HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Apparently it was a bad year to coach your team to a franchise-record number of wins.
George Karl, Vinny Del Negro and Lionel Hollins each guided their respective clubs to new regular-season heights and now the coaches of the West’s playoff seeds 3, 4 and 5 all might be shown the door. Del Negro, who led the Los Angeles Clippers to a franchise-best 56 wins and a first-ever Pacific Division title, was first to be told he won’t be return.
Hollins, a lame-duck coach all season like Del Negro, led the Memphis Grizzlies to a club-record 56 wins and a first-ever Western Conference finals, and also likely sealed VDN’s fate with their first-round playoff win after the Clips held a 2-0 lead. Still, before Hollins could even reflect on the season that was, he was told by the organization’s new brass to talk to whichever team caught his fancy.
Then Thursday morning news hit that the Denver Nuggets will part ways with recently crowned Coach of the Year Karl after nine seasons and a franchise-record 57 wins. Karl, apparently unwilling to enter next season under the final year of his deal as his two counterparts did, has lost that power struggle and is out.
Hollins remains the lone wolf that isn’t all the way out. At least not yet as Grizz ownership/management figure out what they’re doing.
Now the 62-year-old Karl, who has twice turned back cancer, will be coaching somewhere else next season if he so chooses, perhaps even Del Negro’s attractive old gig with the Clips (considering Chauncey Billups‘ affinity for Karl and Chris Paul‘s trust in Billups, this could be a scenario that ensures the free agent CP3′s return to the Clips. Billups is also a free agent).
Karl dearly hoped that this season’s Nuggets would be the team to turn his inexplicable postseason fortunes around. In eight previous seasons under Karl, Denver had advanced past the first round just once. The 2008-09 team with Carmelo Anthony lost to the Lakers in the West finals. Before and after, with Melo and without, it’s been one-and-down.
This year was different, he wanted to believe. He had a complete team that played his up-tempo style to perfection and could run-and-gun any opponent off the floor. Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari were emerging as stars. Andre Iguodala provided the perimeter defense his teams lacked in the past. They had depth, they had belief and they had the West’s No. 3 seed.
They managed the latter despite Gallinari being lost for the season in early April to a torn ACL, and Lawson missed chunks of time late in the season with plantar fasciitis, making his playoff-readiness uncertain.
When the Nuggets — who recently lost general manager Masai Ujiri to the Raptors — visited the Dallas Mavericks on April 12, it was obvious how much Gallinari’s injury — and at the time Lawson’s ailing foot — had shook Karl’s faith in the possibility of a long playoff run.
“All year long the league has seen this, the national image of the Nuggets, that they’re not a playoff team, they’re not built for the playoffs, they can’t do this, they can’t do that,” Karl said, lamenting on the season-long criticisms of his club. “And I just wish we would be healthy just to show some people so we could tell them to shut up. Now I don’t know what percentage we’re down, but a full tank would be better than a three-quarter tank. The matchup that we get I think we’re going to be excited about and I’m confident that we’re going to play well in the playoffs.”
The matchup that they got was the upstart, sixth-seeded Golden State Warriors, who beat the shorthanded Nuggets in six and then put one heck of a scare into the eventual West champion San Antonio Spurs.
Who knows what happens if Gallinari is healthy and the Nuggets are playing at full strength.
Injury misfortune aside, it was quite a season. So good that just 29 days ago, Karl tweeted this message:
Honored to receive coach of the year award. Tribute to great players and assistants. Many others equally deserving.— George Karl (@CoachKarl22) May 08, 2013
That was his last tweet until today:
I want to thank Nuggets fans for their support over the past 8 yrs. The karma on the street was incredible. Denver will always be home.— George Karl (@CoachKarl22) June 06, 2013
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – The 15 players selected to the All-NBA team every season earn a place in NBA lore that is rarely celebrated the way fans do All-Star bids.
Weighing the two, however, is a battle that shouldn’t be a fair fight. An All-star nod is often based on reputation and how well someone is playing early in a given season. The All-NBA team measures the best of the very best the league has to offer in a season. The team consists of the 15 best players (by position) in the league.
It doesn’t get much better than that.
Thursday, the NBA released this year’s squad. But what about the future? What might that team look like in say, three seasons, when Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan, stalwarts on All-NBA teams the past two decades, are no longer active?
What is the makeup of the All-NBA team in the future? What does the league look like three seasons from now?
We take a look, courtesy of the HT (Hang Time) Time Machine, at the future All-NBA Teams …
2015-16 All-NBA First Team
F LeBron James, Miami Heat: No one was sure if LeBron would stick around South Beach after the Heat won those back-to titles in 2014 and 2015. But he watched his good friend Dwyane Wade retire after the last one and vowed to finish his career in a Heat uniform as well. There are no signs of his skills diminishing either. He bounced back masterfully after the Heat were beaten soundly by the Memphis Grizzlies in The Finals in 2013. James has reinvented himself as the epitome of a point forward during the second act of his Hall-of-Fame career, leading the league in assists this season with 12.7 per game. He’s still chasing Michael Jordan‘s six championships standard, though the comparisons to Magic Johnson are much more appropriate, and at 32 he still has plenty of time left.
