Posts Tagged ‘Vince Carter’

Time for Harris’ speed over steady Calderon

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Tim Duncan has 27 points as the Spurs take Game 1

SAN ANTONIO – Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle needs to pull a page from Avery Johnson‘s 2006 postseason playbook against San Antonio and match speed on speed, minute-for-minute.

Johnson sprung second-year backup point guard Devin Harris on Tony Parker and the Spurs in Game 2 of their 2006 semifinal series. His insertion into Dallas’ starting lineup proved to be a catalyst in ending the Spurs’ repeat title hopes in seven games.

In 2008, Dallas traded Harris to the Nets for Jason Kidd, and Parker applauded.

“To be honest with you,” Parker said back then, “I’m really happy for that trade.”

After stops with the Nets, Jazz and Hawks, Harris is back in Dallas and Carlisle essentially followed Johnson’s adjustment in Sunday’s tough, 90-85 Game 1 loss, turning to Harris early and often over the miscast Jose Calderon. One of the few men in the league with the quicks to challenge the Spurs’ All-Star point guard and driving offensive force, Harris nearly won the game for the eighth-seeded and heavy underdog Mavs, who didn’t get typical efforts from Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis, yet led 81-71 with 7:45 to go.

Carlisle endured five minutes before turning to Harris over the slow-footed Calderon, whose defensive deficiencies grew in their unpalatability as his shot misfired. Calderon was 0-for-4 from the floor, with only one attempt being a bread-and-butter 3-pointer, when he made way for Harris. The Spurs led 9-2 and Parker, being guarded by overmatched Mavs small forward Shawn Marion as Dallas mixed coverages, scored the first seven points on beautiful drive-and-scoops.

Harris might need to play 35 minutes or more if they’re going to press the Spurs, so he might as well get started on Parker from the jump. At Mavs practice back in Dallas on Monday, Carlisle didn’t tip his hand with Wednesday’s Game 2 still more than 48 hours away, but Nowitzki told reporters they’re sticking with Calderon.

“We’re rolling the way we’re set up,” Nowitzki said. “Jose has been our starter the whole year. We’ve got to start the game off a little better. I think we were a little slow and we were down eight or 10 pretty quick there in the first quarter, so we’ve got to be a little better there, but Jose is our starter. He’s the guy that puts us in our plays and we’re rolling with it.”

Calderon, playing in his first postseason since 2008 with Toronto, logged just 16 minutes — his shortest stint of the season not cut short by injury. He watched the entire fourth quarter from the bench. Harris played 32 minutes, his third-most minutes of the season, scored 19 points — one off his season high — including three 3-pointers, with five assists, and he consistently forced the issue against Parker and speedy Spurs backup Patty Mills.

“He’s capable of that,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said, noting Harris’ scoring binge . “He might not do it night after night after night, but he’s capable of it, and he showed that.”

Parker, who finished with 21 points and six assists, left Sunday’s game offering Harris credit, and something of a pointed compliment.

“He surprised us a little bit,” Parker said. “He made three 3s in the first half. He usually doesn’t make those 3s. Devin is the type of guy, he can score a lot of points quickly, so we are going to have to stop that.”

It certainly wouldn’t be out of character for Carlisle to alter his starting lineup in the postseason. In the 2011 Finals against Miami, Carlisle inserted the diminutive J.J. Barea at shooting guard over defensive-minded DeShawn Stevenson trailing in the series 2-1 to take advantage of Barea’s quickness and ability to penetrate. The Mavs never lost again.

Carlisle did go back to Calderon to start the third quarter against San Antonio and the tough-minded veteran responded with three buckets, but finished 3-for-9 with seven points and a couple assists. A spot role in this series for the Spaniard, who signed a four-year $29 million deal with Dallas last summer, could be something he’ll have to accept.

The Spurs have won 10 games in a row over Dallas, including 4-0 during the regular season. Parker played in the first three meetings and torched the Mavs for 23.3 ppg — seven more than his season average — on 54.2 percent shooting. Calderon averaged 29.6 minutes in the four games. Harris averaged 20.5 mpg playing in only 40 games after undergoing offseason toe surgery.

While Sunday’s Game 1 was Calderon’s shortest stint of the season, it was the second time in the last three games that Carlisle sat the 32-year-old against a quick, penetrating backcourt. Calderon, who averaged 30.5 mpg during the regular season, played just 17 minutes with a playoff berth on the line against Phoenix in the second-to-last game of the season.

Nowitzki and Ellis must pick up the scoring load, but the bigger burden at both ends of the floor might just lie with Harris’ ability to tackle Parker.

“His quickness, his ability to shoot the pull-ups, shoot the 3, get in the paint, find guys is just something we have to exploit,” Mavs shooting guard Vince Carter said of Harris.

It’s why Harris should find himself back in the Mavs’ starting lineup come Wednesday night.

Old guys got job done for Mavs

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – The fate of this Dallas Mavericks season was placed on faith that their three aging, yet ultra-integral, players could stay healthy.

Dirk Nowitzki, 35, Shawn Marion, 35, and Vince Carter, 37, combined to play 237 of 246 games this season, every second essential as they won 49 games and pushed the franchise back into the playoffs. It will be seen if this trio of iron men have enough to shove the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs deep into a first-round series that begins Sunday (1 p.m., ET, TNT). Still, it’s been another legacy-making season for all three.

“For these old guys — our old guys — getting in the playoffs is huge,” reserve guard Devin Harris said. “Everybody wants to be competitive, especially since we don’t know how many years they have left. We want to make sure we compete at the highest level.”

Of the Mavs’ top minute men, Monta Ellis logged the most by a wide margin. The next four: Nowitzki, Jose Calderon, Marion and Carter.

“It’s a tribute to us three taking care of our bodies,” Nowitzki said. “We try to live right, we try to eat right and get our sleep. Ultimately, our guys do the maintenance stuff we need to do to still compete at a high level, whether it’s lifting or stretching or running in the pool or getting some extra cardio in, I think all three of us are willing to do that work and I think it shows.”

Marion completed his 15th regular season and played 76 games. Nowitzki and Carter each finished their 16th season. Nowitzki played in 80 games and Carter fired off the bench in 81. To push the top-seeded Spurs, who surround their three older players, Tim Duncan, a week from turning 38, Manu Ginobili, 36, and Tony Parker — who’s still just 31 — with a deep and youthful crew, Dallas will need vintage Dirk, an all-around effort from Marion and a 3-point bonanza from Carter.

“They could be sitting on the couch at home if they didn’t want to play, so there’s a reason they’re here,” 26-year-old reserve center Brandan Wright said. “They want to get back to the playoffs and make some things happen.”

Nowitzki led Dallas in scoring and moved to No. 10 on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. He joined Elgin BaylorKareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone as the only players in the history of the game to average at least 21 points and six assists at age 35 or older. He finished as close to a 50-40-90 season as possible without getting there in any of the three categories: 49.7 percent overall, 39.8 percent from 3-point range and 89.9 percent from the free throw line.

Marion finished second on the team in rebounding after being first the previous two seasons. The 6-foot-7 small forward is now 35th on the NBA’s all-time rebounding list, and 17th on the all-time steals list.

Carter moved to No. 25 on the all-time scoring list last weekend and he moved up to No. 7 on the all-time 3-pointers made list. He drained more 3-pointers this season (146) than any player in the league off the bench, and more than only Calderon on the team despite logging nearly 500 fewer minutes.

“An injury to Vince off the bench would have been devastating for us,” Nowitzki said. “He’s a big scorer and we need him out there for us.”

