Posts Tagged ‘Toronto Raptors’

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

Blogtable: An Outrageous Pick For ’14

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.


Fixing the lottery | A 2013 highlight | One bold prediction for ’14


Paul George, the NBA's new scoring champ? (Issac Baldizon/NBAE

Paul George, the NBA’s new scoring champ? (Issac Baldizon/NBAE)

Now, Nostradamus: Give us an outrageous (but realistic) prediction for 2014.

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: Somehow, some way, perhaps even in spite of a playoff berth and maybe the Atlantic Division title, the Toronto Raptors are going to wind up with top prospect and Canadian product Andrew Wiggins when the smoke clears from the 2014 Draft.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.comDwight Howard shoots a perfect 20-for-20 from the free throw line in Game 7 of the NBA Finals and the Rockets beat Miami for the championship.  Oh, you said realistic?  He makes 19 of 20.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: The Lakers finish with the worst record in the Western Conference and win the Draft Lottery.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.comPaul George wins the scoring title. Nobody would have predicted it at the start of the season, and I don’t know if many would even now. But George hasn’t reached his peak and still should be in the MVP conversation. Watch the upward trajectory continue in the second half.

Kobe Bryant (by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE)

Kobe Bryant (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE)

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: I don’t know how outrageous this is considering the state of the Eastern Conference, but … the Charlotte Bobcats will not only win their first playoff game, but they’ll win four to advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: Kevin Durant will snatch the MVP trophy away from LeBron James this year. He’s tired of finishing second. I’m tired of hearing about him being tired of finishing second. And I suspect plenty of other people are, too. No one can dispute LeBron’s impact on the game night after night. But 2014 is KD’s year to take that trophy and perhaps a few others down the line …

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball blogKobe Bryant returns and has at least one 50-point game down the stretch. I’m on record thinking that Kobe will (eventually) come back healthy. And if the Lakers are in full-on rebuild mode, why not let Kobe get as many shots and points as possible in pursuit of the all-time scoring record? The Lakers might not be fighting for a title, but fighting for something is always better than fighting for nothing.

Akshay Manwani, NBA India: If Indiana can maintain home court advantage right through to the 2014 Finals and have no injuries, the Pacers can win it all. Remember, it was these same Pacers who pushed the Miami Heat to seven games in the 2013 East Finals. Now with Danny Granger back, a stronger bench and home court advantage, they can go the distance.

Aldo Avinante, NBA Philippines: The 2014 NBA Finals will have a rematch of the 2012 edition and the OKC Thunder will win the Larry O’Brien trophy in seven games against the Miami Heat.

Morning Shootaround – Jan. 1


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Dec. 31

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Suns willing to pay Bledsoe | Raptors react to Gay trade | Raptors rolling | Malone tutors Thomas

No. 1: Suns willing to pay Bledsoe – The Phoenix Suns and Eric Bledsoe have a good thing going this season. With Bledsoe at the helm, Phoenix is off to a surprising 19-11 start and would be the fifth seed in the Western Conference if the playoffs started today. The Suns realize it will cost them to retain Bledsoe during free agency this offseason. But, according to Ramona Shelburne of ESPLA.com, they are willing to spend:

“What he’s done so far is what we thought he could do,” [GM Ryan] McDonough said.

But they just didn’t know for sure.

That’s why when it came time to lock Bledsoe into a contract extension, the Oct. 31 deadline passed without a resolution, making Bledsoe a restricted free agent this summer.

“Sometimes that works out and both parties think it’s a good deal for them. Other times it doesn’t,” McDonough said. “Obviously we don’t have a whole lot of money committed for the future, we don’t have a lot of long-term contracts on our books. So we’ll have no problem stepping up and paying Eric whatever it takes to keep him.”

Whatever it takes?

“Correct,” McDonough said. “Any reasonable offer.

