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Morning shootaround — April 13


VIDEO: Highlights from Tuesday’s games

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Warriors ready for shot at No. 73 | Kobe’s finale is here | Report: Wittman likely done in Washington | Rockets not sweating final gamePistons’ Jackson: ‘I want to go and fight Goliath’

No. 1: Warriors ready for their shot at 73 A mere 48 minutes (and a victory, of course) is all that stands between the Golden State Warriors and a place all their own in NBA history. A win tonight against the visiting Memphis Grizzlies (10:30 ET, ESPN) gives the Warriors a 73-win season, surpassing the 72-win mark set by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls. The players on the team understand the weight of the moment ahead and while they somewhat wish they had wrapped this goal up sooner, they are nonetheless excited about tonight. Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle has more:

“We have an opportunity to do something that no one has done,” Stephen Curry said. “So many great players have suited up, and for us 15 guys to say we’ve accomplished something as a group that’s never been done before, that’s remarkable.

“We earned the right to have a 48-minute game to eclipse the mark, and we have to go out and finish the job.”

Finishing the job means beating Memphis on Wednesday for what would be the Warriors’ 73rd win of the season, a mark not accomplished in NBA history and a standard that might not again be touched.

No team had won 70 games before the Bulls won 72 in 1995-96, and no team had threatened their record in the two decades since then — until this season.

“It would have been cool to take care of the games we were supposed to take care of and have it already out of the way, but the way this thing has played out, to be at home and have one shot it, it’s pretty amazing,” power forward Draymond Green said.

“It’s there for us now, so we’re going to try to get it, but the end-all, be-all for me is the championship ring,” center Andrew Bogut said. “That record, I don’t think it’s going to get broken again, but you never know. Five or 10 years down the track, that record could be broken.

“The records in 2015 and 2016 that say ‘champions’ won’t be. That’ll never change.”

The Warriors have juggled their attention between setting a seemingly immortal regular-season record and defending their championship all season. They finally decided that the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Even during Tuesday’s practice, one that head coach Steve Kerr missed for a doctor’s appointment, the record was not mentioned. Instead, the Warriors watched video and drilled fundamentals.

“Our minds can’t switch strictly to that championship until this game is over,” lead assistant coach Luke Walton said.

Green has been more outspoken than anyone about his desire to chase the record.

On Monday, he decided to reward three high schoolers with the chance to witness history by giving each of them a pair of tickets to the game. He’s not worried about his gesture looking like a prediction of victory or becoming bulletin-board material.

“You can’t not talk about it at this point. The whole world is talking about it now,” Green said. “… It’s everywhere. There’s nowhere to hide from it now. …

“I’m definitely not predicting a loss.”

As for the Grizzlies, they have no intention of rolling over and taking a loss. ESPN.com has more here:

“They’re chasing history,” Memphis forward Matt Barnes said after the Grizzlies’ 110-84 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday night. “We have a chance to interrupt history. Playing in Golden State, I know how alive that crowd is going to be, and I’m going to be very excited to be part of that game.”

Coach David Joerger said he expects the Grizzlies to rise to the occasion against the Warriors.

“It’s for history, baby,” Joerger said. “We’re going to give it our best shot.”

The injury-riddled Grizzlies have fought for their playoff hopes for the past two months but are in free fall, having lost nine of their past 10 games and three in a row. With Tuesday’s defeat, they dropped into a tie with the Dallas Mavericks for sixth place in the Western Conference.

“Yeah, the emotional tank is a little bit empty right now,” Joerger said.

“You also know that sitting out there 24 hours you’ve got a chance to be the answer on every Trivial Pursuit card for the next 75 years. We’ll see what we’re going to do with that tomorrow.”

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Morning Shootaround — April 9

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Wizards eliminated from playoffs | For Warriors, motivation not a problem | Bulls to choose Noah over Gasol? | The Brooklyn Swamp Dragons?

No. 1: Wizards eliminated from playoffs After giving the Atlanta Hawks all they could handle in the Eastern Conference Semifinals last season, the Washington Wizards were a popular choice to contend in the Eastern Conference this season. Instead, with last night’s loss to the Detroit Pistons, the Wizards were eliminated from postseason contention and clinched a finish below .500. As Jorge Castillo writes in the Washington Post, playing without an injured John Wall didn’t do anything to help matters

Elimination games were not uncharted territory for the Wizards. They just didn’t expect to play any in the regular season without their best player. But a season that began with a top-four seed and the franchise’s first Eastern Conference finals berth since 1979 atop the list of objectives was sabotaged by baffling inconsistency and a bevy of perplexing losses. Consequently, the Wizards have spent much of the second half of the season outside the playoff picture, scoreboard-peeking while they squandered opportunities.

With three games remaining, the Wizards, winners of 44 and 46 games the past two seasons, are 38-41 and cannot finish the campaign above .500.

“We had some tough losses,” said Wizards forward Markieff Morris, who was acquired Feb. 18. “It’s tough with the talent and the expectations they had even before I got here. It’s definitely a tough way to end the season. But we have to finish these last games strong and start looking forward.”

The Pistons improved to 43-37 after finishing 32-50 last season and rose to seventh place in the Eastern Conference with the victory. Reggie Jackson led the charge Friday, shooting 14 of 20 from the field and adding nine assists. Tobias Harris, a trade-deadline acquisition, contributed 17 points, while all-star Andre Drummond was held to eight points and six rebounds in 26 minutes.

Morris, playing against his twin brother, Marcus, for the third time since joining the Wizards, recorded 29 points, his most in a Wizards uniform. Bradley Beal, who assumed some primary ballhandling duties with Wall out, contributed 25 points and had six turnovers. Ramon Sessions, John Wall’s replacement in the starting lineup, finished with 12 points and six assists.

Wall underwent an MRI exam on his right knee after sitting out Wednesday’s win over the Brooklyn Nets — the first game he had missed this season — and the results revealed no tear or sprain. After the Wizards had their team photo taken at Verizon Center on Thursday morning, he went to a doctor and the knee was drained. That remedied the swelling, but the pain remained after treatment all day Thursday and Friday morning before the team rode the bus to Auburn Hills for shoot-around.

“It took all the fluid out, but it’s just still sore and numb to move,” Wall said after shoot-around Friday morning. “It’s just sore. It’s still sore.”

Wall also said he still doesn’t know how he hurt the knee. He woke up with it swollen Wednesday morning. He recalled his day Tuesday, mystified: practice, shooting workouts, usual maintenance treatment, shower, media availability, home.

“Nothing was wrong,” Wall said.

The Wizards did not succumb without some pugnacity Friday. The Pistons used a three-point barrage — they made nine of their first 11 attempts — to build a 19-point lead in the second quarter, which Washington shrunk to seven at halftime. Detroit again tried to put the Wizards away in the third quarter, widening the gulf back to 16 with 4 minutes 58 seconds remaining in the period on a three-point play by Marcus Morris.

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No. 2: For Warriors, motivation not a problem After winning a title last season, the Golden State Warriors managed to return this season and have put together what has a chance to be the greatest regular season in NBA history. As Andrew Bogut told Yahoo’s Michael Lee, the Warriors haven’t really had much trouble finding motivation this season

The most disrespected great team in NBA history never had the chance to get satisfied. The Golden State Warriors went from their Champagne showers in Cleveland to that championship parade along Lake Merritt, right into a cynical volcano that spewed molten Haterade over all they accomplished. At every turn, what the Warriors achieved got discredited and diminished: They got lucky. The league was watered down. If so-and-so had been healthy …

“Blah, blah, blah. We just kept having people put bulletin-board material out there for us,” Andrew Bogut told The Vertical. “What we heard in the offseason was we didn’t deserve to be champions – and it pissed guys off. Every other week, someone made a comment. We heard all the naysayers. I think it was a good thing. I think it was a good thing.”

