Posts Tagged ‘Zach Randolph’

Morning shootaround — May 16


VIDEO: Daily Zap for Friday’s two playoff games

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Curry splashes on Memphis | Finally, Hawks reach round of 4 | Better days ahead for Wiz | Counting by 2’s in 3-point league

No. 1: Curry splashes on Memphis — On an almost nightly basis around the NBA, you’ll see this laughable sight: Some player who has no business hoisting shots from 3-point range, let alone some distance beyond that, will be heaving up ridiculous attempts from out-of-bounds on the sidelines. Or from halfcourt. The simple thought of “Planning to take that shot in the game, are ya?” never seems to cross their minds. But then there’s Steph Curry and a couple of his friends on the Golden State Warriors, who hoist the ball from such spots and have credibility enough to call them “field-goal attempts.” Curry was at it again while helping the Warriors oust Memphis for one of the berths in the Western Conference finals, per our own Shaun Powell:

There have been plenty of bubble-bursting shots in playoff history and while Jerry West‘s 60-foot runner in the 1970 NBA Finals is easily the Hindenberg of them all, was Curry’s three-quarters-length heave Friday one of the loudest pops heard since?

The noise is still banging in the eardrums of the Grizzlies, who were simply stunned by the sequence in the final seconds of the third quarter, just when they were mounting a comeback to prevent elimination. The FedEx Forum crowd was buzzing and begging the Grizzlies to seize control of Game 6 for the first time all night. Jeff Green rushed downcourt attempting to cut the Golden State lead to three when he was blocked. Curry scooped the loose ball and threw a chest-shot in the opposite direction … from near his own three-point stripe … and the ball didn’t even have the decency to bank off the glass or wiggle inside the rim first. It was true. Splash. Damn. For a city steeped in music, Curry just played a lullaby and put all of Memphis to sleep. The arena became that hushed.

“In mid-air,” said coach Steve Kerr, “I said, ‘I think it’s going in.'”

Yes, after the season he had, and the playoffs he’s having, we’re all conditioned to feel that way about Curry now, that when he misses a jumper, from wherever, it’s a head-scratcher. He’s the rare player who never loses confidence, who won’t skip a shot because he clanked one or two. That makes him dangerous and drives the defense crazy. And every time he touched the ball after that 62-footer, the crowd groaned before he even flicked his wrist. They knew. You knew.

Curry made 25 from deep in this series and the Grizzlies made 24. Curry made eight (out of 13) 3-pointers in Game 6, the Grizzlies four. He was a one-man 3-point demolition crew, none more crushing than from 62 feet. The Grizzlies collectively caved in the fourth quarter after Curry’s groin-kick and their season was done. Meanwhile, Curry’s legend and the Warriors move on, to a place where the franchise hasn’t been in 39 years, four wins from the NBA Finals, bringing the requisite superstar necessary to win a title.

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No. 2: Finally, Hawks reach round of 4 — It took one 10th of a second, maybe two, in which one of Paul Pierce‘s fingers still was in contact with the basketball to make it happen. But after the official replay review revealed the truth about The Truth, wiping out the corner 3 that would have sent the Hawks-Wizards game into overtime, Atlanta finally … finally … finally emerged from that Eastern Conference semifinals series to secure a spot in the conference finals. Our man Lang Whitaker was there to chronicle a little history:

Since moving to the Eastern Conference before the 1970-71 season, the Atlanta Hawks have made it to the Eastern Conference semifinals 15 times. But somehow, despite all those chances, things have never gone their way, and the Hawks have never been able to advance into the Eastern Conference finals.

Until Friday night. ATLast.

After a campaign where they surprised pretty much everyone during the regular season en route to winning 60 games and the Eastern Conference, the Hawks continued writing a new history by beating the Washington Wizards 94-91 in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. For the first time in 45 years, the Atlanta Hawks have advanced to the Eastern Conference finals.

“I think the city really deserved this,” said Hawks forward DeMarre Carroll, who led the Hawks with 25 points. “They needed this. I think we wouldn’t even be here without our fans.”