“We have some advantages. We’re able to give him another year, five instead of four if we choose. We’re able to give him higher-percentage increases than other teams too. And then if another team does make an offer, we can always match that. So we feel like we’re holding the cards with Eric, and more importantly, I think Eric’s had a good experience here so far. He’s played well and the team has played fairly well. I think he kind of likes what we’re doing.”

For his part, Bledsoe said he’s fine with the situation.

“I was telling [my agent] over the summer, if the contract doesn’t happen I’m ready to play a full season,” Bledsoe said. “I was confident because I’d worked hard all summer, and I knew that I was going to play a lot more than I did the last three years, so I was ready.”

When that came to bear, Bledsoe said he put the situation out of his mind.

“I’ve just got to play,” he said. “I’m focused. I need to keep moving. I’m not worried about [the contract]. If I get worked up about it, I won’t be focused on the game.”

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No. 2: Raptors React to Gay Trade — Mostly every NBA player realizes that this league is a business and trades happen. Still, this knowledge does not make receiving the news of a trade any easier for players to hear. NBA-TV Canada offers us a rare look at how the Toronto Raptors reacted to the news of a trade on a recent episode of their series Open Gym (reaction starts around the 10:00 minute mark):

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No. 3: Raptors RollingThose same Raptors who were shocked to hear about their friends being traded have bounced back just fine. They’ve won five of their last six games and appear to be a rare team in the Eastern Conference who can actually win. And they’re doing it with toughness, a word rarely used to describe the Raptors in recent seasons, writes Doug Smith of the Toronto Star:

Once again turning up the intensity, the attention to detail, the effort and the toughness when it came down to winning time, the Raptors rolled in another excellent fourth quarter, holding the Bulls to just four field goals on 24 shots in the final 12 minutes of an 85-79 victory.

They did it in what is becoming typical Raptors fashion: Turning the screws when the game got tight.

“These are the kinds of games you have to play if you’re going to be serious about being a playoff team,” coach Dwane Casey said after the Raptors won for the fifth time in the last six games and seventh time in the last nine.

“We have to play with that kind of toughness, that physicality, if we’re serious about being a playoff team.”

Toughness was the buzzword of the night for a game that at times was barely watchable. There were no moments of sustained offensive flow, no fast breaks or transition baskets; it was tough, hard-nosed, beat-’em-up basketball and the Raptors never retreated an inch.

Digest that for a moment: A team that used to have a reputation for softness more than anything, hit first, hit often, hung around and beat a veteran team at its own game.

“You have to meet their force with force if you’re serious about winning,” said Casey. “We did that and we have to continue to do that and I’m not going to let up. I’m not going to relent from that because that’s who we are, it’s who we’ve got to be. I know, to win in this league you have to be a physical, bad-behind team.”

[Demar] DeRozan was, for one of the few times this season, a non-factor offensively because every time he got near the ball, a second or third defender was there to harass him.

“If I have to be the decoy and that helps the next person on this team get an open shot, I’m all for it,” he said. “It’s at the point now where I know I can score the ball whenever I want, but if they don’t need me to do that at that point in time, then I will do whatever I can, whether it’s rebounding, creating a shot for a teammate or whatever it is to get us a win, that’s what I’m going to have to do.”

That attitude is all-encompassing with this group right now.

“I think the guys in this locker room believe — we believe in each other, we believe in what we’re trying to do,” said Lowry. “I think we know we have a chance to do some things and we can take care of business when times are tough. We’re showing the team camaraderie and spirit that we have, we’re all happy for each other.”

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No. 4: Malone Tutors ThomasSacramento Kings point guard Isaiah Thomas has proven so far this year that his strong play last season was not just a fluke. He’s averaging 19.2 points, 6.1 assists and 1.4 steals per game on an impressive 46.5 percent shooting from the field and 42.5 percent from three-point. He credits a lot of his success to the relationship he’s established with new head coach Michael Malone. Jason Jones of the Sacramento Bee has the lowdown:

The partnership between Michael Malone and Isaiah Thomas continues to develop as the coach consults the point guard on the best ways to improve the Kings.Malone said fixing some of the Kings’ late-game problems comes down to him calling better plays, and that’s where his relationship with Thomas can help.