Bogut repeated himself and cracked a smile because he knows it was a good thing. With Thursday’s 112-101 victory over the San Antonio Spurs, the Warriors became the second NBA team in history win 70 games, and that’s largely because they never had to search for motivation during their title defense. Of course, the Warriors had the Spurs – also in the midst of their best season in franchise history – to push them so hard that 70 wins actually became a requirement to clinch the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.

But more than anything, the Warriors had the hate. Of the 10 previous teams to win at least 67 games, the Warriors are the first to record more victories the following season. Their regular-season dominance has been the result of defiance – the kind that might finally be satiated by reaching some rarefied air.

Golden State (70-9) still needs to win its last three games to jump over Jumpman and break the 72-win record set in 1995-96 by Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. But no matter the final win tally, the Warriors – at least, in their minds – have done enough to distinguish themselves as one of the best regular-season teams ever and prove that last season’s success didn’t come by accident.

“Should be enough. It’s only one [other] team who’s done it in NBA history, and it’s considered ‘the greatest team ever,’ ” an air-quoting Klay Thompson told The Vertical. “So I mean, we still got to take care of business in the playoffs. I think that will be the cap on everything. But this is a steppingstone for that.”

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No. 3: Bulls to choose Noah over Gasol? One day after likely free agent Pau Gasol mentioned the way the Bulls finished may affect his decision-making in free agency, turns out it may not matter, at least in Chicago. As K.C. Johnson writes in the Chicago Tribune, the Bulls are likely going to find themselves having to make a choice between pursuing Joakim Noah or Gasol, in which case Noah might be their selection…

Though front-office meetings have yet to finalize the Bulls’ Plan A for this offseason, there is strong internal desire to re-sign Noah on a short-term deal. Noah long has been a favorite player and ambassador of Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf. Executive vice president John Paxson drafted Noah, and their bond is genuine.

Plus, though injuries have diminished Noah since his All-NBA season in 2013-14, his defensive abilities and leadership qualities fill gaping voids.

It will take work, not to mention money, to win back Noah, who disliked the false story Fred Hoiberg spread at the start of the season that he volunteered to come off the bench. He then disliked playing just 20 minutes per game and not finishing them more.

But Hoiberg had started to play Noah more before his first shoulder injury in December. And Noah remains invested enough in the team to question Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose for their silence at the April 3 team meeting, according to several people present.

The Bulls passed on an opportunity to try to finalize moving Gasol to the Kings at the February trade deadline. General manager Gar Forman, who won the internal debate to keep Gasol, called the All-Star center “part of our core.” Gasol said then the Bulls “for sure” are the leading candidates for his free agency services.

Gasol placed a qualifier on that claim, saying how the Bulls fared over the final 30 games would play a factor in his decision, which will come after he exercises his player option for free agency.

The Bulls are 12-15 since.

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No. 4: Swamp Dragons? The Brooklyn Nets are established now in their new borough, after moving a few rivers east from their previous home in New Jersey. But while the Brooklyn part of their name is new, it turns out that a few years back, they almost passed on the Nets nickname. As ESPN’s Zach Lowe writes in a lively oral history, once upon a time, the New Jersey Nets very nearly became the New Jersey Swamp Dragons

As the vote of the full Board of Governors neared, news of the proposed name change leaked — and drew a predictable backlash.

SPOELSTRA: Someone from [Gov.] Christine Whitman‘s office called me and said they didn’t like the Meadowlands being referred to as a a swamp. Well, that’s what it is. I don’t see any cows grazing there. (Through a spokesperson, Whitman said she didn’t recall the Swamp Dragons saga.)

COHEN: Of course, the Meadowlands is in a swamp. It was a colorful name, but I started to wonder if it might draw more ridicule than anything else. How would sponsors feel about sponsoring a team called the Swamp Dragons? We had to think about all of that. I don’t know if Chuck Daly [hired in 1993] would have come to coach the Swamp Dragons.

O’GRADY: We spent four or five months on this, and suddenly there was a pushback. We were getting hammered. Hammered. We played around with maybe just calling them Fire Dragons — to save the dragon, but veer away from the swamp.

SPOELSTRA: Fire Dragons didn’t come from us. We wanted Swamp Dragons. The funny thing is, that swamp caught fire every summer anyway. The water would literally burn because of all the chemicals in it. Talk about fire dragons.

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Kent Bazemore‘s #BazeGaze has become a thing in AtlantaSix promising NBA head coaching candidates worth keeping an eye on … Villanova’s Jay Wright says he doesn’t have any plans of jumping to the NBA … According to ESPN.com, the Phoenix Suns plan on launching a broad coaching search this offseasonBen Simmons will pass up playing in Rio to prepare for his NBA career … Justin Bieber visited the Houston Rockets

Morning shootaround — April 4


VIDEO: Highlights from Sunday’s games

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Pippen: ’96 Bulls would sweep Warriors | Kobe takes final Celtics matchup seriously | Griffin just glad to be back in mix | Wizards’ playoff hopes fading fast

No. 1: Pippen: ’96 Bulls would sweep Warriors — As the Golden State Warriors have gotten closer and closer to a 73-win season — which would break the 72 wins set by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls — retired NBA players far and wide have chimed in on the looming accomplishment. Some of them have been not too supportive of the Warriors or their style of play, but few members of that ’95-96 Bulls team have had much to say about it … until now. Scottie Pippen, the second fiddle to Michael Jordan on that 72-win team, didn’t hold back when asked about the Warriors during an interview event in Houston. ESPN.com has more on what Pippen said:

The Golden State Warriors are closing in on the NBA record for most victories in a single season, set by the Chicago Bulls in 1995-96.

But Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen evidently doesn’t think Golden State would match up well with his record-setting Chicago squad. In a recent interview, he said the 1995-96 Bulls would sweep the Warriors in a hypothetical series between the teams.

“Bulls in four [games],” Pippen said during an interview at an AT&T event in Houston.

Pippen was then offered a chance to clarify his prediction and was asked whether he thought the Bulls would have an off-night against Golden State.

“I don’t think we’d take a night off,” he said.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr was a reserve point guard on that Bulls team. Asked about the comparison before Sunday’s home game against the Portland Trail Blazers, a 136-111 win, Kerr said it didn’t bother him.

“First of all, it’s a really hard question to answer,” Kerr said. “Not just because you’re comparing eras, but literally it’s tough for me to answer, grammatically, because I don’t know who ‘we’ is and who ‘they’ are. I’ll just say if the two teams play each other, there’s no question we can beat us and they can beat them.”

Kerr said it was tough to compare the teams because of their differing eras.

“For example, if you actually put the teams in a hypothetical game, my guess is the Bulls would be called for a million hand-check fouls, and we would be called for a million illegal defenses when we overloaded the strong side,” Kerr said. “So the game would take, like, six hours because the refs would be calling stuff all game. It’s kind of hard to get past that. Now, they wouldn’t call traveling in either era.”

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Morning shootaround — March 30


VIDEO: Highlights from Tuesday’s games

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Warriors tie franchise wins mark | Westbrook miffed over Jackson’s celebration | Kidd: Giannis to start at point next season | Reports: Lakers’ Russell losing teammate support after video emerges

No. 1: Warriors tie franchise mark for victories — Just a season ago, the Golden State Warriors did what was considered a long shot for them entering 2014-15 — to not only rise to the top of the Western Conference standings, but also amass the most wins in franchise history (67-15) en route to an NBA title. Here the Warriors are again with 67 wins, only this time they’ve got eight games left and a more than realistic shot at breaking the NBA’s single-season wins mark of 72. Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle was on hand for last night’s demolishing of the Washington Wizards and has more on Golden State:

The Warriors put together one of their best defensive games since March 16, generally taking the life out of the Wizards for a 102-94 victory at Oracle Arena in front of a national TV audience.

The Warriors forced 17 turnovers, allowed Washington to shoot only 41.9 percent from the floor (21.7 percent from three-point range) and limited an opponent to fewer than 100 points for only the sixth time in the past 26 games.

