game to bump his $1.4-million salary to $1.5 million.

Should Meeks stay at 25 minutes a game or higher, he’ll be rewarded with an additional $100,000.

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Josh Smith hit a game-winning runner for the Pistons … The Wizards-Rockets game was lengthened due to two rain delays … Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak wants Nick Young to be a Laker for a “long time”Taj Gibson threw down a huge dunk over Bismack Biyombo

ICYMI of The Night: Brandon Jennings dished out 16 assists in the first half against the Phoenix Suns last night. Although it’s disappointing he only finished with 18 dimes (still a Detroit Pistons franchise-record), this one to Andre Drummond off the backboard makes up for the second half slump:


VIDEO: Jennings to Drummond off the window

Wolves Better Than Their Record Says


VIDEO: Kevin Love leads the Wolves over the Sixers

The List

Biggest difference, Pythagorean wins vs. actual wins

Team Wins Losses Win% PWins PLosses Diff.
Minnesota 17 17 0.500 23 11 6
Toronto 16 17 0.485 18 15 2
Golden State 24 13 0.649 26 11 2
L.A. Clippers 24 13 0.649 26 11 2
Atlanta 18 17 0.514 19 16 1
Orlando 10 24 0.294 11 23 1
Sacramento 11 22 0.333 12 21 1
Denver 17 17 0.500 18 16 1
Chicago 15 18 0.455 16 17 1

Pythagorean wins = Number of games a team should have won based on its point differential.
PWins = PTS^16.5 / (PTS^16.5 + OppPTS^16.5)

The Context

The Wolves have the point differential of a team that’s 23-11, a mark which would be good for fourth place in the Western Conference. But they’re 17-17 and 2 1/2 games out of a playoff spot. No other team comes close to matching Minnesota’s differential between their Pythagorean wins and actual wins and only two teams – Oklahoma City and Houston – had a bigger differential over 82 games last season.

How did the Wolves manage to underachieve so much in 34 games? By going 1-9 in games decided by five points or less and 8-1 in games decided by 15 or more. In the last two weeks their four wins have been by 22, 22, 12 and 31 points, while their two losses have been by two and four. After Monday’s blowout of the Sixers, the Wolves’ average margin of victory is 16.9 points and their average margin of defeat is 7.4.

So the Wolves are a better team than their record says they are. And though they’re 0-7 when trying to get back over .500 (since falling below on Nov. 25), their point differential says they should win 32 or 33 of their final 48 games. That would give them a total of 49 or 50 wins and, likely, a playoff spot.

Strength of schedule has to be taken into account. And it bodes well for the Wolves’ future as well. Of the 10 West teams at .500 or better, Minnesota has played the fourth toughest schedule. Eighteen of their 34 games have been on the road and they’ve played seven games with *a rest disadvantage vs. four with a rest advantage.

A rest disadvantage is when a team is playing the second night of a back-to-back against an opponent that didn’t play the day before. Only one team – the Clippers (4-5 in those games) – has played more games with a rest disadvantage than the Wolves (1-6). Cleveland (3-4), New Orleans (2-5) and Orlando (2-5) have also played seven such games.

Of course, while success or failure in close games is mostly arbitrary, the Wolves’ record in close games can’t be dismissed as just bad luck. Yes, a foul should have been called on Shawn Marion at the end of the Mavs’ 100-98 win on Dec. 30. And yes, Kevin Love doesn’t usually miss three free throws (that he was trying to make) in a row, like he did at the end of Saturday’s 115-111 loss to the Thunder.

But the Wolves have also had the league’s worst clutch-time defense, allowing their opponents to score almost 120 points per 100 possessions in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime with a score differential of five points or less. When the game has been on the line, they’ve been unable to get stops.

In that Dallas loss, the Wolves gave up 11 points in the final five minutes. In the OKC loss, they gave up 17. And only two of those 28 total points were a result of an intentional foul in the closing seconds.

Overall, the Wolves rank 13th in defensive efficiency. But in clutch time, they’ve forced (far) fewer turnovers, fouled (a lot) more, and rebounded (a lot) worse.

Minnesota defense

Timeframe DefRtg Rank OppEFG% Rank DREB% Rank OppTOV% Rank OppFTA Rate Rank
Overall 102.4 13 52.1% 29 75.3% 10 17.2% 3 .210 1
Clutch time 119.5 30 49.6% 30 65.1% 26 12.5% 18 .576 27

DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
OppEFG% = Opponent effective field goal percentage = (FGM + (0.5*3PM)) / FGA
DREB% = Percentage of available offensive rebounds obtained
OppTOV% = Opponent turnovers per 100 possessions
OppFTA Rate = Opponent FTA / FGA

So, while the Wolves can take some solace in their point differential, they still have things to clean up if they want to perform better in close games.

The Video

The bottom of the list

The team that has overachieved the most is the team the Wolves blew out on Monday. The Sixers are 12-23, but have the point differential of a team that’s 8-27, having lost 10 games by 15 points or more (four by more than 30). The Jazz also have a differential of four games and should be 8-29 instead of 12-25.

Next on the list are the Lakers (with 11 Pythagorean wins and 14 actual wins), the Nets (11 and 13), and the Cavs (10 and 12).

