Posts Tagged ‘Trail Blazers’

Time for 5 players to step up in playoffs

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

Everybody feels the pressure in the playoffs. No more long six-month regular seasons to work out the kinks and to solve all the problems. No more roller coaster rides of peaks and valleys.

Each player is expected to bring their full energy, their best effort every night as elimination and another long summer looms.

But for different players and for different reasons, the glare of the spotlight is even brighter as their reputations and the expectations carry a heavier burden.

Here are five players who’ll really feel the heat to step up and deliver big in the playoffs:


VIDEO: Dwight Howard talks about his love for the game

Dwight Howard, Rockets — That 800-pound gorilla has been sitting on his back since July when he opted to dump the royal pedigree of the Lakers and move to Texas. Not only was Houston a better fit basketball-wise, with a young All-Star teammate James Harden waiting as a partner, but Houston, for all its heat and humidity, was a place where the media glare is not so hot. That is, until Game 1 of the playoffs when the ball goes up and Howard is expected to be the inside-dominating, rim-protecting workhorse that pulled Orlando’s wagon to the cusp of a championship in 2009. Can it really have been five years? Since that time, the similarly scrutinized LeBron James has been to The Finals three times and won back-to-back titles. While Howard has been happy, content, healthy and has led the Rockets into the top half of the tough Western Conference bracket through the regular season, now the real work begins. Will the happy-go-lucky persona that has resurfaced translate to the grit and grind and intense scrutiny of the playoffs? Will those improved free throws — all things are relative — fall when he’s being fouled intentionally and there’s a series on the line? This is his 10th NBA season, eighth as an All-Star, yet there is so much still to prove.

 


VIDEO: Paul George discusses the Pacers’ struggles

Paul George, Pacers — There’s no better up close witness and authority than James, who had this to say after George went by him like rolling thunder on his way to a slam dunk in Game 2 of last year’s Eastern Conference finals: “He is going to be a great player for a long time.” There has been little reason for anyone to change that opinion during George’s fourth NBA season and second as an All-Star. The question is will he be able to step up and score abundantly and consistently enough to get the Pacers all the way to The Finals? After all, this is an Indiana team that does not exactly pile up points and, having gotten very little out of the midseason acquisitions of Evan Turner and Andrew Bynum, will be challenged to put the ball into the hoop every time out. George forced his way into many of the MVP conversations early in the season with his raised level of play. He is also willing and able to take on the defensive challenge of matching up against the likes of James. But since the All-Star break when the fast-starting Pacers began to at least scrape against — if not run head-on into — the wall, George has not delivered consistently. Maybe it’s the physical toll. Or maybe his concentration drifts. But since the All-Star break, George has shot 50 percent only five times in 26 games and popped in 30 points just twice. Assuming that additional offense is not going to arrive out of thin air in Indy, he’ll have to get back to the production he show during the first half of the season for the Pacers to reach their stated goals.

 


VIDEO: LaMarucs Aldridge explains what Portland has to do down the stretch

LaMarcus Aldridge, Trail Blazers – The question over the past several years has been whether the Blazers can put a good enough team around Aldridge to make him want to re-sign and stay to take them to the next level. But then the other side of the coin is whether the high-scoring slick forward is the one who can get them there. It’s been three years now since Brandon Roy was the main cog in the machine, Greg Oden was still a hope and Aldridge was the up-and-comer. While he’s cracked through the ceiling to become a member of the Western Conference All-Star team, it’s also true that he’s done most of his best work in the first half of seasons and faded at the finish, just like the Blazers as a whole. The old knock remains that L.A. is content to shoot turnaround jumpers rather than working to get to the hoop. He usually responds to the criticism for a time when it gets sharpest, then reverts to form and goes back to shooting jumpers. While Damian Lillard, another All-Star in the starting lineup, can hold his own among the class of elite point guards in the West, Nicolas Batum teases with his sporadic nights of all-around brilliance and Robin Lopez provides a solid defensive anchor in the middle, any success in the playoffs will require Aldridge to stand and deliver.

 


VIDEO: Are the Clippers a serious playoff threat?

Blake Griffin, Clippers — Four years into his NBA career, he’s a four-time All-Star and still only 25 years old. He’s become far less than just the sergeant at arms of Lob City, working on his mid-range jumper and the defense that had been rightly criticized in the past. New coach Doc Rivers has demanded more out of Griffin and he’s delivered, especially during the long stretch when Chris Paul was sidelined by a separated shoulder and the Clippers could have plummeted in the Western Conference playoff race and lost home court advantage in the first round. Now the challenge will be to maintain his level of improved play and concentration into the postseason. In the 2011-12 season, Griffin dropped from 20.7 points and 10.9 rebounds per game to 19.1 and 6.9 in the playoffs. In 2012-13, he went from 18.8 and 8.3 to 13.2 and 5.5. Now even though he’s got a much improved DeAndre Jordan playing with him in the middle and Paul still orchestrating the attack as the game’s best ball handler, it is a raised level of play that’s expected and required to make the Clippers real challengers for the conference crown.

 


VIDEO: Nets poised to make noise in playoffs

Deron Williams, Nets — It’s easy — too easy — to pick on Joe Johnson and what’s left of that insane six-year, $119 million contract that he got from Atlanta and that the Nets are still paying and say he’s got to live up to it. For one, it was never going to happen. For another, Nets owner Mikhail Prokorov can probably find the loose change in his sofa cushions to pay it off and not break a sweat. On the other hand, the Nets forked over $98 million to Williams in the expectation that he would be the centerpiece to the championship construction project in Brooklyn. For all the moves that general manager Billy King did to add Johnson, trade for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce and to sign Andrei Kirilenko, it was all predicated on Williams being the All-Star performer who was considered to be at the very top of the point guard class before everything blew up in Utah. After he started another season underperforming and underachieving due to ankle problems and eventually asking out of the starting lineup, Williams has come back since the All-Star break to lead the Nets back as they’ve made their charge up through the standings. But Prokorov did not endorse the highest payroll in the league to get the No. 5 — or even No. 4 — seed in the Eastern Conference. Williams is the one charged with the task of making sure there isn’t another first-round playoff flameout, especially at the hands of another undermanned Bulls team. There’s much to prove here.

Morning Shootaround — April 7


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played April 7

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Frank Vogel under fire in Indy? | Durant passes MJ … Suns pop Thunder | Warriors Jackson knows winning cures all | Battier still intent on proving his worth after all these years | Trail Blazers bolster Olshey’s bid for Executive of the Year

No. 1: Pacers coach Vogel under fire as slide continues – The Indiana Pacers’ 20-18 record over the past three months has thrown not only their season into a tailspin but also raised questions about their future under head coach Frank Vogel, at least in the eyes of some. Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star raises some startling questions about Vogel’s future with the franchise after yet another disastrous performance, a drubbing at the hands of the Atlanta Hawks Sunday night on their home floor. Benching Roy Hibbert for all but nine minutes, and Hibbert’s bristling during and afterwards, certainly adds more fuel to the drama that has become the Pacers’ season … one that doesn’t appear to be headed for a positive finish:

We know the Indiana Pacers are in trouble, big trouble, BIG trouble, but the question must be asked: Is Frank Vogel in trouble?

That might sound absurd given the job he’s done since he took over as an interim coach. The feeling here is, he’s this team’s long-term coach and should be allowed to correct the many things that have gone wrong with his team the last two months.

But know this: Vogel is not Larry Bird‘s guy.

Bird was hesitant to fire Jim O’Brien in the first place, and even after Vogel turned the team around and got them to play competitively in the playoffs against the Chicago Bulls, it took a couple of months before Bird was willing to give Vogel the full-time job. If you remember, Bird wanted Vogel to hire a big-time, experienced assistant, specifically Brian Shaw, before giving him the job.

Remember, too, that in mid-March, Bird took a swipe at Vogel during a four-game losing streak, opining that Vogel wasn’t hard enough on his team at times. Vogel said the comments didn’t bother him; I’m not convinced that’s the truth.

Would Bird come down from the front office and take over for the post-season?

Would he put it in the hands of Nate McMillan, the former Seattle head coach who is a Vogel assistant?

Bird didn’t put this team together to watch it go into the tank. From the moment the season began, he said, “We’re all in” while saying anything short of the NBA Finals would be a disappointment.

It was interesting, then, that in the midst of the Pacers’ humiliating 107-88 home loss to the Atlanta Hawks – winners of eight of their previous 29 games, by the way – Vogel channeled his inner Bird. With the Pacers trailing 17-3 and 6:05 remaining in a brutal first quarter, Vogel benched the entire starting five.

Hallelujah.

“They’re not getting it done,” Vogel said. “They’re not getting it done, we have to go to someone else, see if someone else can get it done.”