This could be the final season in Dallas for Marion, the last remaining member with Nowitzki from the 2011 title team, and Carter. Both veterans are in the final year of their contracts. There’s already whispers that Marion would be a logical fit to replace the retiring Shane Battier in Miami. Carter has said he’d like to remain with Dallas for a fourth season.

“I do all the things I need to do just to compete because every night I step on the floor there’s guys who I’m guarding who are 10, 12 years younger than me,” Carter said. “So how can I compete? I just put my work in.”

Just three seasons ago after being traded from Orlando to Phoenix, Carter’s career seemed to be headed for a final sunset. But he’s been reinvigorated in Dallas, accepting a sixth man role and one of the top 3-point shooters going, hitting at a 39.4-percent clip.

“I think he wasn’t really happy with the role he had there,” Nowitzki said. “Sometimes they would just put him in the corner and he felt like he wasn’t really involved; that’s how it looked to me. Here, he can do whatever he wants. He’s got the ultimate green light off the bench. He knows we need him.”

Sixth Man Of the Year: Jamal Crawford

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Jamal Crawford has made a strong case for Sixth Man of the Year

There came a point this season where Jamal Crawford was starting so many games as an injury fill-in that it seemed impossible he’d be eligible to make another run at the Kia Sixth Man of the Year award.

He won it in 2010 with Atlanta and he thought he should have won it last season with the Clippers. Instead J.R. Smith of the New York Knicks — remember him? — took the prize. This season, the Clippers wouldn’t be in control of the Western Conference’s No. 3 seed and in line to nab the No. 2 seed with a bit of help (an Oklahoma City loss) before tonight’s season finale at Portland (10:30 p.m., ET, ESPN).

Whether Crawford was coming off the bench, where he’s averaged 17.2 ppg and 3.1 apg, or putting up 20.6 ppg and 3.3 apg in 23 games as a starter in place with either J.J. Redick or Chris Paul or both out, Crawford’s playmaking and shot-making have been invaluable. The lone blemish on his resume is the left calf injury that kept him out of all but eight games since the end of February.

Two games before the calf injury occurred on Feb. 26, Crawford scored 36 points in 40 minutes as a starter to help the Clippers win at Oklahoma City. It was his 11th game of 25 points or more and fourth of 30 points or more. Since, he’s made it five with 31 points in 35 minutes off the bench on March 26 at New Orleans.

“I don’t want to toot my own horn,” Crawford told NBA.com after that Thunder game. “I think I’ve been a professional, honestly. Starting, coming off the bench, being ready at all times, I pride myself on that.”

Crawford certainly faces stiff competition. Candidates include San Antonio’s resurgent Manu Ginobili, Chicago’s rugged Taj Gibson, Phoenix’s Markieff Morris, the Los Angeles Lakers’ Nick Young, Oklahoma City’s Reggie Jackson and even Dallas’ Vince Carter.

Yet none electrify a game and their team with scoring outbursts quite the way Crawford can. Boasting one of the game’s great handles, the 14th-year guard can still live up to his nickname and Twitter handle, @JCrossover, defying foes with tremendous moves off the bounce to get to the rim. He splashes 3-pointers with a rainbow release from virtually any distance, connecting on the 3-ball at a 36.2 percent clip.

His 18.4 scoring average, significantly higher than any of the other candidates, would rank as the third-highest by a Sixth Man of the Year Award winner in the last 20 years behind only Jason Terry (19.6 in 2009 with Dallas) and Ginobili (19.5 in 2008). Crawford would become the oldest player to win the award and he’d join Kevin McHale, Ricky Pierce and Detlef Schrempf as two-time winners.

“Growing up, it wasn’t like I wanted to be a sixth man,” Crawford recently told Ramona Shelbourne of ESPN Los Angeles. “It only happened because I got to this point where I just wanted to win more than anything. When you bring one of your top scorers, your top players off the bench, it really gives your team balance.”

The contenders

Manu Ginobili, Spurs – A year ago it seemed the Argentine might have come to the end of his rope after a glorious NBA and international run. He looked slow and out of sorts, particularly in the NBA Finals. But he came back to the Spurs, 36 years of age, and put together an inspiring bounce-back season, averaging 12.4 ppg, 4.3 apg and 3.0 mpg in 22.8 mpg.

Taj Gibson, Bulls – There should be an award for the entire Bulls team, maybe the Perseverance Award or something. Gibson continues to get better and often pushed Carlos Boozer off the floor in the fourth quarter. His larger role pushed his minutes per game up by five and he responded with 13.1 ppg, a five-point increase from last season, and 6.8 rpg, up 1.5.

Markieff Morris, Suns – Also a Most Improved Player of the Year candidate, averaging career-highs by a wide margin with 13.8 ppg and 6.0 rpg. He’s transformed himself into a dangerous mid-range shooter, making 48.6 percent of his shots, up from 40.7 percent last season and 39.9 percent as a rookie. Morris was vital to the Suns’ 47 wins with one game to go.

Reggie Jackson, Thunder – He got his training on the fly during the 2013 postseason. Since then, he’s provided the Thunder with stability and scoring off the bench as well as in the starting lineup during Russell Westbrook‘s absences. Jackson is averaging 13.1 ppg, fourth on the Thunder, 4.2 apg and 3.9 rpg in 28.5 mpg. He averaged 5.3 ppg and 14.2 mpg last season.

Vince Carter, Mavericks – Carter has kept himself in tip-top physical condition and, at 39.5 percent, has transformed himself into a dangerous 3-pointer shooter. No player in the league has come off the bench and dropped more than Carter’s 145. He’s played in all but one game this season, averaging 12.0 ppg, 3.5 rpg and 2.7 apg in 24.3 mpg.

Nick Young, Lakers – Swaggy P had his swaggy moments, like celebrating a 3-pointer that didn’t drop, but the L.A.-born sixth man was mostly money for the injury-riddled Lakers. He led the team in scoring with a career-high 17.9 ppg while hitting 38.6 percent of his 3-point attempts, his highest percentage since 2010-11.

Morning Shootaround — March 30



VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 29

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Doc sends Davis to locker room | Sixers win | Carter wants to re-sign with Mavs | O’Neal praises Mark Jackson | Tuckers seeks a larger contract from Suns

No. 1: Doc sends Davis to locker room – The Los Angeles Clippers are rolling. They’re 15-2 over their last 17 games, and last night, despite losing All-Star Blake Griffin early to injury, they  were able to defeat the Houston Rockets 118-107. Unfortunately, things aren’t all roses in Lob City, as coach Doc Rivers was forced to call arena security to escort forward Glen Davis to the locker room midway through the game. Broderick Turner of The Los Angeles Times has the story:

Losing All-Star power forward Blake Griffin with back spasms had already put the Clippers in a tough predicament, but it got more difficult when Coach Doc Rivers grew so upset at Glen Davis that he had the backup forward escorted from the game.

The Clippers just pressed on, walloping the Houston Rockets yet again, 118-107, Saturday at Toyota Center, to sweep their four-game season series.

But after the Clippers clinched a playoff spot for the third consecutive season, Rivers was forced to address the Davis situation.

“He was emotional tonight and we told him to go sit down,” Rivers said. “And I just thought he was a distraction. When guys are a distraction, I don’t think they should be on the bench.”

After Rivers had pulled Davis early in the second quarter, Davis yelled something at Rivers, who in turned yelled, “Sit your big … down.”

A few seconds later, associate head coach Alvin Gentry went to talk to Davis at the end of the bench, but Rivers then told the team’s security to take Davis to the locker room.

Rivers obviously still was upset at his power forward, which left the Clippers even more short-handed because Griffin was still in the locker room getting treatment.

