Dwight Howard, posting up

April, 23, 2014
Apr 23
4:58
PM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
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Amin Elhassan joins us to talk about how good Dwight Howard is at posting up, and how often he should do it.

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Lowry sees a 'band of brothers' in Toronto

April, 23, 2014
Apr 23
4:32
PM ET
By James Herbert
Special to ESPN.com
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DeMar DeRozan, Kyle LowryAP Photo/The Canadian Press/Nathan DenetteDeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry agree -- the camaraderie in the Raptors' locker room is special.
Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan chatted and laughed at their neighboring lockers following Tuesday’s Game 2 win over the Brooklyn Nets in Toronto. Backs to the media members awaiting a postgame interview, this is a standard sight after Raptors games.

When DeRozan headed to the podium to meet the press, Lowry hung back in an Air Canada Centre hallway, holding his backcourt mate's daughter in his arms.

“Honestly, we talk every single day,” DeRozan said after practice on Wednesday, less than 24 hours after scoring 30 points to help tie the series with the Nets at 1-1. “We figure out ways to make each other better, make this team better. We constantly talk.

"I always come to his house, freeload [off] his refrigerator, whatever his chef is cooking. Go over there, eat, take my daughter over there, play with his son. They play cars, race cars, whatever, do little kid things. Just that bonding has grown with that. That’s definitely cool.”

Lowry was reportedly almost traded to the New York Knicks in December, and he’ll be an unrestricted free agent in July. He’s been the Raptors’ most productive player, putting up 17.9 points, 7.4 assists and 4.7 rebounds per game in the regular season, and one of the driving forces behind this run to the playoffs.

The Raptors recovered from a 6-12 start to rattle off a franchise-record 48 wins, but things would have been drastically different if they had traded Lowry after they dealt Rudy Gay. As Raptors coach Dwane Casey said last week, sometimes the best trades are the ones you don’t make.

While Lowry generally avoids talking about his future, he’s been nothing but positive about the present of late. He said he’s never been on a team with this kind of camaraderie.

“I love my team,” Lowry said. “I’ll tell anybody that firsthand. I really appreciate being [here] every day with these guys. Every day I look forward to talking to them and joking with them and having fun with them because it’s rare that you get a team like this. So you take advantage of the full opportunity that you have. I’m taking advantage of the opportunity that I have this year with these guys.”

Both Lowry and DeRozan referenced a conversation about chemistry they had the previous night. It’s no surprise they’d be in a good mood after earning Toronto’s first postseason win since 2008, but it seems they sincerely see something special here.

“It’s not just being politically correct or nothing like that,” DeRozan said, adding that he’s never worried about what might happen this summer. Lowry already knows DeRozan wants to keep building something here, and DeRozan has repeatedly given his point guard credit for his own success.

Lowry called the Raptors a “band of brothers,” and he appreciates that the environment is conducive to constructive criticism. He can tell DeRozan when he messes up a play, and DeRozan will say he’s right. It’s not just one dominant voice, Lowry said, and bench players are free to contribute ideas. As he described Toronto’s locker room, it sounded like a place he wouldn’t mind staying.

“The chemistry, it’s unbelievable,” Lowry said. “I can pick up my phone and call any one of my teammates and have a conversation. Serious, jokingly, it’s just cool. It’s just great to have a group of guys who just really get along. You’d never think a group like that, with so many different personalities, that everyone really just feeds off each other and everyone genuinely likes each other.”

James Herbert contributes to ESPN.com. Follow him, @outsidethenba.

TrueHoop TV Live

April, 23, 2014
Apr 23
11:16
AM ET
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
ESPN.com
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Talk over all the latest playoff news and storylines with ESPN Insiders Tom Haberstroh and Amin Elhassan. The action begins at 2 p.m. ET.

