Posts Tagged ‘Xavier Henry’

Morning shootaround — March 22

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Westbrook bangs knee; Durant scores 51 | Gasol leaves in walking boot | Knicks make it eight straight | Nash dishes 11 dimes | Bynum out indefinitely


VIDEO: Closer look at Durant’s 51-point performance

No. 1: Westbrook gets scare, Durant scores 51 — In a wild game at Toronto, Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook left in the third quarter after banging knees with Toronto’s Kyle Lowry. It was Westbrook’s right knee, the one he’s had three surgeries on since initially tearing the meniscus in the first round of last year’s playoffs. He immediately reacted to the pain and slammed his palm on the floor. He was assisted off the floor as the Thunder held their breath. More will be known as Westbrook is re-evaluated in Oklahoma City today. The Thunder won the game in dramatic fashion, 119-118, in double overtime. Kevin Durant capped a remarkable night with his seventh 3-pointer with 1.7 seconds to go, giving him 51 points. Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman has the details:

The official word is a right knee sprain, and the plan is to re-evaluate him Saturday in Oklahoma City.

Although Westbrook didn’t return to the Thunder’s thrilling 119-118 double-overtime victory over the Raptors, he was in great spirits after the game and said he doesn’t expect to miss any time. He left the Air Canada Centre walking just fine, without crutches or even a knee brace, just a routine black sleeve hidden under his pants.

And judging by Westbrook’s demeanor and that of his teammates and coach Scott Brooks, the injury didn’t appear to be serious.

“I feel good, man,” Westbrook said. “I’m pain-free. I’m just going to, (Saturday), get it looked at and go from there.”

The injury occurred with 7:37 remaining in the third quarter.

Westbrook made a slight jab-step beyond the 3-point line on the left wing. As Westbrook held his left foot in place as his pivot, Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry inadvertently bumped into Westbrook’s right knee while closing out.

Westbrook’s knee bent inward, and he immediately called a timeout, slamming the ball to the court upon doing so.

“You’ve been hurt before, you kind of get nervous like I did,” Westbrook said of his reaction.

After briefly attempting to walk off whatever pain or discomfort he was feeling, Westbrook was helped to the locker room by Thunder center Hasheem Thabeet and trainer Joe Sharpe. He remained in the dressing room for the duration of the game as the Thunder battled back from an eight-point deficit inside the final minute of double overtime.

Kevin Durant hit the game-winner, a 3-pointer from 31 feet with 1.7 seconds remaining. He then forced Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan into contested fadeaway from the right baseline. It fell short as the clock hit zero.

Durant finished with a game-high 51 points, his second 50-point game this season, and added 12 rebounds and seven assists.

“We couldn’t go another overtime,” Durant said. “So I had to live with whatever happened.”

***


VIDEO: Gasol injured in Grizzlies’ loss in Miami

No. 2: Gasol sprains left ankle — Midway through the third quarter, Grizzlies center Marc Gasol hobbled off the floor with a sprained left ankle and left the American Airlines Arena floor in a walking boot. It was a double whammy for the Grizzlies, one of the hottest teams in the NBA since Jan. 1. Not only must they wait and wonder about the health of the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, they lost a lead they had held for most of the game as the Heat pulled out the victory. More will be known on the severity of Gasol’s injury, but one thing is certain — Memphis needs its big man in the final month of the regular season to ensure it makes the playoffs, let alone have a chance to return to the Western Conference finals. Ronald Tillery of the Memphis Commercial Appeal has more:

Memphis’ bigger issue seemed to be executing without Gasol.

The 7-footer left with 6:34 left in the third period. He was hurt earlier on a non-contact play. Gasol appeared to roll his ankle as he turned to run. Gasol left the arena wearing a walking boot and he’ll be re-evaluated Saturday before the Griz face the Indiana Pacers for the second game of a back-to-back.

“It made it tough, but we tried to play small and stretch them out,” Griz coach Dave Joerger said. “I thought we did a good job of getting it to Zach. He had a heck of a game.”

Gasol had been a force, too, and not just because of his 14 points and six rebounds.

“We were using him to make the second and third pass,” [Mike] Conley said. “He was playing point forward. The whole scheme went through him.”

The game was knotted at 68 entering the fourth quarter after both teams exchanged large scoring runs in the third. Memphis allowed a 12-point advantage to disappear in the final few minutes of the third.

***

No. 3: Knicks keep playoff push alive — The Knicks handed the Philadelphia 76ers their 23rd consecutive loss, but the bigger news was that New York kept its playoff hopes alive despite already having 40 losses as the calendar turns to spring. But that’s the beauty of the Eastern Conference, folks. And with the Atlanta Hawks losing, the Knicks moved within three games of the eighth and final playoff spot. And guess what? New York’s upcoming schedule offers even more hope with games against the hobbled Cavaliers and Lakers followed by the Kings. Peter Botte of the New York Daily News has the story:

With new team president Phil Jackson returning to his California home following his triumphant Garden return two nights earlier, the bench nearly coughed up a 17-point lead in a game the Knicks had controlled with five minutes left. But [Mike] Woodson turned back to his first unit in the final 30 seconds, and the Knicks just barely did what they had to do to survive and advance Friday night against a team that now has dropped 23 straight games, holding on for their season-best eighth straight win, 93-92, over the dreadful Sixers at Wells Fargo Center.

“We didn’t have no choice at that point. I felt like we had a very comfortable lead. It happened. Them guys never quit,” [Carmelo] Anthony said about having to return to the game after it looked like his night was finished. “You could just see the lead dwindling, possession by possession. You go from up (17) and you look up and we’re only up two with a couple of seconds on the clock, so hopefully we didn’t have to come up with a prayer.”

***

No. 4: Nash shines in return — Maybe 40-year-old Steve Nash has something left after all. Fighting injuries all season, the two-time MVP made yet another return Friday night just a week after being declared done for the season. The Los Angeles Lakers still lost to the Washington Wizards, but the aging wizard for L.A. put on quite a show, dishing out a season-high 11 assists to go with five points, four rebounds and three steals in 19 minutes. He came off the bench for the first time since March 9, 2000 with Dallas, snapping a stretch of 975 consecutive starts, reports Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times:

“Just to feel good and feel like you can make a play for your teammates and put pressure on the other team and move freely,” Nash said. “It’s why I love this game and that’s why I’ve kept fighting and trying to work in case I got another opportunity.”

Nash said he came out of the game in the fourth quarter after tweaking his back but remained hopeful he could play Sunday against the Orlando Magic. Lakers guard Xavier Henry also hurt his left wrist and said he would have an MRI exam on Saturday after X-rays were negative.

Nash made his first appearance since Feb. 11, when he suffered a recurrence of the nerve irritation in his back that has limited him to 11 games this season. There was concern in that Nash might never play another NBA game.

Lakers Coach Mike D’Antoni told reporters March 13 that Nash would not return this season because it didn’t make sense for him to push his 40-year-old body with so few games left.

Then Jordan Farmar strained his right groin in practice Monday, opening the door for Nash.
After entering the game to warm applause late in the first quarter, Nash quickly found Hill for a jump hook and made a couple of behind-the-back passes on the way to collecting five assists in his first six minutes.

D’Antoni said Nash probably would continue to come off the bench unless he “gets to a certain point and gets that good” because of limited practice time and the Lakers wanting to be cautious with his body.

Nash has one more season and $9.7 million left on his contract but could be waived by Sept. 1, allowing the Lakers to spread out his salary over three seasons.

He would prefer to prove over the next month that he’s ready to play one more.

