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Numbers preview: Cavs-Hawks

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — Last season, the Atlanta Hawks won 60 games and had home-court advantage in the conference finals … and got swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers.

This season, the Hawks won just 48 games. Expectations are lower and they’ll be in Cleveland to start the conference semifinals. But the Hawks may be better prepared to make things difficult for the Cavs this time around.

They’re certainly healthier than they were a year ago, when Thabo Sefolosha was out with a broken leg, Paul Millsap was dealing with a shoulder injury, and Kyle Korver was lost to an ankle injury in Game 2. The Hawks are also better defensively than they were last season.

Atlanta was the league’s best defensive team from Christmas to the end of the regular season. In the first round of the playoffs, they held the Boston Celtics to 12.6 points per 100 possessions under their regular-season mark. Their defense has been strong in transition and at protecting the paint, two huge keys to slowing down LeBron James and the Cavs.

But they weren’t able to do that enough in the regular season, when James averaged 27.3 points on 58 percent shooting as the Cavs swept the season series, 3-0. That’s seven straight wins against Atlanta for the Cavs, who are also healthier and better defensively than they were a year ago.

The Cavs are trying to get back to The Finals with their “Big 3” intact this time. Before they can play for that opportunity, they have to get through the Hawks, which could be a much tougher proposition than it was last year.

Here are some statistical notes to get you ready for Cavs-Hawks, with links to let you dive in and explore more.

Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

Cleveland Cavaliers (57-25)

First round: Beat Detroit in four games.
Pace: 88.9 (15)
OffRtg: 115.8 (2)
DefRtg: 107.4 (12)
NetRtg: +8.4 (4)

Regular season: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
vs. Atlanta: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
First round: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups

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Cavs playoff notes:

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Atlanta Hawks (48-34)

First round: Beat Boston in six games.
Pace: 101.1 (3)
OffRtg: 97.7 (13)
DefRtg: 91.3 (3)
NetRtg: +6.3 (5)

Regular season: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
vs. Cleveland: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
First round: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups

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20160429_atl_defense

Hawks playoff notes:

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The matchup

Season series: Cavs won 3-0 (2-0 in Cleveland).
Nov. 21 – Cavs 109, Hawks 97
Apr. 1 – Cavs 110, Hawks 108 (OT)
Apr. 11 – Cavs 109, Hawks 94

Pace: 99.8
CLE OffRtg: 106.9 (2nd vs. ATL)
ATL OffRtg: 95.5 (21st vs. CLE)

Matchup notes:

No penalty from NBA for Drummond’s elbow? LeBron James not surprised

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – The reaction to this one from many in the NBA’s 29 other precincts might be along the lines of puh-leeeze: LeBron James suggested Sunday that he doesn’t get his share of whistles when on the receiving end of physical play.

The bruised and bloodied bodies of fallen opponents strewn behind him might argue to the contrary.

But then, when the NBA has an opportunity to review video of some of the hits the Cleveland star takes – like a high elbow from Detroit center Andre Drummond in Game 3 Friday of the teams’ first-round Eastern Conference series – and issues no retroactive flagrant or technical fouls or fines, maybe James has a case.

James wasn’t complaining at the Cavaliers’ shootaround session Sunday in advance of their closeout opportunity in Game 4 at The Palace of Auburn Hills. But he wasn’t hiding his belief, either, that all physical contact isn’t adjudicated fairly.

Asked about the Drummond blow and the absence of any rebuke, James told reporters: “Initially I was surprised. But then I thought who he did it to and I wasn’t surprised.”

Given the size, speed and power of James’ game, at a muscular 6-foot-8 and 250 pounds, the sense among NBA observers long has been that he dishes out punishment without even trying, just from incidental contact that can hurt. The flip side is that, given his strength, he absorbs a lot of contact without getting knocked off course or sent to the floor, resulting in fewer whistles that way as well.

“He’s the Shaq of guards and forwards,” Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said. “He’s so strong and so physical when he goes to the basket guys are bouncing off of him. Those are still fouls. But he doesn’t get that call because he’s so big and so strong and so physical.”

Lue, since taking over at midseason as the Cavs head coach, assiduously avoids criticizing the referees or NBA HQ over calls made or not made. It’s a button many coaches push at playoff time, dating back at least to Phil Jackson‘s tweaks while with the Bulls and the Lakers and probably all the way back to Red Auerbach and John Kundla.

Their goal: Plant a seed for the next game. But it can get expensive – witness Stan Van Gundy‘s $25,000 fine after Game 1 for bemoaning what he felt was the refs’ disinterest in calling offensive fouls on James – and it doesn’t suit Lue’s personality.

“It’s their job to clean it up,” said Lue, who proudly notes that he never got a technical foul in 11 years as an NBA point guard. “It’s not my job to complain about the situation at hand.”

James rarely is shy in complaining in the moment about calls he feels should have gone his way. His lightning-rod game and expressive gripes, added to every NBA player’s default position regarding fouls, generates a lot of hoots and hollers from fans in arenas who think James actually gets preferential treatment from the refs.

Some teammates, such as Cavs center Tristan Thompson, are in the middle of the physical play that ramps up in the playoffs and see it differently.

“He gets beat up the most. He gets beat up the most in the league,” Thompson said. “He takes a lot of hits night in and night out, especially in this series, and he keeps pushing and he stays mature.”

James takes the hits but clearly he doesn’t take them lightly. He had a no-nonsense look Sunday morning, suggesting a resolve to limit the Pistons’ shots at him by limiting their playoff run to the minimum of four games.

“I just like to gather my composure, my guys’ composure, going against the opponents’ fans,” James said this close-out opportunity on the road. “I thrive adversity and hostile environments.”

Blogtable: State of Cavs as playoffs near?

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


BLOGTABLE: State of Cavs as playoffs near? | Outlook on 76ers’ future? | Your All-Rookie team picks are?



VIDEOKevin Love talks after the Cavs’ win

> The Warriors are the No. 1 seed in the West and appear to be better than they were last year. The Cavs are the No. 1 seed in the East. Are they better than they were last year?

David Aldridge, TNT analyst: Yes, if only because Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving appear to be fully healthy going into the playoffs. And Tyronn Lue made the right call starting Tristan Thompson at center, giving the Cavs a chance to put their most athletic and dangerous lineup on the floor together in the playoffs — which would feature Iman Shumpert (if healthy) at the three and LeBron at the four (if LeBron will do it). Will be interesting to see how Lue splits minutes at the point — Cleveland’s best defensive lineups feature Matthew Dellevadova rather than Irving. I think all the soap opera stuff that follows the Cavs during the regular season dissipates once the playoffs begin. They have a much easier path to The Finals compared with Golden State.

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: The Cavaliers are better for several reasons, chiefly (knock on wood) because they’re healthier than the crew that played five of six Finals games without Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. Love was lost in the first round against Boston, Irving was already gimpy before he went out in Game 1 against Golden State, and LeBron James was left to shoulder the load while steering along the likes of Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova on training wheels. That was valuable experience for those role players, and both Irving and Love are relatively OK and eager to create some postseason highlights of their own. Channing Frye was a nice “get” at the trade deadline as a stretch big. Having Tyronn Lue as head coach removes some tension from the sideline that apparently existed last year under David Blatt. Finally, James can hear the clock ticking – he’s been to five straight Finals, but is 2-3 in them and would love to check off the “Championship for The ‘Land” box sooner rather than later. That’s a good urgency for the Cavaliers right now.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: Physically, yes. Kyrie Irving is recovered. So is Kevin Love. LeBron is LeBron. Mentally, well, that’s a whole different story. Rarely has there been a 57-win team where you have to wonder if their heads and hearts are really in it together. They have the best roster in the East. Now they just have to act like it.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: No. At least not yet. The Cavs can get there — one impressive stretch in the playoffs and the bandwagon will fill pretty quick — but the team capable of winning a championship a year ago has just as much or more to prove in 2016. The mood in the locker room sans coach David Blatt might be better, but that doesn’t mean the team that got to a Game 6 of The Finals despite being so shorthanded is better. And the mood might not be better. I’ll wait for the next foggy LeBron James tweet to let you know for sure.