As with most things Hawks, it wasn’t easy and it nearly didn’t happen. Despite leading by 10, 81-71, with nine minutes remaining, the Wizards tied the game at 89 with 1:14 left to play. To take the lead for good, the Hawks turned to the very thing that defined them throughout the season: team basketball. Instead of going one-on-one, Jeff Teague found Carroll on backdoor cuts on back-to-back possessions, giving the Hawks a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

To be certain, a trip to the Eastern Conference finals for the Hawks should be considered “getting through,” but it’s still baby steps — during Atlanta’s dry spell, the Boston Celtics have been at least as far as the Eastern Conference Finals 17 times. But after a summer of discontent for the Hawks, with general manager Danny Ferry taking an indefinite leave of absence following making racist statements on a phone call, and then the franchise being put up for sale following an owner self-reporting racially charged emails, any type of good news would probably be embraced by Hawks fans. A 60-win season and trip to the Conference finals exceeded anyone’s wildest expectations.

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No. 3: Better days ahead for Wiz — There was no denying the disappointment for the Washington Wizards. As far as some of their players are concerned, losing in the semifinals is a Groundhog Day hell that officially meant no progress from their elimination two rounds deep a year ago. There’s a difference between knocking at the door as a team on the rise and knock-knock-knocking as a legitimate championship contender. But setting aside the emotions of Friday night, NBA.com’s John Schuhmann pointed out some of the progress on which the Wizards can build, once they get over this:

[The] Wizards did something in this postseason that they didn’t do last year and that they didn’t do in the regular season. They put the ball in the basket. They were the most improved offensive team in the playoffs.

A team that ranked 19th in offensive efficiency in the regular season changed its identity and looked rather potent. Inefficient mid-range shots became 3-pointers, and 40 percent of those 3-pointers went in. It was like the Wizards finally discovered what the rest of the league has known for the last few years.

With more space to operate, [John] Wall made it clear why he was the No. 1 pick in the Draft five years ago. No matter how the opponent defended him, he made the right decisions and the right plays.

With Wall out of the lineup for three games, Bradley Beal stepped up and showed why he was the No. 3 pick in 2012. He stuck to Kyle Korver all series and scored inside and out.

And with an opportunity like he’s never had before, Otto Porter looked like a top-three pick too. He was a 3-and-D small forward, slowing down DeMar DeRozan in the first round and staying active off the ball on offense.

And suddenly, you realized that this team has a lot of talent. Young talent. Wall turns 25 in September. Beal and Porter each turn 22 next month.

Paul Pierce provided leadership, swagger, and the ability to space the floor as a part-time four man. And if he chooses not to exercise his player option for next season, he will be missed.

But whether or not Pierce is back, the Wizards will continue to build around their three young perimeter players and a defense that has ranked in the top 10 each of the last three seasons. And they now have the blueprint – more versatility at the forward positions – that can push them toward a top 10 ranking on the other end of the floor.

When you have a top 10 defense and a top 10 offense, you’re a title contender.

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No. 4: Counting by 2’s in 3-point league — The Memphis Grizzlies are like pizza, if you think about it. Pizza is great. Pizza is welcome almost any time and any place, same as the Grizzlies are a hoot to watch and root for across the long, corner-three-loving NBA regular season. You slog along on a diet of what has become the same-old same old in this league – pesky perimeter guys buzzing around and feeling great about making 40 percent of their shots, as long as their toes are behind the right line – and then you spot the Grizzlies on the schedule. Hey, pizza! The problem with pizza, or in this case, Memphis’ pounding, bigs-based attack, is that it only gets you so far. Pizza is fun but it’s not welcome at the biggest events — holiday dinners, weddings receptions, fancy client meetings, The Finals. That’s not unlike the limbo in which the Grizzlies find themselves, unique and yet unloved, as far as the ring sizers go. Royce Young of ESPN.com evaluated Memphis’ style shortfall vs. Golden State:

The series was billed as style against style, with the Grizzlies’ traditional, two-big ground-and-pound against the Warriors’ contemporary all-purpose attack. And as it played out, it was the same old postseason story for Memphis: Enough to remain exceptionally competitive, but not enough to advance.

“The series was a good series,” [coach Dave] Joerger said. “It was about which style won out.”

The Grizzlies are very direct. They want to play inside-out, focusing everything at their two beastly bigs and reluctantly relying on the perimeter. But as Steve Kerr and the Warriors played their ace in the hole, cross-matching Andrew Bogut on [Tony] Allen, the Grizzlies didn’t have a countermove. More than any other team in the league, they are who they are. Their identity is forged in grit and grind, which unfortunately doesn’t include versatility and flexibility, hallmarks of today’s pace-and-space NBA.