***

No. 5:  Swelling puts Bynum on ice — If the Indiana Pacers truly signed big man Andrew Bynum to keep him away from the Miami Heat, well the Heat’s training staff will probably be sending a thank-you card. Experiencing continued swelling and soreness in his right knee, Bynum will be out indefinitely, the team announced Friday. Bynum signed with the Pacers on Feb. 1, but has played in just two games. On a strange note, although not so much when it comes to Bynum, he reportedly got his hair cut at halftime of Friday’s game against Chicago. Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star has more on Bynum’s injury status:

Bynum has played in two games with the Pacers, averaging 11.5 points and 9.5 rebounds in just under 18 minutes per game.

Though the Pacers expected to play Bynum in short spurts, last Saturday he reached 20 minutes against the Detroit Pistons. Since then, Bynum has been on the inactive list.

On Tuesday, Bynum, who did not participate in practice, said after the session that his swollen right knee needed to be drained.

“This one is a lot more concerning for me because it caused me a lot more fluid,” Bynum said.

Now days later, Pacers coach Frank Vogel answered “no” when asked if there had been any progress with Bynum’s knee since the return from Detroit.

“There’s still swelling,” Vogel said on Friday. “I really don’t have anything new. Other than it’s swollen right now, we’ll give you an update when we’re ready to.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Heat present Mike Miller his 2013 championship ring as Grizzlies visit Miami … Tony Parker says he will play five or six more years with Spurs then play for French team he owns … Andre Miller says Nuggets made him out to be the bad guyKevin Garnett is unsure of return from back spasms … Bobcats ask Charlotte for $34.1 million to improve arena.

Morning Shootaround — Jan. 14


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 13

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Woodson challenges Smith to ‘be more of a pro’ | Prokhorov to attend Nets-Hawks in London | Report: Teammates tiring of Waiters’ actions | Cuban praises NBA’s transparency | Gasol, Henry a game-time decision

No. 1: Woodson issues simple message to Smith — If you aren’t aware of the recent misdeeds of on J.R. Smith, you haven’t been paying to the NBA as close as you should. Apart from last week’s $50,000 NBA-sanctioned fine for untying opponents’ shoes during free-throw attempts, Smith was benched for last week’s TNT matchup with the Miami Heat and saw his name bandied about in trade talks as well. Knicks coach Mike Woodson has grown frustrated with Smith and issued a simple challenge to him, writes Ian Bagley of ESPNNewYork.com, after Smith chipped in 10 points in Monday’s overtime victory over the Suns:

“The bottom line is he’s got to be more of a pro and do the right things and just concentrate on playing basketball,” the Knicks coach said Monday. “That’s the name of the game, nothing else. You got to concentrate on your craft and what you’re being paid to do — that’s play basketball. … That’s all I want him to do.”

Smith has angered Woodson and many in the Knicks organization for his on and off-court transgressions this season.

Smith returned to the court against Philadelphia on Saturday and scored 14 points to lift New York to a 102-92 win. In Monday night’s 98-96 win over the Suns, he scored 10 points on 5-11 shooting from the floor.

Afterward, Smith said he’d learned a lesson from the fine and benching.

“Don’t goof around, I guess. Be serious. Be a professional. And just don’t take this opportunity here you have for granted,” he said. “There’s a lot of people in this world that want our jobs. You can’t take it for granted. It can be taken away just that fast.”

Woodson addressed the Smith incident for the first time on Monday. Smith said he spoke to the head coach on Friday.

“Bottom line is I expect J.R. to be a pro on and off the court and concentrate on playing basketball and that’s all I want him to do,” Woodson said.

Smith signed a three-year, $18 million contract with the Knicks in the offseason, though he admitted last week that he is unsure of his future with the organization.

Sources close to the situation told ESPN.com last week that the Knicks have become increasingly frustrated with Smith’s on- and off-court transgressions and have in recent days begun exploring the potential trade market for him, though they realize it will be difficult to move him.

Smith can’t be traded until Jan. 15 because the Knicks are over the salary cap and Smith signed for more than 120 percent of his previous salary.


VIDEO: The Beat crew discusses J.R. Smith’s actions of late and the Knicks’ improved play

***

No. 2: Prokhorov to attend Nets-Hawks game in London — Nets owner and Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov has been largely absent from the picture this season. That is expected to change Thursday night in London, though, as Brooklyn “visits” the Hawks in a game at London’s O2 arena. According to Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News, if Prokhorov — who was reportedly last seen skiing in the French Alps with group of 20 women this month — attends, he’ll be speaking to the media in mid-season for first time since Avery Johnson‘s ouster last season:

Mikhail Prokhorov hasn’t been to a Nets game since the home opener on Nov. 1, but the Russian billionaire is planning to attend Thursday’s match- up against the Hawks at the O2 Arena in London, a club official confirmed.

Prokhorov has mostly been silent amid Brooklyn’s surprisingly bad start to the season, aside from preaching patience in an email exchange with The New York Times. The Nets are 15-22, but have won five out of their last six behind a stingy defense.

The last time Prokhorov spoke to the media during the middle of the season was just after firing Avery Johnson. He then spoke again to reporters at the press conference introducing Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, reiterating his championship aspirations and expectations.

At the time, Prokhorov explained why Jason Kidd would make a good coach — in a way that only Prokhorov can.

“Maybe you do remember a film, ‘Top Gun.’ This film just arrived in Russia one week ago. I want to refresh your memory,” he said. “Tom Cruise plays Maverick, and he was a top pilot, he was a real leader. At the end of the day he made decision to be an instructor because it was the highest value just to be a leader. So Jason Kidd is our Top Gun. And he will do his best, I am sure, all his skills to elevate the whole team.”

Prokhorov, a 48-year-old bachelor, was reportedly spotted partying in the French Alps this month with a group of “20 women.” He’s also still involved in Russian politics and doubles as president of the Russian Biathlon Union, setting the bar at the Sochi Winter Olympics for his athletes to win “two or three gold medals …minimum.”

Since Prokhorov took over the Nets in 2010, he has pushed the idea that the Nets would become “the first really global team in the NBA.” They spent parts of training camp and preseason in China and Moscow during his first season as owner, and previously played two regular-season games in London.

Prokhorov has been pushing for a regular-season game to be played in Russia.

***

No. 3: Report: Teammates tiring of Waiters’ actions — The Cavs’ last game was nothing to write home about — a 124-80 loss in Sacramento that if it is not the low point of the season, it’s at least a contender for that dubious honor. Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal termed it as one of the worst losses he’s seen the team suffer in the last four years and after the defeat, a topic he covered was that of Dion Waiters‘ play. Waiters finished with four points on 1-for-7 (including a 1-for-5 night from deep) in 20 minutes off the bench. His reported dust-up with teammate Kyrie Irving was a hot topic earlier in the season, but it seems now that grumbles are growing about Waiters’ shot selection and attitude, both of which are wearing thin on teammates:

When he was pulled from the game Sunday after throwing a bad pass in the first quarter, Mike Brown was visibly irritated with him and subbed him out of the game. Waiters was standing near half-court when he realized he was coming out and he threw his hands in the air out of frustration as if to say, “Why me?”During the next timeout, Waiters sat pouting on the bench while the rest of the team huddled together. Assistant coach Jim Boylan casually walked down and talked to him and soon Waiters joined the huddle. But it was still a bad look.When Waiters’ shot is falling, he can carry a team. When it’s not, he tends to shut down. He doesn’t defend, he gets careless with the ball … Players have quietly grumbled about Waiters’ act off and on all season, and those grumbles were growing louder Sunday night.

As one player put it, stars can get away with the stuff Waiters pulls on occasion, but Waiters hasn’t even established himself yet in this league, let alone carved out star status. The thing about him is he’s not a bad guy. He’s not a locker room cancer or a coach killer. He just sulks, pouts, broods … whatever word you want to use. And it has to stop if he’s ever going to reach his potential, because I believe he could be a very good player in this league. But he has to stop the nonsense.