F Paul George, Indiana Pacers: Three straight trips to the Eastern Conference finals without a breakthrough performance would be a mental and emotional setback for most stars, but not George. He’s done nothing but build on that All-Star berth in his third NBA season. George has blossomed into the closest thing to a legitimate challenger to LeBron’s throne. He interrupted LeBron’s MVP flow in 2015, when he stunned the hoops world by averaging a triple-double (24.2 points, 10.2 rebounds and 10.0 assists) while leading the Pacers to a franchise-record 63 wins and finished as the MVP runner-up this season. The only threshold left for George to cross is to lead the Pacers past LeBron and the Heat into The 2016 Finals.
C Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies: Gasol served as the backbone for the Grizzlies’ 2013 championship team, though Zach Randolph walked away with Finals MVP honors, and solidified his status as the most complete big man in the game with his performance each season since. While he’s never piled up the kind of impressive numbers that would allow him to stick out historically among players at his position, Gasol does have three Kia Defensive Player of the Year awards on his mantle and a championship on his resume. If Ed Davis can replace Randolph as Gasol’s tag-team partner in the low post, the Grizzlies could have another run or two in them before it’s time to break this veteran crew up and start over.
G James Harden, Houston Rockets: The two-time (and counting) scoring champ, Harden has supplanted his former teammate and friend Kevin Durant as the league’s most prolific scorer. He’s averaged 30 or more points in three straight seasons, including this one (31.7) and has led the Rockets to the playoffs in each of his four seasons in Houston. Harden has evolved into more than just a scorer, too, leading the Rockets in assists (7.6) and steals (2.3) while adjusting to playing alongside Patrick Beverly in the starting lineup instead of sixth man Jeremy Lin. Harden’s career went to another level since he radically changed his look in training camp before the 2013-14 season by shaving off his trademark beard and mohawk in favor of a bald head and clean-shaven face. Who knew?
G Steph Curry, Golden State Warriors: With his ankle injuries behind him, the sweet-shooting Curry finally claims the first-team spot from Chris Paul and a crowded, star-studded point guard field. Curry’s work as a shooter — he’s shot 45 percent or better from beyond the 3-point line every season since 2011-12 — overshadows the fact that he’s become the consummate playmaker and leader for the league’s most exciting team. Curry put together a 20-10 season at the point (23.6 points and 10.4 assists), the only point guard to do so in the past three seasons, while leading the Warriors to a top four finish in the Western Conference playoff chase for the third straight season. With Curry and Klay Thompson (still the league’s best-shooting backcourt) as the catalysts, the Warriors are trying to crash the conference finals party. (more…)
Their current teams have the right to match any offers they receive, meaning that the lucrative, long-term deal some of these guys are looking for might come with strings attached. Brandon Jennings of the Milwaukee Bucks plays a marquee position in a market that doesn’t seem to fit his persona or personality.
He turned down a $40 million extension in the fall, making clear his intention to push for a bigger deal or an eventual departure — he could play the 2013-14 season on a qualifying offer and become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2014 — from Fear The Deer territory.
Status on July 1: Restricted free agent What he’s selling: A first-team All-Rookie pick in 2010, Jennings solidified his credentials as a starting point guard in four seasons with the Bucks. He started 289 of the 291 games he played in and helped guide the Bucks to the playoff twice in his first four seasons. A big time scorer, Jennings has the charisma and personality to help you win games and sell tickets. What he’s not saying: He’s still barely 170 pounds soaking wet. There are still some front office types who think he’s more of a poor man’s Allen Iverson instead of the young Mike Conley they hoped he might be at this stage of his career. What he’s worth: Jennings believes he’s worth every penny of a max deal somewhere. Remember, he famously boasted that he was better than Ricky Rubio and has gone about the business of trying to prove as much night in and night out. But a max deal is out of the question in Milwaukee and probably anywhere else. The Bucks aren’t going to bid against themselves for a player who has made it clear that he is interested in playing in a bigger market. He’s already turned down a four-year offer with $40 million, making it clear that he intends to become an unrestricted free agent next summer and let the market set his value. Likely landing spot(s): The Bucks have the right to match any offers. Any interested teams know that all they have to do is wait this situation out and pursue Jennings in the free-agent summer of 2014.
Status on July 1: Restricted free agent What he’s selling: Teague is coming off of his best season as a pro, having averaged career highs in points (14.6) and assists (7.2) while asserting himself as a true lead guard for a playoff team. He’s only scratched the surface of his potential and, at 24, is still young enough to project major upside in the coming years. What he’s not saying: Teague is not a great defender at what is easily the deepest position in the league. And his assist numbers (3.0) in 29 career playoff games suggest that he might not be on track to become the elite facilitator a team needs in a point guard. What he’s worth: The Hawks didn’t do him any favors by not even offering him an extension on his rookie contract before the Halloween deadline. Making that pill even tougher to swallow for Teague is the fact that the two point guards drafted directly ahead of him in 2009, Philadelphia’s Jrue Holiday ($10 million a year) and Ty Lawson ($12 million a year), both agreed to terms on four-year deals at the deadline. If they’ve set the bar — Holiday blossomed into an All-Star this season while Lawson had an equally strong case but missed out in a deep crop of Western Conference point guards — Teague is in a tough negotiating spot with the Hawks. Likely landing spot(s): Teague needs a team desperate for a young point guard to present an offer sheet that exceeds what the Hawks might be willing to pay (anything near $10 million a year would be a bit of a shock). Utah is still searching for a long-term answer at point guard and could poke around and see if the Hawks will let Teague walk. But the Hawks are likely to keep him on a qualifying offer and he’ll become an unrestricted free agent next summer.