“We have who we have,” Mike Conley said. “We have our personnel. We play through our personnel. We have big guys, and that’s what we have to play through our strengths. We can’t change that. We have to work with what we have. We’ve done a phenomenal job with it, but I think us going into next season, we have to find ways to free up guys on the outside, get guys that can get easy looks, try to open up and knock them down and get more opportunities for our big guys.”

The annoying narrative that still hangs around is that jumpers don’t win in the playoffs, that 3-pointers are a siren song of temptation, not of tried-and-true success. Well, no team is more interior focused and less reliant on jumpshooting than the Grizzlies …

The answer seems to be obvious. The Grizzlies have to adapt, have to adjust, have to evolve. They’ve played their stubborn way for five years now, and it’s produced admirable success. This is a unique roster that plays a one-of-a-kind style. Even more, this was probably the Grizzlies’ best team. They just couldn’t match the Warrior buzz saw, and that’s where lines get blurred. The Grizzlies had a terrific season; they also weren’t good enough. There’s something to be proud of in giving the Warriors hell; there’s also nothing tangible to take from it.

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Paul Pierce has 6 million reasons to return to the Wizards next season, but the challenge gets greater when you’re matched up with Father Time. … Change is coming in Chicago, writes our Steve Aschburner, with coach Tom Thibodeau‘s status in the air and Derrick Rose needing to recommit. … Some wonder why the Bulls’ alleged top candidate to coach next season, Iowa State’s Fred Hoiberg, would leave just two years into his 10-year, $20 million contract. But the Cyclones’ athletic director expects Hoiberg to tackle the NBA challenge one of these days. … Uh oh: Phil Jackson allegedly maybe doesn’t like the idea of Isiah Thomas hanging around Madison Square Garden as president of the WNBA Liberty, according to the New York Daily News. … Golden State’s David Lee didn’t initially believe teammate Steph Curry when he told the veteran power forward the postseason would last long enough for him to play a role for the Warriors. Well, guess what?

It’s the Warriors and everybody else in the Western Conference


VIDEO: Inside the NBA: Are the Rockets legit contenders?

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — With 13 days and 105 games left in the regular season, things are starting to clear up a bit.

The only two teams that are locked into their playoff position are the two No. 1 seeds, Atlanta and Golden State. And while the Cavs seem to have the 2 seed locked up and the Wizards would have a tough time climbing out of fifth, Eastern Conference matchups are generally in flux.

The Raptors and Bulls are currently tied for the 3 seed. The Bucks got a couple of big wins last week, but still have some work to do to hold onto sixth. And the 7 and 8 seeds are still very much up for grabs. Both Brooklyn and Boston have tough remaining schedules and Miami just lost Dwyane Wade again.

The Western Conference is a little more clear. The Houston Rockets and Memphis Grizzlies are in a tight race for the No. 2 seed. The Portland Trail Blazers need just one win (or a Thunder loss) to clinch the Northwest Division and a top-four seed. The Dallas Mavericks would have a tough time moving out of the 7 seed and the 8 seed is down to just two teams (Oklahoma City and New Orleans).

That clarity allows us to start looking at potential matchups and where we might find an upset or two.

The Warriors’ first victim

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Overall, the Warriors are 20-4 against teams 2-9 in the West. Andrew Bogut missed each of the last three losses, which took place in December and January. The only time they lost to a good West team with Bogut in uniform was Nov. 11.

Statistically, the Warriors the best team we’ve seen since the 1995-96 Bulls and the best team in the league by a wide margin. At this point, it’s fair to ask if, in predicting the NBA championship, you would pick the Warriors or the field.

The Pelicans have the tie-breaker, but the Thunder have a 1 1/2 game lead and an easier remaining schedule. New Orleans plays five of their final eight games on the road (three of seven for OKC) and six against teams over .500 (four for OKC).

Serge Ibaka‘s return would make the Thunder a stronger opponent, but there’s nothing to suggest that the Dubs wouldn’t win their first series in four or five games.

Hosting the Mavs

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Though Dirk Nowitzki had a couple of rough shooting nights in Houston, all four Mavs-Rockets meetings have been within five points in the last five minutes.

