Posts Tagged ‘Zach Randolph’

Blogtable: Big Movers Of Second Half

Golden State's Klay Thompson, David Lee and Steph Curry (Rocky Widner/NBAE)

Golden State’s Klay Thompson, David Lee and Steph Curry (Rocky Widner/NBAE)

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


Movers and shakers | Texas throwdown | LeBron’s future


Which team will be the big mover of the second half? Why’s that?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.comMinnesota. Want-to doesn’t mean it’s going to happen, but I can’t come up with a team that has more urgency to pick up the pace in search of a playoff spot. Convincing Kevin Love that he’ll be able to win with the Timberwolves long-term is what the next 16 months are about in the Twin Cities. That suggests a move of some sort by Thursday’s trade deadline but more so, a desperation to end the Wolves’ decade-long postseason drought. If the current No. 8 (Dallas) continues at its present pace (.582), Minnesota needs to finish 22-7 to catch up.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: I don’t think there are going to be any dramatic moves made.  But assuming the Grizzlies hold onto Zach Randolph past the trade deadline, I think they’ll jump up and squeeze into the playoffs in the West.  Of course, if they do that, it could be at the expense of Golden State and then maybe Mark Jackson makes a dramatic move toward the door.

Dwyane Wade (Glenn James/NBAE)

Miami’s Dwyane Wade (Glenn James/NBAE)

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: Paging Golden State, Paging Golden State… The Warriors better make a big move up or else… But they’re not my choice. You’d be stunned to see the Heat ratchet up the defense and go on a tear? Me either, but they’re not my choice. People, I’m talking the Washington Wizards — that’s right, the Wiz. I know they slipped before the break, but they seemed to be discovering themselves just prior and even got over .500 for the first time since, like, the moon walk. John Wall and Bradley Beal return from fun All-Star experiences in New Orleans with, I believe, a seriousness, a real sense of the job at hand. And the schedule should be advantageous. Of their next 22 games (through March) only seven are against teams with winning records and that includes Toronto (twice), Memphis and Phoenix.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: I’ll stick with my preseason prediction: the Warriors are one of the better teams in the West, not a team that should be scraping by at the end to hang on for No. 7 or 8. They have definitely earned that spot so far. But a solid locker room that has the ability to focus when it matters most – or the threat of being embarrassed by a bad finish – will drive Golden State away from the danger zone.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: As long as Andrew Bogut’s shoulder issue doesn’t linger, Golden State should move back up the Western Conference standings into a 3-5 seed. Their point differential is better than their record, they have a top-five defense, and they play one of the easier schedules in the West going forward, including nine games against East teams under .500 and four against the Jazz, Kings and Lakers.

Sekou Smith, NBA.comAs crazy as it sounds, I think it’s going to be the Miami Heat. They’re not going on another 27-game run like they did last year, chasing history and making a mockery of the rest of the league on their way to the best regular-season record and eventually their second straight championship. But I think they’re going to ride the wave of emotion that LeBron James is playing with, and has been since we all started talking about Kevin Durant challenging him for league supremacy. The Heat needed motivation, they needed a cause to inspire them through the 82-game marathon that will mean next to nothing if they don’t win a third straight title. They’ve found it now and it’s defending their honor and the honor of their leader and best player. Indiana’s hold on that No. 1 spot in the East is tenuous at best. It’ll be interesting to see the Heat as the hunter as opposed to the hunted the rest of this season.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball blogMemphis. As of today they’re out of the playoffs, and they may not have placed anyone on the All-Star team, but they’ve finally got everyone healthy (well, except for Tony Allen, and by all accounts he’s just days away). They haven’t made as many headlines as when they were the Hang Time Grizzlies or the Grit N’ Grind Grizzlies, but they’ve quietly put together a 15-4 run over the last few weeks. I think they’ve got the experience and health to continue playing the way they have of late and put together a late-season push that launches them into the postseason.

Simon Legg, NBA AustraliaGolden State. They’re currently seventh in the West but this team is too good to be that low. I can see them overtaking Phoenix and Dallas, then taking aim at Portland. Surprisingly, they’re ranked 12th in offensive efficiency but their dynamic starting lineup has played only 647 minutes of their 2,559 minutes on the floor. Their offensive rating with the starting five is 112.8. Without them, it’s 104.2. Expect their starters to get more minutes as we turn to the playoffs and for the Warriors to move up the standings.

XiBin Yang, NBA ChinaThe Grizzlies have found the rhythm again, and it’s a relief that Marc Gasol’s injury was not serious. He’s still the core of this team. With Conley’s return, they could trace their winning pace last year.

Aldo Aviñante, NBA Philippines: I think the Miami Heat will string off another huge winning streak to try and get the number one spot in the standings. The stakes are getting higher. They had a historical 27-game winning streak last year that started right about the same time this season and they might gun for another one in the home stretch.

Duncan Not Publicly Planning His Exit


VIDEO: Tim Duncan and the Spurs pick up a big win vs. the Clippers in L.A.

During his news conference with the world’s media just a few minutes before Sunday night’s All-Star Game in New Orleans, Kobe Bryant said he hadn’t given any real thought to when he might finally retire.

“I don’t really want the rocking chair before the game,” he said.

Neither would Tim Duncan.

For 17 NBA seasons now, he’s been about the game and not the showmanship. In winning four championships and two MVP awards, Duncan has been as inscrutable as the Sphinx, keeping his personality walled up within the Spurs locker room, rarely even smiling in public. Except, of course, for that time he supposedly laughed at referee Joey Crawford.

One could more readily imagine Duncan slipping into a shirt of thorns rather than a comfortable public embrace from all corners of the NBA.

That’s why it would be unwise immediately to dismiss the comment made by former NBA coach George Karl, now an ESPN analyst, on SportsCenter:

“You know over the weekend, that was the whispers that I got. I got a couple of phone calls, one from San Antonio that said that Tim Duncan’s thinking this is going to be his last year. The best, most fundamental big guy ever to play in the NBA, and he leaving would make me very, very sad. The San Antonio Spurs without Tim Duncan would be very difficult for me to watch.”

Even as he approaches his 38th birthday in April, it is not at all difficult to watch Duncan play near the incredibly high standard that he has always set for himself. He’s averaging 15.6 points and 10 rebounds per game and has a true shooting percentage of 53.6. His PER of 22.09 ranks 18th in the league, even though he is playing an average of just 29.6 minutes.

In the last game before the All-Star break, Duncan scored 23 of his 25 points in the second half, leading a Spurs lineup that was without Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter to a win at Boston. He has been as sturdy as an oak, starting more games (49) than any other member of the lineup to push San Antonio to the No. 2 seed in the West. In other words, Duncan is still an elite player and likely could have appeared in his 15th All-Star Game if Gregg Popovich hadn’t likely spread the word to his coaching peers that his big man needed a weekend off.

There was a time after the 2011 playoffs, when the No. 1 seeded Spurs were upset by the No. 8 Grizzlies in the first round, that it seemed unfathomable that Duncan would still be playing now. He was slow, worn out, injured and overwhelmed by the inside Memphis tandem of bruising Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph.

But Duncan used that humbling experience as a reason to spend the summer changing his diet, changing his workout regimen and ultimately changing his body so that he’s returned to the court lighter, healthier and able to have fun and dominate again. The result was the Spurs going to the Western Conference finals in 2012 and pushing the Heat to the Game 7 limit before losing in the NBA Finals last June.

Duncan signed a three-year, $30-million contract in 2012, the final season a player option and there was talk at the time that he might very well take a pass on that. But since then the Spurs signed Parker and Ginobili to new deals, all of them set to expire at the end of 2014-15, the assumption that the Big Three would take two more cracks at winning the the fifth title in franchise history.

So would Tim walk out the door prematurely on Tony and Manu and Pop?

Only if he feels like the spark and the joy are no longer out there on the court every night. Only if he decides the physical and mental sacrifices to keep himself pushing forward at his high and exacting standards are too much. Which, creeping up on 38, that could happen any day.

So much will depend on how the Spurs and Duncan handle another playoff grind. You can certainly see the championship that slipped through their fingers as a motivational force this time around. But what if the injury-plagued Spurs don’t get back to The Finals for another try at the ring? Or even out of the first or second round?