Tyreke Evans, G, Sacramento Kings
Status on July 1: Restricted free agent What he’s selling: A Rookie of the Year and at one time considered the future face of the franchise in Sacramento, Evans averaged 20 points, five rebounds and five assists in his first season. A super-sized point guard, he used his size and skill to his advantage in that role with the Kings. He’s most definitely selling the Tyreke Evans we all saw his rookie season. What he’s not saying: While he didn’t experience the steep statistical drop off in his next three seasons, Evans is fighting the perception that he bottomed out during those three seasons. The Kings certainly seem to have moved on from Evans being a franchise cornerstone during these past three seasons, hence the absence of an extension offer. Isaiah Thomas supplanted him at point guard and Evans has played out of position ever since. What he’s worth: This is where things get tricky for Evans, because some team with cap space to work with is going to eyeball Evans and remember that he’s a 6-foot-6, 220-pound combo guard with an ability to run a team and calculate the risk of snatching him away from an uncertain situation with the Kings. If Darko Milicicgot $20 million from the Minnesota Timberwolves, someone has to be willing to offer Evans a similar deal. Likely landing spot(s): Dallas and Atlanta are both in full-blown roster-rebuild mode and could use a talent like Evans at a reasonable price to help get things rolling. He could be the steal of the summer if someone makes a play for him and waits to see if the Kings will match the offer or let him walk.
Status on July 1: Restricted free agent What he’s selling: With the eternal premium on productive big men, Pekovic showed flashes of being an absolute nightmare in the low post for opposing teams. A 7-foot, 300-pound block of granite, Pekovic averaged 16.3 ppg and 8.8 rpg last season and held it down in the Timberwolves’ frontcourt without Kevin Love available for the majority of the season. He’s got a size/skill-set combination that makes him a rarity in a league that treasures big men who can play high impact basketball on both ends of the floor. What he’s not saying: The only problem with Pekovic is the 174-game sample size teams have to work with in evaluating the upside of a big man who is 26 and perhaps already deeper into his physical prime than you want a third-year player to be. What he’s worth: The Houston Rockets used a three-year, $25 million offer sheet to pry Omer Asik away from the Chicago Bulls last summer. An offer like that could work similar wonders for someone trying to slip into the Twin Cities and sneak out with a starting center. Likely landing spot(s): Minnesota can’t afford to let him walk, not with the regime change and whatever other roster changes Flip Saunders and his new crew have in store. Plus, Pekovic has become a cult favorite in Minneapolis.
Status on July 1: Restricted free agent. What he’s selling: A three-year apprenticeship under the great Tim Duncan can’t be a bad place for a big man to start when resume building. Splitter’s third NBA season turned out to be the charm, as he finally showed some signs of being the low-post factor he was billed as when the Spurs made him their top Draft pick in 2007. The Brazilian big man finally earned a regular spot in Gregg Popovich‘s rotation, another sign and seal of approval, averaging career highs in points (10.3), rebounds (6.4) and minutes (24.7). He made 58 starts this season, 52 more than he did in the two previous season combined. What he’s not saying: Those previous two seasons mentioned were less than stellar. Splitter has ideal size for a NBA big man but didn’t leave a large footprint early on, the transition from Spanish League MVP to NBA regular being much tougher than anyone anticipated for him. What he’s worth: Like almost every skilled big man, Splitter is going to be worth more than a man half his size with better credentials. That’s just the way things work in this league. He’s due for a significant raise from the $3.9 million he’s earning this season. In fact, he should have no trouble doubling that in a free agent market (for unrestricted and restricted free agents) that is relatively light on centers. Likely landing spots: The Spurs have the right of first refusal and will exercise that right if the offers come in at the right number. But Dallas and Atlanta have to have him on their short lists, with several other teams focusing in on him early on in the process.
Missed a game last night? Wondering what the latest news around the NBA is this morning? The Morning Shootaround is here to try to meet those needs and keep you up on what’s happened around the league since the day turned.
Bulls win, but bigs could be on minutes limit– As they’ve done all season, the Bulls continue to stay in the thick of the race for the No. 5 seed in the East — a spot that won’t be decided until likely the season’s final night. Last night’s easy win over the hapless Orlando Magic provided a good sign for the Bulls in that injured big men Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson both got in some playing time after missing games with injuries. But K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune reports that Noah and Gibson could see a tight minutes limit come playoff time:
A season filled with uncertainty will close with this dose of clarity: The Bulls won’t know their first-round playoff opponent until Wednesday’s season finale.
That’s because the Bulls defeated the hapless Magic 102-84 on Monday night as both Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson returned to test their recoveries from injury and coach Tom Thibodeau said it’s “a possibility” both players will be on minutes limits at the start of the posteason.
Noah, who had missed 12 of the previous 13 games with plantar fasciitis in his right foot, finished with six points, five rebounds and four fouls in 14 minutes, 21 seconds off the bench. Gibson, who had missed 17 games recently in two separate bouts with a sprained MCL in his left knee, contributed 12 points and two blocks in 21:13.