“I thought our defense was pretty solid,” said coach Steve Kerr, who still harped on getting beat backdoor and some transition flaws. “We guarded the three-point line really well. We challenged all of the three-point attempts that they put up. We did have some breakdowns that were sort of head-scratchers.

“We can still get better, but overall, the intensity and energy were pretty good.”

Just in time to secure some more history.

The Warriors (67-7) tied the franchise mark for wins in a season and remained one game ahead of the pace set by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, who won an NBA-record 72 games.

The Warriors need to go at least 6-2 during the season’s final eight games to break the record, and five of those games are at home, where the Warriors extended their regular-season winning streak to a league-record 54 games, 36 of them this season.

“Mind-boggling,” Kerr said. “I could have never imagined anything like this, but a lot of things have gone our way this year, and the guys have done an amazing job, coming off of last year, of focusing on getting better and trying to continue the rise.…

“It’s not easy to do in this league. It takes a lot of energy, so I’m really proud of them for the way they’ve competed.”

“As you go through the season and kind of get lost in the journey, we should be able to accomplish both: be a better team and better our record, which we’re on our way to doing,” Stephen Curry said. “For us to be playing at such a high level for two straight years and to have our eyes set on the ultimate goal, it’s fun.”


VIDEO: Warriors handle Wizards, get win No. 67

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Morning shootaround — March 29


VIDEO: Highlights from Monday’s games

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Westbrook nearing stats history | Scott blasts Lakers’ youngsters | Pierce suffers knee, ankle injuries | Warriors aim to tighten up defense

No. 1: Westbrook on brink of NBA history — Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook picked up his 16th triple-double last night and OKC improved to 16-0 in those games. What’s more amazing than that perfect mark? How about this: that’s Westbrook’s seventh triple-double in March, the most in a single month since Michael Jordan in 1989. The 16 triple-doubles is two off the all-time mark (held by Magic Johnson) for the most in a season over the last 30 years … and Westbrook still has eight games to play. Oh, and entering this season, Westbrook had 19 career triple-doubles. Ethan Strauss of ESPN.com was on hand for Westbrook’s amazing performance in Toronto and has more on his play this season:

Kevin Durant is asked about Russell Westbrook a lot — about the triple-doubles, about the absurd athletic displays and about the punishing dunks. He sticks to pretty much the same line: He’s not surprised. He has seen that for the past seven years.

After Westbrook followed his own missed free throw in the fourth quarter Monday with a one-handed putback layup in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 119-100 win over the Toronto Raptors, Durant put both hands on his head. Even he was stunned this time.

“That was unreal,” Durant said. “You’ve got to time that right, and you’ve just got to be as athletic as him. There’s only a few … ”

Durant stopped himself.

“Well, I don’t know if there’s anybody in the league that can do that,” he said. “You’ve got to make the free throw, but I’ll take the two points and the acrobatic play instead. But yeah, he’s a freak of nature, man.”

There aren’t many ways to describe Westbrook anymore. “Freak of nature” seems to do just fine, but that might not be adequate.

The putback was the standout play for Westbrook in what has become a nightly crescendo of highlights for the supernova point guard. He notched his 16th triple-double of the season — 26 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists — which ties him with Fat Lever for second most in a season over the past 30 years. With eight games to go, Westbrook is just one off Magic Johnson’s record of 17.

It’s an amazing thing for a triple-double to seem routine, but that’s what Westbrook has done. For some guys, it’s a career accomplishment to get one — remember Andray Blatche running all over the court chasing rebounds a few years ago? — so is it even meaningful to Westbrook anymore?

“It’s something I never take for granted,” he said, “but I like winning.”

That’s what the Thunder do when Westbrook notches a triple-double. They’re now 16-0 in such games this season. They have also ripped off eight straight wins by an average margin of 17.1 points, with seven of those wins coming against playoff teams. The Thunder are hitting their stride as they gear up for the playoffs and are peaking with eight games left in the regular season. It has been the goal all season under coach Billy Donovan to work toward a bigger picture, a “better brand of basketball,” as everyone in the organization likes to say.

Just a few weeks ago, the Thunder hit rock bottom when they lost eight of 12 coming out of the All-Star break. That streak was punctuated by blown fourth-quarter leads and head-shaking losses to bad teams. The message internally was to stick with it, to believe they were playing well, despite the results, and trust it would pay off. It appears that it has.

“I tried to tell you guys that when we were going through it, but it was kind of blinded with the fourth-quarter losses and back-to-back losses. But I tried to tell you guys,” Durant said. “Glad you see it now. It was good to kind of figure ourselves out and what we need to do. It was kind of like a splash of water on your face — just knowing you’ve got to wake up and know the second half of the season is important.”

Donovan also offered his take.

“I think sometimes you’ve got to go through some wounds and some scars and some hurt,” the coach said. “You’ve got to get calloused a little bit. I think as you go through a season, you’ve got to get calloused. Sometimes, the harder and the more difficult the struggle, the more calloused you get, the more hardened you get. I think the more you have a chance to learn and grow — I’ve said this about this team — I don’t think it ever needs to be easy for them. It’s got to be hard.”

Confidence is dripping off the Thunder right now, as evidenced by the 48 minutes of swagger they dropped on the Raptors on Monday.


VIDEO: Best plays from Russell Westbrook’s 16th triple-double this season

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Morning shootaround — March 19


VIDEO: Top 10 Plays from Friday’s action

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Wade at another career crossroads | Crowder’s absence costing Celtics | Portland avoids “sickening” loss | Frye shows value, quietly and from distance

No. 1: Wade at another career crossroads — You can find plenty of advance coverage on this site to whet your appetite for Saturday night’s Big Game. But there’s another big game that starts an hour earlier pitting two rivals from the other conference – Cleveland at Miami (7:30 p.m. ET, League Pass) – and the Miami Herald’s Ethan Skolnick provides a window into that one with his column on Heat veteran Dwyane Wade and his team’s need for a Wade resurgence during this March Madness portion of their schedule:

“I haven’t been into the best rhythm since the All-Star break that I want to be in,” said Wade, who shot 45.8 percent before the break, and 39.4 percent since. “I’ve had some good games scoring, but I haven’t been into a great rhythm.”

He cited some initial rust, and the need to adapt to all of the team’s iterations. He noted how this is the fourth incarnation of the Heat this season. First, Wade and Chris Bosh and Goran Dragic were the primary ball-handlers. Then Dragic got hurt, and it was Wade and Bosh.

“Chris goes out, now it’s a different kind of team,” Wade said. “Joe [Johnson] comes in, and Chris is out, and Goran is in, and now it’s a different kind of team. These are all the different kind of adjustments you’ve got to make.”

He doesn’t intend these as excuses, but explanations. “Just got to figure it out,” Wade said. “Me and Coach [Erik Spoelstra] talked about some things and areas on the floor that I can get to, that can put me in a better rhythm. The biggest thing is early.”

As in him attacking earlier in possessions.

However he finds his rhythm this late in the season, it’s a requirement that he does.

No matter how many other options have emerged on this revamped roster, the Heat won’t be winning anything of significance this postseason (whether games or rounds) if its most battle-tested playoff performer is off.

It certainly wouldn’t be capable of seriously challenging Saturday’s opponent, LeBron James and the Cavaliers, without an efficient, dynamic Wade, not when Bosh will likely be watching, and not even as the Cavaliers continue to constantly challenge themselves, with a never-ending series of self-inflicted controversies.

It has seemed like the Heat’s stealth strategy has been to wait in the weeds, steel itself amid adversity and position itself to steal the conference crown if the Cavaliers — through ball-hogging, eye-rolling and sub-tweeting — start coming apart.

Certainly, that could still occur, with James seeming at a career crossroads of sorts himself, if more as a leader than a player. Through photos and comments on social media, the four-time MVP has come off as forlorn and frustrated, making no secret that he misses sharing the court and the locker room with a peer of Wade’s status and strength.