***

No. 4: Cuban praises NBA’s transparency in officiatingPerhaps no owner in NBA history has been more adamant about challenging the notions and rules of NBA officiating than the Dallas Mavericks’ Mark Cuban. Throughout the years, Cuban has never been afraid to question (sometimes vehemently) the calls NBA officials make during the course of a game, even if it means paying a hefty fine for his outburst. Before last night’s game between the Magic and Mavs in Dallas, Cuban spoke with reporters and praised the improved transparency in officiating in the league. But, as ESPNDallas.com’s Tim McMahon notes, Cuban is still expecting more:

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban considers the NBA office’s willingness to acknowledge officiating mistakes that occur late in close games to be an encouraging first step.

But Cuban, whose crusade to improve NBA officiating has resulted in seven figures worth of fines during his 14-year ownership tenure, is asking for much more.

“I love the transparency,” Cuban said Monday. “Now if I could just get them to do the same level of transparency for the other 47 minutes and 55 seconds, I’d really be making progress.”

Cuban, whose team benefited twice in the last two weeks from last-second no-calls the league office later acknowledged should have been fouls, is lobbying for a list of blown calls to be published for every NBA game.

This doesn’t necessarily need to be done on a timely basis, Cuban said. He would strongly prefer that it would be done publicly, though.

“No one ever wants or expects perfection, but when you’re not transparent, people tend to think you’re hiding something,” Cuban said. “And I think that hurts us. That hurts just the connection we have with our fan base. That’s my opinion.”

Cuban isn’t nearly as critical of officiating as he used to be, in large part because of steps taken by the NBA office to address the issue. However, he will always firmly believe that poor officiating played a critical role in the Mavs losing the 2006 Finals. He was fined $250,000 after Game 5 of that series, when Miami’s Dwyane Wade hit the deciding free throws after a controversial foul call.

“After all this, I firmly believe that every 14 years it does balance out,” Cuban cracked about the two recent no-calls that benefited the Mavs.

Yet Cuban is completely serious about his concern regarding NBA fans’ lack of trust of referees, an issue that was especially sensitive in the wake of disgraced former referee Tim Donaghy’s gambling scandal. The desire to prove that the integrity of officiating in today’s NBA is beyond reproach is why Cuban argues the league would benefit from making every call subject to review publicly.

“Why not? What’s to hide?” Cuban said. “All you’ve got to do is just do a tweet search for ‘NBA refs’ during any multi-game night and it’s an interesting source of knowledge. I think the more transparency we have, the stronger connection we make with our fans.”

***

No. 5: Gasol, Henry a game-time decision for LakersFrom Kobe Bryant to Steve Nash to Pau Gasol and Xavier Henry, injuries have wreaked havoc on the Los Angeles Lakers’ lineup all season. Gasol left last week’s blowout loss to the Clippers with a foot injury and Henry has been out of the lineup since Dec. 29 (bone bruise on his right knee). Both players are on the mend and may or may not play tonight as the Lakers host the Cavaliers, writes Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com:

The Los Angeles Lakers’ injury woes continued Monday as an MRI revealed Pau Gasol has a moderate strain of the flexor tendon of the big toe of his left foot.Gasol will be a game-time decision on for Tuesday’s game against Cleveland.

With Gasol out of Monday’s practice, the Lakers were down to eight healthy players for the session. Lakers assistant coach, Mark Madsen, and video coordinator, J.J. Outlaw, filled in to give the team enough bodies to field a 5-on-5 game.

“J.J., we can sign him up for a 10-day [contract],” joked Nick Young. “And Mark, Mark’s coming out of retirement.”

Xavier Henry, who underwent an individual on-court workout Sunday for the first time since suffering a bone bruise in his right knee on Dec. 29, did not practice Monday.

Henry was originally scheduled to have his knee re-evaluated Monday, but that examination has been pushed to Tuesday, according to the Lakers. The Lakers host the Cleveland Cavaliers on Tuesday night.

“I don’t think he’ll get the all-clear yet,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said of Henry. “They’ll want to get him on the floor and have him go through some stuff. Hopefully sometime soon, but [playing against Cleveland] would surprise me.”


VIDEO: Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni addresses Gasol, Henry’s status

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The GameTime crew provides a great look at why the Knicks are off to a 6-1 January start … Hall of Famer Larry Bird used to do what J.R. Smith got in trouble for last week: untie opponents’ shoes at the free-throw line … Hall of Famer Bill Walton shares some odd comments about Gilbert Arenas during a Arizona-UCLA telecast … Mavs owner Mark Cuban reiterates that he is clearly not a fan of the Miami Heat … Celtics coach Brad Stevens used the Hack-a-Dwight strategy last night, but Stevens says he wouldn’t be upset if that practice went away altogether

ICYMI(s) of The Night: What did Marvin Williams ever do to the Denver Nuggets? After J.J. Hickson banged on him earlier this season, Quincy Miller and Evan Fournier got into the act last night: 


VIDEO: Quincy Miller goes strong to the hoop and dunks on Marvin Williams


VIDEO: Evan Fournier dunks on Marvin Williams

Morning Shootaround — Dec. 21


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Dec. 20

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Granger returns | Kobe-less Lakers beat Wolves | Deng off trade block? | Oden still a ways away? | Hotel New York

No. 1: Pacers crowd welcomes back GrangerDanny Granger played just five games last season due to a knee injury and a calf strain has kept him out all of this season — until Friday night. The small forward made a triumphant return in front of a home crowd that serenaded him with chants of “Danny! Danny!” as he headed to the scorer’s table to check in with about 4 1/2 minutes left in the first quarter. Granger played 22 minutes, scoring five points on a rusty 1-for-7 shooting with two assists and five turnovers. But for an already loaded Pacers team, the return of Granger provides just one more weapon.

From Michael Pointer of the Indianapolis Star:

He got a standing ovation when he officially checked in with 4:05 remaining. He made his presence felt on the defensive end, coming from the weak side to block a shot by Houston’s Dwight Howard.

“It felt good,” said Granger, who played in just five games last season because of a knee injury. “When you haven’t played in a long time, you want to do something defensively to get into the flow of the game. The crowd went crazy. It was exciting. And we got the win by 33 points (Granger’s uniform number). Kind of ironic.”

The love continued throughout the night for Granger, who played 22 minutes — two more than coach Frank Vogel estimated he would — and scored five points on just 1-for-7 shooting. The numbers weren’t great. He had two assists while committing five turnovers.

But with his teammates playing so well around him, that hardly mattered. It was a rousing success.

“It’s exactly what I thought we would see,” Vogel said. “I think he’s going to have an adjustment period, and it’s going to be a process with his shot-making and his ability to finish plays.

“But what I liked about it is the way he impacted the game on the defensive end. For all the questions about if he was going to fit in, he shared the basketball every time he had an opportunity to. He shot the open shots in the rhythm of the offense, which we asked him to do. And he went out and he guarded. He played a strong defensive game.”

Granger led the Pacers in scoring for five consecutive years before the knee injury virtually wiped out his entire 2012-13 campaign. Hibbert and Paul George have emerged as team leaders in his absence. He was heartened by the response he got from the crowd, which also chanted “Danny, Danny” when Vogel removed him from the game for the final time with 2:28 left in regulation.

“It was awesome,” he said. “Couple of standing ovations when I was out there. Just to play in front of the home crowd again was kind of a breath of fresh air. … Just got to keep building up my legs and my wind.”

***

No. 2: Lakers can smile againXavier Henry, Nick Young and Pau Gasol didn’t let the bummer news of Kobe Bryant‘s fractured knee get in the way of the team stringing together consecutive wins for just the third time this season. Back at home after a 2-2 road trip, L.A. tripped up the disappointing Minnesota Timberwolves, 104-91. With Bryant out for six weeks and the point guard crew of Steve Nash, Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar all still out with injury, Henry, a shooting guard, assumed those duties and merely poured in 21 points with four assists. Gasol continued his resurgence with a near triple-double: 21 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists. Young jumped off the bench for 25 points, including a long 3-pointer with 1:59 to go that put the Lakers up by nine. The Lakers were 10-9 without Kobe as he recovered from the Achilles injury, went 2-4 with him back and now will look for their first three-game win streak of the season Saturday night at struggling Golden State.

From Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times:

Something funny happened on the way to the memorial service for the Lakers’ 2013-14 season.

They won a game.

The Lakers, finished for the season? Not yet.

“We’re not done,” Gasol said. “This team is ready to continue to compete and continue to have fun and is not going to fold just because we’re facing some injuries and adversity.”

This being the Western Conference, where 10 teams are .500 or better — exactly seven more than the East — it will be very difficult for the Lakers (13-13) to make the playoffs.

If the Lakers wanted any inspiration, they knew they went 10-9 without Bryant until his return from a torn Achilles’ tendon. It’s not quite rallying-cry material, but they again face a long chunk of time without him because of his fractured knee.

“I think they’re excited about disproving people like they did the first time and we’ll do it again,” Lakers Coach Mike D’Antoni said earlier Friday.

***

No. 3: Bulls pull Deng off market? — The Chicago Bulls, despite their season falling apart since Derrick Rose suffered a second knee injury, want to hold on to small forward Luol Deng, who is averaging 19.6 ppg and 7.0 rpg. That’s what sources have told ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst. Deng will become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. The two-time All-Star is currently out until at least next week nursing an Achilles injury:

Teams are inquiring about Deng’s status with the Bulls, who continue to sink in the standings in the wake of the knee injury that wrecked another season for Derrick Rose.

Deng told the Chicago Sun-Times this week that he’s been preparing for the possibility of being traded, but sources said that’s not in the team’s plans.

Despite failing to come to terms on a contract extension before the season, the Bulls remain optimistic they will re-sign Deng next summer.

Having spent his entire 10-year career with Chicago, Deng has consistently said he wants to stay with the Bulls, though the sides were far apart on contract talks before they were tabled.

Deng is in the final year of a contact that will pay him $14 million this season, and the Bulls are facing a luxury-tax bill that could exceed $13 million. Some league executives believe that the Bulls, who’d never incurred a luxury tax until last year, may have an interest in offloading payroll ahead of the trade deadline. For now, though, that will not include Deng.

The Bulls (9-16) lost their fourth consecutive game Thursday night and have dropped eight of their last 10 in falling to 10th place in the Eastern Conference.

***

No. 4: Oden getting antsy to play? — Miami center Greg Oden hasn’t played an NBA game in more than four years and the big man from Ohio State who continues to work himself back from multiple knee injuries appears to have the playing itch. He was inactive for the 26th consecutive game during the Heat’s breezy home victory over the Sacramento Kings Friday night. Miami Herald beat reporter Joseph Goodman reports that Oden could be getting frustrated with all of the pine time:

Dwyane Wade said before the Heat’s game against the Kings that Greg Oden has “gotten down” and “a little frustrated” while waiting to join the team on the court. Oden was in his business attire and inactive for the 26th consecutive game this season Friday.

At the same time, Wade said Oden “has been great” and the Heat’s co-captain said he was proud of Oden’s patience. The Heat’s reserve center, who hasn’t played in a regular-season game in more than four years, went through his normal pregame routine Friday. He worked out on the court before shedding his knee brace and practice attire for a sport coat and a spot on the bench.

Still, Wade’s tone seemed to acknowledge the widely held belief that Oden is still a long way from being cleared to play.

“His attitude has been great,” Wade said. “I’m sure at times he has gotten down and got a little frustrated, but he’s giving himself a chance. He is listening to the guys who know the bodies very well — way more than us athletes.

“He is doing everything they ask him to do, so it’s giving him an opportunity to get back on the court whenever that time comes. He’s not rushing it, so as someone who has been through injuries before, I’m proud of him being patient, and I know he’s frustrated because he wants to get out there and play with us. I know if he keeps doing what he’s doing, his time will come.”

***

No. 5: Knicks’ hometown hotel — The New York Knicks play their third home noon game Saturday against Memphis, and after the first two ended as the team’s most lopsided defeats of the season, coach Mike Woodson decided he wasn’t taking any chances with his team not being prepared yet again for the early tip. So the coach decided to put the team up in a hotel Friday night. Here’s the story from Peter Botte of the New York Daily News:

“Yeah, we’ve had those troubles and you know, we’re going to all get together tonight and huddle together,” Woodson said after practice Friday in Greenburgh. “I’m not going to let them hang out.

“We’re going to all get together, ourselves, as a team.”

Asked if he felt the need to “baby-sit” his players — after the Knicks were blown out on their home floor by 31 points by San Antonio on Nov. 10 and by 41 by Boston on Dec. 8 — Woodson replied, “Well, we’re going to be together. Put it that way.”

Carmelo Anthony said he was “hearing” that curfew would be 10 p.m. The All-Star forward indicated the Knicks (8-17) also stayed together at a hotel before the Celtics debacle earlier this month, but it certainly appears they will be more closely monitored before facing the Grizzlies.

“We’ve done that plenty of times where we stayed at a hotel together, the night before a game. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it works. We’ll see about that tomorrow,” Anthony said. “We didn’t do it the San Antonio game. Sometimes it works — early games. Sometimes it don’t.

“It’s just a matter of us coming out the gate and establish that early. I don’t think it has anything to do with us staying in a hotel or not. That’s what Coach wants to do and we’re going to do it.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Duke star and potential top three Draft pick Jabari Parker likes comparisons to Knicks star Carmelo Anthony … Injured Trail Blazers rookie C.J. McCollum has been cleared to practice, but his career debut could still be a ways away … LeBron James says the Heat’s shooters are concerned about how the Christmas Day sleeved jerseys will affect their stroke.

ICYMI Of The Night: The Sixers’ surprising early season success is a thing of the past, but guard Evan Turner helped bring some joy to the City of Brotherly Love with a last-second overtime basket to cap a wild 121-120 victory over the Brooklyn Nets.


VIDEO: Turner saves the day for Philly

Goal For Celtics, Lakers Should Be Same

The Lakers have gone 2-4 since Kobe Bryant's return. ( Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Lakers have gone 2-4 since Kobe Bryant’s return. ( Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – The Lakers and Celtics own one of the most glorious rivalries in all of sports. Through the decades they’ve battled one another with teams as different as their respective coastlines.

Yet this version of the Lakers just might be better off accepting the Danny Ainge philosophy: “Making the playoffs is not a goal.”

The Celtics’ president of basketball operations said he needed to explain that a little bit, so I will, too.

Yes, the franchises’ strategies seem completely at odds. Ainge made the tough call to finally bust it up and trade Kevin Garnett and Boston’s beloved Paul Pierce and start from scratch, even with a new rookie coach. Ainge’s commitment to recovering All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo is even in question. The Lakers meanwhile locked up their living legend, Kobe Bryant, for another two years and $48.5 million.

But just as Ainge is looking forward, it’s Kobe’s next two years I’m looking at, not this one. It’s during this time that I implore Kobe to not go nuts trying to sneak into the postseason as he did a season ago. But, as was predictable, that will be difficult.

After the Lakers pulled out an 88-85 win at Charlotte on Saturday night, their first W following three consecutive Ls with Kobe back from his awful April Achilles injury, No. 24 went all anti-Ainge, tenfold.

“I want to win a championship,” he told reporters. “I want to be playing in June.”

The inconvenient truth — and it’s really no secret to most — is that these Lakers are no closer to contending for a championship than Brad Stevens‘ plucky squad. They don’t defend or rebound well and they’re not exactly an offensive juggernaut either (ranking 20th in offensive efficiency). Tuesday night’s narrow win at Memphis, a struggling team playing without Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, made the Lakers 2-4 with Kobe and 12-13 overall. Essentially the same record as the 12-14 Celtics.