First Cup: Wednesday

April, 23, 2014
Apr 23
4:36
AM ET
By Nick Borges
ESPN.com
Archive
  • Scott Agness of Pacers.com: The Pacers are a much better team when George Hill is aggressive. He knows it, his teammates say it and coach Frank Vogel is doing what he can to reinforce it. In the team’s 101-85 Game 2 win on Tuesday, Vogel used a backcourt of Hill and C.J. Watson for much of the game, which worked defensively and freed Hill up to be himself. The Indy native doesn’t like being dubbed as a point guard but simply as a “guard.” “That’s what I’ve been my whole life, a scorer at the wing spot,” Hill said after scoring 15 points all in the second half, including 10 in the third quarter on 5-of-6 shooting. “With C.J., I don’t have to worry about play calls or trying to set guys up and figuring out who’s getting touches. It gave me an opportunity to be aggressive and play my game.” Vogel’s move was in part made to allow Hill to play his natural position. But he also did it for defensive purposes. “You got to have speed to contain the basketball down there and to scramble to shooters,” Vogel said. “That’s what we were trying to achieve.”
  • Mark Bradley of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: For whatever reason, the Teague onslaught finally abated. The Hawks’ point guard had scored 25 points in the regular-season victory here April 6 and 28 in Game 1. He had 12 points and four assists in the first half of Game 2, and he made his first shot of the third quarter — a driving hoop inside the first two minutes. He wouldn’t score again. The Pacers believed that Hill’s surges served to tire Teague. Said George: “Make or miss, we want (Hill) to shoot and to drive. That tires Teague out.” Asked if he had in fact gotten weary, Teague’s answer was the essence of brevity. “No,” he said.
  • Mike Wise of The Washington Post: Desire is not just a Chicago commodity, purveyed by this city’s ultra-resilient pro basketball team. It also lives in the chests of Wall and Beal, pounding his heart after another jump shot of silk behind the arc. It lives in the torso of Nene, his 6-foot-11, beefy frame going to the floor for loose balls, his stroke as pure as they come in overtime. That desire lives in the combined and committed resolve of the Wizards, who Tuesday night overcame the brawn and desperation of the Bulls to secure the most impressive road victory of the John Wall era. Do you believe they found a way to win this, to take a 2-0 series lead on these physically imposing Brahmas, who so badly tried to turn this into a Greco-Roman match and failed? The series shifts to the District on Friday for Game 3, where they are distributing T-shirts with the words, “DC Rising.” After quieting the Madhouse on Madison, DC Risen is more like it. ... I’m not saying this series is over. I am saying the Wizards have just as much resilience as the heretofore most resilient team in the NBA. And they have more offensive weapons.
  • K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune: Losing the first two home games of a best-of-seven series is tough enough. Blowing double-digit, second-half leads in both is even more demoralizing. "Demoralizing?" Joakim Noah said. Then, in the direct aftermath of Tuesday's shocking 101-99 overtime loss to the Wizards, he thought of a different word. "It sucks," Noah said. "I hate losing. Everyone on this team is giving everything that they have. I feel like they hit big shot after big shot. You have to give credit where credit is due. They're playing at a high level. Throughout the year, it hasn't been pretty at times. But we're a team that finds a way." If the Bulls find a way this time, they will become just the fourth team in NBA history to rally after losing the first two home games.
  • Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun: He needed the moment alone, not caring what it looked like, not concerned at all that he was violating a team rule. DeMar DeRozan sat alone on the bench, just after picking up his fifth foul, looking disconsolate, pulled from a one-point game with just under seven minutes to play. He knew what he needed most: He needed to calm down. "My competitive spirit," said the Raptors' all-star guard. "I was calming myself down. I was a little frustrated I couldn't be out there with my team, especially at that critical moment. "Just me. I had to keep myself together." The Raptors were up by a point and he was on the bench with five fouls. Not knowing what was about to happen. Not knowing when he would get back. Seven minutes to go. And internally and externally pleading to stay in the game. Then he did what he's watched Michael Jordan do on television growing up, what he used to watch Kobe Bryant do in the fourth quarter and final minutes of playoff games: He took over. With three minutes and 48 seconds to play, with the Raptors up a moment, he made it all about him, the way the great players always do.
  • Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News: It's not just the Toronto media, the Raptors and its fans who are crying conspiracy. Disgraced former referee Tim Donaghy claims the league is pushing its officials to call a victory for the Nets. "(The Raptors) are not only going against the Brooklyn Nets but going against the league office," Donaghy said in a radio interview in Canada. "They have a very talented team and have to be that much better than the Brooklyn Nets. "In this situation, Brooklyn would be put at an advantage. A Brooklyn-Miami matchup (in round 2) would bring great ratings and that's what this is all about for the NBA and the league offices — bringing in as many dollars as they can. … Some of the things that the league does and continues to do puts these teams at a disadvantage — like the Toronto Raptors — because moving forward they won't bring in the big dollars for the league. It's terrible for the fans (of) Toronto. They go and support that team but really they're going to have trouble moving on based on talent and what takes place on the floor when they're really going against the refs and the league, along with the Nets." Donaghy, of course, lacks credibility in the morality department, having been sentenced to 15 months in prison for fixing NBA games. But Donaghy's contention became relevant because the Raptors were complaining about the officiating, among other things, after Saturday's 94-87 loss. An NBA spokesman issued this statement: “Tim Donaghy is a convicted felon looking for any opportunity for people to listen to his baseless allegations. For Mr. Donaghy to continually try to challenge his former colleagues’ ethics is distasteful and says more about his own integrity than it could ever say about our referees, who are the best and most scrutinized game officials in the world.”
  • Frank Isola of the New York Daily News: Phil Jackson's formidable task of rebuilding the Knicks and establishing a professional, winning culture at Madison Square Garden has already hit a familiar roadblock: James Dolan. Just one month into his role as Knicks president, Jackson has already clashed with Dolan, the chairman of Madison Square Garden, over personnel decisions, the Daily News has learned. According to a team source, Jackson is looking to remove several staff members, which is commonplace when a new administration takes over, but Dolan opposes removing certain employees. According to the source, Dolan’s reaction to Jackson’s request was to tell the 11-time NBA championship coach to simply focus his attention on building a winning team. To say that “minor friction,” as one Garden source called it, can be classified as Jackson’s honeymoon with Dolan being over may be stretching it a bit. But at the very least it proves that Dolan — surprise, surprise wasn’t being entirely truthful last month when he claimed he was “willingly and gratefully” giving up control of the basketball decisions to Jackson, the Hall of Fame coach.
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Ethan Sherwood Strauss, who is covering Clippers-Warriors for ESPN.com, discusses the 40-point blowout in Game 2, what the Warriors need to do to answer in Game 3, and mouthguards gone wild.

Getting gas with the Big Ticket

April, 22, 2014
Apr 22
3:12
PM ET
Serrano By Shea Serrano
ESPN.com
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Writer and illustrator Shea Serrano and his collaborator, Sean Mack, put their spin on the NBA.