Shaun Powell, NBA.comCleveland looks pretty much the same, with marginal improvements in defense and court awareness but still dragging an annoying habit of inconsistency with Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, the two non-LeBron players who matter most. Bottom line, though: Whether the Cavs are better or worse than they were last season after 82 games is meaningless. What matters is whether the 2016 postseason is better than the 2015 postseason.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: Technically, yes. History tells us how important it is to rank in the top 10 defensively, and the Cavs rank in the top 10 in defensive efficiency after ranking 20th last season. But they weren’t a very consistent defensive team, regressed on that end under Tyronn Lue, and aren’t at their best defensively when both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love on the floor. Though they’re healthier this season, they’re not any more likely to win a championship.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: The Cavaliers were not the No. 1 seed in the East last year, so by that standard alone they are a better team right now than they were this time last year. They are certainly going into the postseason healthy and with the working knowledge of how to manage this process as a group. LeBron James is sharpening his game at just the right time and having both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in a good groove bodes well for the Cavaliers making another deep playoff trip. All that said, I’m not sure they have any better shot at capturing the Larry O’Brien Trophy this time around. There are two Western Conference powers a clear cut above them in my eyes.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: I’m not so sure the Warriors are better. They won more games this year, they’re more sure of themselves than ever and their integrity is second to none. But are they as strong defensively as last year? It’s something to watch for in the playoffs. The Cavs were playing at a higher level last year, no doubt. By Game 3 of the NBA Finals, however, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were gone. If they stay healthy this time, will their upside be higher? Undoubtedly so: They begin the playoffs with a bigger advantage in the East than the Warriors have in the West. And if the Cavs reach The Finals with LeBron, Irving and Love playing at a high level, who’s to say they can’t win?

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: I don’t know. Or at least, I haven’t seen enough of this Cavs team under Tyronn Lue to come to a conclusion. Think of the way the Cavs played last year during the postseason, particularly The Finals — LeBron basically walking the ball up, using the shot clock, trying to create something. This was partly due to injuries, sure, but also because that seemed to be the Cavs’ default on the offensive end. Of late the Cavs seem to be playing with more energy and verve. Which Cavs team will we see in the postseason? that could make all the difference.

Morning shootaround — April 12


VIDEO: Highlights from Monday’s games

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Mavs clinch playoff berthLakers mum on Kobe’s minutes in finale | Thompson supplants Mozgov in starting lineup | Report: Rambis will be back in some capacity; Knicks eye Blatt | Report: NBA restricting Colangelo’s access with Team USA

No. 1: Williams, Nowitzki push Mavs into playoffs — By the time last night’s Mavs-Jazz showdown in Salt Lake City got started, the Houston Rockets were well on their way to a win in Minnesota. That meant the log jam for the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds in the Western Conference got that much tighter thanks to No. 9 Houston’s soon-to-be victory. Behind the play of two Mavs long hated by Jazz fans — Dirk Nowitzki and ex-Utah star Deron Williams — Dallas won to clinch a playoff berth for the 15th time in Nowitzki’s 18 seasons. Eddie Sefko from The Dallas Morning News has more:

The two most hated Mavericks in Utah dragged their team into the NBA playoffs Monday night.

Dirk Nowitzki, always a villain in the eyes of Jazz fans, and Deron Williams, whose unceremonious departure from Utah was a major reason beloved coach Jerry Sloan resigned, spent Monday sticking needles in the Jazz and sewing up their spot in the playoff party with a 101-92 victory.

The Mavericks won their way into the postseason the same way they had put together a six-game winning streak that ended Sunday at the Clippers. They used stifling defense and a sensible, slow pace to grind the Jazz into submission.

They led 86-71 with five minutes to play, but the Jazz pared the deficit to 88-80 with 2:42 to go, forcing Carlisle to call a timeout. Wesley Matthews came up with a tough 3-pointer that swished for an 11-point lead, and the Mavericks were able to make enough free throws to wrap up their 15th playoff berth in Nowitzki’s 18 seasons.

His teammates said they saw a look in Nowitzki’s eyes at the start of the game, like he was in no mood to miss the playoffs. He acknowledged he felt great going into the game and wasted no time showing that with 10 first-quarter points, setting set a terrific tone for the Mavericks.

“We got some guys who wanted to make the playoffs,” Nowitzki said. “I think not a lot of guys gave us a chance looking at our roster before the season.

“We made the playoffs in a tough West. That’s good. But we’ve been in the playoffs a couple times since the championship, and we’re always a first-round exit. So hopefully we’ll keep this momentum and see what happens.”

Williams, who had 23 points and six rebounds, is despised in Utah. He gave them another reason to not care for him Monday.

“It was a playoff game because there was so much at stake,” he said. The booing, he added, “got me going out there. Not only the booing, but the stuff that was being said. It definitely got me going.”

Williams also believed the Jazz’s youth worked against them in what was the biggest game of the season for both teams.


VIDEO: Dirk Nowitzki talks after the Mavs’ big win in Utah

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Morning shootaround — Feb. 6


VIDEO: Top 10 Plays from Friday night

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Griffin not going anywhere, says Doc | Time for a Pistons’ shakeup?Lue remains work in progress | All eyes on Warriors vs Thunder

No. 1:Griffin not going anywhere, says Doc — Well, that was quick. When the day began, there were rumors floating that Blake Griffin and the Clippers were on the outs and he was headed elsewhere by the trade deadline. On the surface, that didn’t seem plausible; why would the Clippers be willing to break up a potential 50-win team at mid-season? ell, the denial of sorts came quickly; Doc Rivers emerged to back his power forward. There was also other Griffin news; ESPN reported that his hand required an additional surgery to repair the injury, although the timetable remains the same, four to six weeks. Here’s James Herbert of CBS Sports recapping the Griffin trade buzz, from start to (we think) finish:

The Los Angeles Clippers and Denver Nuggets reportedly talked about a Blake Griffin trade, but it sounds like the superstar isn’t going anywhere. Clippers president and coach Doc Rivers strongly denied the rumors before Friday’s game against the Orlando Magic.

“Blake’s ours and he’s going to stay ours,” Rivers told reporters, via the Los Angeles Times’ Ben Bolch.

Forbes’ Mitch Lawrence reported that the Clippers are calling teams, including the Nuggets, about Griffin, and Denver is “somewhat leery” of doing a deal because he can enter free agency after next season. The Orange County Register’s Dan Woike, however, reported that the Nuggets placed the call about Griffin and the Clippers weren’t interested. The Times also reported that multiple teams had reached out about Griffin, but the Clippers, again, plan to keep him.

Given that Griffin is a top-10 player by any measure — we ranked him No. 7 before the season and he outperformed expectations before he hurt his quad and, later, reportedly punched the Clippers’ equipment manager — it is easy to take Rivers at his word. Perhaps, if Los Angeles suffers another disappointing loss in the playoffs, it will make sense to consider breaking up the core of Griffin, Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan. There is no reason, though, to rush into a trade now, unless an unbelievable offer is sent the Clippers’ way.

As CBS Sports’ Matt Moore noted, Rivers’ team is in win-now mode. There are not many scenarios where trading away a 26-year-old franchise player helps you win in the short term. It’s OK to fire up the trade machine and dream up some crazy swap, but don’t count on anything actually happening.

The trade deadline is Feb. 18.