Even if he’s thinking it, Duncan won’t crack and let us know or share his feelings or an itinerary. He’ll just keep shooting and rebounding and setting screens and doing all those things that make him the Big Fundamental until he doesn’t.

He won’t hit the rocking chair, just the exit door.


VIDEO: Tim Duncan talks about the Spurs’ win against the Clippers

Without Westbrook, Ibaka Keeps Soaring

VIDEO: Serge Ibaka talks about OKC’s winning ways on Arena Link

OKLAHOMA CITY – How many Western Conference power forwards do you check off before getting to Serge Ibaka?

Blake Griffin. Kevin Love. LaMarcus Aldridge. Dirk Nowitzki. Tim Duncan. Anthony Davis. Zach Randolph. David Lee. Hard to quibble. All are All-Stars, recent past or present.

“There [are] so many good power forwards, and so many good point guards, in the West that he does kind of get lost in the shuffle,” Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “But we understand what he brings to our team. He’s definitely [at] an All-Star level in my eyes and what he does for our team: He rebounds, he blocks shots, he alters shots, his rebounds have gone up, his shooting percentage is high, his points have gone up.”

Ibaka is also only 24 years old, which makes his progression to a career-best 15.0 ppg (11th in the league among power forwards), career-best 8.8 rpg (8th), 2.5 bpg (2nd) and 19 double-doubles (10th) midway through his fifth season seem astronomical, and his potential off the charts. That the chiseled, 6-foot-10 force of nature, taken 24th in the 2008 Draft (his first NBA season was 2009-10), is under contract with the Thunder through the 2016-17 season at a rate that never eclipses $12.35 million is another feather in management’s already blooming cap.

Ibaka and Russell Westbrook have developed such a lethal connection that when the point guard left the lineup after the Christmas Day game to undergo a third surgery on his right knee, there was some trepidation that Ibaka’s offensive contributions would suffer.

That has not occurred because Ibaka and Kevin Durant have been terrific together. Durant’s has assisted on one-third of (54-for-160) Ibaka’s baskets since Westbrook went down. Since, Ibaka has averaged 15.9 ppg on 56.7-percent shooting.

“We have a better connection in the halfcourt offense,” Ibaka said of he and Durant whereas he and Westbrook work so well together in the open floor. “He has confidence in me. I know when he is going to pass to me. I just have to catch the ball. My first part of this is I owe it to him to get him open, so when he can get open, the defense starts to go to him, so then I know, ‘OK, now it’s my turn.’ I am going to get open and I know he is going to pass it to me, so I am going to make plays for myself and for my teammates.”

Ibaka’s midrange game continues to be one of the best in the league. He is hitting 47.8 percent of his shots taken outside the paint and inside the 3-point arc. Coming off a screen, Durant typically gets doubled and he finds Ibaka for the pick-and-pop jumper he loves from the top of the circle, or Ibaka rolls to the basket, an aspect of his game Brooks says has vastly improved.

“When he does roll, he’s ready to catch and finish right away and he’s seeing the pickers much quicker,” Brooks said.”That sounds easy and looks easy, but there’s a lot of work that goes into that. You have to be able to catch the ball on the fly and put yourself in a position not to get a charge and, if there is a guy, you have to make sure you make the right pass, and you have to do that all within a second.

“He’s understanding, with all the work that we’ve put him through in practice to simulate those opportunities, and I think it’s really paying off.”

Ibaka’s true shooting percentage (adjusted to include the value of 3-pointers and free throws) is 54.0 percent, fourth-best among power forwards behind Amir Johnson, Kenneth Faried and Boris Diaw. But Ibaka averages, at the minimum, four more shots per game and almost five more points per game.

According to NBA.com/stats, Ibaka is connecting on 49.2 percent of his shots from 10-14 feet; 46.3 percent from 15-19 feet; and 38.9 percent from 20-24 feet. He’s 13-for-37 for 35.1 percent from beyond the arc, a percentage plenty of guards could live with.

So, what happens when Westbrook returns as he is scheduled to do after the All-Star break? Ibaka smiles.

“I am going to have Russ and I am going to have Kevin,” Ibaka said. “We are going to be more dangerous. You know, Russ is more go-go, ‘I’m open;’ me and Kevin [are] more halfcourt. I think it is going to be great, man. I can’t wait to have Russ back. I can’t wait.”

Space, Speed And 3s Is The NBA Way


VIDEO: GameTime’s crew breaks down why 3-point shooters like Kyle Korver are valuable

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Kevin McHale insists there’s little difference between how he coaches his Houston Rockets today and how his Boston Celtics played 30 years ago.

“We do play the same,” the towering Hall of Fame power forward said. “It was a different game, but we ran up and down, we shot a lot of shots in the first six, seven seconds of the shot clock because we ran it down, threw it in the post and shot it. Look at the early ’80s, we were averaging 115, 116, 117 points. You usually don’t get that by walking it up and down.”

The 1983-84 champion Celtics averaged 112.1 ppg, yet in those glorious run-and-gun, team-oriented days, all that scoring ranked just seventh in a 23-team league. Imagine the offensive explosion then had those teams known what we know now about that strange 3-point arc.

“We all looked at it,” said McHale, a rookie the season after the NBA implemented the arc, “and thought, ‘Why the hell do they have a line way out here?’ ”

A low-post machine, McHale attempted 157 3-pointers in his career. Larry Bird took 194 of the 393 taken by the 1985-86 champion Celtics. In the first 49 games this season, the Rockets’ tandem of James Harden and Chandler Parsons have combined for 463. The Rockets have launched 1,279.

Last year they shot it from everywhere and at any time, 2,369 in all, second-most only to the New York Knicks, who set the all-time record with 2,371 attempts. New York also made 891, the most all-time.

Today’s game is different. It has shifted 180 degrees from the plodding, back-it-down offenses spanned in the 1990s and does draw back more to the freewheeling 1980s, only with a new set of philosophies. Today’s offensive style is dictated by a slew of predominant words and phrases: Analytics. Pace. Ball movement. Spacing. Speed. Stretch-4. Small ball. Drive-and-kick. Corner 3.

Do-it-all point guards are at a premium. Floor-spacing, sweet-shooting big men are coveted. Three-point shooting is king.

“I’m not surprised because statistically everybody is going to that kind of metrics,” said Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni, who introduced the league to this stream of unconventional offensive tactics when he took over the Phoenix Suns more than a decade ago.

“We did it before, but I think you can measure even more now, and I think that shows you if you want to win, that’s the way you should go. And then Miami tops it off by winning two championships by doing it.”

West among best at quick way to play

Many of D’Antoni’s concepts, considered radical at the time, are commonplace now to varying degrees in nearly every NBA coach’s playbook. They are prevalent especially among Western Conference clubs powered by dynamic, often ultra-athletic point guards — from Chris Paul to Russell Westbrook to Tony Parker to Damian Lillard to Stephen Curry — who play fast, penetrate, pass and shoot from distance. The Heat, of course, are led by de facto point guard LeBron James.

“Without penetration you don’t get those uncontested 3s, so you have to have people who penetrate and create shots for other people,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “That’s how it happens. Without the penetration it would all be contested, percentages would go down and people wouldn’t be shooting very well. But most of them are uncontested.”

Nine of the league’s top 10 teams in pace (the number of possessions per 48 minutes) and 12 of the top 16 play in the West. The top five teams in 3-point attempts, and nine of the top 12, also play in the West, the far superior conference this season.

When the Memphis Grizzlies meet the Oklahoma City Thunder tonight (8 p.m. ET, League Pass) in a rematch of last season’s Western Conference semifinals won by Memphis, it will again be a battle of contrasting styles. OKC, even without their injured three-time All-Star Westbrook, is athletic and fast. The Thunder pushes the pace, currently ranking seventh in the league, averaging 97.84 possessions per 48 minutes.

The Grizzlies boast talented point guard Mike Conley, but run their sets through skilled, low-post big men Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. They rely on those interior size mismatches (and gritty defense) to compete in an expanding era of fastbreaking, 3-point-shooting, “small-ball” lineups in which a power forward serves as a center and a traditional small forward plays the “4” and “stretches” the floor.

Memphis, although moving the ball with more vigor and shooting slightly more 3s during their January hot streak, is the conventional NBA offense that has been made unconventional.