Vogel then did another un-Vogel-like thing to start the second half: He benched Roy Hibbert. Hallelujah, again. Hibbert was terrible, going 0-for-5 without a single rebound in 9 ½ minutes.

After the game, Vogel spun it by saying that he was thinking about resting Hibbert before the start of Sunday night’s game. Then, after watching Hibbert struggle – and watching somebody named Pero Antic light him up from the perimeter – Vogel pulled the plug.

Key word there being spun.

“I considered resting Roy before tonight’s game because he looks worn down,” Vogel said during a short, terse post-game press conference. “He’s a 7-2 player that’s played every game this year, which is very rare. He looks to me to be worn down. He’s giving good effort, but he looks to be to be worn down…I decided to play him, but when he got off to a slow start, I decided to rest him.”

Rest him? Now he’s just trying to spare Hibbert’s feelings. There’s no way Vogel would have rested Hibbert in a game that Pacers absolutely had to win in order to remain in the hunt for the No. 1 seed. No … way.


VIDEO: Paul George and the Pacers try to explain yet another humbling defeat

***

No. 2: Durant passes Jordan with 41st game of 25 or more but Thunder can’t stop Suns — What was supposed to be a night to celebrate Kevin Durant and his scoring streak — he passed Michael Jordan with his 41st consecutive game with 25 or more points — turned out to be yet another stellar performance from Goran Dragic, Gerald Green, P.J. Tucker and the stubborn Phoenix Suns team that refuses to exit the playoff chase in the Western Conference. The Suns win also highlighted a glaring deficiency the Thunder have been struggling to shore up with the playoffs just days away. Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman explains:

At a time when the Thunder is supposed to be fine-tuning for the playoffs, Oklahoma City still can’t seem to figure out how to be sharp defensively. Opposing guards are still slicing through the lane and opposing shooters are still left alone far too frequently.

Suns forward P.J. Tucker became the latest bit player to burn the Thunder, scoring 11 of his career-high 22 points in the fourth quarter. He made seven of nine shots, including four of five 3-point attempts. All four of Tucker’s 3s came from the corner, where Kevin Durant continuously got caught sagging off too far and closing out too slow.

The Suns sprayed in 11 of 23 3-pointers.

“We gave up too many open 3s in the corner,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “That’s a 40 percent shot, so we don’t want to come off on the corner. They roll hard. They penetrate so they get you in a position where you have to make sure you are stopping the ball first. And we didn’t get out to their shooters. But those are all correctable things, things that we’ve done well all year. We just had some bad moments tonight.”

Gerald Green, who erupted for a career-high 41 points in the Thunder’s last trip to the desert, finished with 24 points. He poured in 11 in the third quarter, nine of them coming on 3s.

When it wasn’t Tucker or Green taking it to the Thunder, it was Goran Dragic, the crafty point guard who gave Phoenix three 20-point scorers. He added a team-high 26 points, with 19 of them coming in a first half in which the Suns scored 62 points on 58.7 percent shooting.

Dragic was complemented in the backcourt by Eric Bledsoe, who missed the last meeting while recovering from injury. Bledsoe scored 18 points on 6-for-13 shooting.

“They give you trouble because they’re small, they attack, they get to the free throw line, they can make 3s and they’re desperate right now,” Brooks said. “They’re fighting for their playoff lives.”


VIDEO: Thunder star Kevin Durant surpasses Michael Jordan with his 41st straight game of 25 or more points

***

No. 3: Warriors Jackson knows he has to “just win baby” — Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson knows what he’s dealing with, and it’s a simple scenario. Win and all of the drama fades. It’s like the old Oakland Raiders saying goes, “just win baby.” (It certainly helps to have Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, the Splash Brothers, working overtime for you.) And for Jackson’s self-preservation on the job, the Warriors need to keep piling up the wins (now and into the postseason) to secure Jackson’s situation. At least that’s the way Jackson sees it. More from Tim Kawakami of the Mercury News:

“My job will be determined on winning,” Jackson said before an easy victory over Utah. “I’m fine with that …

“The talk about what these two (ex-assistants) have done, that has nothing to do with me.”

Actually, the dispatching last month of Brian Scalabrine after a philosophical dispute with Jackson followed by the mysterious firing last week of Darren Erman for a team violation has something to do with the head coach.

Jackson is responsible for everybody in that locker room, and if there are problems and failures, he is at some point accountable.

He also has been rightfully credited for re-establishing a sense of unity and defensive purpose on this team and for getting the Warriors into the second round of the playoffs last season.

But there has been grumbling about the team’s occasional lack of urgency and Jackson’s offensive system, which often bogs down in isolation sets with little movement.

Some of that grumbling has come from people in the Warriors front office, by the way.

At times, Jackson has reacted to the chatter indirectly by declaring that this franchise has a history of losing, is winning now and should act like it knows the difference.

On Sunday, when I asked how he’d describe his relationship with co-owner Joe Lacob, Jackson said there are no problems between them.

“You know it’s interesting, I’m reading ‘the dysfunction’ or whatever the term is for my relationship with this front office,” Jackson said. “That’s brand-new to me. And I’d be the first tell you if it wasn’t.”

Jackson then added that he and Lacob talked to each other for 15 minutes on the recent road trip.

Lacob told me in February that he was generally happy with Jackson’s performance but that he was disappointed by some of the home losses.

I also believe that Lacob would view a first-round loss as a sign that the team isn’t moving forward, which is death in the venture-capitalist universe.

“That’s not my call,” Jackson said when I asked him if a first-round loss this season should be considered a step backward.


VIDEO: Steph Curry and Klay Thompson run wild on the Jazz

***

No. 4: Battier proves his worth against Knicks – The Miami Heat’s win over the New York Knicks Sunday wasn’t a death-blow to the playoff hopes of Carmelo Anthony and his crew, but it was close to it. And as much as the Knicks can blame LeBron James (38 points), who outshined J.R. Smith on a night when the Knicks’ enigmatic shooting guard drained a franchise-record 10 shots from beyond the 3-point line,  they need to focus their attention on Shane Battier. The veteran forward’s defensive presence was a game changer for the Heat. Even after all of these years in the league, Battier remains intent on proving his worth to his teammates and coaches by playing the game the right way on both ends. David J. Neal of the Miami Herald explains:

The most eye-catching statistics from the Heat’s 102-91 win were from Smith, who attempted an NBA-record 22 three-pointers and made a franchise record 10 to finish with a team-high 32 points. The single-game record was previously held by Damon Stoudemire, who hoisted 21 three-pointers on April 15, 2005.

However, those numbers eventually meant little for the Knicks, whose playoff hopes were seriously damaged by the loss.

The Knicks trail the Atlanta Hawks by three games in the loss column with only four game left in the regular season for the Knicks.

Although Smith started the game sizzling, he went 0 for 5 from the field in the third quarter and 0 for 4 from three-point range. In that quarter, the Heat outscored the Knicks by that final 11-point margin, 25-14.

On the other hand, the Heat went ahead of Indiana by a game for first place in the Eastern Conference behind James, who finished with a game-high 38 points. Bosh added 14 and Allen 12 for the Heat.

Haslem recorded 11 rebounds, including three offensive boards, which tied him with Alonzo Mourning for the most in Heat franchise history with 1,505. Allen’s four three-pointers answered those by Smith. And Battier battled New York scorer Carmelo Anthony into 4 of 17 from the field and 13 points.

“He’s going to have big moments for us in the playoffs,” coach Erik Spoelstra said of Battier, one of his favorite players. “Does that mean it’s necessarily a consistent night-in, night-out rotation role, I don’t know. I can’t even attempt to answer that right now.”

The witty, erudite Battier — who played one second Friday against Minnesota and 5:31 last Wednesday against Milwaukee — said he laughed to himself when Spoelstra told him James would start the game defending Anthony then hand the sometimes unstoppable New York scorer over to Battier.

As they normally do, Battier and Anthony, who was playing with a sore shoulder, dished out hip checks and torso thumps to each other at a rate that, Battier said afterward, would have had both fouled out in five minutes if the referees called the game by the book.

“A game like [Sunday], I’m trying to prove myself to myself, and prove myself to my teammates,” Battier said. “That’s what keeps us all going. We’ve all been in that spot here unless you’re name is ‘James,’ ‘Wade,’ or ‘Bosh.’ But [that’s] the reason guys fight to stay in shape is this locker room. We owe it to each other.”


VIDEO: J.R. Smith went crazy from deep, but LeBron James and the Heat got the win

***

No. 5: Olshey’s case for Executive of the Year gains momentum – His name hasn’t been mentioned among the favorites. He’s avoided the publicity many of his peers have enjoyed this season, perhaps on purpose, choosing to retool the Portland Trail Blazers’ guts and gears without any of the fanfare normally associated with a rebuilding project of this kind. But Neil Olshey belongs in that conversation for Executive of the Year, writes Jason Quick of the Oregonian:

The Trail Blazers received a well-earned ovation Sunday after clinching a playoff spot with a 100-94 victory over New Orleans, the team’s 50th win this season with four more games left to play.