***

 No. 2:Pistons need a shakeup? — These are weird times for the Pistons. On one hand, they’ve clearly established themselves as a playoff-caliber team this season, and boast first-time All-Star Andre Drummond, the first Pistons No. 1 pick to be named to the game since Grant Hill in 2000. On the other hand, the Pistons often seem that they’re stuck in mediocrity, and you wonder if coach Stan Van Gundy, who doubles as the organization’s shot-caller, will attempt a trade in order to quicken the rebuilding process. Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press thinks that would be a good idea:

The Pistons need a trade, especially if Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s core muscle strain sidelines the athletic defensive specialist longer than they hope. The conjecture might make Van Gundy uncomfortable, but he must make a realistic expectation for his team in the second half of the season. If he defines a successful campaign as simply ending the franchise’s six-year playoff drought, then he should ride out KCP’s absence and the roller-coaster inconsistency of a young team that frustrates as much as it excites.

But if Van Gundy believes the right trade at the right price could make the Pistons a genuine first-round playoff threat instead of an early sacrifice, coach Van Gundy should convince president Van Gundy to pull the trigger on a deal that could give the Pistons more experience, athleticism and depth.

The Pistons looked bad even in victory Thursday night. They beat New York, 111-105, but it was inexcusable to give up a 27-point lead to a team that played as though it wanted to be anywhere else but the Palace. The Knicks finally got their first advantage of the night with a little more than 2 minutes remaining.

The Pistons nearly embarrassed themselves before a national television audience. TNT was in town for the game, making it the first time the Pistons have played on the national network since the 2008-09 season.

Reggie Jackson saved Detroit in the closing moments with two three-pointers.

They’ll miss Caldwell-Pope. The Pistons announced following the game he will be re-evaluated following the All-Star break, meaning he’ll miss at least another four games.

Van Gundy previously said he’s content with his current roster, but that’s more about throwing people off the scent. His most valuable trading asset is Jennings, even though the point guard has an expiring contract that might dissuade many teams from returning phone calls.

“I got an e-mail from (general manager Jeff Bower) with all the discussions that have gone on, and there was no mention of Brooklyn and there was no mention of Brandon,” Van Gundy said.

Longtime NBA reporter Chris Sheridan reported on his website Thursday the Pistons have talked with the Nets about trading Jennings for Young, a 6-foot-8 athletic wing who’s in the first year of a four-year contract paying him $11.2 million this season.

Van Gundy referred to the report as “made up (blank).”

There have been reports that the Pistons are interested in New Orleans forward Ryan Anderson, who once played for Van Gundy in Orlando. But Anderson is on an expiring contract. He’ll be a free agent next summer. And unlike past years, there will be far more teams with money to spend considering the massive influx of national television revenue dollars expected to dramatically pump up the 2017 NBA salary cap.

Van Gundy might get even angrier as the deadline approaches and more trade rumors will be thrown against the wall. But the potentially extended loss of Caldwell-Pope places more pressure on the Pistons making a move in the next two weeks.

***

No. 3: Lue remains work in progress — After losing his first game as coach of the Cavaliers, Tyronn Lue‘s imprint of the team appeared to surface and the Cavs finally at least looked and sounded comfortable this season. That said. Luke understands the perils of a rookie head coach, especially in mid-season and particularly with a team that has understandably adopted a “championship or bust” motto. His predicament was broken down the other day by Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe:

“It’s a lot of thoughts,” he told reporters this week. “There’s a lot of stuff you have to put in and so much stuff you have to do. I wrote a lot of notes and went over them the next day.”

That next day, a Saturday, when Lue addressed the media, he promised to be “better” than Blatt and to invigorate Kevin Love, whose production had been inconsistent and whose place in the offense was rather confusing. Love did not want to be a traditional “Stretch 4” in the Cavaliers offense.

But there he was, the burly 6-foot-10-inch, 250-pounder standing at the 3-point line to stretch the floor. Lue has emphasized that Love receive the ball more at the elbows — corner of the key — and score from the inside out.

Love is averaging 20.4 points in his past five games as the Cavaliers attempt to rise to the level of the best teams in the Western Conference. Cleveland is the prohibitive favorite to reach the NBA Finals but getting there would mean little if the Cavaliers get embarrassed by the Golden State Warriors — again.

The Warriors laid a 34-point beatdown on the Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena in a Jan. 18 game that marked the end of the Blatt era. General manager David Griffin’s decision to fire Blatt was heavily criticized around the league, with James assigned most of the blame for the fact the players were disconnected with the coach.

Lue relayed the message immediately that he was not going to serve as the buddy-coach to make LeBron and the rest of the guys feel comfortable. He said LeBron and Kyrie Irving were not in good enough shape to run a more up-tempo offense.

That multiyear contract gives Lue the security to make his own decisions and trust his own instincts. Seven months younger than Brad Stevens, Lue is one of the new younger NBA coaches — born in the mid to late 1970s — teams are beginning to trust.

The Phoenix Suns named former guard Earl Watson as interim coach this week. Watson is 36. Perhaps what Stevens has exemplified to NBA teams is that younger coaches are not exactly pushovers and perhaps more in tune with current players and more open to the analytical side of the game.

Lue has fresh ideas on how to improve the Cavaliers. He wants more passes on offense and less one-on-one play, despite the presence of the most unstoppable one-on-one player in the game. He also suggested the players actually participate in the pregame introductions at home because it engages the crowd more. Under Blatt, the players wouldn’t even acknowledge their intros.

It’s touch-and-go for Lue at this point. He is going to coach the Cavaliers his way and bank on his past experience and tireless work ethic to aid his progress. His rise has been rapid but there is a sense that the Cleveland organization is in better hands.

Sacrificing everything for the ultimate goal is the message Lue is trying to relay.

“Winning takes care of everything,” he said. “Winning two championships with the Lakers for me, people probably wouldn’t even know who I was. I was the 15th man that first year and people love me in LA. I was part of a team, part of a championship. It’s an unbelievable feeling.”

***

No. 4: All eyes on Warriors vs. Thunder — The Super Bowl will be held Sunday just down the Bay in San Jose, but first the San Francisco-Oakland area will be buzzing about one of the more anticipated games of the season, the first between Oklahoma City and the Warriors. So far, the Warriors have beaten all serious comers, including the Cavs and Spurs, and so is OKC next? Steph Curry caused a minor stir a week ago when he answered “A win and a win” when asked about this weekend; he was referring to his game and also his Carolina Panthers against the Broncos. Here’s a sneak preview from Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle:

The NBA community has been waiting for more than three months for this matchup: a star-studded tilt between the league’s top two offenses and a game that added another layer of drama this week when it was reported that the Warriors are the favorites to land Oklahoma City forward Kevin Durant this summer.

“There are only two teams that can beat (the Warriors): the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs,” Charles Barkley said. The Warriors have “that swagger. When you become a great player, you develop a certain thing, where you think, ‘I’m the baddest S.O.B. out here. There’s nothing they can do.’ Steph (Curry) has that right now, but let me tell you something: That team in Oklahoma City, I might even put them ahead of the Spurs, because they’re the only team that can score with those guys.”

The Warriors (45-4) lead the NBA in scoring (115.4 points per game) and are No. 2 in field-goal percetage (49.1).

And lately, they’ve been even better. During the league’s longest active winning streak (eight games), the Warriors are averaging 123 points per game.

The Thunder (38-13) are second in scoring (109.7 points per game) and are third in field-goal percentage (47.6).

And, just like the Warriors, they’ve been even better of late. Oklahoma City has won 12 of 13 and has averaged 120.3 points during a five-game winning streak.

“There is no team in the NBA that has more talent than Oklahoma City. No team. They’re two-deep at every position,” Barkley said. “… As great as Russell (Westbrook) is, I wish he would just say, ‘I’m not going to worry about scoring. I’m just going to slow down Steph Curry.’ I don’t think anybody can stop Steph Curry.