The need for 3s

Memphis’ management team is heavy into analytic data, and first-year coach Dave Joerger was eager to quicken Memphis’ offensive pace, but it hasn’t happened. They rank last in the league in pace, averaging 92.15 possessions. They’re also last in 3-point attempts (14.3 per game) and 3-pointers made (5.1 per game).

Houston has outscored Memphis from beyond the arc by a staggering 618 points; Golden State and Portland, tied for No. 1 with 450 made 3s, by 651. Memphis and last-place Utah, 24th in made 3-pointers, are the only teams in the West that average fewer than 100 points per game.

“It’s almost like if you don’t shoot 3s you can’t win,” Popovich said. “So many players are good at it, shots get off so quickly and are so numerous that it’s a huge part of what almost everybody does. It’s just tough to score and to win without making 3s.”

Desperate for it, Memphis traded slump-ridden Jerryd Bayless to Boston for Courtney Lee, who has provided a jolt, knocking down 44.1 percent of his 3-point shots. He, along with Gasol’s return from injury, helped spark Memphis to 11 wins in its last 13 games and a return to playoff contention.

The Grizzlies recently beat Houston twice in back-to-back games. They limited the Rockets to 87 and 81 points despite taking 40 fewer 3-pointers and being outscored by 36 points from beyond the arc. But can the Grizzlies survive with size over speed and scoring 2-pointers instead of 3s?

“I don’t know whether we can or we can’t,” Joerger said. “The league is being ruled by playmakers, shooting and IQ right now. Teams are playing multiple — forget about shooters — they’re playing multiple playmakers now. A lot of centers are, let’s just say, fairly strictly pick and rim-run, and [you] play four [players] around those guys and stretch it out, and then let guys just play against a [defensive] close-out.”

Time marches on … and pace picks up

D’Antoni says Don Nelson‘s Mavs in the early and mid-2000s, with Steve Nash as point guard, were first to empower the “stretch-4.” Nelson didn’t try to turn 7-foot forward Dirk Nowitzki into a back-to-the-basket player. He granted him free range to shoot 3s.

Popovich recognized the coming wave earlier than most through those early battles against Dirk and then D’Antoni’s Suns.

“San Antonio has been a top 3-point shooting team for probably seven, eight or nine years now,” said Mavs coach Rick Carlisle, whose “Flow” offense, led by smart, selfless players and talented passers and shooters, produced the 2011 championship. “They jumped on it early on and other teams have followed suit.”

The Spurs won three championships with stifling defense and methodical halfcourt execution in the mid-2000s. But Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford knew they had to evolve around their Big Three of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Parker with a roster based on pace and perimeter shooting. On their way to the 2013 Finals, San Antonio ranked sixth in pace, seventh in 3-pointers made and fifth in 3-point percentage.

In his typical gruffness, Popovich said of the style, “I hate it; if you want to win, you got to do it.”

In 2002-03, the Spurs attempted 1,270 3-pointers en route to their first title. Each year after their 3-point attempts increased. They shot 1,561 in 2006-07, the year of their third title. Last season they shot a franchise-record 1,764, which they might surpass this season.

“It was gradual, I remember that,” Ginobili said. “When I got here [in 2002-03], it [the offense] was very slow. Every possession had to feed the post and play from there. But then it slowly started to shift to a faster pace. At the beginning, he [Popovich] wanted it, but we were just not used to it, so that’s why it took a couple years until we really started doing it.”

Back in Houston, the Rockets keep running and spreading the floor even with the addition of traditional-type center Dwight Howard. Their pace (97.94) ranks seventh in the league, down slightly from last season, as is their 3-point attempts (26.1, almost three fewer a game), because of the ability, and necessity, to feed Howard in the post.

Meanwhile, everybody else continues to pick up the pace. The Rockets were No. 1 in the league last season at 98.64 possessions per 48 minutes. Now five teams average at least 99 and Philadelphia is over 102. Twelve teams average at least 97. In 1996-97, the first year advanced statistics were recorded, only two teams finished with more than 93 possessions per game.

What does the future hold? The Rockets’ NBA Development League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, are launching 3’s at a stunning — or alarming, depending on your perspective — rate of 48.5 per game. Fourteen of the 17 teams are operating at a pace of 100 possessions or better per game.

Yet leave it to Howard, with four career 3-pointers to his name, to lend some perspective to all these supersonic numbers.

“Once the playoffs start, it’s a halfcourt game and you’ve got to be able to execute in the halfcourt on offense,” Howard said. “We have to learn how to do both — be able to play fast, get up and down the court, get some easy shots. But we also got to learn how to slow it down and get a good shot every time.”

Perhaps some things never change.

Morning Shootaround — Jan. 29


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 27

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Grizz continue to find their way | Davis boosts his All-Star hopes | LeBron wants to talk with Silver | Shumpert injures shoulder in Knicks’ win

No. 1: Grizz get back into their grinding groove — If you gave up on Memphis a few weeks or months ago after their slow-out-of-the-gate start to the season, you may want to start tuning in to their games again. As our own Fran Blinebury pointed out yesterday, Memphis is getting back to its “Grindhouse” ways. That was plenty apparent last night as the Grizz marched into Portland and handed the Blazers, who boast the league’s fifth-best home record, a resounding 98-81 defeat. Ronald Tillery of The Commercial-Appeal has more on Memphis continued rise:

The Grizzlies didn’t yield a point for the first two minutes, 20 seconds of their game Tuesday night, and the defensive chokehold just got tighter and tighter.

Memphis held the NBA’s highest scoring team well below its average and started a three-game road trip with a 98-81 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers in the Moda Center.

The Trail Blazers (33-13) entered the game putting up 109 points on 45.5 percent shooting per contest. But the Griz (23-20) held the Blazers to a season-low point total on just 34.5 percent shooting.

“Our confidence is back,” Griz point guard Mike Conley said. “We believe we’re a good team. We believe we can beat anybody. We kind of lost that. But everybody feels comfortable again and we’re playing hard.”

About four minutes into the fourth quarter, Portland’s television play-by-play announcer pointed out that the Blazers scored on back-to-back possessions just six times in the game.

The Griz simply kept the Blazers misfiring on the perimeter, and contested every shot in the lane. Portland missed its first 12 three-point attempts and was shooting 36 percent through three quarters while Memphis took an 81-58 lead into the final frame.

“We’re just starting to click,” Griz coach Dave Joerger said. “The cement hasn’t really dried.”

The Griz are certainly making an imprint. They’ve won three straight games and eight of the last nine. Memphis also ended Portland’s five-game home winning streak.

Since center Marc Gasol returned from a left MCL sprain, the Griz are 6-1 and have allowed 85 points per game.

“We were playing like ‘When is Marc coming back?’ as opposed to just playing basketball to the best of our ability and see what happens,” Griz forward Tayshaun Prince said. “But now that we have Marc back you can see a different comfort zone with our team. A lot of guys are playing at a high level. More importantly, we’re playing together.”

***

No. 2: Pelicans’ Davis boosts his All-Star resumeKevin Durant, Blake Griffin and Kevin Love have the starting gigs nailed down for the Western Conference All-Star squad. Picking the guys who back them up? That’s something that isn’t easy, especially considering the frontcourt/power forward/center depth there is in the West. One such name that’s been bandied about for a bench spot is the New Orleans Pelicans’ uber-forward Anthony Davis. He didn’t do anything to hurt his reserve bid last night, writes John Reid of The Times Picayune, after a dominating performance against the Cavs:

With time running out to impress enough of the league’s coaches to earn a selection as a reserve in the Feb. 16 NBA All-Star Game in New Orleans, Pelicans forward Anthony Davis didn’t miss another opportunity to make his case.Davis dominated with eight blocks and 30 points to help Pelicans rout the Cleveland Cavaliers 100-89 on Tuesday night at Quicken Loans Arena. It was the third 30-point performance of Davis’ career. Davis dislocated his left index finger in the monstrous effort but doesn’t expect to miss playing time….

“I’m just trying to get better each and every day,” Davis said. “My teammates did a great job of getting me the ball and giving me a chance to score. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Davis, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft, has totaled 27 blocks and averaged 21.8 points in the past five games. He relied on his arsenal of shots — from quick pull-up jumpers to dunks — and didn’t miss many attempts. He made 12 of 18 of shots and had 24 points after three quarters.