KG Cartoon 2Shea Serrano and Sean Mack
Previously: Heat check-out line »   Also see: Shopping with the Big Ticket »

In defense of the Bulls

April, 22, 2014
Apr 22
2:46
PM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
Archive
Was the media wrong in picking Bulls over Wizards? Amin Elhassan is here to defend those who picked Chicago.

First Cup: Tuesday

April, 22, 2014
Apr 22
4:53
AM ET
By Nick Borges
ESPN.com
Archive
  • Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman: This just in. The Memphis Grizzlies play some defense. Tony Allen has taken up residence inside Kevin Durant’s No. 35 jersey. Mike Conley stays in front of his man. Marc Gasol was the reigning NBA defensive player of the year until Monday. The Grizzlies guard you. Which means the Thunder better do it, too. Memphis reversed momentum in this Western Conference playoff series with a 111-105 overtime victory over the Thunder on Monday night, and the Grizzlies did it as much with offense as their beloved defense. ... These Grizzlies are made for the playoffs. They slow it down, they play tough, they defend like crazy. Memphis makes it hard to score. If you don’t do the same, you go home.
  • Ronald Tillery of The Commercial-Appeal: A pair of teams that put together a playoff classic three years ago might just be working on another. That could have easily been a prevailing notion Monday night following the Grizzlies’ 111-105 Game 2 victory against the Oklahoma City Thunder in overtime at Chesapeake Energy Arena. After a breath-taking display on defense by a certain No. 9, five periods and a miraculous yet clutch four-point play, the Griz head back to Memphis with their best-of-seven first-round series knotted at 1-1. ... The Griz had to work long and hard to rebound from a demoralizing Game 1 defeat. But that’s what many onlookers predicted how this Western Conference playoff matchup would be: long and hard. This marked the sixth playoff overtime game the Griz have played against the Thunder. Memphis won four of the previous five. The Grizzlies’ only loss so far when these teams grace the fans with extra playoff basketball came in that three-overtime classic in FedExForum during the 2011 Western Conference semifinals.
  • Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman: Lost in the hysteria of Kevin Durant drilling the most miraculous shot in Oklahoma City history was another gem of a play by the game’s biggest pest, a player with a penchant for throwing a wrench in the Thunder’s plans. Just before Durant hit a corner 3-pointer while falling out of bounds and on his bottom, Tony Allen once again blew up a Thunder possession. He tipped a pass from Russell Westbrook to Durant, forcing OKC into scramble mode and Durant into delivering on a desperation fling. Though the impact of Allen’s defense wasn’t felt when Durant’s shot splashed through the net, a bucket that led to a four-point play and gave the Thunder new life with 13.8 seconds remaining in regulation, it was apparent before and after that basket. And it’s among the biggest reasons why the Thunder is headed to Memphis on Thursday needing a win to regain home-court advantage after a 111-105 overtime loss to the Grizzlies in Game 2 on Monday inside Chesapeake Energy Arena. ... Allen is that face of Memphis’ style. And now it appears the Thunder has a problem.
  • Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times: The Clippers needed an answer, and quick. They gave one, and wow. Their response Monday night to a playoff-opening debacle against the Golden State Warriors was powerful enough to temporarily subdue thoughts of the historic Clippers jinx while empowering dreams of a landmark Clippers spring. The answer was visible across the Staples Center sky in a flying Blake Griffin, and across the Staples Center floor in a skidding Chris Paul. The answer was audible on the Staples Center sideline with a screaming and confrontational Doc Rivers, and in the stands with thousands of red shirts whose owners' roars lasted deep into the sweaty night. More than anything, the answer could be felt in the slumped shoulders and blank stares of a Warriors team that was warned these might not be same old postseason Clippers, and this is not going to be your usual first-round dance. "They are who I thought they are," said Rivers afterward of his team, his voice filled with relief.
  • Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News: Can the Warriors get Curry free? Can Thompson stay out of foul trouble while defending Paul? Will Lee, Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes or anybody else step in and give the Warriors what Danny Granger (15 points) and Matt Barnes (13 points) gave the Clippers in Game 2? That's up to coach Mark Jackson and it's up to the Warriors players. They don't have a lot of time to figure this out, and they certainly know that the Clippers have more talent and made the right adjustments on Monday. The series got real for the Clippers in Game 2, and it suddenly got into serious danger territory for the Warriors.
  • Ann Killion of the San Francisco Chronicle: The San Francisco Bay wins. That's what Joe Lacob and the Warriors learned. Their plans for a waterfront arena foundered, despite endless bluster, almost from the start of planning and now apparently have been abandoned. The Chronicle reported online Monday that the Warriors have purchased property from Salesforce.com farther south, on Third Street in Mission Bay. They will own the property, rather than lease from the Port of San Francisco. So the arena battle lines no longer will be drawn between pro-development types and environmentalists. Now the line is placed squarely between San Francisco and Oakland, which badly wants to hold onto the only NBA team in the Bay Area. The Warriors might argue that red tape and intransigent politics foiled their plans for a showcase, showboat building plopped far out on two dilapidated piers in the bay. But, really, it was the bay itself that thwarted the Warriors.