Miami probably won’t get Wade from early in James’ time here either, not at age 34. But the one from before the All-Star break will suffice. Wade has already proven plenty this season, starting with his increased availability; he will play his 63rd game Saturday, one more than last season. He insisted his thigh, recently bruised, isn’t bothering him.

“Just got to play the game, man, and continue to do what you’ve always done,” Wade said. “And eventually it will turn.”

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 No. 2: Crowder’s absence costing Celtics — It’s not likely to earn Celtics forward Jae Crowder many votes on NBA Most Valuable Player ballots, but Boston’s 0-3 slump since the Marquette product suffered a high ankle sprain last week has highlighted Crowder’s individual value within his team’s ensemble approach. Chris Forsberg of ESPNBoston.com examined that after the Celtics’ loss to Eastern Conference rival Toronto:

The Celtics, who held a comfy lead on the third seed two weeks ago, have slipped all the way to No. 6 in the East, a half-game behind both the Charlotte Hornets and Miami Heat and a game back of the Atlanta Hawks. What Stevens said two weeks ago is actually true now: Boston is four games away from ninth place.

With only 13 games left in the regular season, it remains highly unlikely that the Celtics could fall much further, but given the injuries they’re battling and the poor brand of basketball they are playing, it’s understandable why some might be leery.

“We have to change something up,” Celtics All-Star Isaiah Thomas told reporters in Toronto. “We got ourselves back into [Friday’s] game, so we showed signs of playing like we know how, but a good team like the Raptors you can’t just play one good quarter.”

Make no mistake, the Celtics are in the midst of a brutally tough stretch, exacerbated by the fact that they lost Jae Crowder to a high ankle sprain last Friday, and one of the players expected to help fill his shoes, Jonas Jerebko, missed the past two games with a left foot injury

Despite visiting a Raptors team that was playing its fourth game in five nights and was coming off an overtime win in Indiana on Thursday, the Celtics let Toronto build a big first-half lead, then didn’t have enough energy themselves to sustain a second-half rally.

The Celtics miss Crowder more than most expected, in part because Boston’s depth at the swingman spot is so thin. What’s more, with Crowder starting the first 66 games of the season, it was not obvious just how much of a drop-off there would be without him.

And while Crowder might be Boston’s best two-way player, the team really seems to miss his swagger and intensity. Boston simply looks tentative, and that may be why there’s an uneasiness in playing with a makeshift rotation in which players called upon to fill larger roles have struggled to rise to the challenge.

Second-year guard Marcus Smart initially elevated to Crowder’s starting small forward role, but with Smart stuck in a bit of a shooting slump, Stevens elected to shake things up a bit on Friday by moving Evan Turner into the starting lineup.

The Raptors — and Luis Scola in particular — shot so well at the start of the game that Boston’s starters were minus-13 in six minutes of floor time. The Celtics, tied for the fourth-best defensive rating in the league while allowing 100.7 points per 100 possessions, saw their first unit allow an offensive rating of 210 over the first six minutes of the first quarter.

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No. 3:  Portland avoids “sickening” loss — Fans of the Portland Trail Blazers understandably were upset about Kendrick Perkins‘ dangerous clotheslining foul on guard Damian Lillard early in the fourth quarter Friday, a play that got Perkins ejected and put Lillard down hard in New Orleans. But Lillard himself and his teammates were grateful afterward to escape with a victory that, had the Pelicans completed their comeback, might have left the Blazers feeling like they’d left the French Quarter having had way too much to drink and eat. Mike Richman of The Oregonian was there:

As Damian Lillard walked back out on to the court with 1:23 left in the game he glanced up at the scoreboard and started to feel an uneasiness deep in his gut.

“I remember walking out of a timeout and thinking, ‘Man if we lose this game, I am going to be sick. I’m going to be sick about this,'” Lillard said. “After I had that thought, I decided we wasn’t going to lose this game.”

The Blazers flirted with a devastating collapse against the New Orleans Pelicans on Friday night, blowing a 20-point lead and falling behind late in the fourth quarter, before pulling out a crucial, 117-112, win at Smoothie King Center.

It wasn’t just that the Blazers almost coughed up a huge lead. The Pelicans played the entire second half without All-Star forward Anthony Davis and the Blazers were in danger of losing three straight games to open a four-game trip. With all that in the background, dropping this game would have rightfully made Lillard ill

“It was truly a test,” Lillard said. “I think that’s the best word to describe it. Coming off two tough losses against OKC and San Antonio and then coming out tonight we played with urgency for most of the game. We were locked in.”

Portland’s offense struggled in the fourth quarter and New Orleans first took the lead on back-to-back three-pointers from guard Jrue Holiday, putting the Pelicans up 105-102 with just over three minutes remaining.

Then after the Blazers knocked down three free throws to go back up one, former Blazer Tim Frazier hit a pull-up jumper to give New Orleans a 107-106 edge with 2:13 left.

“They started really believing and playing with a lot of pace and confidence,” Lillard said. “I think we were down by two with under a minute and it was like, ‘It’s really gut check time'”

After the teams traded empty possessions, the Blazers took a timeout with just under 90 seconds left. Lillard told himself in the huddle he wouldn’t let the Blazers lose and then the star point guard made good on his declaration.

***

No. 4: Frye shows value, quietly and from distance — Might as well lick your index finger and hold it up to the sky to know which way the wind is blowing for the Cleveland Cavaliers, who change directions and shift moods as if with the weather. But in the wake of their victory over Orlando, veteran forward Channing Frye – Cleveland’s notable trade-deadline acquisition – looked to have found a helpful role, whether it lasts or not. Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com chronicled Frye’s satisfying performance (14 points) against his former team in the Magic Kingdom and its meaning for Cleveland:

The Frye acquisition has been fruitful for the Cavs, who gave up two future second-round picks for Frye, and also took on the $15 million left on his contract. After drilling 4-for-6 3-pointers Friday, Frye is 25-for-50 from 3-point range in 12 games with the Cavs. It’s the sort of catch-and-shoot big man play that is extremely effective with the team’s other personnel.

“I know he feels good about that,” said LeBron James, who scored 18 points and didn’t keep up the ruse either. “This was definitely for him. He showed up and showed why he’s a valuable part to our team now.”

Frye’s reputation defensively is not strong, but the numbers don’t totally bear that out. Frye ranks No. 4 among all power forwards in real plus-minus, just behind teammate Kevin Love. And Cavs coach Tyronn Lue went with Frye over Love in the fourth quarter as the Cavs executed a comeback.

Truth be told, the Cavs sort of acted as if they knew they could beat a ragtag Magic team with just a half effort, [Victor] Oladipo‘s performance notwithstanding, and move on to a more appetizing game in Miami on Saturday night. This essentially played out as they had dominant shifts during the second quarter and the fourth and it was all that was needed to beat the Magic, who are 10-26 since Jan. 1.

It’s equally a mystery as to whether Fyre’s growing role is real and lasting or just a blip. It was just a few weeks ago that Lue played Frye only 10 minutes over the course of four games. Making a proclamation on anything with this Cavs team is a path to folly, at least to this point.

But Frye will always have this one. The team that signed him to a four-year, $32 million deal in 2014 — and started looking to trade him just a year into it — had to watch him play the role they once envisioned for him.