“Those things take time,” Malone said. “And one thing I like about Isaiah is we’ve had a lot of conversations, a lot of dialogue, and he’s open, wants to learn and he’s trying to figure it out. It’s not a lack of effort. It’s just a matter of going through it and picking the spots for when do I attack.”

Thomas has referenced Malone and himself more often when talking about plays the Kings should run and the best way to get the ball to players. He and Malone spend a lot of time talking about the Kings.

“On flights sitting together, before practice, after practice, we’ve had a lot of conversations,” Malone said. “Before games where we’ve sat and spent whether it’s been 20 minutes, 45 minutes just talking about the game, players, where guys are most effective, where he can pick his spots. We’ve had a number of conversations.”

Malone’s goal is to create synergy between himself and Thomas because he plays most of the minutes at point guard.

“Isaiah’s got to be an extension of me on the court,” Malone said. “He’s got to make sure he’s getting guys looks, know what plays to call, now what matchups he’s going to exploit and how to get those guys going where they’re most effective, and that’s part of his maturation of going from being a scoring guard off the bench to being a playmaking guard.”

Malone said consulting with Thomas or any other player is part of his job and he wants his players’ input.

“I preach trust a lot, and if I don’t trust my players, it’s just a hollow word,’ Malone said.

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Kyle Korver has now hit a three-point shot in 101 straight gamesKevin Garnett went without a field goal for just the second time in his careerKyrie Irving will undergo an MRI on Wednesday after feeling a ‘pop’ in his left knee

ICYMI of The Night: Paul George decided to end 2013 on a strong note with this dunk toward the conclusion of yesterday’s game against the Cavaliers:


VIDEO: Play of the Day: Paul George

Twice-Traded Vasquez Helping Raptors


VIDEO: Kyle Lowry scores 22 points as the Raptors stun the Thunder

DALLAS – Greivis Vasquez truly believed he was on the brink of great things in New Orleans. He had the best season of his career and the franchise was quickly picking itself up from the Chris Paul trade, positioned to burst into a new era as the Pelicans.

The Venezuelan-born Vasquez, a 6-foot-6 point guard, loved everything about it: The team, the city and his personal breakout — career bests of 13.9 ppg and 9.0 apg. The thickly bearded, 26-year-old believed he was only scratching the surface. He believed that he, Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson and Anthony Davis could form the backbone of a hard-working club that would do right by the city and even, as he said last year, rise together in the mold of Oklahoma City and soon be a team to be reckoned with in the West.

Then came Draft night and the three-team trade Vasquez never saw coming.

“I guess you can’t turn down an offer for a Jrue Holiday,” Vasquez told NBA.com last Friday night prior to scoring 14 points in 15 minutes in Toronto’s overtime win against the Mavericks. “I felt like we had the same numbers. He was an All-Star and all that stuff, all that crap. Like I say, I’m really thankful because [New Orleans coach] Monty Williams gave me a chance. That whole franchise was first class and still is. It was such a great experience for me to just make a name.”

Holiday, fresh off his first All-Star season with Philadelphia, was NOLA’s point-guard prize. Vasquez went to Sacramento to start at point guard. Eighteen games in and he was gone again. The Kings’ sluggish start convinced new ownership and management to reach for Toronto’s maligned, but tempting small forward Rudy Gay, himself now twice traded in the past 11 months. Vasquez headed north of the border to another foundering franchise where starting point guard Kyle Lowry has swirled in trade winds since the Gay deal.

Funny, though, that just as the Gay trade seemed a weighted strategy to clear cap space and sink the season for prime Draft position, Vasquez and his quickly bonded teammates have turned the tables, winning four of five, including Sunday night’s handing of a first home loss to the West-leading Oklahoma City Thunder. Toronto will try to make it three in a row against West competition tonight at San Antonio (8:30 p.m. ET, League Pass).