  • Mark Bradley of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: I was on the record as believing the Atlanta Hawks had a very good chance — as good a chance as a No. 8 seed ever has — before the series began. With it beginning the way it did, I like their chances even more. I think the Indiana Pacers are more apt to collapse than to cohere, but I have, as we know, been wrong. ... Game 2 is essentially the season for the Pacers, who can’t afford another home loss. On desperation alone, you’d have to think they’ll prevail. But the Hawks clearly know how to hurt the Pacers, and it wouldn’t be a major shock if the hurting continued. Which is another way of saying: I really, really like the Hawks’ chances in this series.
  • Mark Montieth of Pacers.com: A zone defense? Paul George guarding Jeff Teague? A different starting lineup? A revised playing rotation? The Pacers' loss to Atlanta on Saturday would seem to demand some changes in coaching strategy heading into Game 2 on Tuesday. Losing the first two games on your home court, after all, isn't a highly regarded way to kick off a playoff series. Coach Frank Vogel was coy when pressed on the issue following Monday's practice at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, not wishing to become the first coach in NBA history to reveal strategy to the opponent a day before a playoff game. But, winds of change were wafting through the building. Practice ran longer than was originally advertised to the media, and all doors were closed. Afterward, Lance Stephenson created a breeze when asked if strategic changes were forthcoming. “Of course we're going to make changes,” he said. “We're not allowed to talk about the changes we made, (the Hawks) will figure it out when we play.” Earlier, Vogel had only hinted at the possibility. “I prefer not to make major changes,” he said. Are you willing? “Of course.” Do you think you will? “We'll see.”
  • Tim Bontemps of the New York Post: The way Paul Pierce took over in the final minutes of Saturday’s 94-87 Nets win in Game 1 of their best-of-seven series with the Raptors understandably garnered all of the headlines. But, as he often does, Joe Johnson flew under the radar, though his 24 points on 8-for-13 shooting — almost all of which came in the paint — were what kept the Nets in position for Pierce to slam the door shut. ... The Nets are expecting the Raptors to change things up in Game 2 after the success Johnson had Saturday. But whether he’s able to have the same kind of scoring output again or if he is turned into more of a facilitator because Toronto keys on him, you can be sure he will be a big part of the Nets’ plans as they try to come home up 2-0 in the series.
  • Doug Smith of the Toronto Star: There is so much more to these NBA playoffs for the Raptors than just the post-season. There are messages to be delivered and notices to be served. If general manager Masai Ujiri might have been a bit intemperate with his “Eff Brooklyn” statement before Game 1 of the series with the Nets, he was simply standing up for an organization that needs to command respect from a league that hasn’t shown much of it in the past half decade. There is more public fight to this group, more feistiness, more standing up for itself than it’s shown, more “We’re fed up and we’re not going to take it any more.” From front office personnel to players, coaches and support staff, it’s as if they’ve finally had enough of being slighted. The first post-season appearance since 2008 is a perfect avenue to get that out.
  • J. Michael of CSN Washington: In Game 1, Joakim Noah didn't look like the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year, an award he was given Wednesday at United Center. That's where Nene, the Wizards' versatile big man, had his way with his Chicago Bulls counterpart. Nene played 35 minutes -- his most since Feb. 11 -- after a game-high 24 points on 11 of 17 shooting, eight rebounds and three assists. It was his first start for the Wizards since Feb. 23, when he went down with a left knee ligament strain. "I’m tired. I’m sore today," said Nene, as he strapped on his knee brace. "But tomorrow’s another day. We’ll see." In other words, that minutes restriction he's on will be relative to how well he's playing.
  • Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times: Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau isn’t in the business of pointing fingers. In his world, it’s a "five-man offense, five-man defense, and everyone is connected." He reiterated that again Monday, one day after the Bulls lost Game 1 of their first-round playoff series to the Washington Wizards. "To put it on one guy, that’s not how we do it here," Thibodeau said. But that didn’t prevent the Wizards from finding that perceived weak link in the chain and attacking it, especially in their fourth-quarter comeback. Unfortunately for guard D.J. Augustin, he was the guy the Wizards went after in crunch time. ... According to one source, though, Thibodeau was concerned about Augustin’s defensive shortcomings being exposed, especially in the playoffs, when opposing coaches smell blood and attack. Sure enough, the Wizards’ guards seemed to go right after him down the stretch, whether it was John Wall, Bradley Beal or even 38-year-old Andre Miller, who scored eight of his 10 points in the fourth quarter.