“Nothing went on with me,” Rivers said. “I thought Baby was too emotional.

“And for me if you’re too emotional, I always send you back to the locker room and keep you back there until the next game. I love Baby. I just didn’t think emotionally he was ready to play tonight so we told him go to the locker room.”

***

No. 2:Sixers win – The long, national nightmare is over as the Philadelphia 76ers are back in the win column after trouncing the Detroit Pistons 123-98 last night. The Sixers 26-game losing streak tied the mark set by the 2010-11 Cleveland Cavaliers for worst streak in NBA history. However, the win also pushed the Milwaukee Bucks lead on the worst record in the league to two games over the Sixers. It should be an exciting race to end the season. Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer has more on the win:

The Sixers downplayed the victory.

“It’s just like another win,” reserve guard Tony Wroten said. “It’s the NBA. You all are talking about the pressure. We weren’t worried about a streak. We were just trying to get better every day.”

Sixers coach Brett Brown said he never mentioned the losing streak to his team.

“I never went into a room and said, ‘We have to get out of the streak,’ ” he said. “We talked about, ‘Let’s bang out great days.’ I’m glad tonight that the win validates that.”

The win was a big lift for a franchise that turned into the laughingstock of professional sports during the skid.

ESPN had been poking fun at the team after each of its recent losses. Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon even roasted the Sixers Friday night for losing 26 consecutive games.

That’s because they equaled the run of futility established by the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers over the 1976 and 1977 seasons. The Cleveland Cavaliers tied that record and set an NBA mark with 26 straight losses during the 2010-11 season.

No. 27 never came, as the Sixers dominated the lifeless Pistons (26-47), handing them their 11th loss in 13 games.

“I think we came out with fire like we try to do in a lot of these other games,” Sixers rookie point guard Michael Carter-Williams said. “We didn’t change anything. We wanted to win the ball game just like we’ve been doing every single day, every game, and every practice, just going out there playing hard.”

While they were made fun of, the Sixers said the losing streak didn’t affect them.

Sacrificing wins has been part of the team’s plan since Sam Hinkie was hired as general manager in May. The Sixers are using this season for player development, evaluating talent, and developing a culture. In the process, they hope to lose enough games to secure a top pick in the NBA draft in June.

“Our judgment day isn’t today, and it won’t be tomorrow,” Brown said before the game. “We are on a three- to five-year plan. Obviously, we want to win. We want to win every time we come on the floor. I coach to win. Our players play to win.”

Surely this victory provided relief for the Sixers, right?

“Not a relief,” [Hollis] Thompson said. “It’s just a sign that we have been doing the right things and working on the right things, and it’s finally playing off.”

***

No. 3: Carter wants to re-sign with Mavs – Vince Carter is 37 years old, but this has not stopped him from having a great season in Dallas averaging 12.1 points, 3.6 rebounds, 2.7 assists in just 24.4 minutes per game. He’s a key contributor for the playoff-hopeful Dallas Mavericks, who utilize Carter’s new-found 3-point game which he has developed over his last three seasons in Dallas. This contribution allows Carter to hope he will be re-signed by Dallas this offseason, despite his age. Eddie Sefko of The Dallas Morning News has more:

In three seasons with the Mavericks, Carter has seen them go from defending champions to barely making the playoffs to missing them entirely.

Neither he nor anybody else knows if this season will produce a return to the postseason. But Carter does know two things.

This team is better than last year’s. And he desperately wants to hang around to see this rebuilding project through to the end.

Or at least next season.

“I think I’ve earned the right to stick around,” Carter said.

The 6-6 future Hall of Famer will be a free agent after this season. Carter’s three-year contract he signed before the 2011-12 season has been a huge bargain, as the Mavericks paid him only about $9.3 million for those years of work.

He hopes it is a no-brainer that he re-signs with the Mavericks.

“My fingers are crossed,” he said. “Next year might be even better. We can attract some more people, more talent. Now I know my role, and I know the system, it’s second nature to me now. I know the city very well. I’m stepping out, going to SMU games and getting out and about. I’m very comfortable here.

“I like the guys. I like the nucleus we have here. With my role and the way I play and the way I go about things, it really helps guys here. And they like that. Hopefully, that’s enough so that they can still have trust in me enough to play significant minutes and help the other guys out.”

It’s hard to say the 37-year-old Carter has put together one of the best seasons of his career if you base it solely on numbers. If you factor in personal satisfaction, however, it may be the best year he’s ever had.

Carter probably won’t win the NBA’s sixth man of the year award, but he’s deserving of consideration. He’s the true definition of the role. He plays about half the game, averages a point every two minutes played, can still levitate like it’s 1999 and has a burning desire to see this team continue to get better.

And that includes seeing what happens next. But Carter is wise enough to know that things may not work out.

“The business side, it happens,” he said. “And maybe they need the money. But I’m hoping we’re talking right here at this time next year.”

Carter’s play as this season has gone along has made it clear he’s not finished as a player. While he enjoys the mentoring role — you can see him on the sideline offering his experience to younger players during games — he’s still a gamer.

And he likes being the sixth man on a good team.

“In the beginning, that first year, it was learning how to go about it,” he said. “It’s still having the starter’s mentality, be aggressive, make plays, but within the confines of the offense. And understanding my role.

“That’s the biggest thing for all players, particularly for guys coming from a starting position into a backup role, is accepting the new position. Once I understood it, everything is easier.”

***

No. 4: O’Neal praises Mark Jackson – The Golden State Warriors, at 45-27, would be the sixth seed in the Western Conference with a first-round matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers if the playoffs started today. Not a bad spot, but lower than many expected the Warriors to be this season after their playoff run last year and with the addition of Andre Iguodala this offseason. But despite these rough spots, center Jermaine O’Neal can’t stand speculative talk about how the Warriors should fire coach Mark Jackson. Diamond Leung of the San Jose Mercury News has O’Neal’s comments:

Warriors veteran big man Jermaine O’Neal called any talk of firing coach Mark Jackson “ridiculous” and “unfair” before offering a vote of confidence unique to his own NBA career.

O’Neal is considering retirement, and if the 35-year-old were to decide to play next season, he said it would be because of Jackson and that the team he would choose would be the Warriors.

“It’s a couple reasons why I will come back,” O’Neal said Saturday. “This fan base, this organization is first class, and obviously my teammates are great, as well.

“But the No. 1 reason that I will come back and play another year is because of Coach Jackson. I’m absolutely, 100 percent positive about that. He makes it easy to come in this gym every day, and there’s not a lot of coaches that do that.”

O’Neal, whom Jackson noted was “underpaid” and “a steal” while playing on a $2 million, one-year contract, said he would choose Golden State despite the distance from family because Jackson has shown just how much he cares about his players.

Offering up an example, the business-minded O’Neal said Jackson allowed him to miss practice Tuesday so he could go to Mountain View to attend Y Combinator’s Demo Day, which features startup companies making presentations.

O’Neal also appreciated how Jackson has been mindful of putting too much of a physical burden on him because of his age and experience.

With Andrew Bogut going down with a pelvic contusion in Friday’s win against Memphis, O’Neal’s presence in the lineup could be needed once again for Sunday’s game against New York as the Warriors look to close out a playoff berth with 10 games left.

“To me, it’s one of the most unfair things that I’ve seen in a long time,” O’Neal said. “And it truly is a team that’s 18 games over .500. Eighteen. And we’re talking about firing a coach with 10, 11 games left?

“Here’s the facts. To everybody that’s negative out there, you may not ever see this again. I know that firsthand because I’ve been in the position. It may take 10 years to be back in that position, so do you want to accept us with open arms and continue to show the support?”