“We got a great group of guys. We’re just here to do our job,” Vasquez said. “The media and everybody is going to have their own opinions. We just have to go out there and play and play hard, have fun. We can’t really guarantee that we’re going to get every win. But we can guarantee you that we are going to play hard and play the right way.”

In five games with Toronto, Vasquez has averaged 9.8 ppg, 4.0 apg and 2.8 mpg in only 18.6 mpg, far off the 34.4 mpg he averaged last season with New Orleans, and a chunk below the 25.8 he averaged starting for the Kings.

“It’s been rough, but this is one of those years I’ve got to keep grinding and keep working. I’ll be a restricted free agent [this summer] and we’ll see what happens,” Vasquez said. “It’s just the business. At first Sacramento was talking about building a future with me and then all of a sudden I get traded. If I’m going to get traded [again] it’s going to be this year because I am going to be restricted. I am going to have to sign with somebody and find myself a home.”

The Raptors, flush with added bench depth from the trade, have life. They’re just 11-14, but they’re also back in first place in the woeful Atlantic Division after Sunday’s win. Coach Dwane Casey, working in his uncertain final year, said earning the franchise’s first postseason appearance since 2008 is the only goal.

“We’re at a crossroads with our organization, which way we are going to go,” Casey said Friday night at Dallas. “Right now we’re fighting like crap for the playoffs. I mean we’re right there. I know those guys in the locker room don’t want to hear anything else but competing for the playoffs because it’s all up for grabs.”

Same goes for Vasquez’s future. On his fourth team in four seasons,  Vasquez said he’s ready to plant some roots, somewhere.

“The biggest thing for me is just being happy and enjoying playing basketball,” he said. “I don’t think I was really enjoying playing basketball in Sacramento, so here I feel like I can re-find my identity and the way I play, the things I can do. Other than that, I can’t really control what is going to happen.”

Augustin, Bulls Cozy Up In Marriage Of Point-Guard Necessity


VIDEO: D.J. Augustin misses the jumper but intercepts the pass and feeds Luol Deng for the layup

CHICAGO – Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls, supernova talent from the city’s South Side and NBA franchise in search of its 1990s championship pedigree again, is a match made in heaven (with a couple of recent hellish turns).

D.J. Augustin and the Bulls? Strictly a marriage of necessity.

But when someone needs someone to pick up the kids or the dry cleaning, and both someones need each other to get through a chilly winter night, those types of unions – borne of desperation – can be better than nothing.

Which is what Augustin and the Bulls essentially had a couple of weeks ago.

Augustin – the Texas point guard drafted by Charlotte eight spots after Rose in 2008 but worlds apart in NBA impact and arc – had been cut loose by the Toronto Raptors earlier this month in a post-Rudy Gay trade roster shakeout.

But it wasn’t just numbers; Augustin hadn’t played in nine of Toronto’s previous 12 games, sliding down and finally off the team’s depth chart. On the heels of an unsatisfying 2012-13 season as Indiana’s backup to George Hill – a role for which the Pacers sought out former Bull C.J. Watson – it seemed as if Augustin’s career might be Euro-bound or worse.

Then there were the Bulls, losing Rose to a season-ending injury for the second time in 19 months. Veteran Kirk Hinrich got thrust into Rose’s spot in late November but after 10 NBA seasons, Hinrich is only duct tape-and-baling wire durable, a race car in need of trainers-room pit stops every other lap or so.

That left Marquis Teague, little-used as a rookie last season and underwhelming enough lately to merit a redshirted sophomore year as well. And Mike James, 38, an insurance player exposed as inadequate even as a catastrophic policy.

So the Bulls turned to Augustin, the best of whatever bunch was available on the street or in the D-League. He played the night he arrived, logging 12 minutes and doing little else against Milwaukee, and in the five games since. In the past four, Augustin has started three and averaged 37.6 minutes, 13.8 points and 8.0 assists, while shooting 44.2 percent.