Trash talk

April, 21, 2014
Apr 21
5:50
PM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
Archive
Is it OK for a GM to publicly curse about the other team? Or is it just plain fun? Amin Elhassan examines the war of words between the Raptors and Nets.

TrueHoop TV Live

April, 21, 2014
Apr 21
11:27
AM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
Archive

Mike Woodson's long goodbye

April, 21, 2014
Apr 21
11:03
AM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Mike Woodson Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesOusted New York Knicks coach Mike Woodson never found sustained success in two-plus seasons.
After two and a half tumultuous years, Mike Woodson’s term as New York Knicks head coach came to a close Monday morning. His dismissal ends what was, even by the Knicks’ standards, a strange chapter in recent NBA history.

Woodson’s coaching reputation has swung wildly over the last 26 months. Under Woodson’s direction, the Knicks went 72-34 from when he took over for Mike D’Antoni in March 2012 through the end of the 2012-13 season. It’s not as if Woodson’s name was mud before the Knicks' 100-game hot streak, but his regular-season success in Atlanta -- the team won more games than the year before in five consecutive seasons -- was tainted by Atlanta’s inability to make noise in the playoffs. The Hawks never lost to a lower seed, but they never really looked capable of a deep playoff run, either.

After his time in Atlanta, critics cast Woodson as inflexible and somewhat dreary from a tactical standpoint. Woodson’s isolation-heavy offense repeatedly broke down in the playoffs, and his Hawks never had an effective backup plan.

But after coaching under Mike D’Antoni with the Knicks, Woodson seemed to become a believer in the spread pick-and-roll, and his Knicks rode that action, and a barrage of 3-pointers, to a 54-win season in 2012-13. The conversation around Woodson changed almost overnight: He had won full buy-in from Carmelo Anthony and somehow kept J.R. Smith focused; he modernized his offense and embraced the state of the art in basketball strategy.

The Knicks, for the first time in a long time, exceeded expectations. Was it Woodson? Or were the Knicks just more talented than people realized? Wasn't it Woodson who made Jason Kidd, Pablo Prigioni, Steve Novak and Chris Copeland useful players?

Before the 2012-13 season, Wages of Wins combination of metrics and analysis predicted the Knicks would be the top seed in the East. The two main reasons were Kidd and Tyson Chandler, the point guard-center battery of the 2011 champion Mavericks. Kidd was old, sure, but he still made his teams better with rebounding, shooting and crisp ball movement. With the Knicks, Kidd’s play became the shared language through which Anthony’s game could communicate with the spread pick-and-roll.

When Kidd retired, the Knicks’ half-court offense descended into Babel. Again, this was partly due to situations outside of Woodson’s control. In the offseason, the Knicks replaced important shooters Novak, Kidd and Copeland with Metta World Peace and Andrea Bargnani. World Peace was a defensive contributor during a brief period of good health, but otherwise the Knicks essentially scrapped the identity that made them so dangerous -- great ball movement and killer shooting -- in favor of big names.

The same Wages of Wins analysts who picked the Knicks to be very good in 2012-13, then picked the Knicks to finish outside the playoffs, as did the SCHOENE metric developed by ESPN.com’s Kevin Pelton.

Whether Woodson ever really believed in the free-wheeling, 3-pointer crazed offense of 2012-13 is an open question. The Knicks abandoned their small-ball strengths at the first sign of trouble in the 2013 playoffs, abdicating their perimeter advantage to wage an unwinnable war inside against the Pacers. And this season, Woodson often professed a desire -- possibly at behest of the front office -- to make the “Big” lineups work, even though playing Bargnani, Anthony and Chandler together had miserable results.

Strategy aside, if you consider the variable roster quality during the last two seasons, it is hard to say whether Woodson is responsible at all for either the good times or the bad ones.

Doubt that those role players the Knicks lost in the offseason really matter enough to so dramatically swing the Knicks' win-loss records? The fact is Carmelo Anthony was actually better this season than he was last season. Logic argues that he wasn't the controlling factor in the Knicks' success.

With Kidd and the shooters gone and Chandler hobbled, the Knicks just didn't have a very good roster -- so they weren't a very good team.

This gets us closer to the truth of Woodson’s value as a coach. Of course his teams in Atlanta got better every year, the roster improved every year, too!

Young stars such as Josh Smith and Al Horford joined the Hawks as rookies and followed a logical trend: They were better at 21 than 20, and better at 24 than 23.

History suggests Woodson does not make his teams better, nor does he really inhibit them. He puts his players in positions to succeed, but he is no Rick Carlisle, masking flaws with smoke and mirrors.

Given the Knicks’ lack of draft picks and tradable assets, the roster probably won't be much stronger next year. If they want a significantly better record, they'll need to find a coach who can win more games than player quality projects.

Woodson will be remembered as a players' coach, one who forged strong bonds with difficult personalities but never found a way to make them much better than they already were.