Ainge views the Celtics’ applaudable start (and his comments came when they were 10-14, still a better mark than most expected) as a byproduct of a laughable Eastern Conference and Atlantic Division, which they somehow lead and therefore occupy the No. 4 seed. Boston is 9-7 against the East and Ainge cringes thinking about making the playoffs with a losing record in this anomaly of a season and losing out on Draft position, in this coveted Draft.

The Lakers, predicted by most to miss the playoffs with or without Kobe, should view their 12-13 mark as a byproduct of a rugged West. L.A. is 5-3 against the East and 7-10 in its own conference after nipping the depleted Grizzlies.

It can even be argued that when Rondo, Boston’s last remaining player from its recent glory years, returns from his ACL injury that he will join a more talented collection of teammates than the ragtag bunch Kobe inherited. That’s bad news if you’re in the West.

Think about Kobe’s crew: Jodie Meeks, Xavier Henry, Wesley Johnson, Nick Young, Jordan Hill and conflicted pal Pau Gasol, the only other remaining member of the 2010 title team. Jordan Farmar (a role player on the ’10 team left before re-signing this season) could return from injury soon and Steve Blake will be back in a month or so. No one can be sure about Steve Nash. To think this crew can leap into the West playoff fray with any hope of advancing would seem reckless California dreaming.

Rondo, if he’s not already traded, will join Jeff Green, Avery Bradley, Jordan Crawford, Jared Sullinger, Brandon Bass, Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, Vitor Faverani and Kelly Olynyk. Depending how Ainge proceeds with the roster, Brooklyn would seem the only hope from keeping his team built for the lottery from maddeningly backing into the division title.

Ainge knows, and Kobe should, too, that the 2008 and 2010 Finals aren’t walking through that door.

But Kobe doesn’t do lowered expectations, not when he’s got five rings and hungry for a sixth. But for this one season, making the playoffs at all costs can’t be the goal.

“We will get better,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said after the 122-97 loss at OKC, Kobe’s third game back. “Just check in on us in a couple weeks and see where we are.”

It’s hard to see these Lakers in the top eight, whether in a couple weeks or a couple months. The roster presents little opportunity to make a blockbuster, game-changing-type trade. If L.A. did sneak into an eighth or seventh seed like last season, it would only serve as first-round fodder for the Thunder or Spurs, while valuable ground would be lost in the race that matters more — Draft slotting.

L.A. has already accomplished its two prime goals for this season: Kobe is back, and his autograph is fresh on a new contract. Now general manager Mitch Kupchak and D’Antoni must make sure that his raging competitive drive doesn’t take him off the cliff of physical limitation. They must evaluate their young talent and determine who can help most over a two-year championship push.

Then, with a stroke of Laker luck, nab a difference-maker in the Draft and follow with smart free-agent acquisitions to form a solid nucleus for Kobe’s sunset drive.

These are the goals. Making the playoffs is not.

Morning Shootaround — Dec. 18


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Dec. 17

NEWS OF THE MORNING

LeBron to sit against Pacers? | “Silent assassin” strikes again | Henry a solid investment for Lakers | Woody’s code red in New York 

No. 1: With or without LeBron, Heat need to beware of the Pacers — LeBron James might not play in tonight’s rematch between the Heat and Indiana Pacers thanks to that sore ankle he injured Monday night. But Linda Robertson of the Miami Herald is convinced that the Heat need to be on red alert with or without James against this upstart Pacers team that has designs on the Heat’s crown. And since they are the only two teams in the Eastern Conference that are legitimate title contenders, every single time they meet this season will serve as a referendum, of sorts, on both teams:

Heat players rolled their eyes. Asked when he circled the date of the matchup on his calendar, Chris Bosh deadpanned, “Yesterday.”

“What is a rivalry these days?” James said, dismissing the notion that Heat-Pacers qualified as one. He was the King ignoring the serfs as they girded for revolution.

Perhaps Heat players are taking the jaded, realistic view. Who cares about December hothouse flowers? The Heat blooms in June.

Phase One of the long NBA season is for warming up and preserving body parts, not peaking, according to the two-time defending champs. Part of the problem with a league in desperate need of tinkering is the soullessness of so many games. The schedule starts to look like a vast wasteland with mediocre teams plodding from one inconclusive skirmish to another. Realignment and relegation deserve study if the NBA wants to awake.

In the meantime, we have Heat-Pacers II, to be followed by Heat-Pacers III on March 26, Heat-Pacers IV on April 11 and presumably Heat-Pacers Apocalypse in the Eastern Conference finals.

So the Heat better pay attention. As coach Erik Spoelstra is fond of saying, championship habits are ingrained during the regular season. Heat players, who beat the Pacers in seven games in last year’s playoffs, have a right to act superior, but the Pacers won’t be any worse for wear by stockpiling confidence. While the Heat conserves energy, the Pacers hone their ability to exploit Miami’s flaws — skills that will come in handy in five months.

Roy Hibbert is perfecting how to become a 7-2, 300-pound thorn in the Heat’s side.

The center dominated the paint in Indy and made a season-high 10 baskets — almost all from close range as the Heat failed to prevent him from catching post passes. David West added 17 points, nine rebounds and four assists.

The Heat has no answer for their size and muscle. The Greg Oden Project continues, in secret, with no sign that the big man’s knees will be ready anytime soon. If and when he does return — and Hibbert said he’s looking forward to it — Oden has to make up for a lot of lost time. He hasn’t played in a regular-season game in more than four years.

Paul George is making the most of valuable on-the-job training against Miami. The emerging superstar had a harried first half against the Heat’s double teams last week, but he figured out how to unlock himself and sank three crucial three-pointers, finishing with 17 points.

James was the unselfish distributor with his balanced contribution of 17 points, 14 rebounds and six assists, plus feverish defense of George, but if James’ ankle will cooperate, he needs to be a more aggressive scorer Wednesday. At Indy, he made only 3 of 11 field goals in Miami’s anemic second, third and fourth quarters.

… Miami believes it can make do without a center — and has two titles to prove it. But the rebounding bugaboo almost doomed the Heat against Indiana last year and again against San Antonio in the NBA Finals. Even against Utah on Monday, Miami gave up 17 second-chance points in the first half.

“It’s always a point of emphasis for us,” Bosh said. “It keeps teams in it against us.”


VIDEO: LeBron James is hopeful he’ll be in the lineup against the Pacers

***

No. 2: Big Shot Lillard? Nah! Silent assassin mows owns Cleveland Damian Lillard is developing a reputation around the league in just his second season as one of the true big shot artists in the game. He drained his second game-winner of the week Tuesday night in Cleveland, outdueling All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving in the process. Uncle Drew met up with the “Silent Assassin” Tuesday night and the ending was even better than the show that preceded it, writes Joe Freeman of The Oregonian. The Trail Blazers’ Houdini act makes for spectacular visuals that even the King approves of:

After Damian Lillard bludgeoned the Cleveland Cavaliers Tuesday night, swishing a game-winning three-pointer before the final buzzer to carry the red-hot Trail Blazers to another victory, the superlatives flowed as free and effortless as a shot off Lillard’s right fingertips.
“Cold blooded,” Cleveland’s Dion Waiters said of the game-winner.
“Incredible,” Joel Freeland said of the dominant individual performance.
“He’s like a silent assassin on the court,” Earl Watson said of Lillard. “He’s deadly when he shoots the ball.”
Lillard was certainly a last-second marksman for the Blazers on Tuesday, calmly and confidently nailing a 30-foot step-back three with 0.4 seconds left to lift them to a 119-116 victory over the Cavaliers before 15,689 at Quicken Loans Arena. It was thesecond consecutive game-winner for Lillard — who hit a fadeaway jumper to beat the Detroit Pistons Sunday — and provided another remarkable moment in a season that continues to amaze.
“It’s crazy that we’re pulling off wins like this,” Freeland said of the Blazers, who possess the NBA’s best record at 22-4.