Some of Davis’ dominant play came against rookie Anthony Bennett, the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s draft. He played extended minutes for the first time and scored a season-high 15 points. But Davis overshadowed his effort.

“He’s a very talented individual,” Cavs guard Kyrie Irving said of Davis. “He kind of messes up your rotations just because he can space (the floor) so well and he plays the game the right way.

“Coach (Williams) did a heck of a job running continuity plays for him and he was catching it in rhythm and knocking down shots. You have to give credit to a good performance by him.”


VIDEO: Anthony Davis runs wild as the Pelicans take down the Cavs

***

No. 3: LeBron wants to talk with new commish Silver — The NBA is just a few weeks away from the official retirement of David Stern (which, if you haven’t read our David Aldridge’s oral history of his career, you’re missing out) and from Adam Silver taking over as the NBA’s new boss. Silver will of course become infinitely more busy than he already is and one superstar is already hoping to earmark some time to talk with him once he officially takes office, writes Sam Amick of USA Today:

The Miami Heat star said Tuesday that he’s in the process of making a wish list of sorts that he will eventually share with Silver, the deputy commissioner who began with the league more than 20 years ago and who has held his current position (as well as Chief Operating Officer) since 2006.

“Um, I’m making (a list),” James said. “I don’t know if I want to make it public knowledge right now, but hopefully I can sit down with the Commish – the soon to be Commish – and just throw out some ideas where I feel like the league can be better, and hopefully he has some ideas for me to see on my part.”

James, who said he planned to schedule a formal meeting with Silver, lauded Stern for the job he has done and gave Silver a warm welcome.

“I think (Silver) is great,” James said. “The opportunities I’ve had to be around him as he’s been the assistant commish, he’s been amazing. He’s easy to talk to. He’s someone that understands the business, who understands what the game of basketball means to everyone – the owners, the players, the coaches, everyone. Everyone included, the whole pie. I’m looking forward to him. I’m excited for him, and best of luck to him. Hopefully he can get 30 years in too like David was able to get. Who knows what his 30 years can do for the game.”

As for the changes he envisions and may seek, he hinted that they are minor.

“We don’t need major change,” James said. “This game has grown from just being in America to over almost 300 countries right now…But the game can always be bigger. There’s a lot of people who love the game who are not able to watch the game, so I feel we can broadcast it in more countries as well and continue to inspire people that want to play the game, who love the game. It’s the greatest game in the world to me. Obviously I’m biased, because I’m in it, but you know the things that we’re able to do out on the floor to inspire people is unbelievable.”

***

No. 4: Knicks’ Shumpert suffers shoulder injuryNew York got some good news during last night’s win over the Celtics as power forward Kenyon Martin returned to the lineup after missing five games with an ankle injury. But just four minutes into the Boston game, the Knicks saw guard Iman Shumpert suffer a shoulder injury and leave the game. How long Shumpert will be out for remains unknown, writes Ian Bagley of ESPNNewYork.com:

Knicks guard Iman Shumpert suffered a sprained right shoulder in the first quarter of Tuesday’s game against the Boston Celtics and did not return.The severity of the injury was unclear.

Coach Mike Woodson said after the Knicks’ 114-88 win that he wasn’t sure how long Shumpert would be out for.

Shumpert dealt with shoulder soreness in training camp but has remained relatively healthy throughout the season, playing in every game.

If Shumpert were out for an extended period, J.R. Smith or Tim Hardaway Jr. would likely replace him in the lineup.

In other injury news, veteran Knicks forward Kenyon Martin returned after missing five games with a left ankle injury and re-sprained the ankle in the first half. Martin had earlier aggravated the injury against the Indiana Pacers on Jan. 16.

“Just overuse,” the 36-year-old Martin said. “Been going every day and playing a lot of minutes. Just needed a break. Not one thing happened. Just been fighting through it, fighting through it, fighting through it, and the body lets you know. So at my age, you got to listen.”

Martin limped to the locker room late in the second quarter. The Knicks said he was available to return.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Great teaser/snippet for Rick Fox‘s upcoming interview with Phil Jackson on GameTime (Jan. 30, 6 p.m. ET), where the coaching legend talks about Dwight Howard’s game, the state of the Lakers and much, much moreScott Brooks is coaching the West All-Star team for the second time in his career … Is Pistons owner Tom Gores to blame for Detroit’s roster woes? One columnist sure thinks so … Interesting look at how the Most Improved Player voting/winners have been doled out the last few years … If Rajon Rondo signs an extension with the Celtics, what might it look like long term for the team? … The Kings revealed the first renderings for their new arena that’s being built

ICYMI of The Night: We’re still thawing out here at Shootaround Central (aka Atlanta), but this nice hustle play from John Wall to race back and swat Steph Curry warms our hearts…:


VIDEO: John Wall hustles back to deny Steph Curry’s layup attempt

Gasol, Lee Put Grizzlies Back In Race


VIDEO: Grizzlies sweep back-to-back games over Rockets

In a pair of back-to-back games over the weekend, Dwight Howard got the message. With a couple of pushes, some shoves, an elbow or two in the small of his back, even a try at a wrestling takedown.

Marc Gasol is back. And so, it seems, are the Grizzlies as a factor in the Western Conference playoff race.

While there is still plenty of ground for Gasol to cover to get back to form after missing 1 1/2 months and 23 games with a sprained MCL, things are finally getting into shape in Memphis.

With consecutive wins over Howard and the Rockets, the Grizzlies are now just two games out of the No. 8 spot in the playoff race as they start a quick three-game road trip tonight in Portland (10 ET, League Pass) and continues through Sacramento and Minnesota.

Since the start of 2014, the Grizzlies have won nine of 12 games, are 5-1 since Gasol returned to the lineup on Jan. 14 and 7-2 since they acquired Courtney Lee from Boston.

Gasol, of course, gives the Grizzlies back their physicality and ruggedness on the interior by teaming with Zach Randolph. He and Z-Bo are able to protect the rim as effectively as any tandem of bigs in the league and score in the low post. In addition, Gasol’s role of traffic cop and his passing ability opens things up on the perimeter.

That’s an area where Lee has helped. Though Memphis still ranks at the bottom of the league in 3-pointers taken and made, shooting guard Lee has provided another option on the wing and has been effective.

“I’ve been super comfortable from day one,” he said. “When I came in the coaches told me to play my game and shots have been falling. Everybody that’s playing is on the same page of playing the right way.”

Lee is shooting 55.6 from the field since joining the Grizzlies and sunk his teeth in on defense. In the back-to-back set against the Rockets, he kept James Harden in check.

“Courtney’s been a big addition for us,” said point guard Mike Conley. “He adds some scoring, he adds some defense, athleticism. He has a high basketball IQ and he’s been able to pick up things fairly quickly. I think that’s what’s helped us these last couple of weeks.

“Courtney was a huge, huge piece. People overlook him. But it’s key that he’s able to stretch the court for us. With me, him, Mike Miller out there, it gives Zach and Marc more space. Having a lot of guys that could space the court, we didn’t have that going on before. And he can definitely lock up defensively.”

Even through their struggles this season, the Grizzlies have been able to make the most of road trips. Before Gasol injured his knee, they swept a four-game November swing against the Lakers, Kings, Clippers and Warriors. Then with Gasol out, they began turning things around at the start of the new year by taking two out of three at Phoenix, Denver and Detroit.

That’s when Ed Davis and James Johnson became part of the rotation and significant contributors with Gasol, Tony Allen and Quincy Pondexter sidelined by injury. Pondexter (broken bone in foot) is lost for the season and Allen (ligament damage hand) is getting closer to returning.

The question for coach Dave Joerger is what he’ll do with the starting lineup when Allen is ready. There is no question that the Grizzlies would like to have his grinding defense back, but Lee has been a big addition. The solution might be to let Allen come off the bench until he’s fully back in game shape, then slide him into the 3-spot to replace Tayshaun Prince, keeping Lee’s offense on the floor.

“Our confidence is high,” Lee said. “We feel good about what’s going on and how we’re playing. It seems like time will only make us better.”