***

No. 5: Tucker seeks a larger contract from Suns – It’s no secret that Phoenix Suns forward P.J. Tucker is a bargain at his current league-minimum contract of $884,000. He’s arguably the motor which keeps the Suns’ high-energy engine running and he does so while averaging 9.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.3 steals (along with superb defense) in 30.9 minutes per game. This bargain for the Suns may not last long, as Tucker hopes to sign a larger contract this summer. Paul Coro of Arizona Central Sports has the quotes:

Suns forward P.J. Tucker picked up a technical foul recently and joked that he wants the Suns to have it taken out of next year’s salary.

For one, Tucker knows he will be making much more money next season after playing on a veteran’s minimum contract for the next two seasons. It also played his hand that he wants and expects to be back with the Suns next season despite becoming a restricted free agent in July.

“Of course, why would I not?” Tucker said. “They brought me here. I think I exceeded their expectations and mine with what has transpired. Of course, I want to retire a Sun.”

Tucker, 28, was a second-round pick by Toronto in 2006 who was assigned to the D-League and released before his rookie season ended. Tucker became an overseas star, playing in Germany, Ukraine, Israel and Puerto Rico, before he joined the Suns’ Summer League team in 2012 and signing a two-year, partially guaranteed deal.

He emerged as a standout defender and the Majerle Hustle Award winner and started all season this year with improved 3-point shooting. “Forbes” magazine named Tucker the most underpaid player in the league for his $884,000 salary.

“The love I have for this organization will always be,” Tucker said. “They gave me a chance to prove myself and actually to prove that I’m a player in this league. It’s almost emotional for me to think about everything I’ve been through and for them to give me an opportunity to do it. Not just to be on the team, but in two seasons, I’ve started a whole year and a half for the team on a minimum contract. That doesn’t happen.

“When I sit back and think about it, which I never do, it’s too much. So I’ll always be indebted.”

Friday night’s game emphasizes Tucker’s value to a team beyond being a locker room leader. Knowing they have a defender of the caliber, strength and versatility of Tucker allow the coaching staff to assign him to top wing scorers like Carmelo Anthony and create a defensive game plan around that.

In restricted free agency, the Suns will be able to match any offer sheet that Tucker signs with another team and keep him. He knows his value is about to skyrocket.

“The moment you sit back and think, ‘Hmmm,’ that’s the moment you’re losing,” Tucker said. “You can’t do that. Not right now I can’t.

“I’m nervous but excited at the same time. This is the most important time in my career. I kind of took a pay cut to come so this is my one chance.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Andrew Bogut suffered a pelvic contusion and was scheduled to undergo an MRI on Saturday. … The San Antonio Spurs win their 17th-straight game. … Chris Paul recorded 30 points and 12 assists to lead the Clippers past the Rockets.

ICYMI of the Night: Ebony Nettles-Bay is an AAU high-school basketball player who was diagnosed with cancer in September. If you haven’t read her story, you can (and should) here. She’s a huge LeBron James fan who had the dream of meeting him. This inspired the hashtag #LeBronMeetsEbony which you may have seen on social media. Her dream came true last night as she met her hero in Milwaukee. James spoke about the moment after the game.


VIDEO: James on Ebony Nettles-Bay

Morning shootaround — March 29



VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 28

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Beverley tears miniscus | LeBron wowed by mega-baseball contract | Not just L.A. on Love’s mind | Curry buries the Grizzlies | Wolves eye Hoiberg

No. 1: Rockets point guard out indefinitely — Houston Rockets starting point guard Patrick Beverley, the man who collided with Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook and tore his meniscus in last year’s first-round playoff series, is out indefinitely after tearing the meniscus in his right knee Thursday against Philadelphia. The Rockets will now have to make do without their top perimeter defender. Our own Fran Blinebury details how Beverley’s absence will affect Houston’s title aspirations:

For a team that has ridden the All-Star exploits of James Harden and Dwight Howard to the No. 4 spot in the Western Conference playoff race, Beverley plays a critical role.

The 25-year-old Chicago native who was drafted and cut by Heat, then toiled overseas in Russia, puts significant bite into the face of the Rockets’ defense.

Jeremy Lin can step back into the starting lineup and give the Rockets offense, but he is not the tenacious, in-your-face type defender that the Rockets will need in the playoffs to go against elite level point guards such as Westbrook, Tony Parker, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, Stephen Curry and Mike Conley.

While Lin is flashy and creative and can fill up the basket with points when he gets on a roll, it is the just plain down-to-earth toughness of Beverley that often stands out, especially in a backcourt where Harden does not especially like to play defense.
Coach Kevin McHale said it would be 7-10 days before the Rockets would know a timetable for Beverley’s return.

Beverley has played in 53 of the Rockets’ 71 games, missing time with a hand injury. He has averaged 9.9 points in 31.3 minutes while taking over the starting role from Lin this season, but it’s that defensive bite and overall toughness that the Rockets would miss most. Sometimes it’s the littlest pieces of the puzzle that are hardest to replace.

***

No. 2: LeBron would take Cabrera deal — Major League Baseball does not have a salary cap and that means some mighty contracts never even imagined in the NBA become reality. Detroit Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera was the latest example Friday when he inked a contract that will pay him $292 million over the next 10 years. It makes LeBron James‘ $19 million this season seem like charitable donation. ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst puts it into context:

“I said ‘wow,’ ” James said before the Miami Heat played the Detroit Pistons on Friday. “I wish we (the NBA) didn’t have a salary cap.”

James will earn $19 million this season with the Heat, tied with teammate Chris Bosh for the ninth-highest in the NBA as part of a six-year, $109 million deal he signed in 2010.

“He’s the best player in baseball, and the best players in each sport should be rewarded,” James said. “It’d be nice to sign a 10-year deal worth $300 million.”

James earns about $40 million per year off the floor in endorsements, most of that coming from his deal with Nike, which reportedly is worth $19 million per year.

***

No. 3: Not only L.A. on Love’s mind? — If Timberwolves double-double machine Kevin Love, set to become a free agent in 2015, makes it clear to management he won’t re-sign, Minnesota president Flip Saunders might be forced to look for a trade. The former UCLA Bruin has long been rumored to be headed for the Lakers, but Los Angeles might not be the only big city suitable to arguably the game’s top stretch power forward. ESPNLA.com’s Dave McMenamin has more:

After the league endured the “Dwightmare” and “Melodrama,” get ready for “Lovesick.”

The six-year veteran, only 25 years old, is the apple of just about every team set to have cap space in the summer of 2015’s eye.

Timberwolves president Flip Saunders will do everything he can to keep Love, who is fourth in the league in scoring at 26.3 points per game and third in rebounding at 12.6 per game this season. And Minnesota will have the advantage of being able to offer a five-year extension, versus a four-year deal from any other team.

But if Love makes it clear that he has no intention to re-up with the Wolves, Saunders will be forced to shop Love or risk seeing him walk for nothing in return.

Which is where the Lakers come in.

Love’s ties to L.A. are undeniable. He went to college at UCLA. His father, Stan, played for the Lakers — and coincidentally was on the 1974-75 team, a.k.a. the worst team in Lakers history up until this season, so his son could help make up for that. And Love was born in Santa Monica, to boot.

“You know, my parents live there and they had me there,” Love said of L.A., after his Wolves beat the Lakers for the third time in four tries to win the season series Friday. “It’s not my fault. So, I don’t really care about that right now. I just go out there and play and don’t think about it.”

While Love downplayed his interest, the Lakers clearly could use a player of Love’s caliber to jump-start their rebuilding process. Especially with Kobe Bryant recently putting the screws to management to turn things around as soon as possible so he can contend for another championship in the twilight of his career.