But nowhere to be seen, nowhere to be found, was the man who perhaps deserves the biggest ovation: general manager Neil Olshey.

They should start bubble wrapping the Executive of the Year trophy and addressing the box to One Center Court, because nobody in the NBA did more with less last summer than Olshey.

Robin Lopez. Mo Williams. Dorell Wright. Thomas Robinson.

It’s not Buck Williams for Sam Bowie, which still stands as the greatest offseason move in franchise history, but the haul in the Summer of 2013 will long be remembered as one of the most influential offseasons around these parts.

The beauty of it all is, few if any, saw it while it was happening.

The Blazers had a modest $11.8 million in cap room last summer and badly needed a defensive minded center, a backup point guard and some scoring pop off the bench. Getting a center figured to cost the Blazers most, if not all of their cap space.

Instead, Olshey got creative, and found a team that wanted to make a financially motivated deal: New Orleans. He worked a deal to get Lopez in exchange for Jeff Withey, who was the Blazers’ second round pick, a future second round pick and cash considerations. New Orleans, in turn, saved paying Lopez’ $5.9 million salary this season.

Lopez, of course, has been awesome. Each time I watch him play, I appreciate him more. He rebounds, blocks shots, sets good screens, has a reliable jumper, and he’s durable, having played in all 78 games. He is averaging 10.9 points, 8.5 rebounds and has 137 blocks, the most by a Blazers player since Theo Ratliff had 158 in 2004-2005. And the guys in the locker room love him.

Olshey should win the Executive of the Year award on the Lopez acquisition itself.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Suns point guard Goran Dragic is a music video star … Clippers super sub Jamal Crawford might not see any action until the playoffs … The Spurs need Cory Joseph to step into the void for Tony Parker … The Hawks’ fast start helps boost their playoff cushion over the Knicks … Mavericks veteran Vince Carter bounces back in style … Oh, by the way, benched Pacers center Roy Hibbert‘s got “nothing for ya!”

ICYMI of the Night: Surely, you didn’t miss J.R. Smith’s 3-point barrage against the Heat Sunday …. but just in case you didn’t see all of his record 22 attempts, you need to see his makes … 


VIDEO: J.R. Smith goes off from deep in the Knicks’ loss to the Miami Heat

 

Blazers needing a big boost from Aldridge’s return to lineup

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: This all-access look inside the Portland Trail Blazers sheds some light on their season

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Stare at it long enough and you’ll get dizzy.

Those Western Conference standings that saw the Portland Trail Blazers among the best of the best for the better part of this season have suddenly flipped. Instead of tapering their way into the playoffs, the Blazers in the same boat as the Memphis Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks — sweating out their playoff prospects each night.

Not long ago, the reverse was true. LaMarcus Aldridge was playing at an MVP level. Damian Lillard was dazzling as he avoided the dreaded sophomore slump. Swingmen Wes Matthews and Nic Batum were shooting the lights out as underrated starters. Center Robin Lopez was the surprise pickup of the offseason.

Now, the Blazers are in a pressure-packed race to the finish.

And they know it. The sense of urgency surrounding this team is palpable with just 10 games left. The Blazers are the only team in the Western Conference playoff mix playing sub-.500 basketball (3-7) over their last 10 games. My colleague, Fran Blinebury, was spot on when he insisted that the Blazers are letting their season slip away during this post-All-Star swoon.

They need a lift in the worst way heading into tonight’s game against Atlanta at Philips Arena (7:30 ET, League Pass), losers of three straight games and nine of their last 13. Portland hopes to get a big lift in the form of Aldridge, who missed the past seven games with a lower back injury. The chances of him returning to his MVP form from earlier this season are slim. But at least they’ll have him back as the conduit to an offense that has been among the league’s best all season.

Even that doesn’t guarantee the Blazers will survive a wicked and rugged Western Conference playoff chase that is as good as it’s been in years. There’s no sense in examining the good or bad times now. There’s only these final 10 games and the need to get back into a playoff gear.

“You have to understand it for what it is,” Lillard said. “When you’re hot, you know you’re playing well but you have to stay focused. And when you hit that bump in the road and you lose some games, and we’re struggling right now, you have to stick with it. We have to keep grinding and keep playing. And that’s where we’re at right now. We had that high moment. We knew some adversity was going to come. And it’s come. We just have to keep playing and stick together.”

Aldridge, one of the veteran leaders on this team, was adamant about the tough times coming at some point. He didn’t know that they’d come at his expense, with the injuries. He knew they would be a part of the Blazers’ season, though. They always do.

“I’ve seen it before, we had one of those good teams back in the day and injuries hit,” he said. “You have one guy go down and you have a good team, and one injury to the wrong guy or somebody not being right can definitely change your season. That’s why earlier in the season I was stressing taking care of our business while we were hot and winning as many games as we could so we’d have that cushion when we needed it later in the season and guys were beat up. We’re not a lock for the playoffs now, but if we take care of our business, we should make it.”


VIDEO: Things looked good for the Blazers before the All-Star break

They certainly aren’t acting panicked. Thursday morning’s shootaround concluded with the requisite long-distance shooting contest (which was won by Thomas Robinson), an event you’d expect to see from a team confident it can hold onto the West’s No. 5 spot it occupies.

Looks, however, can sometimes be deceiving. Aldridge and Lillard know exactly what’s at stake as the leaders of this team. Portland coach Terry Stotts does, too. Adding extra pressure, though, makes no sense.

While Aldridge prides himself on analyzing every detail, Stotts has kept an even keel all season, digesting the highs and lows the same way.

But even he recognized there would be some upheaval at the All-Star break, when injuries set in and the rotation had to be tweaked accordingly.

“We’ve had to change how we’ve been playing,” he said. “LaMarcus has been in and out of the lineup. Joel Freeland, who was a big part of the rotation, got hurt right before the All-Star game. That was part of it. Integrating some other guys, C.J. McCollum got healthy right around then, so we had to integrate him. A big part of our success was how well we’d been playing offensively. We’ve improved defensively the last 25 games. Our defensive numbers have improved but offensively, for whatever reason … players are so good in this league that offensively, you have to trust that will work out for you. But right now, getting LA back, there was a little bit of a transition period getting back and we have to go through that. Time’s getting short, everybody knows that we have 10 games left, and we have to take care of business.”

No one knows that better than Aldridge, who has watched the Blazers bog down in his absence from the rotation.

“I definitely had a chance to watch,” he said. “But it’s not the same when you’re not out there. I’m not trying to be arrogant, but our offense just doesn’t flow the same when I’m not out there. It flows a little bit different when I’m out there. It’s hard to assess it when I’m not out there. I think everybody is looking in the mirror right now trying to figure out what the can do better.”

Lillard, who has endured an education on being opponents’ No. 1 defensive target in Aldridge’s absence, is convinced that the Blazers aren’t rattled.

“The confidence definitely is not shattered,” he said. “There’s just a different pressure in the West. You can’t just be good, you have to be outstanding. We’ve got 45 wins and the Clippers have 50 wins and the Thunder 52 and they’re top three in the West. They have five more wins, seven more wins than we do and we could drop out of the playoffs mix if we don’t handle our business. I think that speaks for itself. Six through nine in the West would all be third in the East. That says it all. We just can’t get caught up in what everybody else is saying about us. What matters is if we’re going to stay locked in and take care of our business until the very end.”

At this rate, it could take until the very end for the Blazers to lock down the playoff spot that looked like a sure thing just months ago.


VIDEO: Terry Stotts talks about his team’s struggles after a loss to Orlando

Blazers letting season slip away

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: LeBron, Bosh come up big against the Blazers

So it’s come to this for the Trail Blazers.

“It was a fine line,” said Terry Stotts.

When coaches and players start talking about fine lines, we usually know what side they’re standing on.

This time it was Chris Bosh getting a piece of Damian Lillard’s layup that resulted in a 93-91 loss at Miami on Monday night. It was the second straight defeat to open another critical five-game road trip for the Blazers. It was their eighth loss in the last 10 games. It was one more black mark on an awful road record — 6-13 — since Jan. 1.

Yes, the Blazers are playing without injured All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who will miss his seventh straight game with a back contusion Tuesday night in Orlando ( 7 ET, League Pass) with no word yet on a return. Just as important, the Blazers have been playing without a sense of urgency or purpose, especially at the defensive end for more than a month, collectively shrugging their shoulders and figuring they’ll be able to shoot themselves out of their funk with the next barrage of 3-balls. Whenever that happens.