Currently sitting at 22-20, the task that might have looked a bit daunting a month ago now seems within reach. To reach the 45-win level it took to grab the No. 8 seed in the West a year ago, Memphis would have to finish up 23-17 and neither the No. 7 seed Suns or No. 8 Mavericks seem capable of putting up an insurmountable roadblock. So if a healthy bunch of Grizzlies can claw in at the bottom, it could mean somebody in the upper half of the contentious playoff bracket is in for a bruising first-round fight against a team that advanced to the conference finals last season.

“It definitely is there for us to take advantage,” Conley said. “We still have a lot of the season left. We understood once Marc got hurt, if we could just keep this thing afloat, keep us close and somewhat in the picture, then we he got back we would be able to make a run. Now we’re in position. We have a long way to go, but I’d say we’re happy now with where we’re at.”

If Wins Matter, Is Kevin Love Still An All-Star Slam Dunk?


VIDEO: Kevin Love talks about dealing with tough stretches on ‘Inside Stuff’

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – This post might embolden a pitch-forked mob to burn my basketball-writing credentials at the stake, but here goes: Don’t chalk up Kevin Love as an automatic Western Conference All-Star reserve just yet. Not as long as the West coaches who will select those reserves stick to the notion that winning matters.

NBA All-Star 2014Here’s Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle three years ago when asked if Tim Duncan deserved to be selected despite averaging career lows in points and rebounds in the first half of the 2010-11 season: “Those guys are 37-4 or something. You’ve got to take a strong look at that. That’s meaningful, that Duncan is on a team that’s winning every game. That’s a big deal, and it should be.”

Duncan made the squad at the expense of statistically better options that included Love (later picked as an injury replacement for Yao Ming), LaMarcus Aldridge and Zach Randolph. Coaches will again have to take a strong look at Duncan, 37, when they cast their votes (selections will be announced on Jan. 30).

Duncan’s stats — 14.7 ppg, 9.7 rpg and 1.97 bpg in 29.0 mpg — again pale next to those of his younger counterparts even though he’s essential to the Spurs sitting atop the West at 31-8.

The West’s frontcourt field is stacked. The starters, as voted by the fans (voting ends Monday), appear set: Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard and Blake Griffin (although Love was only about 17,000 votes behind Griffin for the third starting spot after last week’s third returns; Love being voted in would render this conversation moot). Coaches will select four frontcourt reserves from a deep pool that as of now includes Love, Duncan, Aldridge, Dirk Nowitzki, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and David Lee among a few others worthy of consideration (Nicolas BatumAndre Iguodala, Randolph?).

There will be quality snubs.

Love’s statistical credentials are spotless: 25.6 ppg (fourth in the league), 13.0 rpg (second), 4.0 apg (tied for first among power forwards) and 39.0 percent shooting from beyond the arc (10th overall) in 36.2 mpg. His presence, at least offensively, is essential: Minnesota’s offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) soars to 109.3 with him on the floor; without him it plummets to 93.0.

Love’s team, however, the thought-to-be playoff-ready Timberwolves, is a disheartening and seemingly unraveling group. At 18-20 they sit 11th in the West, four games out of the final playoff spot behind Nowitzki’s Mavericks. After a recent debacle of a home loss to Phoenix, Love publicly called out a pair of sulking teammates, a move that has been met with both praise and criticism.

Speaking of Nowitzki, how difficult will it be for coaches to pass on the NBA’s 13th leading all-time scorer who is averaging 21.4 ppg, is flirting with a 50-40-90 season and has his team playing mostly above expectations? Nowitzki’s 11-year All-Star run ended last season following preseason knee surgery. Aldridge and Batum have helped make the Blazers the NBA’s surprise team of the first half. An All-Star last year, Lee is averaging 19.2 ppg — shooting 52.8 percent — and 9.9 rpg on a top-five squad.

Like Love’s Wolves, Cousins’ Kings are on the wrong side of the win-loss coin, but the enigmatic center with the bad rep is having a monstrous season (one quite comparable to Love’s) — 23.4 ppg (49.6 FG%), 11.6 rpg, 1.8 spg and 1.1 bpg in 32.4 mpg. Sacramento (14-23) got off to an awful start, but has played better of late, winning six of its last 10, including wins over Miami and Portland, and have just three more losses than the Wolves.

The Kings closed that gap Wednesday with a 111-108 win at Minnesota. Cousins had 20 and 11 with five turnovers. Love had 27 and 11 with five assists. Cousins got the W.

Another intriguing point regarding Cousins’ chances for a first All-Star appearance: Last year the NBA altered the ballot, scrapping the traditional positional breakdown of guard, forward and center to simply backcourt and frontcourt to reflect the lack of true centers in today’s game. Under the old format, would not Cousins be a shoo-in as the backup center?

Love’s statistics scream All-Star. His team has been a dud. In a season in which the player field is so competitive, and if team wins are truly weighted as significant, the West coaches will be faced not with a slam dunk vote for Love, but rather embroiled in a most difficult process of elimination.

Morning Shootaround — Jan. 13


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 12

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Players only meeting works for Kings | Conley at crunch time in Memphis | Teletovic pokes LeBron | Blazers not one of the Bynum 8

No. 1: Kings players-only meeting works wonders — Three straight wins in most places isn’t worth going crazy over, not during the marathon that is an 82-game NBA season. In Sacramento, however, it’s definitely going to raise eyebrows. A players-only meeting has worked wonders for the Kings, who routed Cleveland Sunday to polish off their season-best win streak. Is this potentially a turning point for a Kings team that has dealt with adversity and distractions for months now? Time will tell. But as Jason Jones of the Sacramento Bee notes, an epic beatdown of the Cavaliers is a good place to start:

The victory margin equaled a 44-point win over Denver on Dec. 12, 1992, and trailed only a 56-point win over Philadelphia on Jan. 2, 1993 and a 58-point victory over Dallas on Dec. 29, 1992.

The Kings led by 46 points, their biggest advantage of the season, and tallied season highs in points, 3-pointers (15) and blocked shots (eight).

Defensively, the Kings (13-22) held Cleveland to 11 points in the third quarter and 30 points in the second half, both season lows by a Sacramento opponent. The 80 points were also a season low, bettering the 83 the Kings gave up against Orlando on Friday.

In the third quarter, the Cavaliers (13-24) made only four shots and shot 20 percent, both season lows for a Kings opponent.

“This young team is growing and I’m just happy to be a part of it,” Rudy Gay said. “We can become a really good team. It takes hard work and we’re working hard, and coach has been great. As long as we keep going on that same path, we should be a good team.”

The defensive numbers are what pleased coach Michael Malone. After allowing 32 points in the first quarter, the Kings began to defend better, leading to the dominant second half.

“Consistency is a word we’ve used a lot,” Malone said. “It’s something we haven’t shown we can (accomplish) most of the season, but in our last three games I think the defense has been consistent, the communication has been consistent, the effort’s been there. We had breakdowns without a doubt, but our breakdowns are happening less often at the moment, and that’s a step in the right direction.”



VIDEO: Isaiah Thomas wins his duel with Kyrie Irving and his Kings get the win

***

No. 2: Conley is the man at crunch time for Grizzlies — Whether you realize it or not, Mike Conley has become a stabilizing force for the a Memphis Grizzlies team that sorely needed one. Even with the likes of Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen on the roster, the young point guard emerged from a humbling start to his career to evolve into the sort of floor leader that pushes the pile the way he did against the Atlanta Hawks Sunday night.  Conley is on a tear right now that suggests he might be ready for even bigger and better things, writes Ronald Tillery of the Commercial Appeal:

Conley continued arguably the most productive week of his NBA career in leading the Griz with 21 points, 13 assists and four steals. He posted 30 or more points in each of the two previous games.

The Griz blew a 13-point lead with Conley on the bench. The Hawks began connecting on 3-pointers and used a 16-0 run that bridged the third and fourth quarters to wrestle away the momentum and take an 80-77 lead.

The game was tied at 77 when Conley returned to replace rookie reserve Nick Calathes with 10:38 left. About 20 seconds later, Conley whipped a pass to James Johnson out of a pick-and-roll and Johnson finished the play with an emphatic slam dunk. The basket was the start of a 16-4 run that allowed the Griz to regain the lead for good.