Dallas’ games against Memphis haven’t been as close, in part because the Mavs haven’t been able to slow down the Grizzlies’ bigs. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph combined to average 39.5 points on 55 percent shooting in the four games.

The 3-6 scrum

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The Rockets and Spurs play each other twice next week, while the Grizzlies and Clippers each have one more meeting.

The Blazers would probably prefer to see the Grizzlies stay in the 2-3 spots, rather than fall into fifth. But that’s the only 4-0 sweep within this group.

So, while both Houston and Memphis should be gunning for the 2 seed, everybody else should be prepared for a competitive first round series.

The playoffs are 15 days away and they’re going to be great, even if the Warriors look like the clear favorite.

Morning shootaround — March 18


VIDEO: Highlights of the games played March 17

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Bulls get good news on injuries | Silver: Talk of work stoppage ‘premature’ | Randolph, Grizzlies miffed after loss | Popovich: Spurs’ effort vs. Knicks ‘pathetic’

No. 1: Injury cloud may soon be leaving Bulls — As The Starters discussed on their show yesterday, several teams in the NBA this season have been unlucky when it comes to losing players due to injury. One such team on that list is the Chicago Bulls, who, of late, have been without the services of Taj Gibson and All-Stars Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose. Things are starting to look up for Chicago, though, as Gibson and Butler are nearing a return and Rose may be ahead of schedule for a comeback, too. The Chicago Tribune‘s K.C. Johnson has more:

Ater an injury-riddled, 4-7 stretch and talk of minutes restrictions and internal discord, the Bulls needed some positive news.

They got it.

Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson practiced fully Tuesday at the Advocate Center and Derrick Rose participated in the non-contact portions. All three players remain on schedule to return, with Butler and Gibson possible later this week and coach Tom Thibodeau saying Rose is “maybe even slightly ahead” of his four to six week timeline that began Feb. 27.

“This was very good,” an upbeat Thibodeau said of the day’s developments.

Butler sprained a ligament and suffered a small bone impaction in his left elbow when he ran into DeAndre Jordan’s screen on March 1. He wore a brace but even got up left-handed shots — his non-shooting hand — after practice.

“My body feels great in the morning. My first practice back, I had a few bumps. But I think it’s possible,” Butler said of returning late this week. “But I can’t rush it. I don’t want it to get any worse. It’s never going to have full range while I’m playing, but I think it will feel better in a few days.

“My teammates, coaches and management are all in my corner, telling me to be careful. Obviously, I know that. But it’s hard when I want to play so bad. You want to get back, but you know you shouldn’t come back too early.”

Gibson severely sprained his left ankle Feb. 27, the same day Rose underwent arthroscopic surgery to remove a small tear in his right meniscus. The Tribune reported Feb. 25 that Rose expected to return this season.

“It’s the next phase of his rehab,” Thibodeau said of Rose participating in parts of practice. “He still has to obviously strengthen the knee. But it’s a good step for him.”

So, obviously, would returning to full strength. The Bulls are 15-4 when Rose, Butler, Mike Dunleavy, Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol start.

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Morning shootaround — March 13


VIDEO: Highlights of the games played March 12

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Irving proves his worth to Cavs | Wall felt disrespected by Grizzlies | Jackson: Knicks’ season ‘a project gone awry’

No. 1: Irving dominates — and proves he’s a worth sidekick to LeBron — The NBA world is abuzz this morning about Kyrie Irving‘s 57-point masterpiece of a game in the Cavs’ OT win over the Spurs last night. (If you missed it, you can watch every single one of his buckets right here). Not only did the win help keep the Cavs in the chase for the No. 2 spot in the East, it also proved, writes Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com, that Irving is turning out to be a more-than worthy sidekick to LeBron James:

Before Kyrie Irving could become the hero and score the last nine points of regulation, including a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to force overtime, and before Irving could top even that by scoring 11 of the Cavs’ 18 points in OT to earn the 128-125 win in what had to be the league’s best regular-season game this season, James needed to remind all of his guys that even when down double digits in the lion’s den, they had the power to make something happen.

“LeBron told us in the timeout, ‘Win, lose or draw, still fight to the end,'” Tristan Thompson said. “And guys believed.”

Spend enough time in the Cavs’ locker room and you’ll hear a version of James’ message uttered on a daily basis. Guys will chirp, “Stay with it,” as a sort of catch phrase that’s become an inside joke (they usually pronounce it more like, “Stayyyy wittttt it”), quoting a recurring piece of advice imparted by assistant coach James Posey.