… Afterward, in another muted celebration, Lillard coolly flexed, flashed a menacing glare and bumped chests with Aldridge as teammates gathered around.

“There is nothing to break down,” coach Terry Stotts said, when asked to dissect the winning play. “Damian had it going … he had a special night. I thought it was appropriate that he finished it like that.”

VIDEO: Fan Night Top Ten featuring the vocal stylings of Beau Estes!

***

No. 3: Henry investment produces solid returns for Lakers — Kobe Bryant‘s return to action was a foregone conclusion for the Los Angeles Lakers and in turn the men who toiled in his place during his absence. But that sliver of opportunity provided one-time Memphis Grizzlies lottery pick Xavier Henry with the opening he needed to prove himself to the Lakers and the rest of the league. It was an investment that has delivered solid returns for the Lakers, writes Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News. It’s an investment that has worked out well for all involved:

Keeping faith When he set foot in this city nearly 3½ years ago, Xavier Henry was considered a highly touted draft prospect that could help the Memphis Grizzlies toward a deep playoff push.

Henry, whom Memphis selected with the 12th overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, never did that. A right knee injury sidelined him for 35 games his rookie season. The Grizzlies then traded Henry the following year to New Orleans, where overlapping injuries buried him on the depth chart. “I was just faithful to God and stayed true to the Bible,” Henry said. “I perservered through it. I’ve been doing that so far in my career. It hasn’t been easy,”

The Lakers signed Henry to a one-year deal this offseason with a partially guaranteed contract worth $884,293, and the move became a good investment.

Henry only posted five points on 2 of 8 shooting in the Lakers’ win Tuesday against Memphis. But he has averaged a career-high 9.8 points on 44 percent shooting in 20.1 minutes per game. He has also shown marked improvement from November (6.8 points on 37.9 percent shooting) to December (13.9 points on 50 percent shooting).

“I’m trying to solidify myself and have a great career,” Henry said. “But it doesn’t happen in a day. I can’t have too many highs or lows. It’s about pushing through the whole season.”

***

No. 4: Next few days critical for Woodson — Time out controversies, mixed up injury updates and eroding confidence in the locker room and front office, could things get any worse for Knicks coach Mike Woodson? Well, if you let Frank Isola of the New York Daily News tell it, these next few days are critical for Woodson and the prospect of him holding on to his job through Christmas. Fall apart against the Milwaukee Bucks tonight and … well, that lump of coal will arrive a few days early:

According to a source, [Amar'e] Stoudemire “flipped out” when he learned of Woodson’s medical update and quickly took to Twitter to inform the fans ‘IM NOT INJURED.” He also said that his body and knees “feel great!” Of course, Stoudemire didn’t make the trip to Milwaukee, so Woodson isn’t entirely wrong. The Knicks don’t play again until Saturday, so technically Stoudemire is out for “a while.”

Now, whether Woodson is still coaching the Knicks by Saturday is anyone’s guess. [Knicks owner Jim] Dolan is the X factor, of course. Anything and everything is possible. If he woke up in October believing the Knicks were championship-ready, he could just as easily decide tomorrow that Allan Houston or Herb Williams should lead the team for the remainder of the season.

But Dolan likes Woodson and may be willing to give him a chance to salvage the season now that Tyson Chandler is expected back from a broken leg. Chandler’s presence is huge in so many areas but he’s also limited. He’s not a big scorer and he’s injury-prone.

The whole roster is injury-prone despite the Dolan narrative that only Jason Kidd, Kurt Thomas, Marcus Camby and Rasheed Wallace were medical risks who all had to go. Kenyon Martin has an abdominal strain and is expected to be out two weeks. Pablo Prigioni is also out two weeks with a broken big toe. Raymond Felton, strained hamstring, two weeks.

(Do you get the feeling that the medical staff is under fire and instead of giving a four-week prognosis is now listing everyone at two weeks?) In Dolan’s defense, he only claimed this roster was built for the playoffs. He never promised it would get there.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Warriors finally get Andre Iguodala back in the lineup and at just the right time … Forget the analytics when it comes to Russell Westbrook, numbers just don’t do him justice … Underrated point guard Ty Lawson is the key to the Nuggets’ season and future … Celtics and Sixers ready to battle it out for Rockets big man Omer Asik?

ICYMI(s) Of The Night: You owe it yourself to take one more look at the work Damian Lillard put in against the Cleveland Cavaliers Tuesday night, young fella is a BEAST …


VIDEO: Damian Lillard should get the key to the city after his work in Cleveland Tuesday night

Suspense Runs High As Kobe Returns


VIDEO: Rick Fox analyzes the impact of Kobe’s return

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – As the great Kobe Bryant rescues his flapping No. 24 jersey from all manner of inclement weather with tonight’s triumphant return, are his surprisingly buoyant Los Angeles Lakers really in need of a rescue mission? Or more a celebrated captain to take the wheel?

Staples Center will go goo-goo tonight as Bryant officially begins his 18th season against the wrong-place, wrong-time Toronto Raptors (pregame, 9 E.T., NBA TV). Kobe will be announced to the sell-out crowd and the roof will blow like Mt. Vesuvius. He’ll take his spot around the jump circle and it’ll be so electric in there it’ll feel like the Lakers are back in the NBA Finals, where so many predicted they would be last season before that star-studded roster quickly became as unhinged as characters in a Quentin Tarantino film.

Once the ball is in the air, once the juices start coursing through Kobe’s veins, what happens tonight and over the next 62 games that follow will be as riveting to watch as a Stephen King novel is to read. After all, the king of suspense joined Twitter (@StephenKing) the same day as the Lakers’ dramatic flapping-jersey video revealed Kobe’s return. Nothing in Hollywood is by coincidence, right?

Here’s the thing with Kobe’s return essentially one quarter into the season: For the first time in his career he starts a season a month late, on a team with multiple unfamiliar parts and, most notably, has established something of an identity and definitely a working chemistry without him.

Don’t get that confused with suggesting this team doesn’t need Kobe. That’s preposterous. Kobe’s capabilities coming off a torn Achilles tendon last April, and his adaptation to the team’s style of play, will dictate the level at which this otherwise off-rack roster can truly compete. Without him, as intriguing as they’ve been, the playoffs are as unlikely as Jack Nicholson gifting tonight’s courtside seat to Justin Bieber.

How Kobe chooses to assert himself will be fascinating to watch. Does he acknowledge this season’s progress and work to get his from within the framework and flow of the system, or does he try to strong-arm it?

The Lakers enter tonight’s game against a team Kobe once dropped 81 points on with a 10-9 record compared to 9-10 a year ago with he and Dwight Howard and the once-twinkling images of 70 wins and a championship already extinguished. Collective optimism has replaced pessimism this season as guys named Meeks and Young and Hill and Henry and Farmar have played hard and embraced camaraderie in a way last season’s Lakers team never could — or would.

What have the Lakers become without Kobe?

Surprisingly, an entertaining team whose performances can fluctuate wildly, and, stunningly, a team that is hard to hate, even for the most ardent Lakers haters. They’re playing in the mold of Mike D’Antoni – himself suddenly elevated from the echoes of “We want Phil” chants to early coach of the year consideration. They’re sharing the ball, quickening the pace, hustling and mostly having fun and enjoying each other. They’ve managed to be OK on the road — 4-5 — and hang in enough games to hold up their end of the bargain of hanging near .500 without Kobe despite scoring fewer points than they allow.

No other team in the league has a negative differential and a winning record.

Here’s two key stats that demonstrate D’Antoni’s system at work: The Lakers rank fourth in assists at 24.1 a game (they were 17th last season at 22.2); and they’re third in 3-point percentage at 40.7 (a significant upturn from last season — 35.5 percent to rank 19th) while putting up 26.3 attempts a game, third-most in the league.