“But (Westbrook) doesn’t play with the same energy on defense that he does on offense. Ain’t no player in the NBA faster than him going downhill. But he doesn’t say, ‘I’m going to stop my man, and I’m going to make a difference by stopping Steph Curry.’”

Curry and Westbrook won’t be matched up one-on-one throughout the game, but when the point guards are going at it, they should provide highlights fitting the stage. With hordes of celebrities and national media in the Bay Area for Super Bowl 50, the Warriors have had to add auxiliary press seating grander than what was used during the 2015 NBA Finals.

Curry is coming off Wednesday’s 51-point outburst, during which he made 11 three-pointers in Washington. Westbrook recorded his third straight triple-double the same night, with 24 points, 19 rebounds and 14 assists in a 117-114 victory over Orlando.

“The improvement Russell Westbrook has made is glaringly different this year,” Smith said.

Said O’Neal: “When you’re the underdogs, but you feel like you’re the best, you really come in and play. Against Golden State, you have to do everything right. I know K.D. and Westbrook are definitely going to bring their ‘A’ games.”

Durant, the league’s third-leading scorer (2.4 points per game behind No. 1 Curry), considers Golden State his top potential landing spot if he leaves Oklahoma City this summer, according to a Yahoo.

“Who knows what will happen?” Curry said. “Where he’ll end up, only Kevin knows that.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: LeBron James doesn’t want hack-a-whomever to go away, even though Cleveland opponents target Tristan ThompsonJimmy Butler is no doubt feeling a lot better now that his injury Friday was diagnosed a knee sprain. Also, he’s super-tight with Broncos’ receiver Demaryius Thomas, so guess who he has in the Super Bowl?… PJ Tucker doesn’t want to get traded. Got that, Suns? … Chandler Parsons is sometimes on the bench during crunch time but Rick Carlisle says not to worry … Marc Gasol is already a big fan of Kristaps Porzingis, but who isn’t?

Numbers like Thompson over Mozgov when Cavaliers play big

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — The Cleveland Cavaliers’ longest winning streak of the season – eight games from Dec. 28 to Jan. 12 – coincided with a lineup change, Tristan Thompson replacing Timofey Mozgov at center.

The winning streak came to an end in San Antonio last Thursday and Thompson went back the bench for the last three games. Matchups had something to do with it. The Cavs’ last three games have been against big centers (Dwight Howard, Andrew Bogut and Brook Lopez), and Cavs coach David Blatt acknowledged that size is the reason Mozgov has started those three games.

So Thompson could be back in the starting lineup again soon. It probably won’t happen on Thursday, when the Cavs host DeAndre Jordan and the Los Angeles Clippers (8 p.m. ET, TNT), but the Cavs’ numbers suggest that Thompson is the better choice.

The Cavs have played almost 1,000 minutes with LeBron James and Kevin Love at the forward positions, and about an equal number with Mozgov and Thompson at center. And Cleveland has been much better, especially offensively with Thompson at the five.

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Those minutes account for 71 percent of James’ total minutes. He’s also played 78 minutes with Thompson at the four and either Mozgov or Anderson Varejao at the five. He’s played only 8.1 minutes per game of small ball this season.

Interestingly, the Cavs’ numbers have been similar whether James is playing with one big or two.

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Thompson has been the center for most (192) of those one-big minutes, but the Cavs are a minus-26 with a James/Thompson frontline (in part because they’ve used it for more defensive than offensive possessions). They’ve been better (plus-63 in 86 minutes) with a James/Love frontline and three guards/wings, a configuration they could go to more often now that they have their full complement of guards available.

Lineups didn’t matter when the Cavs got smoked by the Warriors on Monday, but Blatt will continue to have interesting choices from game to game and minute to minute.

Morning shootaround — Jan. 16


VIDEO: Top 10 Plays from Friday night

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Noah’s shoulder jeopardizes his, Bulls’ fates | Thunder getting overlooked, underloved? | Bird unhappy with Pacers’ style slippage | Long trip leaves Cavs in good place

No. 1: Noah’s shoulder jeopardizes his, Bulls’ fates — Your first instinct was to look around for Boston’s Kelly Olynyk. He was the culprit involved in the NBA’s previous most notable shoulder injury, locking up Cleveland’s Kevin Love in the first round last spring and sending the former All-Star forward off to surgery, done for the rest of the playoffs. This time, though, it was Dallas’ JaVale McGee getting tied up with Chicago’s Joakim Noah, with Noah suddenly pulling away and running off the court while shouting anguished expletives. Noah’s left shoulder dislocation was a significant re-injury of the same shoulder he had sprained before Christmas, and according to Bulls beat writer K.C. Johnson, it has the frustrated center and his teammates rattled while awaiting the outcome of an MRI exam. Meanwhile, any plans by Bulls management to explore the trade market for Noah, an impending free agent, probably have been diminished:

A Saturday MRI will produce an official prognosis and whether surgery is needed, but the injury likely will have major ramifications for the franchise — and for Noah. The Bulls have gauged the market for Noah in advance of next month’s trade deadline, an option that is in serious jeopardy now.

More powerfully, the Bulls waited two weeks to clear Noah for contact practices and officially rule out surgery for his last injury, which involved a small tear. If surgery is needed this time, could Noah, an unrestricted free agent, have played his last game for the franchise that drafted him in 2007?

“It didn’t look good,” coach Fred Hoiberg said.

“It’s devastating,” Derrick Rose said. “He’s a big piece.”

No two injuries are the same, but [Love] took more than four months to return to basketball activity after dislocating his shoulder in last season’s playoffs.

“I’m frustrated for him,” Taj Gibson said. “He felt so good coming into this game. We don’t know the severity of it but the look on his face was just crazy. He had put so much work in to get back to the team.

“It just makes my stomach sick. You’ve been going to war with this guy all kind of different circumstances over eight years, a guy you pride yourself with, especially with practice and he’s one of the emotional leaders, it hits you in the heart. Seeing him on that table like that, I kind of got flashbacks to when Derrick got hurt. You don’t want to see your man go down like that. It’s frustrating.”

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No. 2: Thunder getting overlooked, underloved?— No one would welcome additional, legitimate championship contenders for the Larry O’Brien Trophy this June than the NBA. It just so happens that the defending champions, the Golden State Warriors, are as good as or maybe better than they were last season. The San Antonio Spurs have a history of success unrivaled for duration since the Bill Russell-era Boston Celtics. And the Cleveland Cavaliers have LeBron James, who has taken his team to five consecutive Finals. Outside of those three franchises, though, the league’s other 27 teams have more skeptics than supporters when assessing their shot at a spring ring. Royce Young of ESPN.com took a hard look at where the Oklahoma City fit among the top contenders, and wound up re-visiting a familiar topic – media disrespect – with former MVP forward Kevin Durant:

A couple of hours before the Oklahoma City Thunder squared off against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday night, Michael Wilbon said on “Pardon The Interruption”: “There’s only three teams in the NBA, right now from where we sit, who can win the championship, who can even play for the championship.”

Those three: the Golden State Warriors, the San Antonio Spurs and the Cleveland Cavaliers. “That’s it,” Wilbon said. “That’s the list.”

The Thunder went on to effortlessly roll over the young Wolves 113-93, as expected, improving to 29-12. At the midway point of the season, that puts the Thunder on a 58-win pace, which in the past 10 seasons on average is good for the second seed in the Western Conference, and has been good for the No. 1 seed twice. With a robust margin of victory of +8.2, on paper, the Thunder look like a surefire contending power.

But plenty of people around the league seem to share the same sentiment as Wilbon. It’s Warriors, Spurs and Cavs, and then everybody else.

The question is, where are the Thunder?

“Man, the [media and experts are] always trying to nitpick us,” Kevin Durant told ESPN.com. “I mean, they don’t like us. They don’t like how Russell [Westbrook] talks to the media, they don’t like how I talk to the media. So obviously, yeah, they’re not going to give us the benefit of the doubt.