Wesley Matthews (D. Clarke Evans/NBAE)

Wesley Matthews (D. Clarke Evans/NBAE)

“There’s no reason to panic or start to worry about the season getting away from us,” Wesley Matthews said a couple of weeks ago after the Blazers lost in Houston. “We all know what we’re capable of doing. We all know how to play. It’s just a matter of us playing our game.”

That would seem to be the biggest part of the problem. While the Blazers have the No. 1 rated offense, they rely far too much on outscoring their opponents rather than trying to stop them. They’re careless with the basketball, slinging around difficult or careless passes and telling themselves that somebody will make a shot when they need it.

The Blazers were the surprise of the first month of the season. Nobody, even the Blazers, expected that to hold up in the face of the consistent play of the Spurs, Thunder and Clippers. Yet on March 1, after beating the Nuggets at home, Portland was 41-18 and firmly in the battle for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

Now the Blazers, as the fifth seed, are only a game up on Golden State at No. 6 and only three games from dropping all the way behind Dallas and out of the playoffs completely.

Portland’s last extended road trip was a 1-4 disaster, bottoming out when Aldridge crashed to the floor in San Antonio, landing hard on his back. Then the Blazers flew to Charlotte to open another five-game set — and it looked like the entire roster had simply missed the flight. They lost in to the Bobcats 124-94 on Saturday before Monday’s loss to Miami.

With a schedule that is fast getting late — 11 games left — and a season of goodwill that is slipping rapidly through their hands, there is a combination of denial about what’s happening and a refusal to change. Nic Batum continues to ride the roller coaster offensively, even in the absence of Aldridge and the need for him to step up. Matthews and Dorell Wright are careless handling the ball. And when the bombs-away approach isn’t working, they’re in deep, deep trouble.

“I don’t think it’s a larger issue,” Matthews told Joe Freeman of The Oregonian after the disaster in Charlotte. “We played bad. They played well.

“If you kill us, you’re gonna look dumb come next game. Because we’re going to be a whole new team, we’re going to be the team we’re supposed to be. So go ahead and kill us. And you’re going to have to come back and see us in the locker room and be like, ‘Aw shoot.’ So I’m just going to save you. Write that. Write it all.”

Yes, write it down. Portland went into Miami on Monday night and took the Heat to the edge. But LeBron James made the bucket to win the game, Lillard didn’t and the Blazers came out living in that gray area of relativism.

In and out. Make or miss. A fine line where teams in trouble seem to spend too much time tip-toeing on the wrong side.

“We’re tired of losing close games,” Stotts said. “But you can’t help but be proud of the way we competed.”

It’s come to this for the Blazers. Moral victories instead of real ones.

Suns hot pick in NBA March Madness

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

The selection committee has done its job, the field is complete and now the intrigue starts all around the NBA — filling out those March Madness brackets.

But for a different kind of insanity, we thought it might be fun to go into a few arenas and locker rooms to ask one question: If the NBA playoffs were set up like the NCAA Tournament, who would be your Butler, a below-the-radar team capable of making a deep run?

Ray Allen, Heat: “In an NCAA format, one game and advance, anything is possible. Charlotte’s a team that would be dangerous. They can get hot. They’ve developed confidence. They play hard. They’re running a new system. Atlanta is a team that’s running a San Antonio offensive system and they play good defense. Both of those can really play defense. So if you put them in win-or-you’re-out format, teams like those that always play hard and don’t care about who their opponent is, they’re gonna be capable. There would definitely be more drama in that kind of a playoff system. Obviously, it would never get to that because of all the money that’s at stake over the long playoff series. But as players, you would appreciate it. You’d have to leave it all out there on the line. And every night — with the best players in the NBA going at it — it would really be madness. There would be some true grudge matches. Oh, that would be interesting.”

Mario Chalmers, Heat: “Dallas. That’s a team with weapons and can score.”

Roy Hibbert, Pacers: “In the East, I could see Toronto and Charlotte doing that. Even Chicago. In the West, Phoenix has played great a surprise people all year. Phoenix has a style of play that’s fast-paced and they have guys that are built for that.”


VIDEO: The Beat crew discusses the Suns’ solid season to date

Jeff Van Gundy, ESPN analyst: “Memphis. Because of the style they play. Who else plays like Memphis? Who else has those two big guys like Z-Bo (Zach Randolph) and (Marc) Gasol to beat you up and wear you down. That’s a team that could walk into a tournament setting, get on a real roll and just start knocking people out. And in the East I’d say Chicago for a lot of the same reasons. They don’t have those two big bangers in the low post, but with Noah and the middle and the aggressiveness and the ferocity that they play with, the Bulls could make a tournament very interesting and tough on everyone.”

Chandler Parsons, Rockets: “I like Phoenix as my Butler in the West, because they’re so explosive offensively. In transition they’d get out and they’d beat a lot of good teams. In the East, I like Chicago. They’re playing really well. Joakim (Noah)has been unbelievable for them. He’s doing everything, getting triple-doubles. Plus they’re such a good defensive team. Those are definitely two teams you don’t want to see in the NBA playoffs and in an NCAA Tournament type scenario with sudden-death, no way. Even Memphis, if they sneak in at No 8 in the West. That’s a team that could do a lot of damage. Us? We’re above that Butler level. We’re Florida. We’re Duke.”

Matt Bonner, Spurs: “Phoenix. It’s about style of play. It’s about scoring points from a lot of different places. It’s about playing at a fast pace. Definitely Phoenix.”

Shane Battier, Heat: “Who is that dark horse team? Really, still no one is talking about Houston. They have played fantastic and the Rockets would be a buzz saw to play in any single game or even a seven-game series. You know they’re gonna shoot 30 3s. If they get hot, that’s an amazing number to try to match offensively. And no one is really talking about them. The hubbub is OKC and San Antonio and the Clippers to a large extent. People are talking about Golden State and the Splash Brothers more than they are about Houston. I think Houston is a legitimate team.”

Michael Beasley, Heat: “Miami. That’s the only team I’m worried about, the only team I think about. I don’t even want to imagine nobody else making a run, nobody else doing nothing.”


VIDEO: GameTime’s crew discusses the Bobcats and Al Jefferson’s play

LaMarcus Aldridge, Trail Blazers: “I think every team in the West is capable of being that Butler type team. It’s so close, so many good teams. It just depends which week or two you’re talking about. We’ve seen that all season long. Remember how Memphis came in and beat San Antonio in the playoffs a couple of years ago? Golden State over Dallas a few years earlier. I think everybody is close and there are so many good teams in any matchup that in the NCAA Tournament arrangement, you might be able to play it three or four times and get a different team out of the West every time.”

Paul George, Pacers: “I think Phoenix. I think the Suns could do it because that’s a consistent team. They don’t rely on just one or two players to get most of their offense. They really spread things around. They really get after you all the time. They always play hard and bring it to you. They always want to attack. And in a tournament setting, they’ve got enough guys to make shots and make plays. They would just have to get hot at the right time, which we’ve seen from them this season. They’ve taken down tough opponents. They beat us twice, OKC. So that’s a team that could be very dangerous if it was tournament time.”

Dwight Howard, Rockets: “The Rockets. Despite anything that we’ve done and any games that we’ve won, I think in general we’re still a team that nobody’s looked at as a real contender. But you know, I like being the underdog. We’d like to keep ourselves being overlooked as much as possible through the end of the season and going into the playoffs. In a tournament, in the playoffs, we’re that kind of team that I believe and rise up and surprise people.”

Dwyane Wade, Heat: “I guess if look at the West, I’d say Phoenix could be a bracket-busting Butler. That’s a team that could get hot. Lot of weapons, lot of different people and ways to score and they don’t seem to let up. That style they play, they’re always going. In the East maybe the Bobcats. They play very well together. They’ve got a big man in Al Jefferson that can go 1-on-1 and can score. That’s a team that’s also been playing hard all year, been really gaining in confidence. So if you tossed them into a tournament setting, I’d say, yeah, they could go on a run.”

Danny Green, Spurs: “Phoenix. I was watching them play and they’re very dangerous at home. You know they don’t back down from anybody. They beat Indiana and OKC. We’ve lost to them this season. They love to get out and run. They move the ball fast and they don’t ever let up. If they’re healthy, they’re gonna come after you nonstop and they could do something like go on a run through a tournament. That pace of play is tough to deal with. Another team you’d have to watch out for is Dallas. They’ve got weapons and you’d always have to watch out for Dirk getting on a roll.”

Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers: “Oh, I wouldn’t want to do that. But if you want a dangerous team that maybe nobody would pick, I’d say Sacramento. They got a lot of weapons — Isaiah Thomas, Rudy Gay, DeMarcus Cousins, now Reggie Evans over there with some experience. Derrick Williams. They got a lot of pieces they can throw out there. If they get going, they could beat some people and go far. That’s a capable team.”