Conley set up Courtney Lee and Mike Miller for 3-pointers, Zach Randolph for a point-blank shot, and created his own scoring opportunities by zipping past defenders and into the paint.

“Once (the Hawks) started making a little bit of a run, from the bench, I noticed that we weren’t getting to the paint,” said Conley, who had eight points and six and six assists in the final period. “We weren’t getting to the rim, to the free throw line or making plays at the rim. It shows our aggressiveness when we are going in-and-out of the paint. We got just little bit too lax in that stage of the game. I just wanted to come in and act on that.”

Conley is averaging 27.3 points in his last three games, which have resulted in an overtime loss to San Antonio and wins over Phoenix and Atlanta.

“He has really taken responsibility, not for running the team but really as a leader for the team and defining whether we are successful or not,” [Grizzlies coach Dave] Joerger said. “He has taken the steps to say, ‘I’m going to be up front, and not pushing from within. I’m not going to be facilitating. I’m going to be out front and be a leader and those who follow will follow and those who don’t will get left behind.’ He is so much more assertive in his approach and our guys feed off of that.”

***

No. 3: Teletovic pokes the LeBron bearIn the event that the Miami Heat and Brooklyn Nets meet in the postseason (yes, still months away but work with us here), Mirza Teletovic might want to be careful with his poking of LeBron James. He’s still having a little fun at LeBron’s expense in the aftermath of their dust-up during the Nets win over the Heat last weeek in that TNT showdown. His good hard foul on LeBron, when he went around the neck to prevent an uninterrupted layup attempt, prompted plenty of bickering and back and forth about not only the foul and LeBron’s immediate reaction. Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald went so far as to suggest that LeBron’s long-term response will have an impact in the playoffs:

Teletovic went high around James’ neck, yes, but it appeared on replay that Teletovic was only trying to prevent James from completing a three-point play. Teletovic didn’t grab James, but James took exception and lunged at Teletovic following the play. Michael Beasley and others restrained James while Nets players rushed in to hold back Teletovic, who reacted to the sequence by flashing a smile.

“Not a basketball play” was James’ constant complaint during the 2013 playoffs, especially during the series against the Chicago Bulls. Bulls center Nazr Mohammed was ejected during Game 3 for shoving James to the ground during a fast break.

For years, the postseason scouting report on James has called for opponents to rough up the MVP in the hopes of knocking him off his game.

Although hard fouls are nothing new for James, Teletovic defended himself after the game and then had a little fun with the incident on Twitter.

“It was just a foul,” Teletovic said. “I just tried to make a foul, and he was coming down the court. He shouldn’t be reacting like that. It’s just basketball.”

Teletovic then did something he might come to regret. The European needled James on Twitter when he posted a screen shot of the scuffle and wrote, “Five in a row…Go @BrooklynNets :) lol ;)” Teletovic then changed the background of his Twitter page to a large picture of the incident.

https://twitter.com/Teletovic33/status/421920903006789632


VIDEO: Mirza Teletovic and LeBron James scuffle

***

No. 4: Count the Trail Blazers out of the Andrew Bynum sweepstakes — The Andrew Bynum 8 — the reported eight teams interested in pursuing the big man’s services for the remainder of this season — does not include that surprise outfit in Portland. Chris Haynes of CSNNW.com reports that the Trail Blazers, true contenders this season in a loaded Western Conference playoff chase, have not registered any legitimate interest in Bynum:

The Portland Trail Blazers could use an extra big man on their bench, but if they did decide to make a play for one between now and the trade deadline, it won’t be for center Andrew Bynum.

CSNNW.com was informed by a well-placed league source that Portland is not one of the reported eight teams interested in Bynum. Another source backed it up saying, “Portland has not inquired” about the services of the 7-foot free agent Bynum.

This revelation isn’t much of a surprise.

There are a couple of reasons why Portland opted not to take such a risk: the concern regarding Bynum’s character and how he would fit inside a locker room that has gelled seamlessly, had to have been a huge road block. Bynum has had his share of knee problems, a road Portland is reluctant to travel down.

The other obstacle is Portland is already carrying 15, the maximum amount of players allowed on a roster. If they were thinking of adding a player such as Bynum, someone would have to be released.

And being that every Trail Blazer on the roster has a guaranteed contract for this season, if Portland did decided to waive a player to make room for a free agent, they would have to eat the contract of that released player.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Memphis basketball coach Josh Pastner claims there might be film of Wilt Chamberlain‘s 100-point game … Deron Williams will not make the trip to London with the Brooklyn Nets … Lakers on the verge of getting injured shooting guard (Xavier Henry not Kobe Bryant) back this week … Speaking of the Lakers, GM Mitch Kupchak says “taking” is never discussed in Lakerland.

ICYMI of The Night: Who, you ask, is Jeff Ayres? He would be the former Jeff Pendergraph of the San Antonio Spurs, the same man you here getting his Dunk of the Night on in a win over the Minnesota Timberwolves:


VIDEO: Ayres throws it down over the Timberwolves

So … Who Wants To Be No. 1 In The West?

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – We’ve spent two months knee-slapping and belly laughing over the bumbling, stumbling (L)Eastern Conference while keeping nightly tabs on the Western Conference’s conquests over the feeble JV division. The divide’s grown so disproportionate it’s no longer worth counting.

And then something silly happens like Miami going on the road, and without LeBron James in uniform, drop-kicking West-leading Portland. Just like that, all the ribbing of the other side doesn’t seem all that appropriate — or wise. The West might be deeper, but the cream still rises in the East.

The Heat continue to find ways to remind us that they still rule the NBA. And the East, as exasperating as it is to look at teams No. 3-15, is delivering a stout two-team race: Miami and its lone challenger determined to prevent the Heat’s fourth consecutive Finals appearance — the self-assured Indiana Pacers.

The West is not the East. The West is entangled, wild and woolly; a shootout, a grudge match and pure survival every night. Think about this for perspective: The West’s 12th-best team, Memphis, would be fifth in the East. With so many capable teams, an injury here, a cold snap there, a trade down the road can tip the balance of power.

As we steamroll into 2014 and toward the mid-February All-Star weekend and then the trade deadline, these forces are already at work, making the West far more unpredictable than even what we thought at the beginning of the season.

No one team is pulling away. Several have key injuries. And all are not without a potential fatal flaw.

THE UPPER CRUST

Oklahoma  City Thunder (27-7): Russell Westbrook‘s combination of strength, power and speed makes him indispensable to a Thunder title charge. A third surgery in the span of eight months on his right knee is hardly optimum, but at least the last two were both arthroscopies and therefore far less invasive than the original April surgery to repair a torn meniscus. Judging by his rapid return last time and his explosive play, we’ll lean toward Westbrook again returning as if nothing happened (especially since early reports of his recovery already sound encouraging). OKC is better equipped than last season to survive a potential two-month absence. Reggie Jackson is having an excellent season, Serge Ibaka has All-Star credentials, the bench is deep and OKC is committed to elite-level defense. And then there’s that guy Kevin Durant. The Thunder, an impressive 17-5 against the West, remain my pick to be last team standing — as long as Russ can be Russ.


VIDEO: See why OKC’s Kevin Durant was named the Kia Player of the Month winner for December

San Antonio Spurs (26-8): Coach Gregg Popovich bristled at the notion that the Spurs’ win over the Chris Paul-less Clippers on Saturday night should go on the board as a win over a big-boy team. While the Spurs own the second-best record in the West, they’ve done it by rolling everybody but the teams closest to them in the standings. They’re 1-6 against the four other teams that have mostly made up the top five all season (0-1 vs. Portland; 0-2 vs. Oklahoma City; 0-2 vs. Houston; 1-1 vs. the Clips). They’re also 0-1 against Indiana. It certainly does raise eyebrows, but at the same time, it’s not like the Spurs don’t know how to raise their level of play when it counts. Popovich is thinking down the road, too, manipulating his deep roster and spreading minutes. Tony Parker is the only player averaging more than 30 mpg (30.8). San Antonio plays solid defense, Parker remains phenomenal, Manu Ginobili has raised his game and the Spurs can shoot the 3. It’s not quite time to worry that the Spurs are yet again too old to keep up with all of the West’s young bucks.