ESPN.com’s Marc Stein reported Friday the Lakers would be willing to trade their upcoming pick in the heralded NBA draft — likely to be in the top half of the lottery — to land Love.

While Minnesota could certainly decide to go that route and hit the restart button, there is no assurance that the Lakers are truly Love’s most desired destination.

A source familiar with Love’s thinking told ESPNLosAngeles.com that it’s not just L.A. that is appealing to Love; he’s enamored with the idea of being “big time in a big city,” and that list of potential places he’d seek includes New York and Chicago, as well.

Love himself told GQ in February that his situation in Minnesota might be better than L.A. could offer anyway.

***

No. 4: Curry’s 33 fends off Grizzlies — The Golden State Warriors were minutes away from the No. 6 seed they’ve held for the majority of the season slipping away to the visiting and hard-charging Memphis Grizzlies. Then Stephen Curry came to the rescue yet again. The All-Star swished a 3-pointer and dropped in a scoop shot as the Warriors, playing without forward David Lee and center Andrew Bogut, who left the game in the first quarter, closed out the Grizzlies with a 14-0 run in the 109-103 win. It sent the Grizzlies from the verge of the 6-seed to No. 8. Diamond Leung of the Oakland Tribune was there:

“We’ll never quit and understand we have the weapons to pack a heavy punch at any given time,” Curry said.

Coach Mark Jackson demanded that Curry have the ball in crunch time, and the star guard delivered with the go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:21 left and a subsequent scoop shot to pad the lead. Memphis could not muster a response, missing its final seven shots.

Marreese Speights added 15 points and eight rebounds in his first start with the Warriors while replacing an injured David Lee (right hamstring strain). The Warriors were still able to grab a 43-33 rebounding edge without their top two rebounders for most of the game, pleasing Jackson with the way his team competed in difficult circumstances.

Bogut was injured after getting kneed and ran the court with an obvious limp before checking out of the game for good with 7:59 left in the first quarter. He did not return and was scheduled to undergo an MRI exam Saturday, according to Jackson.

Jermaine O’Neal had 10 points and six rebounds in 34 hard-fought minutes. Also off the bench, Draymond Green had 12 points and nine rebounds, hitting two 3-pointers in the fourth quarter and providing strong defense on Memphis leading scorer Zach Randolph.

“There’s a guy that came into this league, and people probably said, ‘Why is he shooting threes? He should stop shooting threes,’ ” Jackson said. “And he’s winning ballgames with us, knocking down shots and making huge plays on the defensive end. The guy is a tremendous warrior.”

The Warriors would have taken a tumble down the standings with a loss but instead kept pace with the rest of the Western Conference and remained 1½ games ahead of No. 7 seed Phoenix. The win also evened up the season series 2-2 with Memphis, which dropped to No. 8 with the loss.

***

No. 5: A return to the Timberwolves? — Speculation is growing that Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman will invoke his right to opt out of his contract this summer. If he does, the franchise is expected to go after one of its former executives and current Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg. ESPN.com’s Marc Stein provides the background:

If Adelman indeed walks away this time, at 67, there are two natural courses for the Wolves to pursue.

The obvious response is [Flip] Saunders, part-owner as well as team prez, heading downstairs to reclaim his old floor seat to see if he can be the guy who finally brings a halt to the league’s longest postseason drought, which dates to the Wolves’ 2004 Western Conference finals team coached by Saunders.

But that might be too obvious.

There have been no clear-cut signals that Saunders is prepared to leave the executive suite to return to coaching.

There is also another textbook candidate out there for Minnesota to chase with long-standing Wolves ties: Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg.

Widely regarded as the most NBA-ready college coach in the game, Hoiberg was a Wolves executive for four years before leaving the pros to coach the Cyclones. It should be noted that Saunders is close with Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, as well, but the rumbles out of Sota are getting louder that the Wolves are going to court Hoiberg hard if they, as expected, have an opening.

An opening, rather, that Saunders declines to fill himself.

And all of that makes Friday one of the more pertinent days left on the 2013-14 calendar for long-suffering Wolves fans.

That’s because Hoiberg will be coaching Iowa State against UConn in a Sweet 16 game at Madison Square Garden … and because Saunders will be there watching.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Lakers make (the wrong kind of) history again in epic loss … Anthony Davis leaves game in first quarter with a left ankle injuryVince Carter thinks he’s earned the right to re-sign with DallasKevin Durant scores 29 and streak creeps closer to overtaking Michael Jordan … TNT analyst Steve Kerr is the frontrunner to coach the Knicks under Phil JacksonShane Battier reiterates that he will retire after this seasonDirk Nowitzki‘s mentor and personal coach believes he has three or four high-level seasons left.

Luckless Celtics go 0-15 on road vs. West

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com

VIDEO: Nowitzki, Mavs fend off stubborn Celtics

DALLAS – Not even St. Paddy’s Day could bring Boston a little road luck. This charmless Celtics crew gobbled up 21 offensive rebounds and in the third quarter held the Dallas Mavericks to 14 points, yet it was still only good enough to find another silver lining rather than that elusive rainbow.

The unlucky C’s played without point guard Rajon Rondo, whose surgically repaired right knee still isn’t ready for back-to-back action. Twenty-four hours after losing a 121-120 heart-breaker in overtime Sunday night at New Orleans, Boston clawed and scraped its way back against Dallas from deficits in each quarter and as large as 15 points, but ultimately came up short in the final minute, 94-89.

“To come in here and have a chance, I feel like a broken record talking about silver linings,” first-year Celtics coach Brad Stevens said, “But that would be one.”

The loss burdened this bunch with a piece of unwanted Celtics history as the only club in franchise history to go winless on the road against the Western Conference — 0-and-15.

“It’s not something we shoot for and it’s not something we’d like to do,” Stevens said. “The West is clearly better than the East, I don’t think anybody would argue that, but at the same time we’ve had our chances in a couple of those games.

“It’s frustrating. Most of the season has been frustrating.”

Boston’s best chance to beat the West went down the tubes Sunday night when Pelicans forward Anthony Davis clubbed them for 40 points and 21 rebounds. The chances were there Monday night, too, as the Celtics, wearing their green sleeved uniforms with shorts bearing a clover on each leg, quickly erased a nine-point deficit in the second quarter and briefly led 37-33, their largest lead of the game. They scored six points in the first eight minutes of the third quarter to fall behind 64-49 and then finished it with a flurry, a 12-zip run to make it 64-61 at the end of three.

“I never thought that,” Mavs guard Monta Ellis said when asked if he thought it was over when the lead swelled to 15. “They’ve been playing like this the whole season. They always play the whole 48 minutes so we knew they were going to come back and make a run.”

Before long the Mavs were back up 10, 76-66. But the Celtics weren’t going down without flashing some more Irish fight during their last stand out West. With 5:02 to go, Avery Bradley drained  a corner 3 to make it 78-74. They closed to 82-80 and then 90-89 after Bradley bumped Ellis near midcourt without a call, stripped him and streaked in for the score with 21.6 seconds to go.

Down 92-89 with 19.8 seconds to go, Jerryd Bayless, who scored 12 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter, attacked the basket off a broken play coming out of a timeout. He put up a tough shot between two Mavs defenders, missed it off the glass, but got the rebound. He went back up, but Vince Carter met him with a swat.

“It [the play] got messed up because they switched it,” Bayless said. “They switched the play and they started denying Sully [Jared Sullinger]. But we were able to get, I thought, a good look, but it didn’t work out.”

As luck would have it, it was Carter’s first blocked shot since February. Game over.