His career stats prior to Chicago: 24.1, 9.4, 3.9 and 39.9 percent. Augustin had 18 points and 10 assists, his first double-double since April 2012, to help the 10-16 Bulls beat Cleveland at United Center and snap a four-game losing streak (Kyrie Irving had 14 and 5).

“This is good for him but it’s good for us. We both need each other,” Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau said. “When you look at his entire career, his first two years in the league were terrific. Even last year, I thought he had some very good moments in the playoffs.

“He’s been a little up-and-down. Sometimes that’s not uncommon for a young player. But you can see that he has a lot of confidence. I like his skill set, that he can run a pick-and-roll, he can shoot, he can make plays. And I like the way he’s competing defensively. Each game, you can see he’s making a conscious effort to do the right things.”

All those things Thibodeau listed, other coaches with other teams eventually found lacking in Augustin. Their focus shifted to the negatives: Smallish, struggling to defend his position, shooting 36.5 percent since 2010-11.

But the Bulls were beggars, not choosers, when they scooped up Augustin after he cleared waivers. The players in their locker room were conditioned to follow their point guard’s lead. To them, in the moment of Rose’s latest knee injury, Augustin was the cavalry riding over the hill and they’re treating him as such.

“That’s an important leadership quality also,” Thibodeau said. “When you look at your point guard, you’re looking for someone who can unite and inspire your team. And I think he’s doing that with our guys.”

Augustin did that with Charlotte, under Larry Brown, for a couple of years, and then he didn’t. The way his play and minutes went with Indiana and Toronto, there wasn’t much uniting and inspiring going on when he took the court.

Now that he’s with his fourth team in three years, Augustin – in a puny sample size, admittedly – might be praying to Chauncey Billups, the NBA’s patron saint of early-career knockaround point guards, and hoping this run with the Bulls continues.

“I know how the NBA is,” Augustin said late Saturday, at the end of his from-disposable-to-indispensable week. “It’s a business. … You never know what can happen. The situation in Toronto, I didn’t get down on myself and I kept working hard and came here, and I’ve been playing a lot. I think if I got down on myself, I wouldn’t have been ready to play.”

There’s no way to get ready for 46 minutes, Augustin’s workload against Cleveland, other than gutting them out. The point guard has done extra work in the gym and with video, familiarizing himself with Chicago’s plays and his teammates’ tendencies. The tough head coach with the grind-it-out mentality Augustin saw as an opponent, but now he appreciates all that from the inside.

Beats the alternative, too. Everyone wants to be wanted, particularly around the holidays.

“We’re a team,” Augustin said of his latest hoops home. “Every night we go out and fight as a team. They’ve been embracing me pretty well here. I love it, I love all my teammates, I love Coach Thibodeau. You know, I love it here.”

Break Up The Raptors? No, Really…


VIDEO: Kyle Lowry has a team-high 16 points as the Raptors beat the Bulls

CHICAGO – A funny thing is happening to the Toronto Raptors on their trudge to the basement in the Eastern Conference standings.

They walked through an unmarked door last week, assuming it was another flight of stairs to take them down, only to realize too late they’d stepped onto an elevator headed up.

Toronto’s decision to trade highly paid scoring forward Rudy Gay, as well as to shop point guard Kyle Lowry, sprang from general manager Masai Ujiri‘s newness to the situation this season and an eye to the future in terms of cap space and roster flexibility. But the present has perked up considerably, with today looking pretty good regardless of tomorrow.

The Raptors’ smackdown Saturday of a beleaguered Bulls team did more than demonstrate that too many unfamiliar faces is a better problem to have than too few healthy bodies. It left Toronto with a 3-1 mark since Gay played his last game for the team and, at 9-13, looking downright viable as an Atlantic Division contender and Eastern Conference playoff possibility.

