Skip to main content

Posts Tagged ‘Tristan Thompson’

Morning shootaround — May 22

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Raptors block Cleveland’s path to perfection | Toronto’s offense gets on track | Thunder look to get physical versus Warriors in Game 3 | Carmelo “looking forward” to playing under Hornacek

No. 1: Raptors block Cleveland’s path to perfection The Cleveland Cavaliers had romped through the NBA Playoffs, winning their first 10 consecutive games this postseason to take a 2-0 lead over the Raptors into Saturday night’s Eastern Conference Finals Game 3 in Toronto. But any hope the Cavs had of going undefeated on the road to a return trip to the NBA Finals came to an end in Canada, as the Raptors won 99-84. As our own Steve Aschburner writes, Toronto leaned not on All-Stars Kyle Lowry or DeMar DeRozan, but instead got a huge performance from back-up big man Bismack Biyombo

Near the end of the Toronto Raptors’ resilient and necessary 99-84 victory in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, Biyombo batted a rebound to a teammate to cap a memorable night for both the Raptors and himself. Then he got batted back when Cavs forward Dahntay Jones hit him in, well, a nether region that had the high-revving Raptors center dropping to his knee, then going fetal on the floor as the final seconds ticked away.

Jones said later the hit was inadvertent, just accidental contact delivered down under when he tried to do something in garbage time — box out Biyombo — that no other Cleveland player had managed through the first 47 minutes and change.

Biyombo encouraged the honchos at the league office to be the judges of that when they go to the videotape for their standard review.

What they’ll see on pretty much every other play involving Toronto’s 6-foot-9 defensive dervish is a game-defining and series-slowing performance. Biyombo set a franchise record with 26 rebounds — not just a playoff record, a Raptors all-time high — and blocked four shots.

Not only did he channel the likes of Dikembe Mutombo, Dennis Rodman and Cleveland’s own Tristan Thompson, Biyombo swatted away any notions the Cavaliers, their fans or a bunch of experts around the league might have had that this would be done by Monday. Forget “fo’, fo’, fo’,” thanks to Biyombo’s “no, no, no!”

“He knows his role,” Toronto’s DeMarre Carroll said. “That’s the NBA. Everybody can’t be the Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Stephen Curry. You have to understand your role, your niche, and he understands it to a tee, and that’s a prime example of a true professional.”

Biyombo, 23, was reminiscent of several professionals Saturday, starting with Mutombo. Like the eight-time All-Star center who blocked 3,289 shots in 18 NBA seasons, Biyombo is a native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He gives up five inches to his famous countryman and NBA ambassador, is less than half his age and is 2,713 regular-season swats behind. Yet he has adopted the finger-wag that Mutombo used to such great effect on those blocks (second all-time since the league began counting them in 1973) and in that recent GEICO insurance commercial.

When did that start? “After I got the license from Mutombo,” Biyombo said. “He’s like my big brother, and I’ve had several conversations with him, especially defensively, how he was able to impact the game.” Though shorter, Biyombo has way more quick-twitch muscle going for him, getting higher off the ground than the former Georgetown star.

Then there’s Rodman, a comparison volunteered by Biyombo’s coach, Dwane Casey, when Casey wasn’t busy lobbying from the podium for a fairer shake from the officials. “He knows where the ball is coming off,” the Raptors coach said, of his guy’s Rodmanesque tendencies. “He’s an active player. He’s a guy who’s always moving, moving his feet… He understand angles.”

***

No. 2: Toronto’s offense gets on track Toronto’s Game 3 win wasn’t only about the big night from Biyombo — the Raptors also finally seemed to crack a Cleveland defense that had mostly been airtight throughout the postseason. As our own John Schuhmann writes from Toronto, the Raptors looked like the terrific offense they’d been during the regular season, in large part thanks to the performance they got from Cory Joseph

The way the Toronto Raptors played in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, you would think they were a top-five offensive team this year.

Oh yeah, they were.

You wouldn’t have known it from the Raptors’ first 16 games in these playoffs, in which they had strong offensive stretches here and there, rarely got big games from both of their All-Stars on the same night, and had scored less than a point per possession. While the other three teams still playing have scored at a rate at, near, or better than their regular-season marks, the Raptors had scored 8.6 fewer points per 100 possessions in the playoffs than they did in going 56-26.

Their first 14 games were against very good defensive teams that needed to make things ugly to win. With their incredibly potent offense, the Cleveland Cavaliers have no such need. But the Raptors couldn’t take advantage of Cleveland’s defense beyond strong first quarters in Games 1 and 2.

In Game 3 on Saturday, it was if the Raptors’ realized that Cleveland has no rim protection and a handful of sub-par defenders in its rotation. The result was a lot more attempts at the rim than they had in either of the first two games, their second-most efficient offensive performance of the playoffs (99 points on 85 possessions) and an end to the Cavs’ 17-game winning streak in playoff games within the Eastern Conference.