“Especially since we’ve been together so long. Some of these teams are new, except for the Spurs, who have won. But we haven’t won and we’ve still got the same core, so they don’t expect us to win. It is what it is, who cares about them. They don’t mean nothing, the critics. Their opinions, everybody has one, but we don’t really care about them. Every day we’re just going to keep grinding this thing out. We feel like we can compete with anybody.”

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No. 3: Bird unhappy with Pacers’ style slippage — Change is hard, especially when the state from which one is departing worked so darn well. The Indiana Pacers committed to a pace-and-space attack over the summer, shedding the “smash mouth” style built around center Roy Hibbert and power forward David West that had produced consecutive trips to the Eastern Conference finals. There were growing pains early – Paul George didn’t like the idea of being stuck as a “power forward” – but George, his teammates and coach Frank Vogel worked out the kinks for a satisfying start. But Indiana has dropped nine of its past 15 games since starting 16-9 and whether in response to opponents’ tactics, George’s sputters after his early MVP form or just lapsing into old habits, the Pacers have slowed down and gone bigger. That had Larry Bird, the team’s president of basketball operations, displeased when he spoke to Nate Taylor of the Indianapolis Star:

“I just can’t get a handle on it right now because these guys are up and down,” Bird said in a telephone interview just hours before Friday’s game against Washington. “I can’t tell you what is best for us right now. We’ve had success with the small lineup, but we’ve had success with two big guys in there. It’s going to take a little bit more time, but I would like to have won more games up to this point. I don’t think any of us feel comfortable with how we’re playing and the way things are going.”

What Bird does not want the Pacers to do is waver from the new offensive philosophy they developed in the offseason.

“I’d like to see teams match up with us instead of us worrying about who certain guys are going to guard on the other teams,” Bird said. “Let’s see if they can guard us. If you’ve got good ball movement and you’ve got guys hitting shots, it makes it pretty easy.”

After talking with Bird after Thursday’s practice, Vogel returned to the spread lineup to start Friday’s game for the first time since Dec. 31. The results were not what Bird desired. The Pacers fell behind early to the Wizards and struggled throughout in a 118-104 blowout loss. The Pacers missed 14 of their 17 3-pointers and were outrebounded by the Wizards 54-35.

Bird and Vogel have talked almost every day throughout the season. Vogel said their conversations have not changed much, but he mentioned before Friday’s game that every aspect of the team is in flux, from which lineup should start to which players should be on the court in the final minutes of games.

Vogel said he has favored the big lineup because it has a strong defensive rating of 89.4, a statistic that measures points allowed per 100 possessions, entering Friday’s game. The spread lineup’s defensive rating is 106.3.

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No. 4: Long trip leaves Cavs in good place — Fatigued yet fulfilled, the Cleveland Cavaliers returned home in the wee hours Saturday from a long road trip that may have positioned them just right for another push to the Finals. The mood of their leader, LeBron James, was evident in a Tweet James posted upon getting home:

It also was clear in James’ comments after a breezy 20-point victory at Houston to conclude the trip that Cleveland might just be revving up to keep playing for another five months. Here is an excerpt from Dave McMenamin‘s piece for ESPN.com:

After traveling nearly 6,000 miles over the course of a six-game, 12-day trip — enough distance to go from New York to Los Angeles and back again — the Cleveland Cavaliers walked out of the Toyota Center on Friday night having picked up five wins on the journey and a boost of confidence to take into the second half of the season.

“The only thing I care about is how I lead these guys every single night, and I know we can compete with any team in the league and it doesn’t have to be a regular-season game,” LeBron James said afterward when asked if it bothered him that some were judging the Cavs because of that Spurs loss [Thursday]. “I know, you give us four games and it’s time to lock down in a playoff series, we can play and we can beat any team in this league. So that’s my feeling and that’s what I know.”

The certainty in James’ words was significant, as the 5-1 trip seemed to solidify the notion that his Cavs had indeed turned the corner. They won in just about every imaginable fashion — blowing it open late in Washington; thoroughly dominating in Minnesota; toying around with the competition in Philadelphia; coming from behind in Dallas and making big plays down the stretch; and then, in Houston, shooting only 39.1 percent as tired legs resulted in missed jump shots, but determined defense wouldn’t let them lose as the Rockets shot even worse at 35.1 percent.

They’ve now won nine of their past 10 games, heading into a home date with the Golden State Warriors on Monday, and are starting to look like the team that became a juggernaut in the second half of last season through the playoffs, until injuries derailed them in the Finals.

“I think just being on the road, just together for 12 days just brought us together more,” Cavs big man Tristan Thompson told ESPN.com. “And you can see it on the court. There’s more flow. Guys are understanding where guys are going to be at.”

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Byron Scott is talking about playing the Lakers’ young guys more over the second half of the season, though it’s hard to imagine Kobe Bryant‘s Farewell Tour yielding to any sort of organizational-development agenda. … We can understand why the Brooklyn Nets would be interested in Tom Thibodeau to bail out their dismal operation, but we’re unclear as to why Thibodeau would be interested in the Nets. … San Antonio has been so good for so long, it’s kind of unfair to the rest of the league, according to USA Today. … The first priority with Nene always seems to be, getting him healthy .The second is keeping him that way, because his impact on the Washington Wizards is considerable. … This Miami Heat teams lacks some of the self-assurance and self-awareness that the Big Three edition owned, says one insider. … There are Bulls fans who wish that Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose got along as famously as Butler and his Hollywood buddy Mark Wahlberg.

Morning Shootaround — Dec. 29


VIDEO: The Fast Break: Dec. 28

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Jordan pays tribute to Kobe | Cavs right ship with team meeting | Spurs find ways to win | Report: Burks opts for surgery

No. 1: Jordan pays tribute to Kobe Kobe Bryant is in his 20th season as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, so its easy to forget that Bryant was actually drafted by the Charlotte Hornets, and later traded to the Lakers. Bryant returned to Charlotte last night on his farewell tour for his final game in the Queen City, and while Hornets owner Michael Jordan couldn’t make it in person, the Hornets welcomed Kobe with a video message from Jordan before the game. As ESPN’s Baxter Holmes writes, Kobe appreciated the tribute…

Bryant said he spoke with Jordan on Sunday and knew the video would be shown.

“It was awesome. It was awesome,” Bryant said. “He and I — as he said in the video — we talk pretty often. But it was pretty funny to see some of the reactions of my teammates. I was sitting next to Julius Randle before the game. He was like, ‘Yo, that’s amazing!’ I was like, ‘What?’ [He said] ‘That was Michael Jordan!'”

Bryant added, “We talk fairly often. I know he’s enjoying a little vacation time. I told him I was a little jealous. He said, ‘You’ll be here soon enough.'”

While Jordan transitioned into an ownership role for an NBA team, Bryant said he doesn’t expect to follow the same path.

“No, he and I differ entirely when it comes to that,” Bryant said. “He’s a mathematician. He loves math. He loves numbers, loves dealing with numbers. I don’t. I could care less. I suck at math. So from that perspective, I’m not going to be looking at cap numbers and all that other stuff. I just have no interest in it.”

Bryant again was warmly received by a road crowd that chanted his name at numerous points throughout the game, including when the buzzer sounded.

“It’s been like that every city, fortunately,” he said. “Here it’s a little bit different because this is the city that drafted me, so my journey started here. As brief as it was, it still started here. That has a little more value to it.”

But perhaps no stop means as much — or carries as much personal history for Bryant and his team — as the stop Wednesday, when Bryant will play his final game in Boston against the archrival Celtics, a team Bryant faced twice in the Finals. The Lakers lost in 2008, then won in 2010.