“Coach Pos started it,” James said. “You know, stay with it, and that’s what we’ve got to do. No matter what’s going on throughout the game, no matter what’s going on throughout the season, we’ve got to stay with it, stay with our process, stay with what we need to do, both offensively and defensively, on the bus, on the plane, whatever the case may be. We’ve always got to stay with what we’re trying to build around here, and that’s championship DNA.”

To build that DNA, first the Cavs had to draw blood from a champion.

There was room for only one truly transcendent star on this night, anyway, and it was Irving.

Once James got his teammates to believe, he showed how strong his belief was in them right back. Rather than being the one to get the last shot and try to, with one flip of the wrist, exorcise the AT&T Center demons that have haunted him the past nine months when his hopes for ring No. 3 died, James took the ball out of bounds and passed to Irving for the final shot of regulation.

The historical significance of the performance was baked in, as Irving topped his own NBA season-high mark of 55 points while simultaneously edging James’ Cavs franchise record of 56 points and also managing to tie Purvis Short’s record of 57 points for the most points ever scored by a San Antonio opponent. And, to give context to just how well the Spurs played and still lost, it was just the second time in the PopovichDuncan era that San Antonio shot 56 percent or better at a team (it shot 56.3 percent Thursday) and didn’t win.

But he didn’t want any part of it. “I don’t want the game ball,” he told a team attendant afterward. Nor did he seem to be too keen on setting aside any keepsake from the night — Mike Miller was the recipient of his autographed, game-worn sneakers, which Miller toted out of the locker room with a smile on his face. Irving did say he planned to go to Disney World on Friday, but those were plans he already made before going bonkers on the Spurs, what with the team heading to Florida for an Orlando/Miami back-to-back.

What Irving got out of this night was an ascendance to James’ level and an acceptance from the four-time MVP that he doesn’t just have a young, talented guy out there by his side, he has a partner. When Irving scored 55 points against Portland earlier in the season, James was out with a sore wrist. When he scored 57 against San Antonio, it came on a night when James scored 31 and the two of them combined to score Cleveland’s final 27 points (20 for Irving, seven for James).


VIDEO: Relive some great moments from Kyrie Irving’s big game vs. the Spurs

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Pelicans’ Davis (shoulder) out, Nowitzki in for All-Star Game

A right shoulder sprain will keep Davis out of All-Star 2015.

A right shoulder sprain will keep Davis out of All-Star 2015 (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images).

Who’s got next?

Pelicans forward Anthony Davis became the third member of the fan-voted Western Conference starting five to pull out of the 2015 NBA All-Star Game due to injury.

Davis, who is recovering from a right shoulder sprain suffered on Saturday night in Chicago, sat out Wednesday night’s home loss to the Pacers, then released the following statement:

“After careful thought and consideration, I’ve decided I will not be participating in this year’s NBA All-Star competitions.  I want to thank the fans for voting me into the All-Star game and I am sorry I will not be able to play. 

While I’m disappointed that I won’t be able to compete this weekend, I’m still very excited about the opportunity to be a part of the All-Star events in New York and celebrate our game with some of the NBA’s greatest figures.

“More than anything, I am anxious to get healthy and back on the court with my teammates after the All-Star break.”

The injured Kobe Bryant of the Lakers and Blake Griffin of the Clippers have already been replaced on the West team by the Kings’ DeMarcus Cousins and Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard.

UPDATE: Shortly after the Davis announcement, the NBA announced that Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki has been named to replace the New Orleans big man.

Morning shootaround — Feb. 9


VIDEO: Highlights of the games played Feb. 8

NEWS OF THE MORNING

LeBron calls out Love … and it works | Clippers in a tail-spin | Karl and Kings close on a deal | Dwight Howard the big cheerleader?

No. 1: LeBron calls out Love … and it works — Even when he’s being a bit of a heel, LeBron James gets it right. He called out Kevin Love, who has admittedly struggled with his transition from focal point in Minnesota to third option in Cleveland behind James and All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving. That he took to Twitter to do it will bother some, okay plenty of folks, with old school sensibilities about how to lead. But it’s hard to argue with the results. Love had one of his best games of the season Sunday in a win over the Los Angeles Lakers. Joe Vardon of the Northeast Ohio Media Group has more:

LeBron James has nearly 18.7 million followers on Twitter, but a tweet he sent at 11:37 Saturday night was likely, almost certainly, directed at a single person.