“I knew there was a setback right away last time,” Noah said after his last attempt to return April 7 in Detroit. “I feel pretty good right now. I’m just happy my foot held up.”
Noah admitted his wind wasn’t “great” but vowed it would “get better quick.”
Gibson wore the large brace he said he disliked.
“The brace is real protective, but I just have to get used to it,” Gibson said. “It’s kind of heavy. But the knee felt great. The main thing I wanted to do was play some defense because our defense was really awful the last couple games.”
…”We have to be at our best in a short amount of time,” Thibodeau said. “We’re a well-rested team. The question I have is are we a sharp team? We have guys that haven’t played a lot of minutes lately that are going to be called upon to be at their best. The moment of truth will be here shortly.”
Lawson getting back to his old self — Shortly after their 15-game win streak ended, the Nuggets were dealt a serious blow to their hopes of a long playoff run when Ty Lawson went down with a foot injury on March 27. Although he missed just five games as he got better, the Nuggets were concerned how much their point guard could play and whether or not he’d be the game-changing playmaker they were used to. Last night’s win in Milwaukee went a long way in proving Lawson is speedily returning to form, though, writes Christopher Dempsyof The Denver Post:
With 14.2 seconds to go and down one at Milwaukee, a game the Nuggets had to have to lock up a top four spot in the Western Conference, Ty Lawson surveyed the court and lofted the ball to Wilson Chandler. Chandler handed the ball back off to Lawson who drove the lane, crossed over the defender, Monta Ellis, rose up and hit a shot that was arguably the most important jumper any Nugget has hit in the last three weeks.
Lawson is back.
His heel is not all the way healed, but that shot suggested his game is.
The degree of difficulty won’t go down as calculus level stuff. It was a 10-ish-foot jumper. But Lawson’s speed and quickness, which was in full display on the play, got him free for an open look. And in the process wiped away – or should have – any of the doubt about what he is and can be in the playoffs.
Initially, Karl said if Lawson could give 20-25 minutes when he returned that he could work with that. And yet Lawson, since returning late last week, has given him so much more.
His arc, since playing on April 12 has looked like this: 13 points; 12 points and 10 assists; and now 26 points and seven assists. After Sunday’s game against Portland, Karl was already gushing: “I couldn’t have asked for a better script these last two games,” he said of his point guard.
Tonight’s game should have erased any other doubts.
Lawson has averaged 17 points, 6.6 assists and 1.6 steals in the three games he’s been back. He’s shot 56 percent from the field and 84 percent from the free throw line. Monday night’s game brought back another encouraging sign – his ability to get to the rim and draw fouls.
In the last two weeks there has been enough bad news for the Nuggets, who are just trying to get their roster to survive the remainder of the regular season to get to the playoffs. First, Lawson’s status was in doubt. Then Danilo Gallinari was lost for the season. Then Kenneth Faried went down and can only hope to be close to 100 percent for the start of the playoffs.
It was time for some good news.
Ty Lawson provided it. And with it, may have renewed at least some of the belief that these Nuggets are still headed for a healthy playoff run.
OKC wraps up No. 1 in West — It is easy to take for granted the success the Thunder have enjoyed all-so-quickly since moving from Seattle before the 2008-09 season. Although the first campaign in Oklahoma saw the Thunder go 23-59, since then it has been nothing but a steady climb for the youthful contenders. Last night, they achieved perhaps their greatest feat since the move, winning their 60th game and wrapping up the top spot in the West. Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman has more on the Thunder’s rise to the top of the conference:
Not only did the Thunder clinch the top spot in the conference, but OKC also won for the 60th time this season, marking the first 60-win season in Oklahoma City’s brief basketball history.
“It’s shows that we’re improving every year,” said Thabo Sefolosha. “It’s a big number. There’s not a lot of teams that can do it, and to be part of that group and just to get to that number is big.”
With a win in the season finale Wednesday against Milwaukee, the Thunder can finish with a .744 winning percentage. Win or lose, though, the Thunder will have increased its winning percentage in each of its first five seasons, from .280 in 2008-09, to .610 in 2009-10, to .671 in 2010-11, to .712 last year. Even with a loss Wednesday, the Thunder would finish with a .732 winning percentage.
“It feels good, but we’ve still got a lot of work to do,” said Kevin Durant of winning 60 games. “We’ve never done it here before so it’s new to us. But it feels good. It shows our progression as a franchise each and every year.”
Gores wants accountability for Dumars, Frank — We haven’t seen or heard much from Tom Gores since he took over ownership of the Pistons in 2011 from the Davidson family. While he has been mostly a quiet owner of the team, he has no doubt been unhappy with the fifth straight season of sub-.500 basketball, the youthful-but-mistake-prone efforts and the roster that is a bit of a mishmash of parts. Gores spoke to the media before the Pistons’ home finale against Philly and was none to pleased with his team, GM Joe Dumars and coach LawrenceFrank, writes Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press:
Speaking with the news media briefly before Monday night’s home finale against the Philadelphia 76ers, Gores said he was serious when he said last season he expected to make the playoffs and is disappointed the franchise didn’t come close.
“I will say I expected better results,” Gores said. “I met with Joe and Lawrence (Sunday) and I let them know that. They’re great guys that know their business, but I’m here assessing everything. My job is to move this franchise forward.”