Kobe’s buddy Pau Gasol is averaging 3.1 apg along with team highs of 14.5 ppg and 9.8 rpg. Jodie Meeks is shooting 47.3 percent from beyond the arc and averaging 13.5 ppg. Steve Blake is averaging 7.8 apg with 10.2 ppg. Before his injury, bench spark plug Jordan Farmar was dishing out 4.4 apg in 18.9 mpg. Xavier Henry provided an early season boost. Jordan Hill is bringing down 8.5 rpg in 21.6 mpg, including 3.3 on the offensive glass. Nick Young is as swaggy as ever, launching a high rate of bricks in Friday night’s comeback win at Sacramento until tossing in the dagger — a crunch-time scenario he might not see again with the Black Mamba’s return.

No Laker is averaging more than Blake’s 31.8 mpg and 10 are logging at least 17.3 mpg (excluding Steve Nash, who has played in just six games). Last season, Kobe averaged 38.6 mpg, a red-flag number some blamed for his Achilles blowout in his 78th game of the season, but also a number that Kobe, now 35, insisted on playing as the Lakers fought for a playoff spot.

Basically a lot of players are doing a lot of different things pretty well.

So what does Kobe do to make this team, one many pundits predicted would fail to make the playoffs, better? This is truly new — and fascinating — territory for Mr. Bryant.

Apologies, Mr. King, but the suspense is already killing me.

Kobe Will Help, Farmar Injury Hurts


VIDEO: The GameTime crew discusses the latest on Kobe

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – Kobe Bryant is getting closer to his return. Barring a big surprise, it won’t come Friday in Sacramento, but he hasn’t ruled out playing Sunday against Toronto (9:30 p.m. ET, NBA TV). Sunday Lakers games against the Raptors obviously bring back great memories.

Some thought Bryant would return for the start of the season. Some thought he’d be back around Christmas. Few thought the Lakers would win nine games in his absence.

They’ve won nine games with Steve Nash barely contributing and with Pau Gasol shooting a career-low 42 percent. In addition to Gasol, Steve Blake is the only Laker to have started all 18 games and L.A. has been outscored by 116 points (9.7 points per 100 possessions) in Blake’s 559 minutes on the floor.

In 491 minutes with Blake and Gasol on the floor (the most minutes of any L.A. two-man combination), L.A. is a minus-134. And that’s not just because they’ve lost five games by double-digits. They’ve been outscored with the starting pair on the floor together in five of their nine wins.

So how have they won when their starters have been getting blown out  in games?

Bench play.

Jordan Farmar (Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE)

Jordan Farmar
(Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE)

The Lakers lead the league with 47.7 bench points a game. Still, bench points don’t always equate to bench success. The Lakers have been much better defensively, too, with their bench in the game. More important than the scoring is that the Lakers are a plus-76 with Jordan Farmar (who hasn’t started a single game) and Xavier Henry (who has started two) on the floor.

The starters have put them in holes. The reserves have dug out of them.

Offensively, the Lakers have shot better, turned the ball over less, got to the free-throw line more and grabbed more rebounds once the bench is in. Shot selection is a factor. Gasol, who starts, has taken more than twice as many shots from mid-range (116) as he has from the restricted area (56). Nobody on the Lakers gets to the basket very often, but restricted-area shots and 3-point attempts* are both up when the bench is in.

* The Lakers have attempted 64.3 percent of their shots from the restricted area or 3-point range with Farmar and Henry on the floor, but just 53.9 percent with Blake and Gasol on the floor.

Defensively, it’s no surprise that the Lakers haven’t been stopping opponents with Blake, Gasol, Jodie Meeks, Wesley Johnson and Jordan Hill on the floor. What has been surprising is that they are defending well when they’ve put Farmar, Henry, Nick Young and Shawne Williams out there. Young and Williams aren’t exactly Paul George and Roy Hibbert, but they’ve managed to get stops at a similar rate.

In 90 minutes with those four guys on the floor, L.A. has allowed a paltry 77.3 points per 100 possessions. That includes 12 minutes against the Warriors in which they allowed a top-10 offense to score only 14 points. That number certainly smells a little flukey, but it’s a big reason the Lakers have won nine games.

So where does Bryant fit in? Well, even if he’s not himself offensively and is the liability he was last year defensively, he can’t hurt that starting lineup. The Lakers have been outscored by 8.8 points per 100 possessions in the first six minutes of games, the sixth-worst mark in the league.

Gasol leads the team in field-goal attempts per minute and ranks 188th in effective field-goal percentage among 209 players who have attempted at least 100 shots this season. So if Bryant takes some of those shots away, the Lakers would probably be a better team.

Will he stifle the ball movement? Sure, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. With Blake and Gasol on the floor, the Lakers have assisted on 68 percent of their shots and scored only 95.4 points per 100 possessions. With Farmar and Henry on the floor, they’ve assisted on just 56 percent and scored 109.2 points per 100 possessions. A higher assist rate does not necessarily equate to better offense. The Lakers have consistently had lower assist rates and much more efficient offense with Bryant on the floor.

While Bryant’s return will help the starters, Farmar’s absence will hurt the bench. The point guard is out for four weeks with a torn hamstring suffered in Sunday’s loss to the Blazers.

Farmar has been a pleasant surprise. His absence (as well as that of Nash) leaves Blake as the only healthy point guard on the roster.

So now is a good time for Bryant to make his return. But the Lakers won’t be at their best until they have both Kobe and Farmar healthy.

Lakers Grind While Waiting On Kobe




VIDEO: Rick Fox sits down for an in-depth interview with Kobe Bryant

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – The Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant comeback playbook is written in pencil for a reason. For starters, no one knows for sure when Bryant, who returned to the practice floor in limited fashion over the weekend, will make his official return from the Achilles injury and surgery that ended his 2012-13 season prematurely.

The other variable in this situation is the work being done by Bryant’s healthy teammates. Guys like Steve BlakeXavier Henry, Jordan Hill, Jordan Farmar and Nick Young have had to carry the mantle for Bryant, Steve Nash and even Pau Gasol in early on this season. And they’ve done an admirable job, given the circumstances.

The Lakers are hovering near .500 after Sunday night’s win over the visiting Detroit Pistons. And with Bryant making his way back and Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni getting more and more comfortable with his pieced-together bunch, a season-long fight for that eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference is not totally out of the question for the Lakers.

Kobe told NBA TV’s Rick Fox that if he the playoffs were going on right now he’d be ready to play. That’s a bold statement for a guy who is reportedly just now cranking up his rehab work to the point that he can eye a legitimate timetable for his return. But bold is what we all expect from Kobe. How realistic his stance is, however, is certainly up for debate. Kobe has chosen wisely when pressed for a concrete return date.

“It’s tough because once I’ve set that as a target then I’m hell-bent at doing it at all costs, even to the detriment of the damn Achilles,” Kobe told Fox. “I try to just stay in the moment and really try to listen to my body. The biggest thing is I have not done anything athletically for six months, seven months. You got to get your body back in shape. And doing that, if I was healthy — completely healthy — you have that much time off and get back in shape and your knee is going to ache, your ankle is going to hurt, your back is going to be out. So you got to go through your progressions as you normally would over the course of a summer.”

What cannot be disputed is the Lakers’ relevance if and when Kobe returns to action. If he’s even a reasonable shell of the Kobe Bryant we’ve come to know over the past two decades, he’ll add an element to this team that allows them to compete with the any of the other fringe playoff-chasers in the West.

If he’s the Kobe Bryant we’re used to, then things should heat up considerably for L.A. when he returns. The supporting cast will have to adjust to having him back in the lineup and the entire focus changes with his reintroduction to the flow of this current group.