Portland Trail Blazers (26-8): No one predicted upper-crust status at this point and I even hesitated putting them here now with their recent slowdown. But with wins over San Antonio, Indiana, Houston, the Clippers and two over Oklahoma City (one without Westbrook), it would be unfair to deny this team what they’ve earned. Led by star-in-the-making point guard Damian Lillard and All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge, they own the league’s most efficient offense and absolutely shoot the lights out from downtown, already hitting a franchise-record 21 3-pointers in a game twice. While they don’t possess a great defensive rating, they are certainly capable defenders and can surge at that end from time to time. They added nicely to a thin roster with center Robin Lopez and reserve guard Mo Williams, and rookie C.J. McCollum is on his way back. Yet, you have to wonder if they’re ultimately deep enough behind their starting five, and too reliant on the long ball when push comes to shove in the playoffs.


VIDEO: Inside the NBA’s crew discusses Portland’s place among the West’s elite

THE TASTY FILLING

Los Angeles Clippers (24-13): Doc Rivers‘ team has been more inconsistent than many thought, and early on were downright awful defensively. It hasn’t helped that J.J. Redick has been out for five weeks with a fractured hand. Now, of course, comes the ultimate test with Paul sidelined for six weeks with a separated right shoulder. The Clips don’t have an athletic, playmaking wing and will need Jamal Crawford to help take pressure off of Blake Griffin, who will be targeted by every opponent. Bottom line is L.A. will really have to claw to remain in the top five or six in the absence of CP3, the league’s assist leader. L.A.’s defensive rating now ranks eighth and they’ll have to rely on that end of the floor to win games in the interim or else it could mean giving up homecourt advantage in what promises to be a difficult first-round matchup.


VIDEO: The GameTime crew discusses Chris Paul’s injury and its effect on the Clippers

Golden State Warriors (23-13): Early turbulence, namely a hamstring injury to glue guy Andre Iguodala, sent the Warriors into weeks worth of sketchy play. A nine-game win streak has made that slog a distant memory and now the Steph Curry-led Dubs look like the team everybody expected after last season’s playoff breakthrough. As always, this team will go as far as Curry and his fragile ankles (knock on wood) take them, plus the health of center Andrew Bogut, who has managed to play in 35 of 36 games and average double-digit rebounds and 1.74 bpg. The big issue with Golden State is exhaustion. With the reliable Jarrett Jack gone, Toney Douglas has averaged just 11.7 mpg in 21 games. Curry and Klay Thompson are averaging close to 38 mpg, a pace that could take a toll down the road.

Houston Rockets (22-13): We knew it would take some time for this team to come together and they’ve certainly had bouts of inconsistency marked by trouble closing out games. They’re also only 12-11 against the West, meaning they’ve gotten fat off the East. However, they’ve also dealt with injuries to James Harden, Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverley and have managed to hang tough. Dwight Howard (17.8 ppg, 12.9 rpg) has put up good numbers and on some nights he looks like the force he was before these last few years of perplexing indecision. Yet at other times, he still seems to be out of sorts. His presence in the middle hasn’t made the Rockets an elite defensive team, ranking in the middle of the pack.

Phoenix Suns (20-12): The Suns were headed for the next group on our list until some deeper thought got them in at the last second. With two wins against Portland, and wins over Houston, Golden State and a blowout on the Clippers’ home floor, plus a top 10-rated offense and defense, they belong here. The question is can a journeyman like Gerald Green (13.4 ppg, 39.0 3-point FG pct.) and a young, overlooked center like Miles Plumlee (9.9 ppg, 9.2 rpg) continue to produce at their current levels? More than a third of the way through the season, that appears more and more to be yes. Both Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic have been All-Star worthy and with blue-collar workers like P.J. Tucker and the Morris twins, the Jeff Hornacek‘s Suns possess the toughness to compete every night. The hallmark of this club has been one that doesn’t take a play off.


VIDEO: The Starters give Suns coach Jeff Hornacek some props

THE OUTER CRUST 

Dallas Mavericks (19-15): While the Dirk Nowitzki-Monta Ellis combo gained traction early, this team has perhaps irreparable flaws starting with a porous defense. Center Samuel Dalembert is proving unreliable and leaving Dallas severely outmanned in the middle. Point guard Jose Calderon, while being a smart and steady quarterback and an excellent shooter, has seen the West’s athletic point guards exploit his size and lack of foot speed. Even Nowitzki recently questioned his team’s playoff chances after it continues to blow leads.


VIDEO: NBA Action catches up with Mavs guard Monta Ellis

Minnesota Timberwolves (17-17): Perhaps the biggest mystery team of the bunch. Thought to be a playoff team for two seasons now, this time they can’t use injuries as an excuse. Even with Kevin Love putting up monstrous numbers, the Wolves can’t close out games and have lost a handful of games they seemingly had in their back pocket. That’s no way to do business in this conference. Perhaps most perplexing is point guard Ricky Rubio, who has not emerged as an All-Star candidate this season and seems to have little confidence in his shooting ability.

POTENTIAL FILLER

Denver Nuggets (16-17): It’s been a roller coaster season under first-year coach Brian Shaw. A slow start gave way to an impressive winning streak that crumbled into a rather stunning losing streak. More roster shakeup is on the way with disgruntled Andre Miller on the outs. At some point Danilo Gallinari will return from the ACL injury suffered late last season, providing 3-point pop and needed depth. They aren’t hanging their hat at either end of the floor right now, adding skepticism that they can improve enough to nab the final playoff spot.

New Orleans Pelicans (15-17): Anthony Davis is proving why he was the No. 1 pick in 2012, averaging a double-double (19.0 ppg and 10.1 rpg) while leading the league in blocked shots (3.2). Ryan Anderson missed the first part of the season and now is out indefinitely with a herniated disk.  You certainly wonder where this team might be if it had full health (Davis also missed seven games) from the jump. We’ve seen glimpses of how dangerous the backcourt of Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans can be. The question is: can do it with consistency?


VIDEO: Inside Stuff catches up with Pelicans star big man Anthony Davis

Memphis Grizzlies (15-18): Under rookie coach Dave Joerger, the Grizz were wobbly before Marc Gasol went down with a knee injury after 13 games, but as he nears a return, there is optimism that he, Mike Conley, Tony Allen and Zach Randolph can pull things together and make a run. That’s why they dealt Jerryd Bayless to Boston for a better 3-point shooter (Courtney Lee). If they don’t get things together, Randolph could be on his way out.

MYSTERY INGREDIENT

Los Angeles Lakers (14-20): Will Pau Gasol remain a Laker? Will Kobe Bryant be back sooner than later? Can Steve Nash return with anything left to offer?Can they steady the ship since their swift downturn after Bryant fractured his knee? If the answer to those questions is yes, then it’s possible — not likely — but possible the Lakers can make a second-half charge similar to last year when it appeared they were cooked, yet grabbed the No. 7 seed.

LEFT OUT

Sacramento Kings (10-22): DeMarcus Cousins is putting up All-Star numbers, but the Kings’ poor start negated all the positive preseason momentum.

Utah Jazz (11-25): Rookie Trey Burke is looking good. But Jazz fans had already come to grips that the name of the game is patience as they wait on the youth movement.

Morning Shootaround — Jan. 7


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 6

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Report: Kings interested in Nuggets’ Miller | Report: Deng balked on extension with Bulls | Report: Clips looking at Turkoglu, Vujacic | Z-Bo, Grizz excited about pending addition of Lee

No. 1: Report: Nuggets discussing trades for Miller — As we reported in this space yesterday, the Nuggets and Andre Miller seem destined for a parting of ways. The Denver Post reported yesterday that the team is actively looking for deal the point guard and Yahoo!Sports.com’s Adrian Wojnarowski has some news on prospective teams, which could include the Sacramento Kings:

Guard Andre Miller has possibly played his final game for the franchise, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

After a two-game suspension turned into an indefinite exile on Monday, the Nuggets are motivated to move Miller within the next 24 to 48 hours, league sources said. It has become clear to rival executives that Denver is moving quickly on engineering trade scenarios and completing a deal.

Sacramento Kings general manager Pete D’Alessandro – a longtime Nuggets executive – has been at the forefront of trying to acquire Miller, league sources said. The Kings plan would be to use Miller as a mentor for the franchise’s talented young point guard, Isaiah Thomas.