His teammate, Kevin Love.

James posted to his Twitter account: “Stop trying to find a way to FIT-OUT and just FIT-IN. Be apart of something special! Just my thoughts.”

Those words — “fit out” and “fit in” — were the same Love used to reporters in October when discussing his adjustment to playing for the Cavaliers.

“it’s not a coincidence, man,” James told a few reporters, following the Cavaliers’ 120-105 win over the Lakers Sunday. Love scored a season-high 32 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.

“I lost the Finals in 2007, 2011 and 2014 and that was the same day I came back to Cleveland. Put it together, seven, 11, 14. Coincidence” James said, proving his point.

For reference, it is indeed true that James announced his decision to return to Cleveland via free agency on July 11, 2014.

James was asked about his tweet following Sunday’s game and Love’s big night. James nearly recorded a triple-double with 22 points, 10 rebounds, and eight assists — three of those assists went to Love on three-pointers.

“It wasn’t even about this team, it was more about people in general,” James said initially, to a larger group of reporters. “It was just a general thought that I had, and obviously whatever thought I had people try to encrypt it and Da Vinci Code it and all that stuff. It’s just a general thought, that’s all that is.

“And people are always trying to fit out instead of fitting in, instead of being a part of something special. And that’s all that was about.”

In October, Love told reporters that “I’m just trying not to fit in so much” and that nameless Cavs teammates had told him to “fit out and just be myself.”

“Fit in” and “fit out” of course, were written in all caps in James’ tweet.


VIDEO: Kevin Love talks after the Cavs’ win over the Lakers

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Morning shootaround — Jan. 19



VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 18

NEWS OF THE MORNING
KD, Thunder hit reset button | LeBron feeling fresh as ever | Cousins All-Star testimonials | Larry Sanders has every intention of resuming his NBA career | What makes the Hawks work at the top?

 

No. 1: Reset button pushed in Oklahoma City — The first half of this NBA season couldn’t have gone any worse for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Injuries to superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, for starters, derailed the normal plans. But at .500 near the halfway mark of their season and the main characters finally back in regular form, the Thunder have mashed the reset button with one of their toughest stretches of the season ahead. They are prepared as they could be for the gauntlet, writes Michael Wallace of ESPN.com:

By the time the Thunder put the finishing touches on a 127-99 rout of the Magic — after setting a franchise record with 79 points in the first half — the night was long done for the rotation regulars. But the reality is Oklahoma City’s work, essentially, is just beginning.

“Anytime you get a chance to sit out the fourth quarter, it feels good,” Durant said of the festive atmosphere around the Thunder’s bench down the stretch. “It’s good for us and great to see everyone smiling and happy after a win coming into the locker room.”

Durant, who had 21 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists through three quarters, enjoyed the scene from the bench too much to even think about coming back into the game to chase the two additional assists he needed to secure his first triple-double of the season.

But the reigning league MVP didn’t hesitate to make his strongest point of the night before he exited the visitors’ locker room at Amway Arena: “We have to keep fighting.”

The Magic didn’t put up much of a fight from the outset, which allowed the Thunder to cruise in the second half. That certainly won’t be the case over the course of the second half of the season. After posting their most dominant offensive performances in consecutive wins against Golden State and Orlando, the Thunder improved to 20-20 as they hit the midpoint of the schedule Tuesday in Miami.

The next four games on this five-game trip — at the Heat, Wizards, Hawks and Cavaliers — could either propel the Thunder firmly back into the playoff picture for the first time this season or push them into a sizable deficit that might be too steep to overcome in the ultra-competitive West.

Durant and the Thunder don’t need 20-20 vision to see that though a .500 record might be sufficient to garner the sixth seed in the East, it’ll land you in the lottery in the conference in which they compete. It’s why Durant left Sunday’s game delivering fighting words, considering what his squad is facing.

Now that they’ve endured the worst and have broken even, the Thunder seeks to hit the reset button.

Hampered by injuries to Durant (foot, ankle) and Westbrook (hand) that caused the two catalysts to miss a combined 37 games, Oklahoma City has gone from a team that struggled to find seven healthy players for a game to the healthiest the team has been all season.