The Pistons moved to 29-52 on the season following Monday night’s 109-101 victory. The season concludes Wednesday at the Brooklyn Nets, and then the season postmortem will begin.
For Gores, it’s all about accountability. He plans to meet with both Frank and Dumars in the coming days. The Pistons are 54-93 under Frank in two seasons.
“I think both of them, including ownership, has to be accountable for the year,” Gores said. “We have to be accountable for the results of this year. We have a great core of young players, but we have to be accountable.”
“Now I’m very excited about what we have going,” Gores said. “We have a lot of (cap) room. We’ve set ourselves up financially, and basketball operations has set ourselves up, so I’m very excited about the future.
“But I’m not content about how we performed this year.”
Through a series of transactions the last 10 months, the Pistons will have roughly $25 million to spend this summer on free agency or trades. He said the Pistons “are prepared to spend.”
“It’s always important, but it’s magnified this year because we’ve really put ourselves in position to really make moves,” Gores said. We want to win a championship. We want to get into the playoffs and all of things.
“I tell you, Lawrence is a tremendous guy. I’ve gotten to know him over the last couple and he’s tremendous, but I really have to think about what the best thing is.”
Report: Bobcats name change a ways off — On Jan. 24, the New Orleans Hornets officially announced they would be changing their name, colors and logo to that of the Pelicans for next season. It was a move to closer bind the franchise to the New Orleans community and leaves the Hornets moniker, which dates to the franchise’s days in Charlotte, back in the NBA’s hands. Shortly thereafter, chatter (or buzz, if you will) began around the Web and the Charlotte community that the current team there — the Bobcats — should look to reclaim the nickname that was once theirs. A website called BringBackTheBuzz.com is spearheading the charge on the Internet, but the hopes of that group and others who want the Bobcats renamed for next season are looking unlikely. Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer has more on what it would take to change from the Bobcats to something else:
If the Charlotte Bobcats ask the NBA for a name change, it would be at least 18 months before such a request was implemented.
NBA commissioner-to-be Adam Silver met with the Observer and other print media outlets Monday during a visit to Charlotte. Much of his 20-minute interview addressed the possibility the Bobcats might switch their nickname to “Hornets” now that the New Orleans Hornets are switching to “Pelicans.”
The Bobcats have done some market research but have yet to make a request with the NBA. Silver said he is fine with whatever the Bobcats decide, but that the team’s deliberate approach is the right course.
Silver said this would be a “very expensive process for the team,” so it’s “a weighty process, not just what ‘X’ amount of fans say in an opinion poll.”
Rather, it’s about whether a rebranding would be lucrative enough to justify spending millions on new uniforms, logos and signage.
Since the NBA owns the name “Charlotte Hornets,” plus the teal-and-purple color scheme the team wore in Charlotte and New Orleans, Silver was asked how quickly a new brand could be implemented.
Even with all that working for it, a change from Bobcats to Hornets would take a minimum of 18 months, the deputy commissioner said.
Silver also was asked whether the Benson family, which owns the Pelicans, still controls the Hornets nickname. Silver replied that the Bobcats wouldn’t owe the Pelicans compensation if they took on that name.
ICYMI of the night: Derrick Williams might be the best player in the league at finishing off crazy alley-oops. Here’s another one to add to hisstockadeofsuchplays:
DALLAS – After his encouraging return to action Friday night after a three-week bout with plantar fasciitis, Denver Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson sat at his locker icing his — toes?
“I hadn’t run in a while, so I started using other parts of my foot to compensate for it,” Lawson said of the injury that affected his right heel. “My toes hurt a little bit, but other than that it felt fine.”
That’s encouraging news for Nuggets, who fared remarkably well without their 5-foot-11 leader, but are clearly a more dynamic team when he’s driving the offense. Lawson had missed eight of the last nine games. He logged 19 minutes off the bench in Friday’s 108-105 overtime loss to the Mavericks.
Lawson’s shot certainly showed no rust as he went 5-for-7 from the floor with 13 points. He had three assists, two rebounds and no turnovers. One of his two missed shots was a 42-foot heave at the end of the third quarter. He entered the game late in the first quarter and played about seven minutes of the second quarter.
“I was afraid that if I stepped on my heel or stepped the wrong way, my pain would come back,” Lawson said. “But after I got used to it, the second quarter, the third quarter, I feel confident that I’ll be all right.”
Denver has three games remaining, and they’re big ones. Friday’s loss did them no favors in the race for the No. 3 seed with Memphis, which tied Denver in the standings at 54-25, and the Clippers (53-26) both winning. Still, the Nuggets retained the third seed and control their fate as they hold the tiebreaker over No. both 4 Memphis and No. 5 L.A.
Nuggets coach George Karl said he planned to give Lawson about 20 minutes in his return. Karl took Lawson out at the 7:02 mark of the fourth quarter after he hit two free throws and Denver trailing 86-84. Karl never put him back in during a nip-and-tuck fourth quarter and overtime.
“I actually thought he played better than I thought he was going to play,” Karl said. “I thought he’d be a little more rusty, but he had a solid feel of his game. Dallas did a good job of stopping us from getting in the open court, but I think if we had Ty for 30 minutes we probably win the game.”
Denver plays Sunday at home against Portland. Karl must now decide how quickly to ramp up Lawson’s minutes with the playoffs set to begin next weekend.