“Love-hate fest sort of thing,” he said of what he is expecting from the crowd. “I’m bringing my family down because my kids have never even been to Boston. They’ve never even been to Boston. I’m looking forward to them getting a chance to see the city a little bit and then just experience the green. It’s just a different green. I want them to be able to see that.”

Bryant also said he misses playing the villain, which meant being booed at road arenas.

“Yeah. It was just so natural to me for so many years,” he said. “It became something that just felt comfortable. It felt a little awkward at first, to be honest with you, to get this praise, but I’m glad they didn’t do this many, many years ago because it’s like kryptonite. It would’ve taken away all my energy and all my strength because I relied a lot on being the villain. Sometimes, the best way to beat the villain is to give them a hug.”


VIDEO: Jordan Honors Kobe

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Morning Shootaround — Dec. 26


VIDEO: Top plays from Christmas Day games

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Warriors beat Cavs, believe they can play even better | James wants clarity from Cavaliers | Rockets leave coal for Spurs | Kobe surprised at huge lead in early All-Star voting

No. 1: Warriors beat Cavs, believe they can play even better You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone, even the most rabid Warriors fan, who truly thinks the Warriors have underperformed this season. After all, after last night’s 89-83 win against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the highly anticipated NBA Finals rematch, the Warriors moved to a ridiculous 28-1 on the season, which included a 24-game winning streak. That is, it’s hard to find criticism unless you talk to the actual Warriors players themselves, as our Scott Howard-Cooper did, where you find that the Warriors believe despite all the W’s, they aren’t playing all that great and still have room to grow

“Look,” center Andrew Bogut said, “we haven’t played great the last 10 games. That’s something that we’ve addressed in this locker room.”

“I don’t think we’ve played well,” power forward Draymond Green said. “Even tonight. We did some good things, but I still don’t think we’ve played well.”

“I’m really impressed with our defense the last two games,” interim coach Luke Walton said. “Before that, our defense was struggling.”

Help is on the way, if only the Warriors can hold it together another couple weeks and avoid the all-out panic that will come if they slump all the way to, say, 75-win pace and only break the single-season record by three games as opposed to the current tracking to 79 victories. Good news is on the horizon for a change.

Coach Steve Kerr, out since the early days of training camp while recovering from the effects of two back surgeries in the offseason, is nearing a return. He stepped in for an ill Walton to run practice Tuesday, the interim to the interim, watched the Cleveland game from the coaches’ office in Oracle and plans to accompany the team on the Dallas-Houston back-to-back that begins Wednesday while Walton continues to lead. While the Warriors continue to avoid targeting a return date, the increased activity raises the possibility Kerr could be back as soon as Jan. 2 against the Nuggets in Oakland.

Forward Harrison Barnes, out the last 12 games with a sprained left ankle, was in some of the scrimmage Tuesday and Thursday participated in three-on-three drills with the team. Being listed as doubtful for Friday showed there was at least the thought he could play against the Cavaliers, so Monday against the Kings at Oracle or the two games in Texas are all possibilities.

The next week or two, depending on the actual return dates and how long Barnes will need to work back into game shape, could become an eventful time in the season of a defending champion, and that just doesn’t happen very often in early-January. Golden State will be whole again, assuming no one else gets hurt in the meantime, with Barnes an important piece as the starting small forward and also one of the triggers to the successful small-ball lineup when he moves to power forward.

It would have been impossible on opening night to imagine the Warriors would stand at 28-1 under any circumstances, let alone 28-1 with a coach younger than several players around the league and stepping in with two previous seasons as an assistant, with a concussion costing Bogut six games and Barnes’ absence. Now imagine the Warriors at 28-1 and thinking they will start to play better in the future.

“Maybe a little bit,” Bogut said.

Maybe more than a little bit.

“There’s part of it that [makes me mad] and there’s part of it that makes me very, very happy,” Green said. “I think we’ve got a lot of improving to do, and we will.”

Mad because the Warriors are not happy with how they have played lately. The happy: “Because what are we? Twenty-eight and one? You’re 28-1 and you’re not near playing well, that’s exciting. We know we know how to get to that point and we know we’ll reach that point. And when we do, I think that’s trouble because if we’re 28-1 and we’re not playing well, imagine where we are. That’s why it excites me.

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No. 2: James wants clarity from Cavaliers Meanwhile, the Warriors’ vanquished Christmas Day foe, the Cleveland Cavaliers, drop to 19-8. That’s still good enough for the lead in the Eastern Conference, but with the Cavs getting more players back from injury and healthy, including Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert, the Cavs have more options available than ever before. And after the loss to the Warriors, as Cleveland.com’s Joe Vardon writes, LeBron James would like to see the Cavs discover a rhythm going forward

After the Cavs lost 89-83 to the defending champion Warriors on Golden State’s home court, where it’s now won 32 in a row during the regular season, dating back to last year, James repeatedly mentioned the lack of continuity the Cavs had on the court and suggested that at least some of it had to do with David Blatt‘s rotation.

“It’s going to take some time to get back into rhythm, and all of us, not just the players, but everyone, to get back in rhythm,” James said.

The lineups and the newness need some context, and what James said about them was nothing like the cool attitude he directed toward Blatt at times last season.

In fact, James didn’t name his coach specifically on Friday, but the bottom line was James called for Blatt and his staff to gain perhaps a clearer sense of who they want to play, and when, now that the entire team is healthy.

“For us to have a full unit, we’ve got to practice, we’ve got to play some games where we know what we want to do, what lineups we want to play out there,” James said.

“It’s an adjustment period, it’s not just going to happen – you plug a guy in there, plug two guys in there and it automatically happens,” he continued. “It’s going to be an adjustment period, but we’ll be fine. We’ll be fine toward February and March.”

This was just the second game this season that the Cavs had all 15 players available, due to season-long injuries to Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert.

That’s not Blatt’s fault, but, it was the head coach who placed James, Shumpert, J.R. Smith, Matthew Dellavedova, and Tristan Thompson on the court to start the fourth quarter. It was the first time all season they’d all been on the court at the same time.

When Irving and Kevin Love subbed in for James and Smith with 10:06 left in the quarter, the Cavs still had a lineup that had never played together. Those are just two examples.

Richard Jefferson did not play at all against the Warriors. Mo Williams logged 4:39, and James Jones, a favorite of James, played just 1:34.

James led the Cavs with 25 points and contributed nine rebounds, but shot 10-of-26 and was a brutal 4-of-9 from the foul line. He took the blame for that, saying “I wasn’t very good, inefficient, and it trickled down to everybody else.”

The Cavs’ 83 points, 31.6 percent shooting from the field and 16.7 percent shooting from 3-point range were season lows. Irving (13 points) shot 4-of-15 and Love (10 points, 18 rebounds) was 5-of-16. Cleveland assisted on just 12-of-30 baskets.

“For the first time, for a long period of time we had some different lineups out there,” James explained, talking about the woes on offense. “And against a championship team like this, it’s kind of hard to do that on the fly. We’re not making no excuses, we still got to be a lot better, still got to move the ball, got to share the ball, get it moving from side to side, but offensively we were all out of rhythm.

“You credit to their defense, for sure, and then the lack of detail.”

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No. 3: Rockets leave coal for Spurs While the Warriors have romped through the NBA this season, the San Antonio Spurs have quietly put in work as well, and entered yesterday’s Christmas game against the Houston Rockets with a sparkling 25-5 record. Their opponent, the Houston Rockets, have struggled to find an identity, firing a coach (Kevin McHale) and getting inconsistent play from their superstars, James Harden and Dwight Howard. But on a big stage yesterday, the Rockets turned to their defense to grind out an 88-84 win over the Spurs, and as our Fran Blinebury writes, Houston got a present from their veteran reserve guard, Jason Terry

Jason Terry is long past the days of being the shiny new toy. He has stockings that have hung from chimneys far longer than some of his teammates have hung around the planet.