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Grizzlies missing their grit and grind


VIDEO: Fan Night: Mike Conley and Marc Gasol explain the Grizzlies’ offense

ATLANTA — The Memphis Grizzlies are reportedly looking for an upgrade on the wing.

ESPN.com’s Marc Stein wrote Thursday that the Grizz have been working the phones, looking for a small forward that can help them in the brutal Western Conference…

The Memphis Grizzlies, looking to bolster their scoring options on the wing in the ever-competitive Western Conference, are actively trying to obtain Miami’s Luol Deng or Boston’s Jeff Green ahead of the Feb. 19 trade deadline, according to league sources.

No deal is imminent, sources said, but it has become clear that the Grizzlies are intent on upgrading their wing rotation. The teams behind third-place Memphis (25-10) in the Western Conference standings already have made notable in-season additions — such as Dallas (Rajon Rondo) and Houston (Corey Brewer and Josh Smith) — and Oklahoma City has yet to move into playoff position.

Green is much more obtainable, but doesn’t necessarily move the needle on either end of the floor. In fact, the Celtics have been much better both offensively and defensively with Green off the floor this season … as they were last season.

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At 25-10, the Grizzlies are in third place in the Western Conference. Only two West teams — Golden State (fourth offensively and first defensively) and Portland (sixth and third) — rank higher than they do (11th and 11th) on both ends of the floor. They’re one of only two teams (Chicago is the other) that ranked in the top 10 in defensive efficiency each of the past four seasons, and this is the best offense (scoring 1.9 points per 100 possessions more than the league average) in franchise history).

But things have been trending the wrong way for the Grizzlies of late, especially on defense.

Through November, the Grizzlies ranked fourth defensively, allowing just 97.8 points per 100 possessions. But since Dec. 1, they’ve ranked 22nd, having allowed 105.9. That drop-off of 8.1 is the largest in the league, though the Spurs (7.9) have come close.

Strength of schedule hasn’t really been a factor. The average OffRtg of their October-November opponents was 103.5, while the average OffRtg of their December-January opponents has been 103.5.

Injuries have played a role. Tony Allen missed four games in the middle of December with a corneal abrasion, and Zach Randolph has missed the last nine games with a sore knee.

Z-Bo isn’t going to get any Defensive Player of the Year votes anytime soon. In his absence, Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger has had to get a little creative offensively. He used three point guards together for the first time in Wednesday’s loss in Atlanta, because “we have to get another playmaker on the floor.”

But Randolph’s absence has meant that Memphis has had to play small most of the time. And generally, smaller lineups are not as good defensively as bigger ones. Tayshaun Prince defending fours is different than Tayshaun Prince defending threes.

“We’re playing some guys out of position, playing a little bit more small-ball than we generally do, mixing and matching some guys,” said Joerger before Wednesday’s game in Atlanta.

Prince also blames a lack of practice time in December.

“No matter how good you are defensively or how veteran-ized your team is,” he said Wednesday, “you still got to get some practice in to keep your mind set right. We haven’t been doing that lately.”

Joerger, meanwhile, thinks his team got a little too comfortable with how well it was playing offensively.

“We won some games by outscoring some people,” the coach said. “Sometimes you can gain confidence in that, and that’s a good thing to have, but then you can rely on that at times too.”

For a lot of different reasons, the Grizz lost their grit-and-grind identity. And with a 4-6 mark in their last 10 games, they have to get it back. You can blame one thing or the other, but a drop-off of more than nine points per 100 possessions is huge. As long as they have Prince, Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, they should never be a bottom-10 defensive team for near six-week span.

“You can’t just point at one thing,” Gasol said. “It’s a multiple-factor thing. But if we don’t have good one-on-one defense, it’s tough to play. If we don’t keep the ball on the side of the floor, keep the ball away from the middle …

“The [key] to our whole defense is to keep the ball away from the middle and protect that paint. If we don’t pull guys in and do multiple efforts, one side, other side, it’s tough. It’s really tough, because you go, like we did against Denver [last Saturday], into emergency mode way too early.”

Randolph practiced on Thursday and says he will play in New Orleans tonight (8 ET, League Pass). The Pelicans are one of two top-10 offensive teams the Grizz play this weekend (they’re home against Phoenix on Sunday), so their defense is going to be tested.