“I’m hoping in the next three that he’ll have some moments where he kind of gets his swag back, a little bit of his confidence back,” Karl said. “And then we’ll have those two or three days (after the regular season) to get him ready for the playoffs.”
DALLAS – If someone granted Denver Nuggets coach George Karl three wishes today, here’s No. 1:
“I just wish we would be healthy just to show some people so we could tell them to shut up,” Karl said prior to Friday’s game at Dallas where he eased point guard Ty Lawson back into action off the bench. Lawson, the Nuggets’ super-charged point guard, leading scorer and most imperative player for a deep playoff run, had missed eight of the last nine games with a torn plantar fascia in his right foot.
Lawson provided an encouraging report after scoring 13 points on 5-for-7 shooting in 19 minutes. Unfortunately for the Nuggets, a club that had reeled off — crippling injuries be damned — 20 wins in their last 22 games before Friday’s 108-105 overtime loss to the Mavericks, second-leading scorer and top 3-point threat Danilo Gallinari will only walk through that door on crutches. He tore his ACL eight days ago and won’t be back until next season.
So, yeah, Karl, a top candidate for Coach of the Year, wishes he had his full squad available for the postseason. He badly wants to prove that his blue-and-gold blur of a track team, so good now for three-plus months, doesn’t have to be a regular-season anomaly.
“All year long the league has seen this, the national image of the Nuggets as well, that they’re not a playoff team,” Karl said. “They’re not built for the playoffs; they can’t do this, they can’t do that. Now, I don’t know what percentage we’re down [due to injuries], but a full tank would be better than a three-quarter tank.”
Don’t mistake this as a ready-made excuse if his team gets bounced early with no Gallo and Lawson’s rocket-propelled lower limbs potentially not at full burn when things get rolling for real next weekend.
“The matchup that we get I think we’re going to be excited about.” Karl said, “And I’m confident that we’re going to play well in the playoffs.”
Friday’s loss was costly. Combined with Memphis’ win at Houston, the Nuggets and Grizzlies are tied at 54-25 for the No. 3 seed. The Clippers, also winners on Friday, are just a game back. Denver holds the tiebreaker against both. The The third and fourth seeds will open the playoffs at home with the third seed avoiding Oklahoma City until the conference finals.
Denver, 36-3 on their home floor, doesn’t want to be anywhere else.
If they get the No. 3 seed they’ll face either the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets. Denver is 7-0 against those two foes this season.
And if the Nuggets face Memphis or the Los Angeles Clippers in the second round (or possibly the first)? They’re 5-2 against both.
Oklahoma City in the West finals (or possibly second round)? Try 3-1 with a recent resounding win on the Thunder’s home floor.
“We got a bunch of guys that know how to play together,” said Corey Brewer, a member of the Nuggets’ high-scoring bench that never allows an opponent to catch its breath. “We’re all about one thing and that’s winning, one goal. Every night we come out and figure out a way to win no matter what it is.”
This hyper-explosive, deep and versatile, and super-resilient team might not boast an All-Star, but it tips the scales in entertainment and few squads are as dangerous.
And Karl so badly wants to prove that this style, this team of workers can go deep when so many of his Carmelo Anthony-led teams did not. The knock on this team is they don’t have a go-to scorer in crunch time, that they won’t see the open floor like they do in the regular season and they won’t get in the paint in a seven-game series with the same ease they do in blowing away the league in paint points.
So what about the playoffs when the game slows, defenses adjust and halfcourt offense becomes the supposed law of the land? What then for the Nuggets, a juggernaut Karl said can get the ball in a scoring area in three seconds flat and would do so quicker if humanly possible?
“That’s what everybody says. We’ll find out,” Karl said. “I’m not saying that we can pick the tempo up in the playoffs. OK, so we score 105 points a game (105.8 in the regular season, third in the league). OK, we’re going to score 101 or 102 a game (in the playoffs)? I want to score 110. But if we play certain teams I think we’ll score.
“If a team is going to try to slow us down, check our record. Check our record under 100 points. Check our record. What do you think it is? When we don’t score 100 points or when the other team doesn’t score 100 points, it’s like 29-3. If I’m playing us, I’m going, ‘We want to play a slow-down game when they’re 29-3?’ OK.”
When the Nuggets fail to score 100, which doesn’t happen often, they’re 10-9. But to Karl’s point is his team’s understated ability to lock horns — ranking 11th in field-goal percentage defense — and win lower-scoring games. When the Nuggets hold opponents to under 100 points, they’re not 29-3 as Karl said. They’re 33-3.
“Our team has a mental competitiveness to it, a spirit of competing no matter what the problem or how badly we’re playing or how good we’re playing,” Karl said. “They compete and have a very high level of integrity of doing it the right way.”
Here’s a look at some of the more important playoff implications in Friday night’s games:
LAKERS (vs. Golden State, 10:30 p.m. ET, League Pass): With the battle for the eighth and final spot in the Western Conference down to the final three games, the Lakers (42-37) face a Golden State team that is currently seeded sixth, just a half-game up on the Rockets … A Lakers win and a Jazz loss to the Timberwolves would put L.A. up two games with two to play … Kobe Bryant scored 47 points while playing all 48 minutes in Wednesday night’s 113-106 win in Portland … The Lakers are up 2-1 in the season series.