The Raptors’ defense was important. After allowing 56 points in the paint in Game 1 and another 50 in Game 2, they surrendered only 20 on Saturday and were good enough on the perimeter to keep from getting hit with the Cleveland 3-point onslaught. But they took control of this game with a huge offensive first half, scoring 60 points on 43 possessions before halftime.

DeMar DeRozan had his mid-range jumper going again, but didn’t settle. Kyle Lowry hit a few 3s and got his team into early offense. And the biggest key was Cory Joseph keeping things going when Lowry got into foul trouble.

In Game 1, Joseph got a quick hook in the second quarter from Raptors’ coach Dwane Casey and played a season-low 5:21 before halftime. The back-up point guard, who was a huge key to the Raptors’ success in the regular season, had been struggling since the start of the conference semifinals.

But Saturday brought a breakthrough for Joseph, who was a plus-10 in a little less than 18 first-half minutes, never leaving the game after entering for Lowry midway through the first quarter.

“He did a much better job tonight of controlling the game,” Casey said, “running the offense, keeping things under control, not letting the defense speed him up.”

Joseph’s minutes have proven to be critical for the Raptors, who are now 7-0 in the playoffs when he’s registered a non-negative plus-minus and 2-8 when they’ve been outscored with him on the floor.

***

No. 3: Thunder look to get physical versus Warriors in Game 3 — The Oklahoma City Thunder threw their Western Conference Finals series against the mighty Golden State Warriors into chaos by waltzing into Oakland and winning Game 1. After the Warriors evened things by taking Game 2, the series shifts to Oklahoma City tonight for Game 3, where as our Fran Blinebury writes, Thunder forward Serge Ibaka says the Thunder need to stand strong and not let the Warriors push them around

The numbers told the story. The best rebounding team in the NBA was hammered on the backboards in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals. The bigger, taller, stronger Thunder were pushed around, dominated even.

“Of course, you take it personally,” OKC power forward Serge Ibaka said following Saturday’s practice. “It makes us feel like we’re soft, we’re weak, you know what I’m saying? … We have to do a better job next game and be aggressive, make sure if they’re going to score those baskets, that’s hurting them. They have to work hard to get us.

“Yes. It’s kind of weird, yes. It’s kind of weird, especially for us, playing bigs. They’re small. It’s kind of weird. But give them a lot of credit, because they’re the best team in the game. … It’s not going to be easy.”

The Thunder are 9-2 in the playoffs when they’ve out-rebounded their opponents. They were especially effective in the previous series against San Antonio by using a big lineup that kept 7-foot Steven Adams and 6-11 Enes Kanter on the court together. Adams was able to play his role as defensive stopper at one end, Kanter scored at the other and together they helped get the Thunder a bundle of second-chance points. However in the Warriors’ 118-91 runaway win in Game 2, they were the ones able to come up with 15 offensive rebounds.

“They are playing tougher than us,” Ibaka said. “You know, they were more aggressive than us, so I think that’s why. It’s more a game. We have to do a better job of starting aggressive, and just play our basketball.”

Thunder coach Billy Donovan wasn’t as quick to hang the “soft” label on his team.

“I don’t know if I would necessarily fully agree with that,” he said. “They did a great job on the backboard. They were really physical. They come up with loose basketballs. They made those plays, and in Game 1 I thought we did a better job. They did a great job raising their level of play, and you’ve got to give them credit. So I think maybe Serge’s point is that when you’re getting beat like that, to loose balls or rebounds, it can certainly make you look that way.

“I feel like we need to do a better job rebounding the basketball than we did. They were quicker on loose basketballs. They came in from different angles to rebound. They kept balls alive on the glass. We got caught into some rotations a couple times where we didn’t have our block-out assignments lined up.”

***

No. 4: Carmelo “looking forward” to playing under Hornacek After what seemed to be an interesting journey, Knicks president Phil Jackson has apparently settled on Jeff Hornacek as the next coach for the New York Knicks. And yesterday the Knicks’ biggest star, Carmelo Anthony, said he’s excited to get moving as a part of Hornacek’s offensive attack…

“I played against him a couple of times when he was the head coach out there in Phoenix,” Anthony said in an interview Saturday with WNBC-TV. “Everybody knows he likes to play an up-tempo pace of game, likes to get out in transition, likes to speed the game up a lot. So from that standpoint, I’ll definitely be looking forward to that.”

Anthony’s comments suggest that team president Phil Jackson has given Hornacek the freedom to tweak the triangle offense, as several reports have indicated. The Knicks ranked in the bottom third of the NBA in pace the past two seasons, when they ran the triangle. Hornacek ran a faster-paced offense with the Suns, who ranked in the top 10 in pace in each of his three seasons as coach.