“When I came [to Orlando], I thought we could kind of resemble the Phoenix style, not necessarily score 120 points, but fast-paced, spread you out and move the rock around. It just didn’t work out like that,” Frye said.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Memphis, despite suffering significant blowouts (2-9 in games decided by 18 points or more), has managed to stay afloat in the grueling West. How? Our John Schuhmann breaks down numbers that reveal the Grizzlies’ resiliency in close games. … ICYMI: Scott Howard-Cooper from right here at NBA.com, in advance of the big Warriors-Spurs game, analyzed Golden State’s end game and how getting whole might conflict with the pursuit of 73 victories. … Carmelo Anthony says he has no idea yet what will happen this summer with his New York Knicks and, naturally, that generates headlines for a tabloid. … If you’re going to feel sorry for Melo in his current Knicks plight, save a little sympathy for Brooklyn’s Thaddeus Young, who has endured more than his share of losing in nine NBA seasons. … John Wall is turning over the ball too often and the Wizards point guard knows it. … Lakers coach Byron Scott would love to see Brandon Bass stick with the team next season for his veteran influence and timely contributions, but the ball most definitely will be in Bass’ court. … Russell Westbrook, in one fell swoop, has done something that surpasses both Oscar Robertson and Wilt Chamberlain. … Trey Schwab spent six years working with the Minnesota Timberwolves and, before that, grew tight with former NBA coaches Flip Saunders and Eric Musselman during their time together in the CBA. Those NBA roots are enough to merit inclusion here of a story, long on NCAA tournament flavor, about Schwab’s special relationship with Indiana University coach Tom Crean. Get well, Trey. … And finally, this shout-out to the NBA’s senior “Professor” …

Morning Shootaround — March 6


VIDEO: Recap Saturday night’s eight-game slate

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Jimmy Butler returns | Beal injured | Mohammed: “I’m back” | Krause retires

No. 1: Jimmy Butler returns After missing ten games with a knee injury — during which his Chicago Bulls posted a 3-7 record — Jimmy Butler returned to action last night against the Houston Rockets. Butler picked up where he left off, as the Bulls got a much-needed win. As ESPN’s Nick Friedell writes, for a Bulls team clinging to postseason hopes, Butler’s return should be crucial…

Jimmy Butler didn’t miss a beat in the box score during Saturday’s much-needed 108-100 win over the Houston Rockets. After missing a month because of a left knee strain, the All-Star swingman racked up 24 points, 11 rebounds and 6 assists to help the Chicago Bulls snap a four-game losing streak. Butler did everything the Bulls needed him to do. He was solid defensively while guarding James Harden, and he gave the Bulls the scoring punch they’ve been lacking without him. But after the game ended, the proud 26-year-old knew there was something missing from his game that wouldn’t appear within the gaudy numbers.

“I need to get in there and run some laps,” Butler said. “I’m out of shape.”

It didn’t matter that Butler was winded. He gave the Bulls what he had when they needed a win to right their dwindling season. With Butler back and Nikola Mirotic reappearing after missing over a month because of complications related to an appendectomy, the Bulls finally appeared almost whole in a season in which their starting five of Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson, Mike Dunleavy, Pau Gasol and Butler had yet to play a game together all season. It’s no wonder why Gasol called Butler’s and Mirotic’s presence the lineup “critical.” Butler set an example early that the rest of his teammates followed.

“Jimmy makes a huge impact on both ends of the floor,” Gasol said. “Especially on the defensive end. His physicality and his activity and energy make a big difference because it kind of picks everybody up as well and sets a tone for the rest of the guys.”

Aside from Butler’s return, the key for the Bulls is that they found a team in the Rockets that’s even more dysfunctional than they are. Watching the Rockets make mistake after mistake was similar to watching the way the Bulls have played many times during the season. The teams combined for 43 turnovers, 25 of which came from the Bulls.

That’s why any optimism coming from the Bulls’ locker room has to be tempered by the fact that Chicago beat a team even more underwhelming than itself. The good news for Fred Hoiberg‘s beleaguered group: With 21 games left, Butler has the ability to serve as a stabilizer for a team that still talks about making a push into the playoffs. Butler’s return gives the Bulls something they haven’t had much of in weeks — hope.

“It’s huge,” Rose said of Butler’s return. “Whenever he’s got the ball, you got to stick both of us. It’s hard to pay attention to both of us when we’re on the court. And we get to catch the ball with a live dribble so that helps the team out a lot.”

***

No. 2: Beal injured — Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal has consistently been counted among the NBA’s most promising young players. For Beal, though, injuries have seemed to consistently hinder him from taking that next step. After breaking his nose in January, Beal had been playing with a protective face mask. But last night, after finally being able to take off the mask, Beal suffered a pelvis injury. As Jorge Castillo writes in the Washington Post, for a Wizards team fighting for a playoff berth, a healthy Beal is necessary…

He helped the Wizards record 64 first-half points in the crucial matchup between teams vying for one of the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. Then the evening went askew.

The fourth-year sharpshooter exited with 6 minutes 17 seconds left in third quarter of the Wizards’ gut-wrenching 100-99 loss, after falling hard on his right hip when he collided with Pacers big man Myles Turner at the basket. Beal remained on the floor in agony for a couple minutes and needed assistance walking off to the locker room.

Beal, 22, was diagnosed with a sprained pelvis and didn’t return. He declined to speak to the media after the game and the team didn’t have an update on his status. Beal has missed 21 games this season because a shoulder injury, a stress reaction in his right fibula and a concussion.

Washington’s second-leading scorer, Beal is expected to travel with the team to Portland Monday for Washington’s three-game road trip, but whether he will play Tuesday against the Trail Blazers is uncertain. Garrett Temple would return to the starting lineup if Beal is ruled out. Temple tallied 11 points on 5-of-7 shooting in 26 minutes Saturday, shooting 24.6 percent from the field and 24.1 percent from three-point range. He has also shot 58.3 percent from the free throw line in his 10 starts since the break.

Gary Neal missed his 12th straight game Saturday with a right leg injury that he described as neurological. But the team, he said, was still unsure exactly what is wrong.

The firepower Washington holds with Beal in the starting lineup was evident Saturday as the Wizards posted 37 points in the first quarter. Beal finished 12 points on 5 of 13 shooting in 24 minutes before departing.

“We had gotten off to such slow starts the last couple games, I think we were down 12 in the first quarter in Minnesota,” Coach Randy Wittman said, referring to the Wizards’ win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday. “Just trying to get a better start and we did.”

***

No. 3: Mohammed: “I’m back” — The Oklahoma City Thunder had an open roster spot, and to fill that open slot, they went after NBA veteran Nazr Mohammed, who they had to lure out of what he called “semi-retirement.” In a first-person piece written by Mohammed, he explains why he returned, and what he thinks his role will be with the Thunder…

It’s official. “I’m back.” I’ve always wanted to say that…like I’m MJ or something LOL. I’m officially back in an NBA jersey, and I could not be more excited for this opportunity.

You may not have noticed that I have been in what I call semi-retirement. And by the way, I’ve been calling it semi-retirement for two reasons. The first is that a 37-year-old professional athlete doesn’t really retire; we just transition to our next careers. The second reason being that in pro sports, most of us actually “get retired,” either because the phone is no longer ringing for your services or you’re no longer able to accept playing for just any team. As a young player, your only desire is to be in the NBA. As you get older, your desire is to play for certain organizations with certain circumstances, making it a little tougher to find the right fit. Mine was a combination of all of the above. Most of the teams that I had interest in didn’t need my services, and I didn’t have the desire to go just anywhere. And some teams just didn’t want me.

With all that being said – DRUMROLL PLEASE – I am now a proud member of the Oklahoma City Thunder, the very team I competed for a Championship with in 2012. I was days away from turning “semi-retirement” into full retirement when I received word from Sam Presti that they had interest in me returning to OKC as a player. That quickly changed the course of my plans and forced me to do some real soul-searching to see if this was something my family and I wanted.

I believe in staying prepared for the opportunities that I think I want, whether they come to fruition or not. You can do no greater disservice to yourself than to secretly want something, but then be unprepared if the opportunity presents itself. I stayed prepared, but when I didn’t foresee any viable opportunities coming my way during “buyout season,” I contemplated shutting down my court workouts and facing the reality that my life as a basketball player was over. I started seriously considering accepting and starting one of my post-career opportunities. I even agreed with Debbie Spander of Wasserman Media Group to represent me if I chose to pursue broadcasting as my next career. But my agent, Michael Higgins, suggested that I give it a few more days to evaluate the landscape.