JAZZ (vs. Minnesota, 9:30 p.m. ET, League Pass): The Jazz (41-38) have lost control of the race with the Lakers for the No. 8 seed and can’t lose focus in the first of consecutive games against the wounded Timberwolves … Utah leads season series 2-0 … Utah needs to win out and hope for an L.A. loss … A short bench missing Enes Kanter, Marvin Williams and Alec Burks was costly in Wednesday night’s loss to OKC … This could be the final home game for Jazz free-agents-to-be Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson.
THUNDER (at Portland, 10 p.m. ET, NBA TV): Thunder (58-21) show no inclination to take their foot off the pedal in the fight for No. 1 seed in the West … Holding tie-breaker over the Spurs, they now control the race … After whipping the Warriors on Thursday night — and getting plenty of rest for the starters — OKC wraps up a back-to-back and closes out road schedule … Thunder are 3-0 against the Blazers this season, who went flat in a loss to the Lakers on Wednesday night … Three-time scoring champ Kevin Durant (28.3 ppg.) says he’s OK giving up title to Carmelo Anthony.
SPURS (vs. Sacramento, 8:30 ET, League Pass): Even if the Spurs (57-21) win out, they need OKC to stumble once to reclaim the top spot in the West … But do they really care? Tony Parker is in a tug o’ war with coachGregg Popovich over whether he’ll play … Parker sat out Wednesday’s loss at Denver with a sore neck and other assorted ailments and Pop says that championship teams must be able to win on the road anyway … Boris Diaw’s back injury puts DeJuan Blair back into the rotation and could slide Kawhi Leonard into minutes at power forward … They lead series with Kings 3-0. (more…)
OKLAHOMA CITY – So just how good are the Oklahoma City Thunder and will it be good enough?
By the numbers, OKC is producing a season for the ages. Yet there seems to be doubt as to whether the superstar duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, minus third amigo James Harden, can get out of the West, let alone beat the Heat. Charles Barkley, for one, has already buried the Thunder in a potential Finals rematch.
There have been suggestions that the Thunder have long grown bored with the regular season, antsy to start the only season that really matters now for a franchise that’s all grown up. Others have claimed that individual selfishness has seeped into the team concept.
The Thunder, of course, aren’t buying it.
“Of course we all want the opportunity to go back and try to fight again for a championship,” Durant said. “After losing last year we wanted to get back as quick as possible. But we know throughout the year it’s a process and we want to get better each and every game. We’re going to have some games where, of course, we’re going to slip up and we’re going to have some bad games, but that’s all part of the journey. The time is almost here so we’ve got to be ready.”
Let’s start with what truly has been a jaw-dropping season for OKC yet is lost amid Miami’s 27-game winning streak and LeBron James‘ MVP brilliance.
At 55-20 after Thursday’s 100-88 win over the San Antonio Spurs, the Thunder have the inside track to the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. With five wins in their final seven games (starting tonight at Indiana, 8 p.m. ET, League Pass) they can reach 60 for the first time since 1997-98 as the Seattle SuperSonics.
And they’re amassing those wins with incredible efficiency, tied for the league lead in scoring (106.0 ppg) while ranking second in field-goal percentage defense (42.5). Their plus-9.2 point-differential dwarfs Miami’s 7.7 while playing in the tougher conference, and it stands to be the largest point-differential since the 2007-08 champion Boston Celtics posted a plus-10.2.
In that season, the Sonics were making their swan song and opened 3-29. They finished 20-62. Every season since in OKC, the Thunder have increased their winning percentage. Currently at .733, they’re riding a better clip than last season’s .712 mark, and assuming they finish the season with a .700 or better winning percentage, they’ll join the Celtics teams from 1955-60 as the only teams to increase their winning percentage for five consecutive seasons while maintaining a .700 or better winning percentage in two of those seasons.
Then there’s the individual dominance of Durant, who is considered a distant second to James in the MVP race. If Durant can hold off Carmelo Anthony‘s late charge (and they meet at OKC on Sunday afternoon), he will win his fourth consecutive scoring title. He’s still on pace to become the sixth player in NBA history to shoot 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3-point range and 90 percent from the free throw line. No player has ever done both in the same season.
On top of that, Westbrook is compiling his best all-around season. Thabo Sefolosha and Serge Ibaka are posting their best offensive seasons, and new sixth man Kevin Martin, despite some lulls, is averaging 14.0 ppg and shooting a career-best 41.9 percent from beyond the arc.
Sounds like they might be better than last season.
“I’m not going to evaluate and say whether they’re as good, better or worse [than last season] or anything like that,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “They’re a championship-caliber team and they’re capable of winning the championship. And that’s what’s important.”
So why is there at least some apprehension to declare the Thunder the outright favorite to defend their West crown? A lot has to do with their surprising record against the other top teams in the West. The Nuggets, suddenly hit hard by injuries to Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari, took three of four from OKC. Memphis won two of three, including 90-89 Monday night.
And Thursday night a Spurs team that was without Manu Ginobili and Stephen Jackson, plus a gimpy Tony Parker who was finally shut down in the fourth quarter with two points due to a leg injury, trailed just 87-84 with five minutes to play after rallying from three separate double-digit deficits. OKC held on to tie the series, 2-2.