The Celtics, losers of five in a row to fall to 22-46 overall and 8-25 on the road, have lost their 15 road games against West teams by an average of 10.7 points. They’ve lost by as many as 31, 24 and 23, but the last nine have come painfully by single digits.

Their previous trip out West could have been soul-crushing, a four-game whitewash that included a three-game sweep by the West’s three worst teams — the Lakers, Kings and Jazz.

“We’re not giving up,” Bayless said.

It’s just with points so hard to come by for this team, especially when Rondo doesn’t play, it makes it extremely difficult to win on the home floors of the other conference.

“I’m frustrated obviously by our lack of success; I am not frustrated by our effort,” Stevens said. “Our effort was pretty high-level again. They’re really giving it everything they have.”

On all days, they just needed a little bit more luck.

Aging Vinsanity still flying for Mavs

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: One-on-one with Vince Carter

DALLAS – Vince Carter turned 37 in January with a physique that screamed 27. His motivation?

“I think about how can I avoid retiring,” Carter recently told NBA.com. “That’s kind of the approach.”

It’s working. Carter’s production off the bench this season, his third with the Dallas Mavericks and the final one of his contract, is a major factor in the Mavs fighting for a playoff berth. With a drop-dead 3-point shot — he’s canned a league-high 107 off the bench and is closing in on seventh all-time — and a first step that can still buckle a much younger man’s knees, Carter has put himself in the conversation for the league’s Sixth Man of the Year award. He’s not a frontrunner, but as one of the league’s true elder statesmen, just getting into the conversation is worthy of a six pack of Ensure.

Since the league awarded the first Sixth Man trophy in 1983, six players over the age of 30 — and just one older than 31 (a 33-year-old Bill Walton with the 1985-86 Celtics) have won it. Carter’s college teammate at North Carolina, Antawn Jamison, won it at age 27 with Dallas in 2003. Now 37, Jamison rode the end of the Clippers’ bench until being traded to Atlanta, and waived.

“I get a lot of those moments when guys that are in the NBA now come say when they were in middle school they had my poster on their wall. Now I’m guarding these guys,” Carter said. “Of course, there’s a lot of things I still do I used to be able to do with ease. Sometimes I watch film, I make it look it easy, but it [used to be] consistent. Now it’s like, ‘Ooh, I remember that, it didn’t feel easy.’ That was an easy play like five, six years ago.

“But, it’s made me learn the ins and outs of the game and how can I be effective, be the same player that isn’t going to jump as high, not as fast, but still dominate in my extended time. It just makes you think.”

This 37-year-old business ain’t easy. Yet Carter has mostly made it look that way even after it seemed his high-flying, highlight-churning career was coming to an uncomfortable end a few seasons ago after being traded from Orlando to Phoenix. The Suns bought out the remainder of his contract after the 2010-11 season. Dallas, on the heels of breaking up the 2011 title team, raised eyebrows when it signed Carter to a three-year contract for more than $9 million.

“They still believe me in me,” Carter said. “When somebody believes in your ability, you feel good about it, you go out there and do it.”

Carter, durable throughout his career, has played in 207 of a possible 214 games with Dallas. Three more and he’ll pass Vlade Divac for 50th on the NBA’s all-time games played list. Before then, likely on Sunday when Dallas next plays at Oklahoma City, Carter will become the 27th player in NBA history to record 23,000 career points. He needs eight.

Carter’s 11.8 ppg in 24.2 mpg are both the lowest of his 16-year career, but those numbers are a faulty way to judge his season. When and how he’s scoring — 37.9 percent from beyond the arc — has been as critical as his leadership and tenacity. In a tight game against Indiana last Sunday, Carter leaped once, twice, three times to snare an offensive rebound away from 23-year-old Paul George. Carter finally secured it, roared with the crowd, then whipped a pass to Jose Calderon, who buried a 3-pointer. Dallas won the game. Mavs coach Rick Carlisle called it a “spiritually lifting play.”

Carlisle scoffs at anybody who suggests Carter is not a sure-fire Hall of Famer. After Dallas was eliminated from the playoffs last season, owner Mark Cuban, who has twice now resisted trading Carter to a contender, said he felt worse for Carter, whose teams have made the playoffs in just seven of his previous 15 seasons, than for reigning Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki: “The guy lays it out every time. I can’t put it any other way. He’s one of those guys I want to retire here.”

That was 11 months ago. A retirement speech isn’t expected whenever Dallas’ season concludes.

“These guys will tell you,” Carter said, pointing at this teammates in the locker room, “after practice, after shootaround, after games, I’m in the cold tub. I wasn’t a big fan of it. I went from just up to the knees to OK, maybe at mid-thigh, alright to the hip, to now I’m all the way in. You hate it, but it’s important. After every game, after practices, I do it after shootarounds. I used to be like, ‘I’m going to get the hell out of here,’ but I was like, ‘Nope, got to stick to it.’ So it’s a discipline thing that you really have to work on and I’ve done that within the last couple years and I’ve seen the difference. Longevity is important to me, so those are the things I have to do.”

Carter is one of 10 players to either start this season or to turn at least 37 during the season. Jamison, Mike James, 38, Steve Nash, 40, and Chauncey Billups, 37, have combined to play 62 games. Carter has played in 65 of 66. Kevin Garnett, 37, is having an awful season and is now hurt. Andre Miller, 37, clashed with new Denver coach Brian Shaw, was banished from the team and later traded. Tim Duncan, who turns 38 next month, Ray Allen, 38, and Derek Fisher, 39, join Carter as significant contributors in varying roles.

According to Basketball-reference.com’s Win Share statistic, a measure of how many victories a player contributed to his team, Duncan leads the 37-and-up crowd at 5.7. Carter is next at 3.6.

Retire?

“As you get older you see young guys come in, younger and younger, jump higher, stronger, whatever, and you think, ‘OK, damn, how can I keep up with this young guy to keep a job?” Carter said. “So I just make sure that I’m shot-ready and I’m knocking down shots. I make sure that my body’s ready and I’m as strong as possible, while also as you get older you’re trying to lose a little weight to play the type of game that I want to play.

“So here I am.”

March Will Reveal If Mavericks Have Higher Gear

VIDEO: Bulls drop Mavs

DALLAS – The Dallas Mavericks entered the final night of February looking to cap a momentum-building month with a show of toughness against the bruising Chicago Bulls, but exited their own arena on the wrong end of playground punking, coming up short 100-91.

Joakim Noah and company were caught flat-footed early and trailed by 16 in the second quarter before standing their ground with a serving of old-school, Eastern Conference nastiness. The never-say-die Bulls won for the eighth time in nine games by applying a sleeper hold to Dallas’ offense that came into the game ranked No. 2 in the league in February and left as No. 3.

As the Mavs managed 37 second-half points and 15 in the fourth quarter — and just nine before the Bulls put it away in the final two minutes — poof went their four-game win streak as well as some of the good feelings of what was a 9-2 month turned 9-3. Only two of the wins came against winning teams, a big road victory at Indiana prior to the All-Star break and a victory at Memphis without Mike Conley. The rest came against the league’s riffraff.

Now Dallas (36-24) faces something of a moment of truth over the next 16 days. It begins a stretch of seven games against six strong clubs starting Sunday at San Antonio. After a stop at struggling Denver, Portland and Indiana come to Dallas followed by road games at Golden State and Oklahoma City.

“We’ll see. We got to do something,” said Mavs forward Shawn Marion, one of two remaining members from the 2011 title team along with Dirk Nowitzki.

“It’s going to measure up everything right now. We’ll see what happens. It’s going to be a test for everybody. We’ve got to help each other. It’s got to be a continual collective effort.”