Perhaps more importantly, Anthony said Saturday that he believes Hornacek gives the Knicks a chance to turn things around. The club has missed the playoffs in each of the past three seasons.

“It sets the stage for us to do that,” Anthony said. “[It’s a] new opportunity, something new to play with, something fresh, a clean plate. So hopefully we can build off of this momentum.”

Hornacek was offered the Knicks’ job by Jackson and general manager Steve Mills earlier this week, and negotiations on a contract with the club have begun, league sources said.

Interestingly, Anthony said he didn’t share his opinion on the coaching search with Jackson before Hornacek was offered the job.

“Whatever Phil did, he did on his own,” Anthony said.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Toronto coach Dwane Casey had a lot of thoughts about the officiating in not just Game 3, but the entire series against Cleveland … Former Cavs coach David Blatt says he will coach somewhere next seasonBrian Shaw is close to a deal to join Luke Walton‘s staff with the Lakers … The Houston Rockets will reportedly interview Spurs assistant James Borrego for their head coaching gig, as well as longtime assistant coach Adrian Griffin … The Nets continue adding to their staffPaul Pierce got his daughter a llama for her birthday …

Blogtable: Key player to watch in Eastern Conference finals?

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: Key player in West finals? | Key player in East finals? |
Which teams will reach The Finals?


> A key player in the Eastern Conference Finals – a player who needs to come up big — in order for his team to advance to the NBA Finals?

David Aldridge, TNT analyst: Bismack Biyombo. The Raptors’ backup center was a catalyst in Toronto’s clincher Sunday, and he’ll have to do the same for seven games if Toronto is to have a chance at pulling off the upset against Cleveland. The Cavs’ playoff lineup with Channing Frye at center has been one of the most lethal in the postseason, with an offensive rating of 127.2 AND a defensive rating of 88.1, per NBA.com/stats. The Raptors have to have a counter to match up against it, and it turns out that they do — with Biyombo, Patrick Patterson, DeMarre Carroll, DeMar DeRozan and Cory Joseph. That quintet’s defensive rating is even better than Cleveland’s, at 87.8 points allowed per 100 possessions. Biyombo’s 17-point, 16-rebound effort Sunday has to be the norm against the Cavs.

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com Not sure the Raptors can count on this, but if Terrence Ross can have two or three of his mindlessly hot scoring nights, Toronto’s ability to generate points improves dramatically. Ross scored 20 or more four times in 73 appearances, but I’m calling for him to get 20 at least three times if the Raptors are going to push their series to six or seven games.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.comA year after he had an rather uncomfortable season trying to fit into the Cavaliers picture and then missed virtually all of the playoffs, Kevin Love has been a steady force through the first two rounds and if he keeps it up makes Cleveland quite capable of winning it all.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.comLeBron James. Not exactly an X Factor, but let’s face it. He is the perfect fit for the answer: If LeBron comes up big, his team advances. He can singularly dominate a series as a player no opponent can counter, someone who can initiate the offense as a point guard and pound the boards like a power forward-center.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com: LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love should be enough to send Toronto home in four. But for insurance’s sake, it’ll be less wear on those three if Channing Frye can continue pulling weight on Cleveland’s amazing 3-point surge. The goal for the Cavs is to win this series quickly and safely — remember, Love and Irving were injured last spring — and efficiently, saving gas for the NBA Finals.

John Schuhmann, NBA.comThe Cavs don’t need J.R. Smith to continue to shoot 50 percent from 3-point range to get back to The Finals, but Smith is the ultimate wild card. Cleveland swept through the first two rounds on the strength of its 3-point shooting and Smith (31-for-61) was a big part of that. He’s been given license to shoot (as 61 of his 69 shots have come from beyond the arc), and a free-shooting Smith probably scares both coaching staffs. LeBron James makes him a better shooter and 45 of those 61 threes have been off the pass, but regression from Smith (either with shot selection or success rate) would make this series more interesting.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: Two words I honestly never thought I’d utter or write in response to this question: Bismack Biyombo. I know, it sounds crazy. But with Jonas Valanciunas on the mend and the rebounding machine that is Tristan Thompson eager to show off for the local (Cleveland) and hometown (he’s from Toronto) fans, the Raptors will need someone to match his energy, effort and relentless hustle on the boards. After seeing the impact Biyombo had against the Miami Heat in the conference finals, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he steps up against the Cavaliers.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: LeBron James is the reason Cleveland will continue to dominate the Eastern bracket. The Cavs’ goal should be to finish off this series ASAP in order to send LeBron onto the NBA Finals on fresh legs, because they’re going to need 40 minutes or more per game from him against Golden State or OKC. This conference final is all about preparing Cleveland to win the NBA Finals.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: Well, Cleveland is going to win this series, so instead of saying the obvious like LeBron James or Kyrie Irving, how about let’s go with Kevin Love? He seems to have found his fit with the Cavs as they’ve gone smaller, and this will be the deepest he’s ever played in his postseason career. I’m curious to see if Love can continue stretching the floor like he did against the Hawks in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Morning shootaround — May 3