First Cup: Monday

April, 21, 2014
Apr 21
5:02
AM ET
By Nick Borges
ESPN.com
Archive
  • Greg Cote of The Miami Herald: The Heat this season put together videos featuring every player that are shown on the home arena’s giant scoreboard screen during games. The one on Dwyane Wade happened to air Sunday during a timeout in the second half of the playoff victory over Charlotte that opened Miami’s postseason bid for a third consecutive NBA championship. It was a look-back on a long career spent entirely here. It was nostalgic to see Dwyane so much younger. The video was emotional. It almost had the feel of a farewell, like the kind of retrospective you’d see at a retirement or something. Wade couldn’t help but glance up and see his career flash before his eyes. “It was weird and cool at the same time,” he said afterward, smiling. ... Wade looked like his old self, not the version of himself that looks old. Miami’s 99-88 victory over Charlotte in Game 1 of this first-round series had a few players’ fingerprints on it, but none more than Wade’s.
  • Tom Sorensen of The Charlotte Observer: If Al Jefferson isn’t effective, the Charlotte Bobcats have no chance to beat the Miami Heat. If Jefferson ceases to be Big Al, if plantar fasciitis limits what he can do when he has the ball as well as when Miami has it, Charlotte’s season ends quietly. ... It doesn’t seem fair, after the season Jefferson and his teammates have had, for him to get hurt in the first quarter of Charlotte’s first playoff game since 2010. It probably isn’t fair that the Bobcats have to play the Heat. In the playoffs, fairness does not apply. Have to hope modern science becomes especially modern and discovers a plantar fasciitis cure by Wednesday, when the teams next play. As Jefferson stands to leave the interview room, he pauses before slowly walking away. “Don’t laugh at me,” he says, smiling. After all you’ve done for your team, nobody would consider it.
  • Buck Harvey of the San Antonio Express-News: He missed 10 shots, including one late at the rim without much resistance. His teammates made mistakes, too, but none of it mattered. He would always feel he let one get away, and he went to the podium afterward visibly frustrated. That was Tim Duncan 10 months ago in Miami. That was also Dirk Nowitzki on Sunday. And so those who think the Mavericks missed their one chance, that Nowitzki is too old to carry the Mavericks as he once did, consider what happened the next time Duncan played a playoff game. Aging, tall men who are destined for Springfield have a way of recovering. ... The missed opportunity was real. The Mavericks had caught the Spurs flat, and they had let it get away. So how can Nowitzki get over the sensation that this was “the one you were supposed to get?” “I'm not sure,” Nowitzki said. “We got two days to sit on it and watch the film, make some minor adjustments, and let it all rip in Game 2.” This wasn't a Finals-level disappointment. A first-round opener doesn't compare. But when it comes to recovery, and letting things “rip,” there are some players who are better at it than others.
  • Tim Cowlishaw of The Dallas Morning News: Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle reminded everyone after the game that Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan are two of the 10 greatest NBA players ever, either in scoring or in a general evaluation of their skills. Maybe he felt it was necessary because while Duncan — who turns 38 this week — had just delivered a Game 1 message that he’s anything but long gone, Nowitzki simply looked lost. ... What the Spurs mostly forced was the Mavericks’ bench to supply all the offense. With Nowitzki and Ellis getting 11 points each as the only starters in double figures, Dallas’ starting five shot 32 percent (16-for-50) from the field for a grand total of 39 points. Both teams have an ample amount of time to ponder and institute Game 2 adjustments. They don’t meet again until 7 p.m. Wednesday in San Antonio. I have no idea if Harris and Brandan Wright will contribute another 30 points off the bench, or if the Mavericks can confine their turnovers to single digits (eight in Game 1) a second time. But if Nowitzki doesn’t have more than 11 points by halftime, it will be both a surprise and an indication that this series is fully under the control of the San Antonio Spurs.
  • Mike Wise of The Washington Post: The late-game images were so telling: Trevor Ariza chasing down D.J. Augustin from behind with two minutes left, swatting the ball off the glass. Every offensive possession treated not just carefully down the stretch but almost treasured, until someone had a wide-open look or a layup or ended up at the free throw line. The Wizards didn’t merely win Game 1 of their first playoff series in six years; they out- Chicagoed the Bulls. ... It’s one game, sure. But it’s also a series-opening statement by a group that was thought to be too green and not yet playoff-seasoned enough to mount a serious challenge to Chicago. You out-Bull the Bulls in Game 1, though, you’re doing something tremendously right.
  • Rick Telander of the Chicago Sun-Times: OK, Chicago, what’s the deal in the postseason? The Blackhawks just gagged away two games. And now the Bulls choked on their opener against the Washington Wizards, like it was an Easter egg they forgot to peel. Wizards are magicians, but the Bulls took a 13-point third-quarter lead and made it disappear in a 102-93 loss. It was just so odd, that period when the Bulls had the Wizards on the run. They seemed to get cocky for a couple of minutes, trying to run wild and do stuff they weren’t quite capable of doing. And that’s all it took. These were the fifth-place, 44-38 Wizards, with a bunch of guys who had never been in the playoffs, playing their debut on the road. How? What?
  • Chris Haynes of CSNNW.com: The Portland Trail Blazers proved on a grand stage that they now have two superstars on its roster. Damian Lillard joined that select company with LaMarcus Aldridge Sunday night in a 122-120 overtime win over the Houston Rockets in the Toyota Center. This game had every emotion one could have. It was intense, exhilarating, physical, emotional and so much more. Those two faced every obstacle and overcame it. Portland looked as if they had enough midway in the fourth quarter, but they fought back and shocked the Rockets on national television, stealing Game 1 of this series and taking homecourt advantage away from the Rockets. Aldridge played out of his mind to go for a franchise playoff high of 46 points and 17 rebounds along with two blocks before fouling out in overtime. His sidekick Lillard scored 31 points, pulled down nine boards and distributed five assists in his playoff debut. The two were sensational and Lillard took another step towards being one of the true great points guard we have in this game.
  • Jenny Dial Creech of the Houston Chronicle: When asked if the Portland Trail Blazers would look to the “Hack-a-Dwight” tactic in their first round playoff series against the Rockets, coach Terry Stotts joked, “First possession, we are doing it.” It didn’t come in the first possession, or any time near it, but when the Trail Blazers needed a comeback in the final minutes of the fourth quarter, the fouling began. The Rockets led by 10 with 4:30 to play when the Blazers started fouling him. He would go 2-of-6 in the next two minutes while Portland went on an 11-0 run to come back and eventually send the game into overtime. Howard finished 9-of-17 for the game. “I just have to go up there and be confident and knock those free throws down,” Howard said. “I practice on it enough. I just have to make them.” "That wasn’t the reason they won the game,” he continued. “I don’t think we valued a lot of the possessions.”
  • Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman: Like Saturday night in Game 1 of a Western Conference playoff series against Memphis. The Grizzlies survive on the production of big men Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol and the drives of point guard Mike Conley. But Ibaka blocked four shots and made the paint so treacherous that the Grizzlies’ interior players combined to make just 14 of 43 shots. Conley’s quick darts into the lane and the bull rushes of Randolph and Gasol are tempered by the knowledge that Ibaka has impeccable timing at crossing the paint for a backside block. And as we saw Saturday night, when the Thunder won 100-86, Ibaka’s rejections ignite his teammates and the OKC crowd as much as a thundering dunk.
  • Scott Ostler of the San Francisco Chronicle: Eons ago, when Harrison Barnes was a North Carolina high school and college phenom likened to the mighty Jordan, the kid got a nickname: The Black Falcon. You don't drag that kind of high-falutin' nickname into the NBA unless you're a certified god. King James and the Black Mamba can name-drop their own nicknames without a trace of irony. So when the Warriors call Barnes Black Falcon, it's in fun, not reverence. Really, a better fit for Barnes would be the Mystery Falcon, because you never know what kind of performance you'll get from him, or when he'll show up to save the day. It's a superhero nickname, and based on Barnes' playoff performance last season and in Saturday's Game 1 win over the Clippers, he has a mysterious ability to raise his game when the heat is on.
  • Dan Woike of The Orange County Register: Before the playoffs began, Doc Rivers told his team that at some point during the playoffs, they were going to lose a game at Staples Center and need to win away from home. "It’s Doc fault,” Chris Paul deadpanned. “He spoke that into existence.” The message wasn’t intended to be taken as instructions. “I didn’t actually mean it,” Rivers said with a laugh. “…You have to be prepared for it, obviously. And obviously, you don’t want to drop the first game. But we did. Now, we have to do something about it.” The Clippers began addressing that with a practice Sunday. While the Clippers need to figure out ways to contain Golden State’s passing and shooting between the lines, the team also has to address the clutter that caused them problems between their ears.