The Mavs flip-flopped positions in the standings with Golden State after Friday night and head into March as the No. 7 seed and just one game ahead of ninth-place Memphis in the loss column. How they compete over the next 16 days should provide the best indication yet if this team with nine new players to start the year is capable of reaching another level, or is simply a talented offensive team with little hope of pushing a first-round series to the brink.

“We got a lot of good teams coming up and we’ve got to keep working, execute a little better offensively, but still we’re a good-shooting team,” Nowitzki said. “Once we do have shots from the outside we’re going to keep stepping into them with confidence and we’ll go from there.”

What we’ve learned about Dallas so far is they have an offense that on most nights can score with anybody. Monta Ellis has thrived playing with Nowitzki and leads the league in points on drives to the bucket. Nowitzki is again an All-Star and 37-year-old Vince Carter is making a serious run at the Sixth Man of the Year award having remade himself into a knock-down 3-point shooter.

Their problems stem mostly at the other end and on the boards. They made progress in February, ranking 16th in defensive rating. That they still rank 22nd on the season reveals just how porous it has been. They’ve also attacked the glass with much more passion in February, ranking fifth in rebounding percentage, yet still only 24th for the season.

“I like our effort on the glass, I have the last couple weeks,” Nowitzki said. “We made it a priority for this team: If we want to be a good team we’ve got to rebound, so I don’t think that really lost us the game [Friday]. I like our chances if we rebound the ball and play hard on the defensive end. We’re not going to be cold like that all of the time.”

If the Mavs have higher gear, we’re about to find out.

Hang Time Podcast (Episode 147) The All-Star Debate Featuring Reggie Miller And Stu Jackson

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Another NBA All-Star Saturday night will come and go without LeBron James, the marquee player of his generation and a future member of the league’s Mount Rushmore (according to his own calculation), taking part in the signature event.

LeBron has never and perhaps will never participate in the Sprite Slam Dunk contest. And it’s a shame that we have not and might not ever get to see him on that stage.

Hall of Famer and TNT analyst Reggie Miller thinks James owes it to his own legacy and those of dunk legends like Dr. J, Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins, Vince Carter and others to do it at least once, particularly in his physical prime.

Reggie makes his case to Stu Jackson and the world in “Are You Kidding Me?” on Episode 147 of the Hang Time Podcast: The All-Star Debate.

We also sneak a peek at the looming NBA trade deadline and discuss who needs to do what to push themselves to the next level after All-Star Weekend, the Suns and Pacers being high on our list of teams that could change the game with the right move at the deadline.

Check out that and more on Episode 147 of the Hang Time Podcast: The All-Star Debate Featuring Reggie Miller and Stu Jackson …

LISTEN HERE:


As always, we welcome your feedback. You can follow the entire crew, including the Hang Time Podcast, co-hosts Sekou Smith of NBA.com,  Lang Whitaker of NBA.com’s All-Ball Blog and renaissance man Rick Fox of NBA TV, as well as our new super producer Gregg (just like Popovich) Waigand and the best engineer in the business,  Jarell “I Heart Peyton Manning” Wall.

– To download the podcast, click here. To subscribe via iTunes, click here, or get the xml feed if you want to subscribe some other, less iTunes-y way.


VIDEO: LeBron James shows off his dunking skills after practice

Morning Shootaround — Jan. 22


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 21

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Durant boosts his MVP case | LeBron: ‘Tough’ for Heat when Wade sits | Carter reflects on Toronto days | Belinelli picked Spurs because of Ginobili | Bradley injured in loss to Heat

No. 1: Durant boosts his MVP case with play vs. Blazers — If you’re a regular reader of our Kia Race to the MVP Ladder on this very website, you know that it’s been a back-and-forth battle between LeBron James and Kevin Durant for the No. 1 spot. Durant, though, may have helped get a couple more votes — not just in our eyes, but in the public’s as well — with his monster performance last night in leading the Oklahoma City Thunder to a comeback win over the contending Portland Trail Blazers. Our own Jeff Caplan was on the scene and says that KD’s play sure looked MVP-like to him:

They’re piling on the Kevin Durant MVP bandwagon now as it barrels through Western Conference contenders with reckless abandon. Its latest victim, the Portland Trail Blazers, was left to dust off a 46-point onslaught and doff its cap as it rode out of town.

“The guy is the best player in the world right now. What can you say about him?” said Blazers forward Nicolas Batum, a salty defender who fended off the pain of a broken left middle finger better than he could Durant, the league’s runaway leading scorer halfway through the season. “When you watch him on TV, like, he is the best. When you guard him in the game, sometimes you have two guys on him and he makes the shot anyway.

“He’s the MVP. He’s the MVP,” Batum repeated, fiddling with his aching finger. “I mean, six years I have been in this league I have never seen a [performance] like that. Six years.”

Durant’s hot zone is the entire court. He blistered Portland for 11 points in the final 3:23, including a terrific drive through traffic and consecutive 3-point daggers from the top of the arc to give him six long balls on seven attempts. The Blazers’ 95-90 lead went up in smoke as did their lead in the Northwest Division. The Thunder (32-10), clamping down with an underrated or under-appreciated or simply under-talked-about defense, pulled out the 105-97 victory for their fourth consecutive win after briefly regrouping following Russell Westbrook‘s latest setback after Christmas.

They’ve knocked down Golden State, Houston, an improving Sacramento squad and now the Blazers (31-11).

Durant, classically and predictably, downplayed his brilliance and praised teammates for doing the hard work to set him up to finish things off.

“You know Perkins giving his body up for me, Serge [Ibaka] is giving his body up, Nick [Collison] and Steven [Adams] , our bigs are doing a great job of getting me open and, like I always say, it’s on me to finish,” Durant said. “So I have to put in the work before and after practice, shootarounds, in order for me to make those shots. My teammates do a great job of setting me up. It’s far more than just me; it’s a small part actually. What I do is more so plays coach [Scott Brooks] calls and the screens being set and the passes being sent. I think the end result is just on me, just trusting in the work and believing in the work to knock those shots down.”

“MVP performance,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “I mean, to score 46 points on 25 shots, 6-for-7 from 3s; I think he got two of his shots blocked. I mean it was a remarkable performance. He made shots when they mattered, he took his time, he didn’t force it, he just took what was there and made some great shots.”

“I just like our approach to the game,” Durant said. “We’re just playing hard. We’re moving the basketball. We missed some shots, but that happens. We’re just playing for each other. We just have to stick together no matter what. Defensively, I think we’re doing a good job of using our length. They hit some 3s and tough shots on us, but we haven’t gotten down on ourselves, we haven’t felt sorry for ourselves, we just kept playing and tonight is another case.”


VIDEO: Kevin Durant dominates down the stretch vs. Portland

***

No. 2: LeBron: ‘Tough’ for Heat to fill Wade’s void — NBA followers are well aware the Miami Heat have made a concerted effort this season to keep the knee of star guard Dwyane Wade as healthy as possible for a long playoff run. To try and make that happen, Wade often rests in the second game of back-to-back sets and, to date, Wade has missed a dozen games this season to rest his knee. But last night’s game against the Boston Celtics marked the first time this season Wade had intentionally missed three straight game. As Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald notes, LeBron James said before the game that not knowing Wade’s status each game is proving ‘tough’ on the Heat:

With Dwyane Wade missing his third consecutive game to rest his knees, LeBron James said Tuesday that it has been difficult establishing a collective rhythm amid the uncertainty about whether Wade would be available from game to game.