Those things are relative, of course, and they could reverse direction overnight if Ujiri and Toronto ownership hews to the grander plan of prime lottery position for the Draft in June and greater cost savings or manageable contracts. That’s the backdrop against which Gay was dealt to Sacramento and Lowry possibly could be moved this week (in the NBA calendar’s sweet spot for trading summer acquisitions and repackaging returns). With a prize like Canada’s own Andrew Wiggins on the board in one of the deepest drafts in recent hyperbole, one more year of sub-.500 ball and missed playoffs conceivably could be a small price to pay.

That’s not the same thing as no price, though, any more than playing respectably and winning more now would bring no benefits. It might not be enough to keep Dwane Casey around – the Raptors head coach is in the last year of his deal, working for a boss who did not hire him – but it’s more in line with what DeMar DeRozan, the team’s default leader now, has in mind.

After the Bulls game, DeRozan talked about the bad habits and general depression that can set in with losing. Today’s players are the ones tomorrow’s stars wind up replacing, so projecting who and what and where Toronto might draft is of little interest to most of those inside the dressing room.

“No matter who’s on the court, we’ve still got to play to win,” DeRozan said earlier in the evening. “That’s our whole mindset, to go out there and play as well as we can. Put our hearts out there and play to win the game.

“I think everybody in this locker room is living game-to-game. Nobody looks too far ahead. We just take care of our job and do it every single day.”

The “we” is a little different now but then, so are the results. In the three games since Gay’s departure was made official, the Raptors have moved the ball for 23, 25 and 26 assists, uncorked from the forward’s ball-stopping ways. Toronto still ranks last in the league at 18.3 assists per game – but in a mere week’s time, it has boosted that average by a full assist.

Of the new guys, Chuck Hayes still is being held out, his past heart condition requiring more thorough cardiac testing before he’s physically cleared. But the other three – Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson and John Salmons – have done well off the bench. In two games, they have combined to average 23 points on 16 of 34 shots (47.1 percent). Gay for the Raptors this season: 19.4 points on 38.8 percent shooting.

Swapping out his $17.9 million salary, with Quincy Acy ($800,000) and Aaron Gray ($2.7 million), was what drove the deal; Vasquez ($2.1 million), Patterson ($3.1 million), Salmons ($7.6 million) and Hayes ($5.7 million) bring way more bang for the bucks. Especially with what looks to be some fast-tracked transition time.

Casey said he expected another week or two might be needed to get them all clicking. But Vasquez seemed to play with the right pace and vision for Toronto and Patterson found his spot for repeated foul-line jumpers. The starters, with Lowry still around and running things deftly, were unruffled with 69 points Saturday. Terrence Ross is getting the sort of minutes he craved, Jonas Valanciunas (15 points, 11 rebounds) continues to develop, DeRozan seems more mature all of a sudden and D.J. Augustin was missing his shots for the Bulls this time, not the Raptors.

Wiggins? Jabari Parker? The lottery? That’s for Ujiri and the folks upstairs. But the Toronto players and Casey are on the ground level of something that feels refreshing, with no interest in cellar doors.

Morning Shootaround — Dec. 14


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Dec. 13

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Lakers again weigh Pau Gasol trade | Lowry talks continue | Shaw may change Nuggets’ lineup

No. 1: Lakers again weigh Pau Gasol trade — The Los Angeles Lakers want to see what they have now that Kobe Bryant is healthy and haven’t eliminated the possibility of re-signing Pau Gasol when he’s a free agent next summer, but if the big man is going to continue pouting about his role under Mike D’Antoni, they may have no choice but to see what they can get for him. Ramona Shelburne and Marc Stein of ESPN write that the time to take calls may be coming soon:

The Los Angeles Lakers prefer to keep struggling center Pau Gasol and believe he eventually will have success in coach Mike D’Antoni’s system, but his recent comments and subpar play have caused them to begin weighing whether to make him available before the NBA’s annual trade deadline in February, according to sources with knowledge of the situation.

The Lakers have yet to engage in any Gasol-related trade discussions with other teams, sources told ESPN.com. But Gasol’s recent comments about his frustrations with his role in the Lakers’ offense, his impending free agency, and his struggles offensively and particularly defensively have essentially forced the team to consider its options.