Clips, Warriors at odds with foul judgments

April, 19, 2014
Apr 19
9:58
PM ET
Shelburne By Ramona Shelburne
ESPN.com
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LOS ANGELES -- The narrative leading into this first-round playoff series between the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors was that some sort of MMA fight was liable to break out at any time.

These teams really don’t like each other!

No really, there’s bad blood!

Bad things could happen!

Beware!

So, naturally, the first game was refereed with extreme caution, and the end result had two of the best players in the series -- Blake Griffin and Andre Iguodala -- sitting on the bench at the end of the Warriors' thrilling 109-105 win.

"I thought all the hype absolutely had an impact on how the game was called," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. "There’s no doubt about that. A lot of tight, touch fouls. I thought Blake, of the six [fouls], three of them were probably touch fouls. Same thing with [Chris Paul, who had five fouls].

"But the way I look at is, both teams have to play under the same rules. They did a better job of playing under the same rules that we had to play under."

In all, the referees in Saturday’s game called 51 fouls, 29 in the first half, in which Iguodala collected four fouls in 11 minutes and Griffin was limited to less than four minutes with three fouls.

The 51 fouls is not an obscene number -- the four regular-season games between the teams averaged 47 fouls -- but it did seem to affect both the flow and outcome of the game.

"It's frustrating," said Iguodala, the Warriors' best perimeter defender. "Because you put in so much work for these moments. To have a few things not go your way and you know you're not wrong, it can be tough."

For his part, Griffin thought it actually took the expected physicality of this series out of the game.

"To be honest, it felt like just a regular-season game as far as the physicality goes," Griffin said. "I know the series we played last year [against the Memphis Grizzlies] and the years before that were way, way, way more physical. So it’s kind of hard to know what you can get away with and what you can’t.

"But I just I have to be smarter in that area and not put us in that situation."

Or maybe things will just loosen up and Griffin and Iguodala will be able to influence the series, like one would’ve expected.

Blazers, Rockets take similar paths to Rd. 1

April, 19, 2014
Apr 19
12:29
PM ET
By Daniel Nowell
Special to ESPN.com
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video
The Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets tip off Sunday in a first-round matchup that will seem, in many ways, like warp-speed shadow boxing.

This series is perhaps the most stylistically even of any in the opening round -- both teams are in the league’s top five in 3-point attempts, and both are in the top 10 in pace. Both are defined by inside-out, All-Star combinations, and both are led by staid coaches who believe in letting it fly when the opportunity presents itself. Both teams are in the middle third of the league in defensive rating, so fans of high-scoring marksmanship competitions will likely find this matchup irresistible.

For all the broad-stroke similarities between the two teams, however, the truly compelling aspects will be found in the details. For instance, Portland’s offensive style is committed to flow and ball movement; the ball tends to move radially around LaMarcus Aldridge post-ups in Portland, swinging around until it produces a seam to attack inward.

Houston, conversely, relies very much on James Harden’s ability to produce from the outside in, beating the game into submission with drive after drive to the rim and the free throw lane. In fact, with the league increasingly favoring shots at the rim and behind the arc as cornerstones of healthy offense, Portland and Houston represent two contrasting approaches to realizing the ideal.

On the one hand, Portland has an almost principled commitment to an open, aesthetically pleasing style of basketball, and coach Terry Stotts takes pride in a fan-friendly product. Houston, on the other hand, combines random bursts of transition frenzy with a stubborn, almost cynical dedication to producing free throws with Harden drives and Dwight Howard post-ups.

If you wanted to read that ideological divide into the teams’ organizational characters, you’d find plenty to support it. In Houston’s corner is GM Daryl Morey, high-volume trader king of the league, and his counterpart is former actor and workout guy Neil Olshey.