Unlike last season, when the Lakers struggled to come up with a clear-cut identity with Kobe, Nash, Gasol and Dwight Howard as headliners in D’Antoni’s system, there are no misconceptions about this team. They know exactly who and what they are, relative to what Lakers fans have been used to throughout the Kobe era. They are a blue-collar bunch that awaits the return of the ultimate competitor, a white-collar superstar whose always been a blue-collar worker at his core.

“The identity is going to be: We have to play full-out for 48 minutes,” DAntoni told ESPN.com’s J.A. Adande when asked about the adjustments that will have to be made by all upon Kobe’s return. “And then Kobe comes back and now the identity changes, so we’re OK.”

Everything changes when Kobe comes back.

In the meantime, the blue-collar Lakers have to continue to keep grinding …

Lakers May Have Something In Reserve

VIDEO: The Lakers hold off the Hawks in Los Angeles.

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HANG TIME WEST – Sunday night, it was five Lakers reserves logging at least 16 minutes, three of them starting the fourth quarter and another, Jordan Hill, playing the last 9:42 of a close win over the Hawks.

That came about after Wesley Johnson, Jodie Meeks and Hill kept L.A. in the game with prominent roles in the final period of a six-point loss to the Spurs, and after almost every sub got some run in the blowout defeat at the hands of the Warriors.

And that came after the opening-night statement during the victory over the Clippers. All of which came after everything.

Johnson is with his third team in as many seasons. Jordan Farmar played 39 NBA games the previous two seasons and spent 2012-13 in Turkey. Hill had 68 appearances the same two years and is coming off a torn hip muscle that cost him 49 games. Chris Kaman is on his fourth team in four years. Jodie Meeks is the shooting specialist who shot 38.7 percent last season. Xavier Henry was a training-camp invitee, Nick Young a guy trying to show he has more than swag.

This is a second unit inspired to prove a lot of people wrong, and this is a good start. What the Lakers exactly have won’t be known for a while, until Kobe Bryant returns from the torn Achilles’ tendon and the rotation settles, but even that blow to the depth does not change the encouraging impact from the first week. It also adds to the credibility to the preseason claim from coach Mike D’Antoni that the bench would be improved.

D’Antoni wasn’t exactly far out on the shaky branch when he said it — it would be difficult for the Lakers’ reserves to not be better than 2012-13. But point taken. Given the chance to immediately showcase the gains, D’Antoni’s all-reserve lineup — Meeks, Farmar, Henry, Johnson, Hill — played the entire fourth quarter of opening night, delivering a 41-24 scoring advantage those 12 minutes and a 116-103 victory over the Clippers. In all, 76 of the 116 points came from the bench, including each of the final 48.

“Hungry,” Farmar said of the personality of the subs. “I think passionate and together. We really believe in each other and we really lift each other up. We’ve got each others back. Move the ball, let everybody do what they do well. It’s working so far. Hopefully we can keep this energy up and stick to it.”

This group had been discarded and disregarded, overlooked and underappreciated. They had been playing on different continents and just trying to stay on the NBA map.

“We hear things,” said Johnson, the No. 4 pick by the Timberwolves in the 2010 draft who spent two seasons there and one in Phoenix before signing with the Lakers in July. “People are going to talk. They’re going to say whatever they want. But we’re not worried about it too much. We just have to continue to do what we do, be productive and show what we have.

“It fuels us. But we figured it’s going to be like that because the man is injured and the stuff that they went through last year is going to reflect on this year. They’re going to say stuff about us. Other than that, we’re just going to continue to play ball. We’re not really going to worry about it.”

The Lakers have started Pau Gasol, Shawne Williams and Steve Blake in each of the first four games, and Steve Nash in three of the four while holding him out of the other for rest. When Nash sat, Meeks started. Young was in the opening lineup the first three games before being replaced by Henry on Sunday against the Hawks, and Young responded with 13 points in 21 minutes.

Wait, Were D’Antoni’s Lakers Having Fun?


VIDEO: Lakers surprise Clippers in season opener

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – As joyless and soulless as last season was, the new crew wearing Los Angeles Lakers purple-and-gold — hardly the typical who’s who, but rather who’s that? — needed one energetic, bubbling, pinch-me performance to prove that there is always next season.

Maybe Tuesday night’s jaw-dropping development, a 116-103 going-away win for L.A.’s castoffs over its star-crossed (for one night anyway) Clippers and their $7 million coach, means there is a next life for beleaguered Lakers coach Mike “We want Phil” D’Antoni. A reset button for a bright career gone dim since the day he left Steve Nash and his rocket ship in Phoenix for the empty promise of New York.

With rehabbing Kobe Bryant dressed in all black and watching from the second row of the Lakers’ bench, D’Antoni’s boys played their butts off at both ends. They exchanged jabs with the glamour Clips in the first half to set up Jordan Farmar (16 points, six assists), Xavier Henry (career-high 22 points) and Jordan Hill (12 points, eight rebounds) for one humiliating haymaker after another in a vibrant, hustling and wholly unfamiliar fourth quarter that required not one second from Nash (20 minutes in all) or Pau Gasol (13 of 15 points came in the first half, plus 13 total rebounds).

When Bryant returns from an Achilles tear is anybody’s guess. Even he couldn’t give TNT’s Craig Sager an answer. In the meantime, D’Antoni has a marvelous window to reconstruct his reputation as one of the game’s best innovators. It’s his shot to go roots hoops, back to chalkboard coaching, experimenting and molding a team whose only expectation outside its own locker room is failure.

D’Antoni’s clay is two selfless future Hall of Famers with built-in motivators and an assortment of loose parts — mostly fresh, young legs as opposed to last season’s aging ones — playing with a chip and for a contract. This might as well be a gritty mid-major ready to crash the March party. Those teams typically take on the personality of their coach.

So with a starting lineup of Shawne Williams at power forward, Nick Young giddy to play the role of Kobe — maybe he will one day in the movie — and veteran backup Steve Blake next to Nash, arises this unforeseen, golden chance for D’Antoni. He can re-boot, erase images of the rigid, inflexible, insufferable coach who couldn’t make it in New York, who infamously emasculated Pau and ran off Dwight.

Tuesday’s opener should have been a slaughter the other way around. Chris Paul and company, with those darned golden banners beaming down, should have snarled like a pitbull as the reigning Pacific Division champs with bolder goals ahead. Instead they walked away droopy-eyed and tails hidden between their hindquarters.

It was just one night, but for the Lakers, it revealed more joy, unity and spirit than all of last season combined. D’Antoni clearly had buy-in. His team was running (more than 100 possessions) and gunning (14-for-29 from deep, 93 total shot attempts). They also relished in the dirty work, outrebounding the Clips 52-40 and 18-10 on the offensive glass. Williams and Chris Kaman swatted away more shots — four to three — than DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin.

Of course this mishmash collection of mostly low-rent role players will never be D’Antoni’s seven-seconds-or-less Suns and they certainly won’t look like Phil Jackson‘s Triangle Lakers. But Tuesday’s eye-popping opener suggested this group can do what those great teams did and what last season’s thought-to-be-great team failed at miserably — creating an identity and forging a bond.

The energy was undeniable, on the floor with Farmar’s stunning blow-bys and the front line’s determined board work; and on the bench with Nash and Gasol flashing disbelieving smiles and clapping and cheering as their backups bullied the Clippers’ starters. Where there is energy and hustle and camaraderie, there is a way.

In the unlikeliest of twists, the 16-time champion Lakers emerged on this night as the capable underdog we love to see succeed.

Who knows what happens at Golden State tonight (10:30 ET, NBA TV) or two weeks from now or by the time the Heat visit on Christmas Day? Who knows how things change once Kobe, a different Kobe, comes back? A loaded Western Conference ensures a tough fight just to make the playoffs.

But for one night, D’Antoni proved he’s coaching again. And his team showed that maybe this season can be what likely few among those awe-struck fans Tuesday night believed.

Fun.


VIDEO: Xavier Henry on his breakout performance vs. the Clips