Like I said, I had a short list of teams that I would undoubtedly come out of semi-retirement for. Of course OKC was on my short list, which consisted mostly of teams I played for in the past. When I spoke to the Thunder, their first question was, “How does your body feel?” Anybody who follows me on social media knows that I’m probably a little addicted to my workouts. I’ve kept up my same training regimen (court work three to five times a week, conditioning, and lifting weights) with my guys at Accelerate Basketball, so I knew I was prepared physically. They happen to train Steph Curry too, so you know my jumper is wet right now LOL! After being a part of two NBA lockouts, I’m the master of staying prepared even when I don’t know when my season will start LOL. But the first thing I thought about was my family and whether or not they could handle me being away for the next few months when we were just getting acclimated to a new city and our new schedule (which had me as a big part of it for the first time in my kids’ lives). I knew I needed to talk to them before making a final decision. Regardless, I was shocked, flattered and excited for an opportunity to go into a comfortable situation.

I brought the offer to my wife and kids to see how they felt. My oldest son (10) is an OKC fan, so he was excited. And I better add that he’s a Steph Curry and Jimmy Butler fan too (he’d be mad if I didn’t include that!). My oldest daughter (13) was almost giddy with excitement for me. I’m starting to think they don’t love having me around, but I’ll save that for another blog down the road LOL. I also have a younger daughter (6), and she was very happy, although I’m not sure she truly grasps time and how long I will be gone. My wife, who knows how much basketball has meant to me, was very supportive. We’ve experienced mid-year trades and things like this before, so we know how to handle it. The only difference now is that the kids are older, and their schedules are a little more hectic with school, sports, practices, tournaments, etc. Now with me not being able to help out with that, more is on my wife’s plate. But we’ll figure it out. Whenever we get a day off, I’ll probably try to fly home, even if I just get to see the family for a few hours. We’ll do a lot of FaceTiming. When their schedule permits, they’ll be flying to OKC. We’ll make it work.

***

No. 4: Krause retires — The Warriors have been trying to put together the greatest regular season in NBA history, topping the 72-10 record of the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls. That Bulls team was constructed by general manager Jerry Krause, who this week announced he was retiring from scouting at the age of 76. K.C. Johnson from the Chicago Tribune caught up with Krause and heard some great stories, particularly about Michael Jordan and those Bulls…

Nicknamed “The Sleuth,” Krause’s second stint leading the Bulls didn’t start promisingly either despite inheriting Michael Jordan, whom Rod Thorn had drafted.

In Stan Albeck, he whiffed on his first coaching hire. And Jordan broke a bone in his left foot in the third game of the 1985-86 season, leading to the first of many spats between him and Krause when Jordan wanted to play sooner than he was ready. Krause, Jerry Reinsdorf and doctors ordered a more conservative approach.

“Do I regret that I had not a great relationship with him? You know what? We won a lot of (expletive) games,” Krause said. “Right or wrong, when I took that job I thought the worst thing I could do is kiss that guy’s (rear). We’d argue. But I remember about two years after I traded Charles (Oakley) for Bill (Cartwright). He and Charles were as tight as can be. He called over to me at practice and said, ‘That trade you made was a pretty damn good trade.’ I just looked at him and said, ‘Thank you.'”

Krause replaced Albeck with Doug Collins, a surprising hire given Collins had no coaching experience. It worked, and, augmented by the dominant 1987 draft that netted Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant, the Bulls kept knocking on the Pistons’ door.

When they lost to Detroit in six games in the 1989 Eastern Conference finals, Krause and Reinsdorf stunningly replaced Collins with Phil Jackson. Krause had hired Jackson as an assistant coach — one of his two Hall of Fame coaching hires along with Tex Winter — out of relative obscurity from the Continental Basketball Association.

“Everyone thought I was nuts,” Krause said. “I had a feeling about Phil. He has an amazing ability to relate to players.”

Jackson’s first season produced more heartbreak, a seven-game loss to the Pistons in the 1990 Eastern finals. Two days later, Krause said he walked into the Berto Center and almost the entire team was there, working with strength and conditioning coach Al Vermeil.

“I knew right then that we weren’t going to lose to the Pistons again,” Krause said.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: LeBron James passed Tim Duncan to move into 14th on the NBA’s all-time scoring list … Eric Gordon broke his right ring finger for the second time since January … Manu Ginobili returned from injury and scored a season-high 22 points, as the Spurs went to 30-0 at home … The Phoenix Suns are reportedly targeting Chase Budinger … While it’s not a full update on his status, Chris Bosh says he’s feeling goodChris Andersen says he’ll always remember his time in Miami … During a concert in Oakland this weekend, Prince gave a shoutout to Steph Curry

Cavs use Sunday as day of rest for LeBron, inciting usual grumbles


“Take rest,” Ovid said. “A field that has rested gives a bountiful crop.” But of course, the ancient Roman poet from the B.C. era hadn’t forked over several pieces of gold to watch the farmer tend to his crops, so what did he care if the guy worked that day or not.

Things are a little different in the NBA, where resting an otherwise healthy player – the way Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue did with superstar LeBron James on Sunday afternoon in Washington – is a touchier subject for multiple reasons.

There’s the competitive aspect, in terms of a team voluntarily not using its full roster in taking on that day’s opponent. There’s the fairness angle, since in this example James is a player who usually plays and wreaks havoc on most foes; sitting him down against Washington but not against Detroit, Orlando, Chicago or Charlotte does a favor for the Wizards while cutting no similar slack to the teams bunched around them in the Eastern Conference playoff race.

Then there’s the entertainment factor or, in this case, the caveat emptor factor. Sports franchises market their offerings according to schedules; the more formidable and famous the opponents, generally, the more sought-after tickets to those games become. These days, teams often price their tickets accordingly, charging more for the glamour opponents that feature gawk-worthy stars or suggest the most hotly contested games.

Injury or illness is one thing; sometimes theater-goers get stuck seeing the understudy on Broadway when the star isn’t able to appear. But rest is different, with choice and strategizing typically involved.

When San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich decided to rest four players in November 2012, having them sit out a TNT network game in Miami that fell at the end of a six-game Spurs trip, the NBA reacted swiftly. San Antonio was fined $250,000 by former commissioner David Stern, who called Popovich’s decision “a disservice to the league and our fans.”

Tensions have eased since then, as more coaches have followed Popovich’s lead – OK, not generally for huge TV games in the season’s first month – and even the league HQ has backed off. Commissioner Adam Silver has made schedule-relief a priority in his first two years on the job. Still, it seems a protocol could be provided or suggested, since not all games, opponents and occasions are equal.

When Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green were held out of that 2012 Heat game, Stern – in announcing the penalty – noted that it was San Antonio’s lone Miami visit that season. While James sat Sunday, he at least had played in D.C. on Jan. 6, scoring 34 points in a Cavs victory. He will face the Wizards again Friday in Cleveland. At least some Washington fans got to see James up close and personal.

The whole home vs. road dynamic seems to have a role here too. Some fans at the Verizon Center might have welcomed James’ “DNP-Rest” because it upped the Wizards’ chances of winning. Others, though, surely wanted to see the four-time MVP perform, preferring basketball artistry and Monday-morning highlights chatter to any potential edge in the group effort.

Wouldn’t it be more fair, for instance, if NBA stars got their rest by sitting out home games? At least then, the fans in the building – while inconvenienced that night – presumably would reap the benefit of the rest, getting a fresher James, Kevin Durant or whomever for a deep playoff run. Home crowds have 41 chances each season to see its teams’ stars. Road crowds get just one or two.

This likely can’t be legislated away, not entirely. Coaches rest players when they need it, we’re told, not just according to the schedule. Road trips tend to be more draining than home stands, so that needs to be accounted for.

Maybe the Board of Governors – not disinterested parties, considering how much each team touts the dates when James, Durant, Steph Curry or Kobe Bryant visits – could mandate that voluntary rest be taken at home only. Or split evenly between home and road. Or maybe the bookkeeping would drive everyone batty.