“It’s tough,” James said. “Guys think it’s easy, but it’s tough. We have a team built on chemistry, built on rhythm. With so many of the guys being in and out, and the concern with D-Wade, it’s been tough on all of us. We’ve got to go in with the mindset sometimes that he’s not playing, as opposed to: Is he playing?”

Wade has missed 12 games, but this marked the first time he has skipped three in a row. He admitted feeling “a little soreness” in the knees on Monday but wasn’t available to speak before Tuesday’s game. One of the games Wade missed earlier in the season was because of flu, with “rest” listed as the reason for the 11 other absences.

“What we try to do is not predetermine and have expectations about it,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “You can’t predict it. You’re going to have some good days and some days where you don’t feel great. We know as long as we stick to the routine, he should get better, quicker and stronger. Now that we’re at home we can get back on the routine of strength training and conditioning.”

Miami entered Tuesday with a 5-6 record without Wade, compared with 11-2 last season and 14-3 in 2011-12.

“We’ve had a little more guys out than just Dwyane this year,” James said. “From a rhythm standpoint, it’s kind of hurt us. We’re a team that is built on rhythm and chemistry, and we’ve had so many guys out with injuries that it’s kind of hurt our performance.

“Me watching the film, some of the things we’ve been able to cover in the past is off. Last year, when D-Wade went out, we had Mike Miller to step in. Mike Miller was in the system for a while, so we could automatically fill that void. Now, with D-Wade out, it’s given more opportunities to guys that haven’t been in the system as many years or as many situations as Mike Miller.”


VIDEO: LeBron James talks about the Heat’s victory over the Celtics

***

No. 3: Carter reflects on Toronto days — The Vince Carter era of the Toronto Raptors is one filled with mixed emotions for the player, the team and the fans. Carter burst onto the scene in the 1998-99 season and ran away with the Rookie of the Year trophy. From there came a memorable Dunk Contest performance, All-Star games, the Raptors’ first playoff series victory.  There were lowlights, to be sure, which led to acrimony between he and the team and ultimately led to him being traded during the middle of the 2004-05 season to New Jersey. As the Raptors prepare to host Carter and the Mavericks tonight, the swingman spoke with The Dallas Morning NewsEddie Sefko about his time in Toronto:

He’s as revered as any athlete in Toronto history who doesn’t play hockey, as evidenced by the dozen or so local reporters who wanted interviews with Carter after the Mavericks worked out at the Air Canada Centre practice court.

In short, he was basketball in this pucks-crazy town.

And Carter, in his second season with the Mavericks, has the memories embedded in his mind like snapshots.

“I remember when Vinsanity started, from an article [in the newspaper],” Carter said. “I remember when Half-Man, Half-Amazing started.

“I remember making the first basket here in history [at Air Canada Centre]. You can’t change that. Winning rookie of the year here, you can’t change that. Winning that dunk contest and putting Toronto on the [basketball] map, you can’t change that. Those are all historical to me. I put all three of those as one.”

At 37, Carter still gets airborne as well as some of the kids that have followed in his ozone layer. He threw down a remarkable dunk against Portland on Saturday, and he breaks out those jaw-droppers on occasion.

But when he walked into the Raptors’ practice gym, he could really appreciate the trip back in time to when his aerial “wow” moments were plentiful.

“Of all the times I’ve been back, this is probably just my second time to come back to the practice facility,” Carter said. “This is where everything was created. This is where it was all built. Me, the team, winning our first playoff game — this is where it started. This is where I can say Oak [Charles Oakley] grabbed me over there at the 3-point line and said, ‘Hey, I’m going to make you a player in this league.’ That’s where the memories were made.”

Carter played for Toronto from 1998 to Dec. 17, 2004, when he was traded to New Jersey. Carter’s jersey will be retired someday by the Raptors. It’ll happen after his career is over. It wouldn’t be surprising if Toronto signed Carter to a ceremonial one-day contract so he could retire a Raptor.

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No. 4: Playing with Ginobili helped Belinelli pick SpursA quick look at the season leaders in 3-point percentage reveals that new Spurs guard Marco Belinelli is fitting in quite well in Texas. Belinelli leads the league in accuracy from deep and is in the top 30 or so of 3-pointers made. His shooting touch has proven key for San Antonio as it is among the West’s leaders in wins as the Spurs are again chasing the No. 1 spot in the conference. Dan McCartney of the San Antonio Express-News details how Belinelli has fit in with the team and explains how he passed on bigger offers because he wanted to play with his idol — Manu Ginobili:

To hear the involved parties describe it, Marco Belinelli’s free-agent signing with the Spurs was less a transaction than a match made in basketball heaven.Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, always on the prowl for smart, competitive players to plug into his hive-like collective, had long admired the Italian combo guard.

“He’s not afraid to take big shots. He’ll make big plays,” Popovich said. “When he became available at the end of last season, that was our main goal to try and sign him.”

Belinelli, meanwhile, said he had more lucrative offers than the two-year, $5.6-million deal he eventually signed with the Spurs. But the opportunity to play for one of the best teams in the NBA, alongside long-time idol Manu Ginobili, was too good to pass up.

“I know money is important,” he said. “But I’m a young guy and I want to improve my game. Money will come. I just want to win.”

In no other area does Belinelli’s hoops IQ manifest itself better than his consistent ability to create space for himself by moving without the basketball.

Nearly 84 percent of his buckets are assisted, while he’s taken just five isolation shots all season — and missed them all. That’s a tribute to the Spurs’ emphasis on ball movement, and their wealth of willing passers. But Belinelli does his part with tireless movement, which results in more than 40 percent of his made field goals per Synergy Sports (defined as off screens, cuts and hand offs).

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No. 5: Celtics’ Bradley could miss next gameWith a combination of Rajon Rondo at point guard and Avery Bradley at shooting guard, the Boston Celtics can boast perhaps the best defensive backcourt in the game. However, Rondo has played in just three games this season (he returned from season-long ACL surgery and rehab on Friday) and is still getting his bearings on the court. But it seems that Rondo will have to work with a new running mate in the backcourt after Bradley suffered an ankle injury last night in Miami and could miss at least the next game, writes A. Sherrod Blakely of CSNNE.com:

The Boston Celtics were having a tough time with the Miami Heat early on, and it only got rougher following Avery Bradley going down with a sprained ankle injury.The 6-foot-2 guard was unable to return as Boston went on to lose 93-86 to the Heat.

While it is unclear if Bradley will play in Wednesday’s game against Washington, Celtics head coach Brad Stevens didn’t sound too optimistic.

“He didn’t seem like he was walking great,” Stevens said. “If I had to guess, I’d say no (he won’t play) but it would be a guess.”

Bradley limped off the floor early in the second quarter and immediately headed to the locker room with team trainer Ed Lacerte next to him. Moments later, team officials said he would not return.The 6-foot-2 guard, who has started in all 43 games this season, has had an injury-riddled career up to this point.

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Magic center (and Shootaround fave) Nikola Vucevic isn’t sure when he’ll return to the lineup Ricky Rubio has fun playing catch with little girl during the middle of last night’s Wolves-Jazz game … Warriors forward Andre Iguodala isn’t a big fan of playing in national TV games … Good look at the longstanding feud between Raptors fans and their former star, Vince Carter … Solid profile piece on Commissioner David Stern and his legacy in the NBA … Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau is pushing Taj Gibson for some Sixth Man of the Year love

ICYMI of The Night: Nets play-by-play man Ian Eagle makes just about any dunk call sound great and his label for Andray Blatche‘s slam over Kyle O’Quinn gives this dunk a little extra oomph: 


VIDEO: Andray Blatche powers home a jam over the Magic’s Kyle O’Quinn2014/01/21/20140121-daily-zap.nba