Wesley Matthews, Trail Blazers: “In the West anybody can beat anybody. You’ve got four or five teams with over 40 wins at this point in the season. You’ve seen teams go on runs with different styles. Houston went on a run recently. We went on a run earlier. Pick a day of the week. Anybody could be Butler.”

Francisco Garcia, Rockets: “I would say Phoenix, because they score in so many ways. I think everybody would take them lightly at the beginning of a tournament since they’re young and they don’t have a team filled up with All-Stars. It’s easy from the outside to overlook them. It’s only when you get out there on the court and see how hard they play and see how they are so good at moving the ball around and getting offensive from a lot of different places that you find out how good they can be. So if you put them in that kind of situation, where you get to play them only once, they could have a lot of success and make a run.”


VIDEO: The Starters talk about teams primed to make noise in the playoffs

Morning Shootaround — March 17


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 16

NEWS OF THE MORNING

OKC’s latest collapse cause of concern | Jackson’s ways should work in N.Y. | Wade’s historic shooting season | Davis puts on another show for Pels | Thompson works with a heavy heart

No. 1:  Repeated defensive collapses cause for serious concern — Forget about who was in street clothes (Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins) or who was in uniform but did not play (Russell Westbrook). The Oklahoma City have legitimate cause concern these days because they have apparently lost their defensive mojo since the All-Star break, struggling yet again to defend the way you expect an aspiring championship outfit to work on that end of the floor. What once looked like just a temporary glitch in the Thunder’s matrix is starting to look like something much more serious, as Anthony Slater of the Oklahoman detailed after the Dallas Mavericks worked the Thunder over:

Dallas 109, OKC 86, the Thunder’s worst home loss (23 points) since April 2009, the franchise’s inaugural season in the metro.

“The timeouts…well we didn’t need them at the end of the game,” Brooks joked.

Once again, as has been the case during this recent tailspin, the problems started on the defensive end.

Whether it was a lack of energy, lack of effort or lack of proper personnel — with three starters sidelined — the Thunder just couldn’t get nearly enough stops.

Dallas scored 29 points in the first quarter, 30 in the second and 32 in the third, grabbing and building what was a 21-point lead heading to a meaningless fourth.

Overall, the Mavericks shot 53 percent from the field and a scorching 13-of-24 from deep. Countless perimeter breakdowns led to uncontested jumpers and slow rotations allowed an array of easy buckets at the rim.

And as the steady flow of Maverick points piled up on Sunday night, the Thunder’s timeout huddles grew increasingly more animated. But that genuine displeasure didn’t translate to the court. When the ball was in play, there seemed to be a general disinterest.

“Seemed like we wasn’t there. We just coasted,” Kevin Durant said. “No excuse. None. We gotta figure it out. We’re pros. We gotta learn on the fly. All of us. We gotta act like we care.”

It’s déjà vu for a Thunder team that looked like it had solved its defensive woes the past two games, but instead reverted back to the plodding form that now has OKC 5-6 since the All-Star break.

“Just an overall theme of not good enough on the defensive end,” Nick Collison said. “I’d like to see us be a lot more consistent here finishing up the year.”


VIDEO: Thunder coaches and players discuss OKC’s home loss to the Mavericks

***

No. 2: Phil’s winning ways will work in New York, so says Scott Williams – If Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant spoke up on Phil Jackson‘s behalf, no one would be surprised. Alpha dogs sharing fond memories about the man who helped them to some of their greatest success  would be nothing out of the ordinary. But Jackson’s is routinely praised by all of who have played and worked under him, stars and role players alike. Milwaukee Bucks assistant and former Chicago Bulls big man Scott Williams is a staunch believer in Jackson’s powers, and he witnessed that power before the word Zen was ever used in relation to Jackson. While everyone waits to see what Jackson will do his his first days in charge of the Knicks, Williams is predicting big things, writes Kevin Armstrong of the New York Daily News:

“I knew Phil before he was the Zen Master,” Williams said. “Everyone sees the big, beautiful skyline of a career that he has, 11 (coaching) championships and all. I was there when they were still digging out the foundation, frustrated that they couldn’t get past the Pistons. We were hell-bent on getting the one seed in the conference just to get home court.”

Jackson, the architect of dynasties in Chicago and Los Angeles, will bring his towering legacy to midtown Manhattan Tuesday when he is introduced to his former city as president of the Knicks.

Once a free-spirited cog in Red Holzman’s wheel, Jackson will come full circle as he searches for answers to a riddle that has baffled all executives and coaches in recent years: How will he fix the Knicks?

Former players like Williams believe he will bring in smart basketball people who understand his system and vision.

“His championship pedigree, his intelligence, his creativity is a fresh approach to the game,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said.

Williams recalled the early days of Jackson in Chicago, and noted that Jackson gained more confidence in his coaching as the Bulls became more comfortable with the triangle offense and the idea of “playing on a string,” a unique structure to the team that depended not only on Michael Jordan’s talents but the consistency within the moving parts.

“The game’s evolved now, there’s more banging now, but it was fun,” Williams said. “He gives you a lot of those tips from a guy who played 10 years in the league.”

There will be stress that comes with the job and dealing with Dolan, but Williams noted that Jackson’s willingness to study philosophy and psychology helped him build relationships.

“Ahead of the curve, not just barking at guys,” Williams said.


VIDEO: The GameTime crew discusses what Phil Jackson must fix with the Knicks

***

No. 3: Where does Wade’s historic shooting season stack up? – No one is touting Dwyane Wade for postseason honors, not with his maintenance program garnering more headlines than his actual play this season. But Wade is putting together a historic season, nonetheless, one that has been largely overlooked … until now, thanks to Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald. Jackson highlights Wade’s shooting performance this season, the best by a shooting guard in 3-point shot era. The fact that he’s doing it in the Heat’s Big 3 era makes it perhaps even more impressive:

Wade is shooting 55.1 percent from the field –– something Michael Jordan never did over a full season. Jordan’s high: 53.9 in 1990-91.

And if he stays above 54 percent, it would be the highest by a shooting guard since Atlanta backup Mike Glenn shot 58.8 in 1984-85. The highest field-goal accuracy by a starting shooting guard in the three-point era was Otis Birdsong, at 54.5 percent in 1980-81.

What’s more, Wade is on pace to lead all shooting guard in accuracy for the fifth time in the past six seasons. (He was beaten out by Wilson Chandler in 2009-2010). Wade has topped 50 percent only once before – 52.1 last season.

Shooting 54 percent, let alone 55, “is something I’ve never done before, so it would be great,” he said. “I take pride in my field-goal percentage, have always cared about it. I was 49.6 percent in college. I wanted to be at 50. I try to take good shots.”

For perspective, only one other NBA guard has shot better than 50 percent this season: Phoenix’s Goran Dragic at 50.8.

So what’s the biggest difference? Wade said he worked on his mid-range game and post game during the offseason, and the results are dramatic.

Consider that Wade is shooting 53 percent from 3 to 10 feet, well above his 46.4 career mark. From 10 to 16 feet, he’s at 47.5 percent, a huge jump from 38.1 in his career.

He’s shooting 55 percent when he posts up, up from 48 percent last season: “I’m pretty good on the post game. I added that. I didn’t have it in college.” He also has diversified his game by polishing his Eurostep move and adding a hook shot.

Wade has taken only one heave at the end of a quarter after shooting 17 over the past five seasons. Will he avoid those shots to keep his percentage high?

“I haven’t been in that position [to take them],” he said, with Wade usually on the bench at the end of the first and third quarters. “It depends on how I’m going. Sometimes, I’ll want to shoot. Sometimes, I’ll dribble it out.”

It also helps his percentage that he shoots three-pointers sparingly (he’s 9 for 27), after launching 243 in his final season playing without James. Wade noted the Heat already has enough three-point shooters without him lofting a lot of them. But Indiana coach Tom Crean, his friend and former coach at Marquette, said last summer that it’s a part of his game he will need to polish as he gets older.


VIDEO: Dwyane Wade delivers in Miami’s win over Houston

***

No. 4: Davis shows off his brains as well as his talent on career night – Pelicans big man Anthony Davis has made a fantastic transition from college star to NBA All-Star. But it’s been more than just his raw talent and physical gifts. As was on display during his career-night against the Boston Celtics Sunday, Davis beats you as much his with his mind and his sky-high basketball IQ as he does anything else. Nakia Hogan of the Times-Picayune has the details from Davis and Pelicans coach Monty Williams, who has been instrumental in the development of the young star:

Davis, playing a career-high 48 minutes, scored a career-high 40 points and had a career-high 21 rebounds, marking the first time in franchise history anyone has ever reached that statistical feat. He also had three blocks, making him only the eighth player in NBA history to have at least 40 points, 20 rebounds and three blocks in a game.