But it still seemed odd to have James, in the same week he played against the Pistons, the Hornets and the Raptors, sitting idle in warm-ups Sunday, grooming his fingernails or watching Kiss-Cam on the scoreboard same as them. The Wizards didn’t seem to mind, opening up their fat lead and controlling the action on their way to a 113-99 win, but some of their fans surely did.

Morning shootaround — Feb. 27


VIDEO: Top 10 Plays from Friday night

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Johnson heading to Miami | They the North | Rivers wants replay challenge system | Cuban suggests deeper 3-point line

No. 1: Johnson heading to Miami The Miami Heat are in the mix to finish in the top half of the Eastern Conference’s playoff teams, but for the most part sat out the trade deadline, not making any major moves. Instead, it appears they managed to pick up a seven-time All-Star yesterday without having to move any assets: After accepting a buyout from the Brooklyn Nets, Joe Johnson will be signing with the Miami Heat, according to multiple reports. As Ethan Skolnick writes in the Miami Herald, Johnson’s relationships with Miami’s players probably had a lot to do with his decision

Dwyane Wade made it clear. If his contemporary and friend Joe Johnson accepted a buyout from the Brooklyn Nets, Wade would be “blowing up his phone” to recruit him to Miami.

Johnson, after initial resistance, did take that buyout.

It appears that Wade got his man.

According to several league sources, Johnson, a seven-time All-Star, has chosen to join the Heat after he is expected to clears waivers Saturday night. Johnson was pursued by nearly all of the NBA’s top contenders, including LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, with James even saying “he knows we want him” while speaking to reporters at Friday’s Cavaliers shootaround in Toronto.

But, according to sources, Cleveland, with its crowded backcourt and wing rotation, wasn’t one of the finalists. Johnson narrowed his choices to Miami, Oklahoma City and Atlanta due to the possibility of greater playing time, and the chance to prove worthy of another contract this season, even after earning nearly $200 million in his career.

Also helping Miami? His relationships with many of the Heat players. That started with Wade, with whom he became close when they were U.S. teammates in the 2008 Olympics.

While Johnson isn’t quite what he was — and got off to a terrible start with the broken Nets in the 2015 portion of the 2015-16 schedule — he has played extremely well since New Year’s, averaging 13.4 points and 4.4 assists and shooting 46 percent from three-point range. Miami is last in the league, shooting 32.1 percent from three-point range, and its two most reliable three-point shooters, Chris Bosh and Tyler Johnson, might both be out for the season, Bosh with a blood clot and Johnson with a surgically-repaired shoulder.

Joe Johnson has had an odd career arc, going from underrated to overpaid to somewhat underrated again. He was the player the Heat most feared in the 2014 Eastern Conference semifinals, because of his ability to post up, catch-and-shoot, play isolation and made critical plays down the stretch.

The question wasn’t whether the Heat would be interested. It was whether Miami could make it work, while also meeting another aim — staying under the luxury tax, to avoid being classified as a “repeater” team, and dealing with the punitive tax multipliers.

To stay under the tax, when it was roughly $218,000 from the line, Miami would have needed Johnson to wait to start a new Heat contract for at least another 10 days. But, with the Johnson commitment, the team began exploring options that would allow him to come sooner, and still stay under the tax. That could include waiving a current player, such as injured point guard Beno Udrih, but it would only help if another team claimed him. Miami has also explored adding outside shooter Marcus Thornton, whom it nearly signed this summer, signing Gerald Green instead; Thornton was recently traded from Houston to Detroit but, after that trade was negated by the league, was waived by the Rockets.

There was no official update on Bosh on Friday, and he didn’t speak to the media at the team’s annual gala Thursday night. But teammates are proceeding as if he won’t return this season. But now, if he doesn’t, Miami appears to have an opportunity to remain highly competitive in the Eastern Conference, with a lineup of either Amar’e Stoudemire or Hassan Whiteside at center, Luol Deng (coming off four straight double-doubles) at power forward, and either Johnson or Justise Winslow at small forward, with Wade and Goran Dragic in the backcourt. Johnson, who is 6-foot-7, could also play some power forward in smaller lineups, or some shooting guard, occasionally pairing with Wade in the backcourt.

***

No. 2: They the North The Toronto Raptors entered this season with high expectations, fueled by last season’s 49-win team and the addition of free agent DeMarre Carroll. Yet even with Carroll missing most of the season with injuries, the Raptors have met those expectations, and entered last night’s game against the Eastern Conference champ Cleveland Cavaliers looking to make a statement. They didn’t disappoint, as Kyle Lowry was up to the challenge, scoring a career-high 43 and leading the Raptors to a come-from-behind 99-97 win. As ESPN’s Brian Windhorst writes, it was a much-needed win for the Raptors, who still have plenty to prove

Trying to play it cool in the wake of one of the greatest moments of his career, Kyle Lowry went straight Bill Belichick.

“We’re moving on to Detroit,” Lowry said with a straight face, in reference to the Raptors’ next game, after his Toronto Raptors upended the Cleveland Cavaliers 99-97 after a furious fourth-quarter comeback Friday night. “It’s just a win.”

The Raptors do not have a storied history or much of an inventory of unforgettable moments outside the Vince Carter early years file. As such, it was not much of a stretch to say Lowry’s 43 points, a career high, against the Cavs rank as one of the greatest shows in team history.

Lowry’s stepback jumper over Matthew Dellavedova with 3.8 seconds left, the winning points, was unequivocally one of the best moments of Lowry’s career. It was his first game winner since he tipped one in at the buzzer when he was at Villanova. It was a moment to celebrate under any circumstances. If Lowry did so, though, it was in private.

“I will maybe enjoy it for a few minutes,” Lowry said.

Here is why.

There isn’t a day or so that goes by in which the Raptors don’t remind themselves of the past two seasons. Their first-round playoff exits, despite home-court advantage, hang over them like a cloud, amplified by the two Atlantic Division banners hanging above their bench that can feel like a needless, pointless taunt.

As masterful as Lowry was Friday — his relentless attacking and aggression wore the Cavs’ defenders out — it only briefly covered up the sting of his wilting a year ago. He refuses to let the way his body betrayed him with back and leg injuries be driven from his mind. Lowry was almost helpless in his team’s four-game sweep by the Washington Wizards last year. Injuries or no, it is a black stain on his record that doesn’t easily come off.

That’s what inspired him to report to this season in tremendous shape, and it is what won’t allow him to accept February success as anything but that.

“I know this sounds boring, and you’re going to get tired of hearing it,” Lowry said. “But we have to just focus on the process. We’ve been here before.”

Lowry has twice taken down the Cavs this season. Back in November, he scored six points and had two assists in the final five minutes of a quality win. In this one, with DeMar DeRozan and Cory Joseph battling illness and DeMarre Carroll recovering from knee surgery, the Raptors appeared to be toast without Lowry. They were almost toast anyway; the Cavs held the lead for most of the first 44 minutes.

For the Cavs, it was infuriating to watch, with Lowry getting to the line 15 times and thoroughly outplaying Kyrie Irving, who had just 10 points and one assist.

“We’ve got to get somebody who can guard him,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said.

***

No. 3: Rivers wants replay challenge system The Los Angeles Clippers have developed a reputation as a team unafraid to let referees know when the disagree with a call. But Clips coach Doc Rivers has an idea that might simplify the appeals process. As Marc Spears writes for Yahoo, Rivers is in favor of an NFL-style replay challenge system

While the NBA has instant replay, it currently doesn’t allow coaches to challenge a ruling on a play. Rivers said the NBA has discussed the subject of a coach’s challenge during competition committee meetings in recent years, but it has not come close to being approved. NFL coaches are allowed two challenges per game before the snap of the ball at any time before the two-minute warning of each half or overtime period.