“We just got to get back to it,” Joerger said. “It’s not going to be one game. It has to be a process of two or three weeks where it’s got to be our focus.”

Morning shootaround — Nov. 8


VIDEO: Highlights from games played Nov. 7

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Clippers struggling to live up to the hype | Rockets will be short-handed in battle of unbeatens | The “dark side” of the triangle

No. 1: Clippers struggling to live up to the hype — Don’t believe the hype, especially when it’s self-generated. The Los Angeles Clippers are finding that out the hard way this season, struggling early on to play up to expectations (both internally and externally) that had many folks picking them as the favorite to win the Western Conference and perhaps the NBA title. We’re barely two weeks into this NBA season, but it’s clear they are not playing at a level that was expected of them. Ben Bolch of The Los Angeles Times breaks it down in advance of the Clippers’ afternoon tussle with the Portland Trail Blazers:

Everyone, it seems, is playing pop psychologist, diagnosing the problems of a team widely expected to contend for the Western Conference title that has gotten off to an underwhelming start.

With the Lakers winless through the season’s first five games, the Clippers could color Los Angeles red and blue beyond their “BE RELENTLESS” ads adorning buildings and billboards. It hasn’t happened.

“This is a chance for the Clippers to take over the city and they don’t want it,” Hall of Fame shooting guard and TNT analyst Reggie Miller said Friday in a phone interview. “You should have people in the barber shop buzzing about the Clippers. As opposed to talking about their effort, they should be saying, ‘Did you see that play?'”

A more common refrain after the season’s first week: Oy vey.

The Clippers are 3-2 but were blown out by Golden State and lost at home to a Sacramento team that won only 28 games last season. They have been outrebounded in every game and couldn’t hold double-digit leads in four games.

Clippers Coach Doc Rivers called his players “soft” after their 17-point loss to the Warriors and didn’t seem impressed by a team meeting afterward.

“When I read about team meetings in the league, I’m thinking, ‘I hope we play them next,'” Rivers said Friday. “We all know we didn’t play hard. I don’t think I need a team meeting for that.”

One observer who watched the Warriors’ demolition of the Clippers has remained Zen about the team’s prospects.

“I think everybody in Clipperland has to do the Aaron Rodgers thing right now,” ESPN analyst and former New York Knicks and Houston Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy said, referring to the Green Bay Packers quarterback who told fans to loosen up amid a slow start. “Relax. Let it play out. If at 20 games, you get to a quarter of the year and there’s issues, that’s when I think you start evaluating more so than after five games.”

Van Gundy said what’s more important than the Clippers’ spotty play is what they do next. They play the Portland Trail Blazers on Saturday afternoon at Staples Center.

It’s a chance to start resembling the team the Clippers want to be. Of course, even a blowout victory wouldn’t end their concerns.

“It’s not like we go out against Portland, have a good game and we’re like, ‘Well, thank God that’s over,'” Griffin said. “We’ve just got to stay with it and keep working on the things we have to work on.”


VIDEO: Hornets guard Lance Stephenson sinks the game winner against the Hawks

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Superman’s return(?) lifts Rockets


VIDEO: Dwight Howard goes alley-oop crazy on the Spurs

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — We haven’t seen him in a couple of years, the smiling big guy who wore the cape and leaped over all things.

The dominant Dwight Howard we all grew accustomed to seeing while he starred in Orlando, the one who disappeared two years ago in Los Angeles and struggled a bit adjusting early on in Houston last season, was back on the floor Thursday night in Houston.  Howard crushed the (Tim Duncan-less) San Antonio Spurs, executing a series of alley-oop dunks early against the reigning world champs in the Rockets’ 98-81 demolition job.

Howard finished with 32 points and 16 rebounds and was unstoppable inside. The Rockets are 6-0 with James Harden and Howard leading the way.

Harden was splendid last season, a first-team All-NBA pick on a good team that couldn’t get out of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.

Could Superman’s return lift them up to that next level this season?

I don’t see  why not.

If this is the Howard we’re going to see all season, maybe I need to take another look at the landscape in the West and put the Rockets in their proper position among the elite teams. Originally I saw them as a team capable of chasing that fourth spot behind San Antonio, the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder.

But early on it’s the undefeated Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors who are leading the pack. The Grizzlies have their own dominant big men in Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. They’d be hard-pressed to look any better than Howard did against the Spurs.