“When you go for those kind of numbers that’s a lot of God given talent,” Williams said.

And maybe even more important, Davis didn’t have any mental lapses down the stretch.

In fact, in the closing seconds of the game, Davis had the ball and an open lane to the basket. But instead, he pulled the ball out and passed to Anthony Morrow, who passed to Brian Roberts, as the Celtics tried to foul in an attempt to stop the clock.

It was a heady play, and the Pelicans ran out the clock to snap their two-game losing streak.

“That’s the kind of play that a younger guy probably would go and dunk the ball just to get two more points,” Williams said. “But we don’t need that. We don’t need to stop the clock.”

Immediately after the final buzzer, Davis looked to Williams and pointed his right index finger at his head, acknowledging to his coach he knew he had made the smart choice.

“I was letting him know that I have a little bit of basketball IQ,” Davis said jokingly. “Not much, just a little bit. Alexis (Ajinca, Pelicans center) was trying to tell me ‘I thought you were going to go and dunk it.’ But I know a little bit.

“I just know I wanted the game to be over with. I didn’t want to give them a chance to get another look off. So even if they would have fouled or I would have made the basket, they would have had probably three or four seconds to try and get a shot.”


VIDEO: Pelicans big man Anthony Davis had a career night in a win over the Celtics

***

No. 5: Emotional Thompson lifts Warriors at the end The Splash Brothers were on their mark throughout their unbelievable comeback win over Portland. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson combined for 64 points and two clutch 3-pointers (from Thompson) in a game that the Warriors trailed by 18 points before staging their furious rally. While it was a showcase for all involved and certainly for those who watched, it was an emotional night for Thompson, who worked with a heavy heart after attending the funeral of his grandfather before coming up with those late-game heroics. Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle has more:

Warriors shooting guard Klay Thompson high-stepped toward halfcourt and greeted Draymond Green with a leaping shoulder bump.

“I’ve never seen him that emotional,” Warriors power forward David Lee said. “I even saw him actually pump his fist one time, which is more emotion than I’ve seen in two or three years combined.”

Thompson had plenty of reason to break from his usual stoicism, having left his grandfather’s funeral just in time to make the game and then knocking down two three-pointers in the closing minute to clinch a 113-112 victory over the Trail Blazers on Sunday at the Moda Center.

The third-year guard missed a game Friday for the first time in his career, snapping a franchise-record 214-game streak, and then took three flights from the Bahamas to get to Portland between 1 and 2 a.m. Sunday.

He certainly appeared fresh by the fourth quarter, when he scored 15 of his 27 points to complete the Warriors’ comeback from an 18-point deficit. With the score locked at 107-107 and 54 seconds remaining, Thompson drilled one three-pointer, and with the Warriors trailing 111-110 and 11.9 seconds left, Thompson hit another for the game-winner.

“We wanted to get this one for him,” said Warriors point guard Stephen Curry, who had 37 points and joined Thompson in combining for 51 of the team’s 69 second-half points. “We understand that he’s been through a lot this week and traveled a lot of miles. He compartmentalized it for about two hours to come out and play, and that was big for us. We needed every play he made.”


VIDEO: Klay Thompson saves the day for Golden State in its win over Portland

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Mavericks have had enough of home after the longest home stretch any of them can remember … No one, and we mean NO ONE, does 50-win seasons like the San Antonio Spurs … Blake Griffin‘s game just keeps getting better, and that includes more than just his shooting touch and aggressiveness … The return of Eric Bledsoe has been great for the Suns, they’ve won two of three since he came back. But will it be enough to save their playoff hopes?  …

ICYMI of the Night: Jazz big man Derrick Favors is playing on a team that is struggling this season, but that hasn’t kept him from turning in his best season as a pro. He was particularly impressive in defeat against the San Antonio Spurs last night …


VIDEO: Derrick Favors shows off his goods against the Spurs

Rockets stake claim as NBA’s best


VIDEO: Harden’s huge night rallies Rockets past Blazers in OT

HOUSTON — This is what it’s like to stand on the beach when the birds start to twitter, the winds begin to kick up and the ocean is suddenly roiling and full of foreboding.

There’s not much you can do when the tsunami rolls in and the Trail Blazers were just the latest to get washed away.

It’s past the point where the Rockets are an interesting little side trip on the road to June and thoughts of a championship.

Right now, Dwight Howard, James Harden and their dangerous buddies are in the fast lane with the top down and passing everybody else on the freeway.

Miami? Been there.

Indiana? Done that.

Portland? Please.

The Rockets spotted the Blazers a 12-point lead going into the fourth quarter and still didn’t panic. Not even when it took a flick-of-the-wrist, never-a-doubt 3-point statement at the end of regulation.

That statement? We’re as good as it gets. The best team in the NBA.

“I think so,” said Chandler Parsons. “We’re playing well. We don’t think we’re done. We’re not getting arrogant or conceited or anything, but we think we can play with anybody and we’ve proved that this week. It’s fun because we know we can even get better.”

“Yes. Yes. We are,” said Harden.

It wasn’t supposed to happen this fast. To the outside world, it probably wasn’t even thinkable this season.

So here are the Rockets with the best record in the league (23-6) since the start of 2014, with 15 wins in their last 17 games, and with the surging confidence that comes from having not only survived a grueling week that was supposed to examine their credentials, but aced the test.

It’s no longer about them just constantly trying to push the pace and beat every opponent with a crazyball attack of firing up 3-pointers.

Now they’re learning to win games like the one Sunday night, when it starts in a torpor, improves eventually to a slog and they manage to come out the other side because they just don’t stop grinding.

“I can feel guys coming together,” said coach Kevin McHale. “Their chemistry is improving. Their belief in each other is improving. They’re bonding has improved and you can feel that. And it’s nice.

“That’s what makes sports special, when you get around guys that are bonding and fighting together. It’s kind of why you’re in the business. That’s the hope for all us guys that have been doing it for many, many years, that belief that together you can get something accomplished.”

Jeremy Lin came off the bench to end his slump and with his biggest-scoring game since November with 26 points.

Harden popped in 20 of his 41 points in the fourth quarter and overtime.

The unique ability of Harden to suddenly turn it on and turn around a game when the Rockets started out making just 1-for-13 on 3-pointers is part of what makes them dangerous.

But it’s also a growing sense of purpose inside the locker room that says there is no reason they have to honor a predetermined pecking order and wait their turn.

Howard is in his 10th season. He’s climbed nearly to the peak with a trip to the NBA Finals in 2009 with Orlando and knows how quickly the best-laid plans can fall apart.

This was a night when the Rockets’ big men were getting beaten on the boards by Portland through the first half. Then McHale went to a small lineup and it all turned around.

Howard knows there are nights when he can be the fearsome low-post beast that gobbles up rebounds and points in the paint. But he also feels like he can almost blend into the background, put in an honest day’s work and his team will still survive.

The Rockets are a bunch that you can practically see growing taller and stronger right before your eyes.

“We’re as good as we are right now,” said point guard Patrick Beverley. “We don’t really look for other teams. We just go out there and try to play the type of basketball we know how to play. We don’t focus on other teams. We focus on us.”

Beverley will sink his teeth in, Parsons will scratch and claw, Howard will do the heavy lifting and Harden makes magic happen.

It’s enough to make you change your notions of just which is the team to beat in the wild, wild West as the playoffs approach.

San Antonio is currently the No. 1 seed in the conference. But the Rockets are 3-0 against the Spurs.

The Thunder are the No. 2 seed. But the Rockets didn’t just lose on Sunday afternoon to the, uh, Lakers Lite.

Is it possible the best team in the NBA is gathering like a hurricane off the Gulf Coast of Texas?

The week ahead might hold the answer as a three-game road trip to OKC, Chicago and Miami looms.

“We just want to hold up that trophy come June,” Howard said. “We’ve got to stay humble. That’s the message. We cannot get cocky. We cannot lose our focus. That’s when you fail. So you got to stay humble.

“We’re getting better. We’re not satisfied. We still have a ways to go. But I like the way we’re playing. No fear. We make mistakes. We get in the huddle. We come out and try to get the job done. We’re together. That’s the sign of a good team.”

And maybe, just maybe, much more.


VIDEO: James Harden discusses his monster game against the Blazers

Mavs blow it, then win It vs. Blazers

VIDEO: Mavericks win wild one against Blazers

DALLAS – The Dallas Mavericks described their listless defeat at Denver on Wednesday night as embarrassing. What might have they called losing to the Portland Trail Blazers after leading by 30?

Because they did indeed upchuck a 30-point cushion and it wasn’t looking pretty as they trailed 98-92 with 4:26 to go. Ultimately, Dallas avoided the humiliation of a super-sized “L” lassoed around their throats. What would have gone down as the largest lead tossed aside on their home floor in franchise history turned into the strangest of comeback wins, an 11-0 spurt down the stretch securing a 103-98 win the hard way.