Denver general manager Tim Connelly has had conversations with multiple teams, including Sacramento. Miller is owed the balance of his $5 million this season and a partial guarantee of $2 million in 2014-15 on his contract.

Connelly and Miller’s agent, Andy Miller, have been in regular communication about the next steps for the franchise and point guard.


Miller, 37, had a 239-consecutive-game streak end in the loss to the Sixers, and endured the first “Did Not Play-Coach’s Decision” of his 15-year career.

The frustration that started on the floor on Wednesday night extended into the postgame locker room, sources told Yahoo Sports. Before the bubbling over on Wednesday, Miller had recently addressed some issues to Shaw in a locker-room meeting forum, league sources said.

Connelly spoke with Miller for approximately an hour late Wednesday at the Pepsi Center, and the team suspended Miller on Thursday for its next two games.

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No. 2: Report: Deng turned down extension with Bulls days ago — As you probably heard, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls pulled off a trade last night that sent disgruntled Cavs center Andrew Bynum and three future Draft picks to Chicago for All-Star forward Luol Deng. The Bulls moved Deng in part because he was an unrestricted free agent this summer and also, as our David Aldridge points out in his excellent breakdown of the deal, to lessen their immediate salary-cap burden. Over the summer, Deng and his representatives couldn’t reach an agreement on a contract extension and, according to Yahoo!Sports.com.’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Bulls and Deng tried to hammer out an extension again before the Cleveland trade took place, but Deng didn’t want to sign:

Within days of the Chicago Bulls unloading Luol Deng for salary-cap relief and a first-round draft pick, the All-Star forward rejected a three-year, $30 million contact extension, a league source told Yahoo Sports.

Deng, who will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, turned down the deal on Friday, clearing the way for Bulls management to complete a deal with Cleveland for broken-down center Andrew Bynum and a package of draft picks on Monday night.

The Bulls and Deng’s representatives had informal talks about an extension over the summer, but Chicago never made a formal offer.

The Bulls were unwilling to pay Deng, 28, market value in the $12 million-to-$13 million-a-year range over four or five seasons. Deng spent nine-plus seasons in Chicago, where he often played hurt. Chicago is committed to re-signing shooting guard Jimmy Butler to a lucrative contract extension this summer, and after the loss of Derrick Rose for the season, the Bulls made a move for the long-term.


VIDEO: GameTime’s crew discusses the Bynum-for-Deng swap

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No. 3: Report: Clippers mulling veterans Vujacic, Turkoglu — The shoulder injury that star point guard Chris Paul suffered last weekend could potentially keep him out of the L.A. Clippers’ lineup for as long as six weeks. That means the Clips’ depth is going to be tested and as L.A. prepares to weather a bit of a storm without him, the team is thinking about adding free agents to the roster. The Clips, according to Marc Stein and Ramona Shelbourne of ESPNLosAngeles.com, have an eye on Hedo Tukoglu (who was recently waived by the Orlando Magic) and ex-Lakers and Nets guard Sasha Vujacic. Adding either of those players, though, would possibly force the team to part ways with Stephen Jackson:

The Los Angeles Clippers are looking hard at well-known veteran free agents Sasha Vujacic and Hedo Turkoglu as they try to fill the playmaking void created by Chris Paul’s shoulder injury, according to sources close to the process.

Sources told ESPN.com that the Clippers could make a new 10-day signing as early as Tuesday, with Vujacic and Turkoglu currently at the forefront of L.A.’s thinking.

Paul is expected to miss up to six weeks after suffering a separated shoulder Friday night in Dallas. The Clippers are still without starting shooting guard J.J. Redick, who is making progress in his recovery from hand and wrist injuries but is believed to be out for at least another week.

The Clippers, though, would have to open up a roster spot before making any further signings and face an immediate decision on Stephen Jackson, whose minimum-salary contract will be guaranteed for the rest of the season if he’s still on the Clippers roster beyond Tuesday at 5 p.m.

Vujacic, 29, has been working out in Los Angeles for months in hopes of getting back into the NBA after the former Lakers guard from Slovenia spent the previous two seasons playing in Turkey.

Clippers coach Doc Rivers, confirming his interest in Turkoglu, said before Monday night’s game against the Magic, “I just like him. He’s out there and we should look at him. I’ve always liked him. He can shoot and play [small forward and power forward].”


VIDEO: Clippers coach Doc Rivers talks about the state of the team before Monday’s game vs. Orlando

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No. 4: Grizz, Z-Bo happy about addition of Lee — While the trade between the Boston Celtics, Memphis Grizzlies and Oklahoma City Thunder has yet to be finalized, the folks in Tennessee are getting excited about the pending move. The deal — which will send Courtney Lee to the Grizz, Jerryd Bayless to the Celtics and Ryan Gomes to the Celtics (where he’s expected to be waived) — is thought to give some new life to the Grizzlies’ renewed playoff hopes. Michael Cohen of The Commercial-Appeal has more on the trade and how Zach Randolph and others are reacting to it:

It was late Sunday afternoon when the Grizzlies found out Jerryd Bayless was leaving, the players beginning to bubble with confidence after a convincing and reassuring win over Detroit. The 112-84 victory marked the end of a successful three-game road trip, protecting the flickering flame that is Memphis’ playoff hopes for at least a while longer.

Strengthening that postseason belief was the impending trade involving Bayless, one that sends the reserve guard to Boston in exchange for sharpshooter Courtney Lee. The players learned of the deal on their flight home after beating the Pistons, the atmosphere onboard equal parts sad and salutary.

“It’s very encouraging when you see the front office try to get better and see what we need to improve at,” Zach Randolph said Monday, before the team’s practice at FedExForum. “That’s what you’ve got to do, that’s what we’ve got to do. We want to be a top-echelon team.

“This season is far from over. For us to say that we’re out of the playoff hunt and we won’t make the playoffs is ludicrous because we still have a chance.”

The trade between the Grizzlies and Celtics is still not official, and coach David Joerger was unable to speak about the imminent deal Monday morning. But point guard Mike Conley said the players “knew something was going on” during the flight back from Detroit, prompting them to enjoy Bayless’ company for what they understood was likely the final time. The trade was a business transaction to make the team better, even if its members lost a friend in the process.

“We talked to him then and took that plane ride back and hung out as much as we could,” Conley said.

For the better part of a month the Grizzlies have toiled in inferiority, dropping five consecutive games in mid December before finally putting together a pair of wins against the Knicks and Jazz — two of the NBA’s worst teams. Since then, victories and defeats have alternated in agonizing fashion, with each step forward giving way to a disillusioning step back.

But the 28-point throttling of Detroit and a disposing of the Suns three days before has breathed life into a franchise one season removed from an appearance in the Western Conference Finals. The offense is more fluid, the bench more productive and now, thanks to the likely addition of Lee, a major hole filled: shooting.

Lee, who is shooting 44.2 percent from beyond the arc this season, joins a team ranked last in the league in 3-pointers made per game (4.9) and 18th in 3-point percentage (34.9). When asked if he would welcome more potency from beyond the arc, Randolph could barely contain himself. He grinned, then laughed, then stammered away with excitement. “Oh man, gosh, come on,” he said complete with a beckoning gesture.

Adding to Monday’s festive mood was a positive update from Joerger on Marc Gasol. The all-star center has been cleared for “light, light on-court action,” following an MRI to evaluate the sprained MCL in his knee that has sidelined him since Nov. 22.

Gasol was at practice Monday sporting a black brace on his left knee and he appeared to be in good spirits in the training room. There is no timetable for his return, but that he is on the court at all is a welcomed sign of progress for a team in need of a lasting spark.

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: After the Bulls release Andrew Bynum, they will have 12 players and be below the tax line. They’ll have to add at least one more player for about $520K … The Salinas Bros. may soon see their long-standing annual TV rights payout from the NBA end soon … The Magic have suffered 86 losses since the start of the 2012-13 season, but last night’s to the Clippers might have been an all-time lowRonny Turiaf was more than happy to be back on the court at last for the Timberwolves

ICYMI(s) Of The Night: Blake Griffin with an in-game, alley-oop windmill dunk. There’s nothing more to be said here …


VIDEO: Blake Griffin’s in-game, alley-oop windmill jam vs. the Magic