Gasol had something of a bounce-back game in Friday’s 122-97 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, and made a point of saying that “you always have to make yourself responsible” for your own play and that “when you start pointing fingers at other sides or other directions, you’re making a mistake.”

***

No. 2: Knicks executives pushing owner Jim Dolan to do deal for Kyle Lowry — If the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets are both bidding for Kyle Lowry, that’s probably good news for Toronto Raptors GM Masai Ujiri, who got a nice haul for Carmelo Anthony when he pitted the same two teams against each other in 2011. Yahoo‘s Adrian Wojnarowski breaks down what’s on the table from both teams:

As New York Knicks executives work to convince owner Jim Dolan he should ignore public criticism and complete a deal for Kyle Lowry, the Brooklyn Nets are gaining traction as a possible destination for the Toronto Raptors point guard, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

The Knicks are desperate for a point guard, and their front office had a deal together that would’ve sent Raymond Felton, Metta World Peace and a 2018 first-round pick for Lowry.
The Knicks’ front office is determined to re-enter talks on Lowry, league sources said, but it is unclear how they will try to amend a trade package – or whether they’re willing to return the original offer to the table. Without the future first-round pick, there’s little chance of the Knicks landing Lowry, sources said.

The Golden State Warriors also have remained involved in talks with Toronto on Lowry, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Dolan became livid over the public disclosure of the deal terms and became aware over some segments of reaction that deemed the package a third straight debacle in dealing with Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, sources said.

Ujiri, the NBA’s Executive of the Year with the Denver Nuggets a year ago, negotiated deals that brought the Knicks Carmelo Anthony and Andrea Bargnani in recent years.

***

No. 3: Could changes be coming to the Nuggets starting five?The Denver Nuggets play absolutely atrocious defense at the start of games, allowing 123 points per 100 possessions in the first six minutes of the first quarter. Their struggles continued on Friday, allowing the Jazz to score 18 points in the first 4:33. So yeah, as Chris Dempsey of the Denver Post writes, Brian Shaw is thinking about making a lineup change:

The Nuggets have a recurring problem: Bad starts. Slow starts, whatever you want to call it, they aren’t getting out of the gate with any kind of urgency much of the time. On Friday, Utah scored 33 points on 54 percent shooting (85 percent from the 3-point line) in the first quarter, the latest in a lengthening line of irritating starts.

So Shaw is now on to this: Considering a shakeup in the starting lineup.

Whether it actually happens remains to be seen, and maybe he cools down and rethinks the whole concept overnight after his team’s 103-93 loss to Utah on Friday. But switching out some starters is a card he’s as ready to play as he’s ever been.

“Continuing to give up those big quarters is not going to get it done for us,” Shaw said. “I don’t know if I have to shake it up or what I have to do with that starting lineup. But the chemistry, for whatever reason, is not there. And it’s putting too much pressure on our bench to have to come in, night after night and have to bail us out and have to expend so much energy getting back into the game. Then they get tired and then I try to put our starters back in to give them another opportunity – they push the lead up to 10 again. And that’s kind of been the theme and the way that things have been going. So, I have to kind of search and figure out what I’m going to have to do to remedy that.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Pelicans’ Tyreke Evans reinjured his left ankle in Friday’s win over the Grizzlies … Brook Lopez missed Friday’s loss in Detroit with another sprained ankle, but says he already feels betterTom Thibodeau played Jimmy Butler more than 36 minutes in his return from turf toe … and the Knicks are down another big man.

ICYMI: Rudy Gay made his debut for the Sacramento Kings on Friday…


VIDEO: Rudy Gay’s Kings Debut

Kobe’s Eight Turnovers A True Rarity


VIDEO: Kobe Bryant gets off to a rough start in his return

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Eight was the takeaway number from Kobe Bryant‘s return to the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday night. Eight rebounds. Eight turnovers. In 28 minutes.