The Lakers, a very real possibility for an intriguing first-round showdown, nearly pulled off a similar comeback one month ago that would have given them the season series, 2-1. The Heat won both regular-season matchups including a wire-to-wire stomping on OKC’s home floor in February. Thursday’s win against San Antonio was OKC’s first against a current West playoff team in four tries, and they’re 4-5 in their last nine against West playoff clubs.
When OKC is at its best, playing at a frenetic pace, swarming defensively and running the floor, it seems impossible for a team like the Spurs with three high-mileage stars — two of which aren’t currently healthy — surrounded by young, talented role players, to keep up in a seven-game series. They didn’t last season, losing four straight after taking a 2-0 lead at home in the West finals. Without homecourt advantage, the Spurs’ chances would seem even more bleak.
Injuries to their two leading scorers have likely made the Nuggets, convincing winners at OKC two weeks ago, vulnerable. The Clippers have looked incoherent in recent weeks. Rugged Memphis? As good a shot as anybody.
“We’re in a good spot,” Westbrook said. “There’s always room for improvement, but we’re in a good position.”
Only the playoffs will tell us if good is good enough.
Nuggets efficiency with Gallinari on and off the floor
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions
The Nuggets with Gallinari on the floor have the point differential of a 62-win team. The Nuggets with Gallinari off the floor have the point differential of a 44-win team.
But, as a starter, Gallinari has played most of his minutes with his best teammates, which can make his make his on-off-court discrepancy look more drastic than his actual value.
Most minutes with Gallinari
% of DG’s minutes
The Nuggets are obviously deeper since Chandler returned in mid-January. Even without Gallinari, they still have three wings – Iguodala, Chandler and Brewer – who George Karl can trust. And Evan Fournier has shown some flashes of an ability to contribute over the last week.
Karl’s ability to go small, however, is now a bit limited. The Nuggets have played 870 minutes with three of the four veteran wings on the floor together, most of those (597) with Gallinari as one of the three. Those have been great minutes for the Nuggets, played at a very fast pace.
Nuggets efficiency with three of Brewer, Chandler, Gallinari & Iguodala on floor
Brewer + Chandler + Iguodala, no Gallinari
Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
Without Gallinari, the trio of Brewer, Chandler and Iguodala will have to take on a larger load. The good news is that the Nuggets’ defense, as you might expect, has been excellent with those three on the floor together.
The Nuggets still need a healthy Ty Lawson to pose a serious threat to the top two teams in the West, but improved defense could help absorb the loss of their second leading scorer.
HANG TIME, Texas — There were just over two minutes gone in the fourth quarter when the door seemed to swing open, the red carpet rolled out and Kevin Durant was all but ushered down an empty aisle through the San Antonio defense for a slam dunk that practically screamed out.
It’s still our house and it’s still our Western Conference.
Maybe more than ever. As the days dwindle in the regular season, the inevitable rematch in The Finals with Miami seems more, well, inevitable.
It’s been more than two months now since anyone has looked capable of taking down the defending champion Heat. But it’s been thought all season that the West half of the bracket was going to be a minefield fraught with peril.
When Tony Parker limped up and down the court and finally had to be removed from the game Thursday night by coach Gregg Popovich, the path became clearer for the Thunder. It not only enabled OKC to finish off a 100-88 win and essentially take over the top spot in the conference, but could show the cracks that could eventually crumble highly successful regular season for the Spurs.
There had been a sense for much of the season that the Spurs were a more complete, more capable all-around team than the Thunder this season. That was in part due to the absence of James Harden in OKC and the development of the Spurs supporting cast of Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter and Danny Green.
But San Antonio is still a wheel that turns around the aging Big Three axis and Manu Ginobili is already sidelined for the start of the playoffs with a strained hamstring. If Parker’s problem (ankle? shin?) can’t be solved in short time, the Spurs could have problems in the first two rounds, let alone a conference finals showdown with the Thunder.
At the same time, a Nuggets team that has already lost its blasting cap in Ty Lawson to a torn plantar fascia in his right heel sees Danilo Gallinari go down with what could be a torn ACL in his left knee.
Yes, George Karl was the Western Conference Coach of the Month in March and will certainly manipulate his lineup to keep it from jumping completely off the track. But the beauty and the effectiveness of the Nuggets all season long has been the fitting together of so many different pieces to excel in a league usually built around individual stars. Take away one piece and you’ve got a challenge. Take away two and the entire structure begins to teeter.
Despite ringing up their first 50-win season in franchise history, the Clippers have fallen from grace since their 25-6 start. Whether it’s Vinny Del Negro’s coaching, Blake Griffin’s moodiness, DeAndre Jordan’s immaturity or Chris Paul’s carping at his teammates, there is unrest in Lob City and less a sense that the Clippers are a championship contender.
There is no reason to believe the Warriors, Rockets or Jazz are capable challengers. Even if the Lakers were to hang onto the No. 8 spot, does anyone have faith that this uneven, turmoil-filled season will suddenly take a path straight up for six or eight weeks once the playoffs begin?
That leaves the rock ‘em, sock ‘em get, get-up-in-your-face Grizzlies as perhaps the only solid, healthy challengers to the reigning Western Conference champs. If you think back two years ago to the contentious seven-game series between Memphis and OKC, there is most definitely potential for the Thunder to be tested.
But what was supposed to be round after round of roadblocks and difficult obstacles is starting to clear out like Durant’s path to the basket for a slam dunk.