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Thompson dominating on glass again | Bird won’t commit to Vogel as coach | Warriors back Green’s star status | Batum wants to re-sign with Hornets

No. 1: Thompson breaking Hawks’ hearts again — Thanks in large part to a monstrous performance in the 2015 playoffs, Cleveland Cavaliers big man Tristan Thompson netted himself an $82 million payday last summer. His work on the offensive glass against opponents during that 2015 run was something to behold. He averaged 11 or more rebounds in every round from the semifinals on and in the Eastern Conference finals against Atlanta, he averaged 4.3 offensive rebounds alone. As the Cavs took a 1-0 lead in their East semifinals series with Atlanta last night, Thompson was up to his old tricks writes Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com:

While LeBron James (25 points, 9 assists, 7 rebounds, 5 steals), Kyrie Irving (21 points, 8 assists) and Kevin Love (17 points, 11 rebounds) occupied their regular starring roles against Atlanta, Thompson kept setting them up with opportunities to succeed.

“When teams play great defense for 24 seconds and he comes up with those rebounds, it’s just demoralizing to a team because now they have to come out and guard us again,” said Cavs coach Tyronn Lue of Thompson. “That’s what he’s done for us the last two years. We know what he does and we know what he brings and he knows who he is.”

Thompson let the basketball world know who he is last spring, filling in for the injured Love as the undermanned Cavs made it all the way to the Finals. He was particularly effective against Atlanta in last year’s conference finals — averaging 11.8 points, 11 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in the series while racking up a plus-46 over the four games — and only continued that effort to begin the conference semifinals this year.

Atlanta, which led the league in defensive field goal percentage this season, is used to getting stops. But those stops become watered down if Thompson keeps generating possessions.

“If you help, then he’s active on the boards,” Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer said. “I know it’s more important that we make them miss first. That’s our priority and then we have to have all five guys in there competing, getting after it. Credit to him. He’s a good player. He plays off their penetration and shots well.”

Is it something about the Hawks that unleashes Thompson’s game?

“Every series is different,” Thompson said following the game as he shared the podium with James after adding eight points, two assists and two blocks to his rebound total. “Against the Hawks, in terms of [Paul] Millsap and [Al] Horford, we kind of weigh about the same amount, the same active bigs — for me it’s just staying with it on the glass.

“The first half I only had two offensive rebounds, but I’m just going to keep hitting the glass every possession, and as the fourth quarter, third quarter hits — that’s when I try to use my technique to be able to create second possessions for my teammates.”

Thompson, at 6-foot-10, 238 pounds, is indeed in the same size range as Horford (6-10, 245) and Millsap (6-8, 246), prompting teammate Richard Jefferson to suggest that Atlanta had “two Tristans” when previewing the series. It wasn’t lost on anyone that Jefferson was comparing two of the Hawks’ best players to someone considered to be a bit player for the Cavs.

“Just take the challenge,” Thompson said. “Horford and Millsap are both All-Stars and two terrific players, very good players in our league, so for me as a young guy I want to take advantage of an opportunity. I guess it’s extra motivation just because you’re playing against guys who are All-Stars and very talented. Just try to come with my hard hat and make it tough for them.”

James, who passed Michael Jordan in career postseason wins on Monday with 120, was asked if Thompson serves as the Dennis Rodman to his MJ as he sat beside him.

“I think what Dennis did for the Bulls — on the floor, make sure we note that part — Double T does for our team,” James said, referring to Thompson’s nickname.

While surely Rodman might have picked feather boa over Stetson as his flashy fashion choice, there weren’t rebounds just falling from the sky into his hands, either.

“Just giving us extra possessions, defending guys that are sometimes bigger than him, defending guys that are sometimes smaller than him,” James continued. “We know that every night he’s going to give us everything that he got, and a lot of it sometimes doesn’t show up in the box score. But what he does on the glass is huge for our team.”

***

(more…)

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

20160429_cle_offense

20160429_cle_defense

Cavs playoff notes:

20160429_cle_shooting

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

20160429_atl_offense

20160429_atl_defense

Hawks playoff notes:

20160429_atl_shooting

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

***

(more…)

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.

20160121_cle_ljkl_4wd

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.

20160121_james_3-4

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.”

***

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.”

***

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.

***

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.”

***

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.


Advertisement