So even after the Rockets had spent most of the night standing toe-to-toe and going push-to-shove with the Spurs, there came a time to seal the deal and the closer had to come out of the attic.

It wasn’t just Terry’s nine points and three steals in the last 10½ minutes of the bone-jarring 88-84 victory Friday night at the Toyota Center. It was the way he did everything. Like he owned the place.

Ever since the shocking 5-10 start to the season that got coach Kevin McHale fired, the Rockets have been trying to convince everybody, including themselves, that they’re really a very good team, capable of getting back again to the Western Conference finals.

Trouble is, since the opening tip back in October, every time the Rockets have put another stake in the ground with a signature win over the Thunder, at Dallas or sweeping a pair of duels from the Clippers, they have also put a stake or a half dozen into their own foot. A combined 0-5 record against the lowly Nuggets and Nets. A whipping in Sacramento. A comeback that came up just short in Orlando.

You don’t get to call yourself a real contender until you stop pretending to show up consistently and take the job seriously every night. Dwight Howard and James Harden talk the talk.

“The Jet” puts his arms out at his sides and takes flight on the wings of drive and emotion that have carried him into a 17th NBA season.

“That’s what I’ve prided myself on, being ready, always stepping up to the moment,” Terry said. “In big moments like tonight when my team needed me most, I want to show up and be effective.”

He buried a big 3-pointer. He hit a mid-range jumper from the wing. He stepped into the San Antonio passing lanes to snatch away three balls to get the Rockets headed in the other direction.

But now, more than being the fire-starter in a big holiday event — the first time the Rockets hosted a home Christmas Day game since moving to Houston in 1971 — Terry’s task and bigger challenge will be to instill a sense of every day urgency that goes from the locker room out onto the court. Even in too many of their wins this season, the Rockets have started games lazily and had to come scrambling back from double-digit holes. Which is why this latest so-called statement win lifts their record back to just 16-15.

Harden’s pair of fourth-quarter 3-pointers were big and it’s good to know that you’ve got that arrow in your quiver, but it can’t be enough to think he’ll be able to bail you out game after game with offensive heroics. And it was Terry’s spark that ignited the flame.

Terry had been inserted into the starting lineup for the first four games after J.B. Bickerstaff took over the team. But as the team kept struggling, the interim coach began to shuffle his guards like a casino dealer until finally he turned Terry back face up in this one. In fact, the veteran has played less than 15 minutes in 11 games this season and also has six DNPs, including the previous game, which the Rockets lost at Orlando. That’s now likely to change.

“I just feel like we need him on the floor,” Bickerstaff said. “There’s times where he needs the rest, obviously. But big moments in big games, he’s one of the guys that I trust the most. I trust not only that he’ll do the right thing, but I trust that he’ll perform and then I trust that he’ll carry his teammates in a positive direction.

“You can’t speak enough about him. He’s a class guy. He’s a winner. He’s a champion. He’s a leader. He’ll sacrifice, whatever it takes to win. That’s what he does. That’s who he is. Every since I’ve known him he’s been that way.”

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No. 4: Kobe surprised at huge lead in early All-Star voting The first 2016 All-Star voting results are in, and while there are still several more rounds to go, at least for now, Kobe Bryant has a huge lead over everyone else in the NBA, including Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. Considering Kobe’s global appeal and previously announced retirement plans, it shouldn’t come a complete surprise that fans want to see him on the NBA’s big stage one final time. But as ESPN’s Baxter Holmes writes, the numbers apparently shocked at least one person: Kobe Bryant.

Bryant has 719,235 votes — well ahead of Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry (510,202), the next-highest vote-getter, and more than twice as many as Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James (357,937).

After the Lakers’ 94-84, Christmas night loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, Bryant said he was more than a little surprised he had such a wide lead.

“Listen, I was making a little coffee run this morning, got some gas and decided to just go on Instagram and peruse,” he said, “and [I] saw the damn votes, and I was like, ‘What the hell?’ Shocked doesn’t do it justice.”

He added, “It’s exciting. What can I say? Just thankful.”

The 2016 NBA All-Star Game, to be held in Toronto, would be Bryant’s last, as he has announced his plans to retire after this season, his 20th in the NBA. His 17 All-Star selections are second all-time behind former Lakers star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who had 19. Bryant, 37, is the leading scorer in NBA All-Star history (280 points).

This year marks the first time that the 6-foot-6 Bryant is being listed as a member of the frontcourt in All-Star voting. In previous years, he has been listed as a guard. The second-highest vote-getter among Western Conference frontcourt players is Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant (349,473).

Clippers coach Doc Rivers said before Friday’s game that Bryant deserves a spot on the All-Star team.

“A lot of people disagree with me on that. That’s fine. I have my opinion. I think Kobe should be on the All-Star team,” Rivers said. “I don’t care if he’s a starter of if they figure out a 13th spot for him. [With] what he’s done in his career, he should be on the All-Star team, and I don’t see any debate in that. You can have one, but I’m not hearing it.”

But what if someone else were left off, such as one of Rivers’ players?

“It would be awful, but Kobe should be on the All-Star team,” Rivers said. “I think they should have a special exception and put 13 guys on if that’s the case if he wasn’t in one of the top 12 as far as voting or whatever. But I just believe he should be on it. Magic [Johnson] was on, Michael [Jordan] was on with the Wizards. I think certain guys earn that right, and unfortunately for other guys who can’t make it, they have to earn that right too.”

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Chicago Bulls may have turned a corner with their win over the Oklahoma City Thunder yesterday … Steph Curry doesn’t think he’s “hurting” basketball, regardless of what his former coach Mark Jackson says … Chris Bosh punctuated Miami’s win over New Orleans yesterday by talking trash to Anthony Davis down the stretchEvan Fournier has broken out of his slump in Orlando … You can ask him questions, but doesn’t have to answer them …

Morning shootaround — Dec. 18


VIDEO: Highlights from games played Dec. 17

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Next man up is new normal in Cleveland | Riley says Heat not looking to trade | Howard responds with love in Houston | Shumpert truly delivers

No. 1: Next man up is new normal in Cleveland The Oklahoma City Thunder entered Cleveland having won six games in a row, but the Cavs used a strong second half run to build an insurmountable lead and win, 104-100. While Kyrie Irving has still yet to return from injury for the Cavs, LeBron James once again stuffed the stat sheet, finishing with 33 points, 11 assists and 9 rebounds to lead the way for the Cavs. And as our Steve Aschburner writes, it’s still early, but the Cavs look locked in:

No Kyrie Irving (recovery from knee surgery), Iman Shumpert (groin) and Mo Williams (thumb sprain) meant minutes and opportunities for others. No biggie for the Cavs, for whom short-handed is the new normal. You have to go back eight months and 44 games, to the postseason opener against Boston, for a game in which Cleveland had all its guys healthy.

“Our motto is the next man up,” said James, who now has a 16-4 personal record head-to-head (regular season or playoff) against OKC’s Kevin Durant. “There’s no excuses around here. Whoever’s in the lineup is ready to go.”

While OKC was missing the playoffs last spring, done in by Kevin Durant’s and Russell Westbrook‘s injuries, Cleveland was busy getting resourceful. The Cavs beat the Celtics, the Bulls and the Hawks, and pushed the Warriors to six games in the Finals, by leaning on the likes of Matthew Dellavedova and Tristan Thompson like never before. James at times seemed startled by how much those role players could handle, but by doing so they toughened up and built a bond.

That was evident again Thursday. Thompson gave the Cavs repeated extra chances by grabbing 15 rebounds overall — 11 on the offensive end — to go with 12 points. Dellavedova chipped in his own double-double with 11 points and 10 assists. Veteran Richard Jefferson scored 13 points and wild card J.R. Smith was big early, both scoring and making timely defensive plays.