The eight boards, seven on the defensive glass, show that even with limited explosion and a fair degree of self-uncertainty, the 6-foot-6 shooting guard can always summon his supreme understanding of the game to leverage his body and attain position. He tied 7-footer Pau Gasol for most rebounds on the team. Only Toronto’s Amir Johnson had more, 10, in 36 minutes.

Bryant secured eight or more rebounds last season, when he averaged more than 38 minutes a game in 78 games, just 10 times (of course, Dwight Howard was around to snare double-digit boards most games). Bryant collected eight or more boards 13 times in 58 games in 2011-12.

For Bryant to get eight rebounds in his first game back from tearing his left Achilles tendon on April 12 is impressive, and just another way that Bryant will help the Lakers as he finds his footing.

And his handle.

Bryant was noticeably rusty with his dribble in the 106-94 loss to the Toronto Raptors. His initial explosion to dribble around defenders and get into the lane was clearly hampered, as was his patented lift on his pull-up jumper. The latter was made obvious when Bryant sized up DeMar DeRozan at the end of the first half, went up for the buzzer-beating jumper, but had it rather easily blocked by the Raptors’ wingman.

Of the Lakers’ 19 turnovers, tying their second-highest total of the season, Bryant committed eight. The Lakers had been pretty good at limiting turnovers in Bryant’s absence, averaging 14.7 per game, tied for ninth-fewest in the league. Bryant opened his season debut looking to facilitate and dropped some pretty passes. But his timing and rhythm, as he acknowledged after the game, were off, leading to eight of his passes — five in the second half and three during a critical, three-minute stretch in the third quarter — being picked off.

Toronto scored 22 points off L.A’s 19 turnovers with 15 coming off Bryant’s eight turnovers. They outscored the Lakers in fastbreak points, 19-4, nine coming off Bryant’s snagged pass attempts.

“My rhythm is completely out of sync,” Bryant told reporters. “But this is a start, and I guess a start is good.”

He also harshly graded himself an ‘F,’ and used a rather unflattering term to describe his overall game which included going 2-for-9 from the field for nine points. Bryant had one more point than turnovers and twice as many turnovers as assists.

So just how rare is an eight-turnover game for Bryant? Extremely. Few non-point guards have ever handled the ball as much as Bryant does and attracted so much concentrated defensive effort throughout his career, so naturally, turnovers are going to happen.

In his 17 previous seasons, only 22 times in 1,239 career regular-season games did he commit eight or more turnovers. That’s once every 56.3 games, or less than twice for every 82 games, the length of a full regular-season. In his first 10 seasons, it happened just nine times.

Bryant has made it through a season without a single eight-turnover (or more) game seven times. Four other seasons it happened just once. However, six have now come in the 137 games since the start of the 2011-12 season, an accelerated rate of one in every 22.8 games. Three came last year in his attempt to play Superman during a busted season.

In 2004-05, when Bryant finished second in the scoring race on a sub-.500 Lakers team, he had a career-high five games of eight or more turnovers. Four of those came during the narrow window of Nov. 21 through Dec. 25. Oddly, three of his now 23 eight-plus turnover games have come on Christmas Day (note to Miami Heat).

Speaking of the Lakers’ Christmas Day opponent, LeBron James, another rare breed of wing player who has consistently been the dominant ball-handler on his teams, is quite comparable to Bryant. James has 12 games of eight or more turnovers in 786 career games. In his 11th season, James is averaging one every 65.5 games. Through 21 games this season, James has four games with six turnovers and another with seven. That one came in Miami’s last game, and he has 13 turnovers in his last two games.

For players who control their teams’ offense and demand the opposition’s defensive focus, turnovers happen.

Bryant, 35, is facing the biggest challenge of his career and it will take time for him to regain his sea legs. His dribble will become stronger, his passes crisper.

Don’t overreact now, and don’t overreact when Bryant has another eight-turnover game. They happen. His more recent track record (not necessarily adjusted for his recovery time) suggests it’ll come some time around, say, the All-Star break.