“I would throw it out [a challenge flag] with both hands like a shot. That’s why I couldn’t shoot,” Rivers said Friday morning during the Clippers’ shootaround for the Sacramento Kings game. “It’s a tough one to me. It’s not like officials are trying to make mistakes, but they do at the end of the games.”

A controversial call during the Clippers’ 87-81 loss to the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday sparked Rivers’ call for a challenge system.

With 30.4 seconds left and the Clippers down 85-81, Los Angeles forward Jeff Green was called for an offensive foul on a made basket after driving into defender Danilo Gallinari. The NBA admitted on its “NBA Officiating Last Two Minute Report” on Thursday that the referee made a mistake on the offensive foul call on Green. Green potentially could have had a made basket with a free throw. Rivers described it as a “horrible call, which the league acknowledged.”

“I’ve been pushing for a [challenge] flag for a year now,” Rivers said. “We should have a challenge flag. That is the third time this year [against the Clippers] that [the NBA] has come back and said it was a bad call. It doesn’t do anything for us.”

One of the games Rivers noted was a 100-99 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Dec. 21 that he said included three missed calls late in the contest. The Clippers (37-20) are in fourth place in the Western Conference standings and 3 ½ games behind the third-place Thunder (41-17).

“The league has done a great job of transparency and that has been phenomenal,” Rivers told Yahoo Sports. “But the problem with it is you don’t get anything from it if you’re the [losing] team. … The one thing I keep saying and make the point of is the refs are trying to make it right, too. It’s not like we’re mad at refs. We just want to get it right.”

***

No. 4: Cuban suggests deeper 3-point line Shooting a 3-pointer used to be something of a novel concept around the NBA, a high-risk, high-reward chance at a bonus point on a field goal attempt. But these days some teams (e.g. the Warriors) throw up threes like they’re layups, and as ESPN’s Tim McMahon writes, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban wonders if perhaps moving back the 3-point line would open up the floor even more …

Mark Cuban has a suggestion to reintroduce the midrange shot to the NBA game: Move back the 3-point arc.

“It’s getting too close,” the Dallas Mavericks owner said Friday night of the 3-point arc, which is 23 feet, 9 inches at the crest and 22 feet in the corners, where there is no room to move it back. “Guys are shooting a foot behind it anyways. … That’s something we should look at. It’s worth looking at.

“I don’t think the number of shots would decline, but I think it would reward skill and open up the court some more. So guys would still take [3-point] shots if it’s seven inches back or whatever, but at the same time, it opens up the court for more drives, more midrange game.”

The midrange jumper has become an endangered species of sorts, while NBA players are firing 3-pointers at record rates. The single-season record for 3s is 55,137; according to ESPN Stats & Information, teams are on pace to hit 58,477 this season.

Cuban thinks moving back the 3-point arc is an idea the NBA should consider, not to discourage the deep ball, but to improve the spacing of the game.

“I think it’d open it up more so guys with different skill sets could play,” Cuban said. “It would open up play for more drives. Guys with midrange games would be rewarded and that would stay in the game. There would be more diversity of offensive action in the game.

“You’d see a little bit of decline in the 3. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing that we shoot so many 3s, but it’s worth it in the D-League to see what happens [with a deeper 3-point line].”

Cuban quickly dismissed a question about whether the NBA would benefit from adding a 4-point line, perhaps 30 feet from the basket.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Jerry Colangelo says it’s too soon to come to any conclusions about the 76ers … Is Gregg Popovich mellowing? … Dwight Howard has parted ways with his longtime agent Dan FeganTiago Splitter had successful hip surgery … Vince Carter’s eponymous restaurant is closing

Blogtable: More likely to miss playoffs — Bulls or Rockets?

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


BLOGTABLE: Build around Lillard or Davis? | More likely to miss playoffs: Rockets or Bulls? | Thoughts on Russell as starter?



VIDEOJazz outlast Rockets, push Houston to No. 9 in West

> More likely to miss the playoffs this season: The 29-26 Bulls or the 28-29 Rockets?

David Aldridge, TNT analyst: Houston. Just don’t like the vibe from that squad, which can Kumbaya all it wants — there are issues in that locker room that have nothing to do with Xs and Os. And, I’m not sure Detroit or Washington can put together a run for long enough to surpass the Bulls, while I see Utah being more than capable of finishing the season with a flourish — especially with Shelvin Mack looking like he’s going to solidify the Jazz at the point for the stretch drive.

Steve Aschburner, NBA.comForced to pick between disappointments, I’m going with the team that is committed to its current coaching staff. Fred Hoiberg and his bosses understand the embarrassment they’ll face if they miss the playoffs, having dumped Tom Thibodeau and his sixth-best winning percentage of all time (.647) among coaches who’ve worked at least 300 games. Management turned Thibodeau into a lame duck last season and suffered consequences that still linger. But there are signs Chicago is starting to click, if it can hang in long enough for Jimmy Butler and Nikola Mirotic to return from injuries. Houston clearly gained little from its impulsive firing of Kevin McHale and is likely to dump interim J.B. Bickerstaff before next season too. The Rockets’ dysfunction runs deeper and, unless they have a bunch of games left against Phoenix, they’ll be done at 82.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: Call it a cop-out, but I’m saying neither. But if you make me pick, I’d say the Bulls are more likely to miss out. The Rockets have to beat out only one of either the Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz, both of whom are playing close to their limit. And they might even have a shot at the struggling Mavs coming down the stretch. Over in the East, this seems to be a lost season for the Wizards and the Magic are again headed toward disappointment. That keeps the door open for the Bulls. But I think Stan Van Gundy is doing everything he can to drive the Detroit Pistons into the playoffs. The question mark that puts the Bulls in danger is when Jimmy Butler returns to the lineup.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com The Rockets. Chicago expects to get Jimmy Butler back, maybe within a few weeks, and Nikola Mirotic as well. No one who can play at an MVP level when healthy is walking through that door in Houston. I’m not crossing the Rockets off the list because that’s not exactly an overwhelming group of playoff hopefuls around the cutline in the West. But the Bulls’ roster could get significantly better.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com: This is something of a coin flip, but my gut says the Bulls are more likely to miss the playoffs. Yes, I realize Jimmy Butler will return at some point, but Chicago is being chased by Detroit and Washington for the final spot at the moment, and both teams — while flawed — are capable of finishing strong. Meanwhile, the Rockets are dealing with only the Jazz. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if Chicago and Houston sit this one out.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com The Rockets. First of all, they’re out of the playoffs right now, while the Bulls have a three-game cushion in the loss column. Secondly, the Rockets’ record is a little inflated (they have the point differential of a 25-32 team), because they’ve been good in close games (though the Bulls’ record is similarly inflated). And finally, they have a tough schedule relative to the teams they’re fighting with, playing 17 of their final 25 games against teams that are currently at or above .500.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: Both teams are stuck in their current predicaments due to their own mistakes as well as some unfortunate injury issues. That said, I can see the Bulls sinking in the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff quicksand. The Detroit Pistons, Washington Wizards, Orlando Magic and Milwaukee Bucks are all capable of walking down a Bulls team that will limp to the finish of this regular season with key players (Jimmy Butler, Joakim Noah, Mike Dunleavy, etc.) dealing with injuries. The dysfunctional Rockets have a huge challenge ahead of them, but they at least will have their best player to lean on down the stretch.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.comAs much as I prefer the roster and chemistry of the Bulls, they must deal with a lot more competition in the East than the Rockets are facing in the West, where there are essentially nine teams competing for eight playoff spots. James Harden should be able to drive Houston into the postseason, whereas the Bulls are going to have to fend off the Pistons and Wizards in addition to the higher-ranked teams in their tightly-bunched conference.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog The Bulls have been through a lot this season, but I think they’re more likely to qualify for the playoffs. The Rockets have been through a coaching change, a few trades, and even a trade that was rescinded. I don’t know this for certain, but it sure seems like there isn’t a lot of confidence right now in that Rockets locker room. I think the Bulls make it.


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