“We’ve been blowing leads all year,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said, leaving the carnage of five blown leads of at least 17 points unspoken. “We’ve blown a lot of big leads, so this is one of the realities that we face with this team, and we’re going to keep working to prevent it from happening next time. That’s all we can do, that’s all we can do. … With 19 games left, we’ve got to work to prevent because tonight, if you talk about doing it the hard way, there’s no harder way to do it than tonight.”

Dallas built a 40-10 lead and then was outscored 79-42 and trailed 89-82 with 8:36 left in the game.

Five times this season Dallas has blown leads of at least 17 points. Just a few nights ago inside the American Airlines Center, Joakim Noah and the Chicago Bulls crushed a 16-point first-half deficit and beat Dallas. Afterward, Dirk Nowitzki said he almost wished they hadn’t of built such a big lead so early.

He’ll also recall the 21-point bulge the Mavs had in the first quarter at Toronto on Jan. 22 and eventually lost. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been overly shocking since Dallas led the Raptors by 19 in Dallas and sill lost.

The worst relinquished lead, though, had to be that January night in Los Angeles against the Clippers. The Mavs were burying the Clips in the fourth quarter and cruising toward a huge road victory. They led 123-106 with 4:35 to go and lost in a wild ending, 129-127.

This one was equally crazy in the final minutes. Portland wasn’t amused that Dallas got into the bonus basically three minutes into the fourth quarter, and then a close blocking call on Damian Lillard with 24.6 seconds left in a tie game allowed the driving Devin Harris to complete a three-point play for a 101-98 lead.

“I didn’t agree with the call,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said not surprisingly. Lillard agreed. Harris, also not surprisingly, said he didn’t believe Lillard had squared his shoulders, therefor the proper call was executed.

“A charge or a no-call, yeah,” Stotts said of what should have been where he stood. “It was [a big play]. I’m not going to complain about the officials. I disagree with the call. It was the play of the game because it was a tie game and a three-point play. It changes everything.”

But it wasn’t the only play. The Blazers couldn’t miss in the third quarter, shooting 63.6 percent to win the quarter 36-18. LaMarcus Aldridge scored 18 of his game-high 30 points in the period. But in the final 4:26, Portland failed to score on nine consecutive possessions and Aldridge missed his last five shot attempts after his alley-oop dunk gave the Blazers a 98-92 lead. He couldn’t convert late near the hoop in all manner of traffic and Aldridge couldn’t believe he didn’t hear a whistle.

“I definitely felt like there were some calls that they got earlier that I didn’t get late,” Aldridge said. “The one that Dirk pump-faked and the guy went up in the air, I did it in the paint, they didn’t call it. I feel like one of the offensive rebounds I got hit a few times, so I mean, I don’t know, but I have to be better in the stretch.”

With 19 seconds left and the Blazers needing a 3 to tie, there was a cross-up and Aldridge threw the ball out of bounds, effectively ending any chance of coming back in a game they had already come back from down 30.

“I had some big miscues down the stretch,” the Dallas native Aldridge acknowledged. “I missed some shots down the stretch, so you know, fighting all the way back and being up and having an opportunity to win — not taking care of business.”

McCollum Returns To Different Blazers


VIDEO: C.J. McCollum hits his first NBA 3-pointer

HANG TIME WEST – That’s 10 games with the Trail Blazers, and 10 indicative games at that, with an average of 14.3 minutes per — a decent workload for someone returning from a serious injury and regularly playing in the fourth quarter as a rookie on a team in win-now mode.

C.J. McCollum, quickly playing a role for the Trail Blazers, is back, all right. Just not to the same Trail Blazers and not to the role envisioned.

Once upon a time – in June – McCollum was the No. 10 pick in the draft with the perfect landing spot. He would not have a path to the starting lineup the way a lot of other lottery choices are handed big minutes as investments in the future, but it was easy to project McCollum as a key part of the rotation at a time Portland made beefing up the bench a priority. He was a combo guard who could play behind or with Damian Lillard, and being a backcourt fit with Lillard made for a good career path there. Not only that, but the Lehigh product had held Lillard up as an example of what was possible for a mid-major guy who used all four seasons of college eligibility and had to answer questions about whether he had a position. To then get to play with Lillard, for a blossoming team in a city that loved its NBA, was close to ideal.

It began to change about six weeks later, when the Trail Blazers signed Mo Williams, another guard. The real hit, though, came when McCollum was diagnosed in October with a fractured left foot. Rather, another fractured left foot, the same injury that ended his senior season at Lehigh two months early.

This time, it cost McCollum much of his first training camp and nearly the first 2 1/2 months of the regular season. By the time of his Jan. 8 return, the Trail Blazers had gone from a team with playoff potential and a built-up bench to the reality of 26-9. Williams had gone from being a late signing, in August, to playing well at backup point guard. So much had changed around McCollum.

“It was a roller coaster,” he said. “Playing well, getting hurt in college, you rehab, you come back, you get drafted and get in a position to contribute to a great team in the NBA, then get hurt again. But that’s what life’s about. Different obstacles. It’s more about how you overcome them. I think that makes you a better person.”

The sudden twists have continued. While McCollum has played at least 11 minutes in all 10 appearances, there has essentially been no such thing as a Lillard pairing.

So far:

McCollum has been with Williams for 10 games and 126 minutes.

McCollum has been with Wesley Matthews, the starting shooting guard, for 10 games and 79 minutes.

McCollum has been with Lillard for three games and nine minutes.

“It’s a long season,” McCollum said at the time of his return. “You need a lot of bodies out there to contribute and help out the team in different ways. I don’t feel any pressure. I wouldn’t feel any pressure if we didn’t have any guards. I just kind of approach it every day and just make sure I’m in a position where I’m bettering myself and making sure that I’m ready because at some point my number’s going to be called. I just want to make sure that I’m able to perform at a high level.”

Coach Terry Stotts had an established rotation and a team that was slightly wobbling at the time. He needed stability, not to experiment with the rotation. That has remained in place through the end of month, with three losses the last five games, but McCollum is still getting good minutes for a rookie coming off an injury and when every change in the standings matters. These are not the Blazers just trying to make the playoffs.

Morning Shootaround — Jan. 27


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 26

NEWS OF THE MORNING

No place for ‘Melo in LA? | KG and Pierce; the return | Wounded Wall will rise from USAB snub | Heat ready for season to crank up

No. 1: Lakers cool on recruiting ‘Melo? – Kobe Bryant has already declared himself out of the Carmelo Anthony recruiting sweepstakes, choosing the role of big brother instead.  He tried the recruiter hat with Dwight Howard last season and it didn’t work. But Bryant wasn’t the issue then and he’s not now for the Lakers. That responsibility belongs to Mike D’Antoni, the Lakers’ coach whose rough relationship with Howard (and now Anthony) could have a negative impact on the thinking of the coveted free agent. D’Antoni, who coached Anthony with the Knicks, is taking a similarly hands off approach where the soon-to-be free agent is concerned. Marc Berman of the New York Post explains (D’Antoni also offers up some support for his successor) :

When asked if he got a chance to see Anthony, D’Antoni said after the 110-103 loss, “I said hi to him. He said hi to me. What do you want us to be, pen pals or something? We’re fine.’’

D’Antoni was short in his praise of Anthony’s 62-point Friday record-setter and wanted no part of a question regarding Anthony’s future.

“I watched clips, it looked like he was making baskets,’’ D’Antoni said. “He’s got that ability. If he’d played the whole game he probably would’ve had about 80. Obviously scoring talent he does not lack.’’

D’Antoni, however, thought Anthony never bought into the spread-the-wealth, speed-ball attack that earned him the offensive genius label in Phoenix. It seems farfetched Anthony, a free agent this summer, and D’Antoni would make the perfect marriage in Los Angeles. But you never say never.

Asked about Anthony’s free-agent future, D’Antoni demurred: “I’m good. I just want to drink my water and watch a little basketball.’’

D’Antoni defended Knicks coach Mike Woodson, who has been on shaky ground. Woodson replaced D’Antoni late in the 2011-12 season. Fans that year chanted “We Want Wood-son.” Now they chant “Fi-re Wood-son.’’

“Woody does a great job,’’ D’Antoni said. “They’ve had injuries, it’s a tough league, and some years it doesn’t go well. [But] they have a lot more basketball to play, and they win two or three in a row they’ll be in second place in the East, so they’ll be fine. It’s a great organization, I enjoyed my four years here, but you’ve got to win. Everything is going to be questioned. It should be.’’