Trivia question

The Knicks led the league with 87 second-chance 3-pointers last season (25 from league-leader Carmelo Anthony). This year, they rank 11th with only 23 (Anthony has just six). What team has 13 more second-chance 3-pointers than any other team in the league?

More Wolves notes

  • The most important thing you can do defensively is defend shots, so it’s pretty amazing that the Wolves are an above-average defensive team (points allowed per 100 possessions) while ranking 29th in opponent effective field goal percentage. Ten of the 13 teams with an opponent EFG% over 50 percent are below-average defensive teams. The other exceptions are the Heat (who rank 24th in opponent EFG% and ninth in defensive efficiency) and the Hawks (18th and 11th). Miami is actually below average in defensive rebounding percentage and opponent FTA rate as well, but has forced more turnovers per 100 possessions (18.8) than any team in the last 15 seasons.
  • The Wolves are the third most improved offensive team in the league this season (behind only Portland and Phoenix), having scored 5.1 more points per 100 possessions than they did last season.
  • But they’re still a poor jump-shooting team. Last season, they ranked dead last in effective field goal percentage from outside the paint at 42.3 percent. This year, despite the additions of Kevin Martin and a healthy Love, they’re only slightly better, ranking 27th at 42.7 percent. They rank 30th in mid-range field goal percentage, 29th from the corners, and 11th on threes from above the break.
  • In games played between the 10 West teams at or above .500, Minnesota has the worst record. They’re 4-11 against the other nine, having gone 2-10 since a 2-1 start. Six of the 11 losses have come by four points or less.

Trivia answer

The Blazers lead the league with 53 second-chance 3-pointers, ahead of the Hawks (40), Warriors (33), Lakers (33) and Sixers (29). Damian Lillard and Kyle Korver are tied for the league lead with 14 apiece, and Lillard’s teammate Wesley Matthews ranks third with 12.

Ujiri The Ultimate Chemistry Teacher




VIDEO: DeMar DeRozan and the Raptors are on a roll right now, winners of four straight games

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Masai Ujiri‘s front office peers around the NBA should pay close attention to the way the Toronto Raptors’ star goes about his business. While some franchise architects like to work their so-called magic with the public watching intently, Ujiri has done a masterful job (first in Denver and now in Toronto) tweaking chemistry and getting results.

In fact, Ujiri has proven himself to be the ultimate chemistry teacher these days in terms of knowing how to tweak a roster just right. The reigning NBA Executive of the Year, an honor voted on by his peers, Ujiri is making a strong push for repeat honors with the way the Raptors are playing since the Rudy Gay trade went down.

They are 9-3 and winners of eight of their last 10 games since moving Gay to Sacramento Dec. 9. It was a move designed to give the Raptors long-term flexibility and not necessarily an immediate jolt that has helped them climb all the way up to the No. 4 spot in the Eastern Conference playoff chase.

But Ujiri has a way of studying a roster, figuring out what works and what doesn’t and then being fearless in his attempts to change things for the better. Since Gay was jettisoned, the Raptors have scored huge wins over the likes of Dallas and Chicago, and most recently in Oklahoma City (where they handed the West-best Thunder their first home loss of the season) and kicked off 2014 with an impressive home win over the East-best Indiana Pacers.

As much as this is about the fine work being done by Raptors coach Dwane Casey and his staff, and of course, the contributions of a roster full of grinders like DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Amir Johnson, Jonas Valanciunas, Terrence Ross, Greivis Vasquez and others, this is about the man who put it all together.

Ujiri just happens to have the magic touch right now. And if you don’t believe it, just look at the hard times his former team has fallen upon in his absence. The Denver Nuggets have lost eight straight games, their longest such skid since the end of the 2002-03 season. Veteran point guard Andre Miller turned the heat up even more by ripping first-year coach Brian Shaw after Wednesday’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, making matters worse in Denver while Ujiri has his new team soaring.

A boss like Ujiri keeps those dustups contained, as best can be, or at least at a minimum and away from the public. You don’t have to worry about those sorts of altercations when working conditions are at a premium. And Ujiri has freed up virtually every key rotation player on the Raptors’ roster to do what he does best after the Gay trade.

DeRozan and Lowry in particular are allowed to play more to their natural strengths on the perimeter, while Valanciunas has become more of a focal point as well. Role players like Johnson, the ridiculously underrated Vasquez, who came over from Sacramento in the trade, and young journeyman forwards Tyler Hansbrough and Patrick Patterson have become critical pieces in the Raptors’ current run.

“No one on this team is selfish; everyone accepts their roles,” Patterson told reporters after the Raptors outslugged Paul George, Roy Hibbert and the Pacers to kick off the New Year. “No one wants to get more shots, no one wants to do more of this, no one is jealous of another player … we all understand what we have to do in order to make this machine keep rolling smoothly.”

The man responsible for making sure that machine runs without a hitch, of course, is Ujiri. He understands, as well or better than most right now, that team chemistry trumps just about everything else that goes on inside a team’s fabric in this day and age. Even the Miami Heat needed a year (and a Finals defeat at the hands of a Mavericks team that had off the charts chemistry) to figure that out.


VIDEO: The Raptors took it to the Pacers, kicking off 2014 in style before the home crowd