This essentially was the crew that pushed Golden State to an extra level of great last spring. It’s the team that, with Irving, Shumpert and Williams all due back soon, knows how to fold back in talented players because it did that over the second half of last season. It’s the biggest reason Cleveland stands alone as a legit contender from the East, while the Thunder will slug it out with two or three rivals out West.

Durant and Westbrook combined for 52 points and Serge Ibaka added 23 more, but the OKC bench went from good enough in the first half to ghastly in the second. New coach Billy Donovan appeared to get caught in his rotations, asking the Thunder to survive too long with neither of its two scoring stars on the floor. Enes Kantner was a liability defensively and two-way mishap Dion Waiters reminded the sellout Q crowd why their team is better off without him.

James and the Cavs are playing chess right now relative to the Thunder’s checkers. He knows what Cleveland needs to win a title because he’s been there and done it so recently. The Thunder went to the Finals in 2012 but in this what-have-you-done-lately league, that’s old news in a rapidly changing game.

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No. 2: Riley says Heat not looking to trade The Miami Heat are currently 15-9, good for fourth place in the Eastern Conference. But we know team president Pat Riley is always looking to improve the roster, which could involve making a trade somewhere along the way. A recent report had center Hassan Whiteside on the trade block, and yesterday Riley spoke to the media to say he wasn’t ready to make any moves, at least not quite yet, as Manny Navarro writes in the Miami Herald:

“I can guarantee you there have been no discussions about the BS that you have read in the newspapers the last couple of days,” Riley said of rumors Whiteside could be headed to Houston or Sacramento. “I like our team and I want to see where we’re headed.”

Riley said he expects the Heat, which plays the Toronto Raptors at 8 p.m. Friday at AmericanAirlines Arena, will be “one of [the teams] that is going to be for real” when that 40-game mark is complete Jan. 15.

What does he like about this Heat team?

“Well, we’ve got great depth,” Riley said during a five-minute interview with The Miami Herald and a two local TV stations Thursday during a holiday event for veterans at the Miami VA Fisher House. “I think we have a three-tiered team which is we have a group of great veterans, mid-aged veterans, and then we have youth. We have a lot of spirit. There’s a lot of energy with our young guys.

“Probably some of our best defenders are our young players. They’re trying to get their offensive games to match their defensive games.”

He also likes the leadership that team captains Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem have brought.

“They have no idea how proud I am of them and how they conduct themselves every single night, good or bad — to the community, to the media,” Riley said. “It’s not easy. This league is not easy, and when there’s a high-expectation level, then you’ve got to deal with the consequences of winning and the consequences of losing, and I think our guys do it very well.”

He said coach Erik Spoelstra has done “an exemplary job.”

“I think he’s finding his way to the heart of his team and how they’re going to play, how he can adjust and make those adjustments,” Riley said. “Contrary to what a lot of people think, we have a team that can play big. We have a team that can play medium. And we have a team that can play small. You don’t want to get caught up in any one thing. You just want to create your own identity, which is what I think [Spoelstra is] talking about. Whether you’re big or you’re small, that’s how you’re going to play. I think we’re showing that.”

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No. 3: Howard responds with love in Houston The Houston Rockets got off to a slow start, including firing coach Kevin McHale. Part of their inconsistent play has come from center Dwight Howard, the former All-NBA player who has suffered various injuries in recent years, and has seen his production fluctuate. But recent reports of Howard wanting out in Houston are, at least according to Howard, not true, as Jonathan Feigan writes in the Houston Chronicle:

“The one thing that I don’t want to happen is people to assume that because things are not going quite well for us that I’ve quit on the team and take away from all the positive things we have done, despite the loss, making the city feel like they’re unwanted,” Howard said on Thursday. “There’s a lot of negativity going around. I haven’t caused it. I haven’t said anything negative to anybody about this team or this situation. I’ve just been trying to find ways to make this situation better, trying to grow as a man, as a basketball player.

“You just try to laugh at it. I don’t want to go out and persecute the people that persecute me. That’s the hardest part. The first reaction is to go back at them. You just have to respond with love.”

A report at sheridanhoops.com on Tuesday cited sources saying Howard is “extremely unhappy” with his role with the Rockets and predicted he would be traded to the Miami Heat. Howard called the report “lies.”

Howard can expect to hear plenty from the Lakers fans tonight at Staples Center. He has often laughed at the taunts in Los Angeles, even singing along with chants in his first return to play the Lakers after signing with the Rockets.

“If they boo me, they boo me,” he said. “Just going to say, ‘Hey, I love you guys. If you boo me, I’m going to respond with love, just try to have a good game, not get frustrated with whatever happens on the floor. I don’t want to smile too much because then I’m (said to) not take it serious. I don’t want to not smile too much because then I’m (called) unhappy. Just going to stay positive.”

Rockets interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff said he has over the years talked to some players when they have been subject of trade rumors or other media reports. With Howard, Bickerstaff said they have talked often throughout the season, but did not consider that necessary with this week’s reports and that neither took them seriously.

“There’s certain guys that need to be talked to more about those situations and other guys, it doesn’t bother them. I try not to bring attention to it. If a guy does have a problem or a question and he brings it to me, then I’ll talk to him. For the most part, I try to ignore it because there’s so much noise out there.

“We’ve joked about it. We’ve laughed about it. I don’t think it needs to be addressed. I don’t know when I’ve seen him ‘extremely unhappy.’ We’ve had plenty of conversations. We’re in a good place.”

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No. 4: Shumpert delivers One of the Cavs out with an injury last night was forward Iman Shumpert, recovering from a strained groin. Which meant Shumpert happened to be at home on Wednesday when his pregnant fiancé, Teyana Taylor, unexpectedly went into labor and gave birth. As ESPN’s Dave McMenamin writes, Shumpert ended up having to play doctor and delivered his daughter before the paramedics arrived…

The baby, Iman Tayla Shumpert Jr., was born at 6:42 a.m, according to the post. Taylor nicknamed her “Junie.”

Taylor wrote that she did not realize she was in labor until she could feel her baby’s head. She said Shumpert used the cord from a pair of headphones to tie off the umbilical cord as the couple waited for the ambulance to arrive minutes later.

The birth came about three weeks before the expected due date of Jan. 16, 2016, which Shumpert previously shared on his Facebook account.

Shumpert and Taylor got engaged in November, with Shumpert proposing to her with a ruby engagement ring on the night of her baby shower.

Shumpert was ruled out of the Cavs’ game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday night with a right groin strain. According to the Cavs, his playing status is questionable moving forward.

Before the 104-100 win over the Thunder, Cleveland coach David Blatt said Shumpert had yet to be re-evaluated by the Cavs since the team returned from Boston, because he was excused to be with his family.

“Due to the recent events, we’ve allowed Shump to do more important things,” Blatt said. “The doctor will get his hands on him, hopefully, [Thursday] evening. Then we’ll be a little bit smarter [about his status]. But he’ll be down for a few days for sure.”

Then Blatt cracked a joke about Shumpert’s surprise delivery skills.

“Dr. Shumpert now,” Blatt said. “And congratulations to Teyana, as well.”

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Scary moment in Cleveland last night, as LeBron James dove for a loose ball and slammed into Ellie Day, the wife of professional golfer Jason Day, sitting courtside. She was taken away on a stretcher and, according to Cleveland.com, treated and released from a local hospitalSteve Kerr hopes to be back on the Warriors’ bench in the next “two to three weeks” … Are the Sacramento Kings interested in trading for Kevin Martin? … Mike D’Antoni was spotted in Philadelphia, presumably there to meet with the Sixers about a job as an assistant … The Milwaukee Bucks held an “informal” meeting with Carlos Boozer in Los Angeles … The Bucks also took a team bonding trip to AlcatrazThe Currys and Drake made a postgame trip to In-N-Out …


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