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No. 2: Celtics honor KG and Pierce in their return – Credit Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce for keeping their composure during an emotional return to Boston Sunday. They held it together during an intense and relentless stream of praise from the fans and folks in TD Garden and around the city of Boston. Not every city maintains the bond with its former sports superstars. And now KG and Pierce understand what it must have been like for the Boston sports heroes that came (and left) before them. Chris Forsberg of ESPNBoston.com has more from the emotional return for two-thirds of Boston’s Big 3:

Suggesting his return to Boston was tougher than his first trip back to Minnesota, where he started his NBA odyssey, Garnett detailed his ride on an emotional roller coaster while back at TD Garden on Sunday. But he stressed that, even without Gino, the video tribute and the fans’ reaction exceeded even his wildest expectations for coming back.

“This was over the top,” Garnett said. Later he added, “What comes to mind is unbelievable, I didn’t expect anything like that for myself. It shows the first-class type of organization that this is and the appreciation from this organization for you. And I couldn’t put it into words.

“Paul and I were joking before the game, who was going to tear up and drop a tear. I had lumps in my throat. I kept them under control and I focused as much as I could on the game and not take away from it. But, man, this was over the top. I couldn’t put that into words.”

Boston fans delivered an extended standing ovation when Garnett and Pierce were the final two Nets players announced during pregame introductions. With 2:25 to play in the first quarter, the arena hushed in anticipation of what was about to come.

Then came a roar at the mere sight of a green No. 5 flashed on the screen. Garnett’s tribute opened with a clip from “SportsCenter” detailing the trade that delivered him to Boston from the Timberwolves. After a clip of the Big Three holding up their jerseys at Garnett’s introduction, highlights from his Boston tenure rolled, including his bloodied head during a game against the Lakers in 2011, his in-game pushups versus Miami from 2012, and a wild montage of chest pounds and emphatic fist pumps. The video closed with Garnett kneeling to kiss the parquet floor and him screaming, “Anything is possible!” after the Celtics’ Game 6 victory over the Lakers delivered Banner 17 in 2008.

As the crowd delivered another standing ovation, the camera cut to a banner with retired jersey numbers with a couple open spots at the bottom — spots that eventually will house Garnett’s No. 5 and Pierce’s No. 34. But Garnett was already back in the huddle at that point, barking at teammates while trying to power through his emotions.

The cameras cut back to Garnett as play resumed on the court and, after a couple of deep breaths, Garnett smiled and appeared to tell teammates he had been on the verge of losing it.

In the days leading up to Sunday’s game, Garnett pledged to keep his focus on the game and he lived up to that promise. The Celtics rallied in the fourth quarter, trimming a 12-point deficit to three, and had a chance to tie the game with less than 30 seconds to play. With Rondo dribbling in a late-clock situation, Garnett cheated off his man to double the ball and managed to intercept a pass intended for Brandon Bass.

The 37-year-old Garnett, 18-plus years of NBA mileage on his tires, had 70 feet to cover, but he outraced Jeff Green and Chris Johnson before delivering a layup that essentially sealed Brooklyn’s 85-79 triumph, capping a perfect trip back to Boston.

“It took me two days to get the layup up; I thought I was going to get caught, but I got it still — put the ball in front of me, and I got the layup,” Garnett said. “Like Paul said, I’m glad we came here and got a win. A lot of distraction, but they were good distractions.

“It felt good to be showered and for the city to show their appreciation [and] the organization, man. You give yourself. People always say that players can be too loyal. I don’t believe that. A city like Boston is worth it and tonight’s the epitome of all that.”



VIDEO: Garnett and Pierce on their emotional return to Boston

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No. 3: Wall will use USA Basketball snub as motivation – John Wall‘s Olympic dreams are fading. The Wizards point guard did not make the cut on USA Basketball’s roster for 2014-16, a 28-man that includes his backcourt mate Bradley Beal. Granted, Beal is a shooting guard and a specialist in one area that the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team can never have enough of for international competition. Wall, meanwhile, is one of the many talented point guard options the USAB brass had to choose from. The fallout from this snub, however, could very well work in the Wizards’ favor. Michael Lee of the Washington Post tries to make sense of it all:

Wall is the one of two American-born No. 1 overall picks in the past 11 years not to receive an invitation to Team USA. The other former top pick left out of the mix is Greg Oden, who is back in the NBA after missing the previous four seasons with chronic knee problems. LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Derrick Rose, Blake Griffin, Kyrie Irving and Anthony Davis were included.

“I been through it before. The main thing for me is try to be professional. I went out there and played. I did it the right way,” Wall said of his experiences with Team USA minicamp. “I just use it as more motivation. It’s nothing I could do. It’s nothing I can say, and I don’t want nobody to babysit me or try to make it work for me. They made their list, they made their decision and that’s what they’re happy with, and I just have to look past that. It’s more motivation because I didn’t make McDonald’s game. I wasn’t national player of the year. I wasn’t rookie of the year. So those are just tabs I keep to motivate myself to prove people wrong.”

The Wizards gave Wall a five-year, $80 million maximum extension last summer, solidifying his standing as the foundation of the franchise’s efforts to get back to respectability. In his fourth season, Wall has been producing the best numbers of his career with averages of 20.0 points, 8.5 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.9 steals. He finished a distant third in all-star fan balloting for Eastern Conference guards but is expected to be chosen by the coaches as a reserve with the Wizards positioned to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

Wall is having a better season than some of the point guards on the list, but despite his slow-but-steady improvement, he lacks the skill as a consistent shooter that is a necessity for international basketball. Beal, however, is a noted marksman who has connected on 42.3 percent of his three-point attempts this season and could be more of a threat with a shorter international three-point line.

Team USA only invited three other shooting guards in James Harden, Gordon Hayward and Klay Thompson but has been known to use two point guards on the floor at the same time.

“A lot of these guys can go either way. Like LeBron can play” point guard, Beal said with a laugh. “It really doesn’t matter, so I just have to be able to come in and show what I’ve got. It’s totally different than the NBA.”

***

No. 4: Heat just getting started on the 2013-14 season? – So playtime is over now for the Miami Heat. Dwyane Wade came back for Sunday’s Finals rematch and win over the San Antonio Spurs. Chris Bosh made up for his woes against the Spurs during The Finals with a huge effort and the Heat looked energized and much more like the outfit that is chasing a third straight title and fourth straight trip to The Finals, where the Spurs could once again await them. Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com dissects the Heat’s season and where they stand going forward:

After weeks of clearly struggling with motivation, the Heat are about to have plenty of it put before them. Sunday’s strong 113-101 victory over the San Antonio Spurs kicked off a stretch where the Heat will play teams with winning records in seven of 10 games. Not by accident, eight of their next 12 games are on national television.

More importantly, Sunday was also the first day the Heat had their full roster since the start of the season. Though they’re hardly alone in that distinction, with the league ravaged by injuries to stars, the Heat had a rather large variable in play because of the recent appearance that Greg Oden could end up being a factor at their weakest position.

The Heat have been rapped across the knuckles recently for what has been dubbed a “malaise” as they’ve swallowed nine losses against teams with losing records. What that fails to recognize is that the Heat were actually two games better this season through 43 games than they were last season. There were plenty of “what the?” games in the first few months last season as they struggled to get traction after winning the 2012 title.

It was last season in their 44th game when they truly got serious, after a losing road trip. It started Super Bowl weekend and they eventually reeled off 27 wins in a row and found a rhythm that carried them to another title.

It’s Super Bowl week again and the Heat have those several reasons to start getting serious, including a 2-4 road trip that ended grimly last week. Forget about another one of those crazy winning streaks (though the current one is at three and counting) but it wasn’t hard to miss how the Heat seemed to start to depress the gas against the Spurs.

Leading by 29 points at one point before the gap closed in garbage time, they delivered one of their most impressive performances of the season and their first quality win of the new year. It wasn’t a sterling defensive performance — those have been particularly elusive for the Heat this season and what they are really looking for — but there was no missing their increased intensity.

“They came with their A-game,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said.


VIDEO: The Game Time crew unveils their Sunday Feast

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: We didn’t mean to snub Stephen Curry and the Warriors, who knocked off the Portland Trail Blazers in an exciting Grammy night show which also served as a homecoming for the heir apparent of Oakland’s point guard legacy … Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle is doing his due diligence to pump Dirk Nowitzki up as an All-Star reserve … New Orleans Pelicans big man Anthony Davis is content to let his play do the talking for him … Nuggets point guard Nate Robinson is operating behind enemy lines this week as an unabashed fan of his hometown Seattle Seahawks

ICYMI of The Night: Between the highlights and the narration of Beau Estes, the Top 10 Plays is a must-watch and must-listen on a daily basis. Sunday’s Top 10 plays is no different. Watch the players shine and enjoy Beau’s soundtrack while you do it:


VIDEO: Check out Sunday’s Top 10 plays, the best highlights and delivery in the business