Olshey inherited much of Portland’s core, and what he didn’t inherit he has built with holistic finesse. Aldridge was the lone All-Star when Olshey took over the team -- adding a scoring point guard in Damian Lillard and a yeoman rim protector in Robin Lopez.

Morey inherited … well, who can remember? The Morey model views players as assets, and an accumulation of assets must always be gathering interest. After a few years of stockpiling, he liquidated and found himself holding the gems -- Harden and Howard.

When these teams played this season, it played out more or less how a bookie might call it. Houston held a 3-1 advantage in games and a combined margin of plus-26 points. Where the Blazers have All-Stars, the Rockets have superstars, and Houston has proven slightly more tenacious on defense than Portland.

Among rotation players, Portland has just two real defensive specialists, and, while Lopez and Wesley Matthews are smart, rugged, and dutiful, their Houston counterparts, Howard and Patrick Beverley, are simply more disruptive.

Crucially, Lillard is shooting just 25 percent against Beverley, and his ability to improve upon that mark might well decide the series. The Blazers rely on two pressure valves: Aldridge’s abilities from midrange on the left block and Lillard’s ability to cash in from any range when left unattended.

When Beverley is on the floor, Lillard is hardly ever unattended, and, what’s more, the Houston provocateur has done what few defenders have in seeming to get under Lillard’s skin enough to draw comment. After a particularly physical exchange earlier this season, Lillard somewhat famously told reporters "I’m just not going to let somebody be in my chest doing all that extra stuff." From Portland’s measured young All-Star, that rates as near-vitriol.

On the other side of the ball, the Blazers have had difficulty slowing Harden but might be more concerned with Howard bludgeoning their thin front line. Beyond Lopez, the Blazers lack a real post deterrent, and foul trouble will bring Joel Freeland, recently recovered from a sprained MCL, more in focus than Portland would like. Though the Blazers have consistently proven unable to contain Harden, they’ll need to be just as careful, over two weeks of attrition, not to allow Howard to control the series.

There are other players. Portland’s Nicolas Batum has oscillated between being the West’s most versatile offensive player and a nearly unfelt one; Houston’s Chandler Parsons provides a similar flexibility to the Houston lineups. It appears that everywhere you look this series, a strength is met with a nearly equal one.

Certainly, it appears the Rockets have a wider margin of error, but this series seems destined to provide viewers with the best that postseason basketball has to offer: adjustments, readjustments and two teams who figure to play larger roles over the next few springs.

Wiz kids' rise up the chain of command

April, 19, 2014
Apr 19
10:00
AM ET
By Conor Dirks
Special to ESPN.com
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John WallSam Forencich/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Wizards met their preseason goal of making their first postseason since 2008. ... Now what?
Before the 2013-14 season began, owner Ted Leonsis made his goal awfully conspicuous: “I think that all of our focus, all of our attention, is to make the playoffs this year.”

Laboring under the weight of this mandate, the Washington Wizards have put together a qualifying season, albeit in an Eastern Conference notorious for its frailty and with Washington clinging distrustfully to the least challenging schedule in the NBA. The playoff-bound Wizards have already achieved everything they set out to do, but the way they reached this unassuming goal has at times been as disappointing as it has been gratifying.

Asked whether the Wizards had met his preseason expectations, stately sophomore shooting guard Bradley Beal offered this specter of insight into the nature of Washington’s modest ambitions: “We knew we could be an above-.500 team, and we knew we could be a playoff team, and we accomplished those two goals. Now it's up to us to just finish out this regular season, keep our sixth seed, and move on into the playoffs.”

Said fourth-year player Kevin Seraphin: “We was just trying to get to the playoffs, whether we was a seven, eight, five. It didn’t matter.”

[+] EnlargeWizards
AP Photo/Alex BrandonThe Wizards are in! But do they have the goods to go any farther? The Chicago Bulls await in Round 1.
Can you blame these Wizards, long below sea level within the league’s topography, for not aiming higher?

The six seasons since their last playoff berth have not always neatly traced Leonsis’ 10-point plan for professional sports teams. Point No. 5, for example, is headlined by Leonsis’ commitment to being patient with young players. In practice, not all young players were found worthy of that patience, and Leonsis’ one-time “New Big Three” concept disappeared rapidly -- along with the amnesty money Leonsis is still wiring to Andray Blatche -- into a void previously inhabited by organizational optimism.

JaVale McGee was traded for Nene, Nick Young was traded for Brian Cook and a second-round draft pick, and Jordan Crawford was traded for a few games of Jason Collins and an injured Leandro Barbosa. Most recently, 23-year-old Jan Vesely -- the sixth overall pick the season after John Wall was drafted first overall -- was traded for 38-year-old Andre Miller. The argument has been made that all of these maneuvers, each in its own pocket-sized vacuum, were necessary. But considered together, each transaction is another verse in a lament for player development that plays on loop for those who follow the team.

On the eve of the playoffs, there is a contingent of Wizards fans, disenchanted with the direction of the rebuild, who would welcome a swift playoff exit were it to serve as the denouement of team president Ernie Grunfeld’s 10-year tenure, and as the last gasp of Randy Wittman’s term as head coach. This internal conflict, far too deeply rooted in D.C. to be excised by the embryonic hope afforded by one playoff appearance, is integral to understanding why The Washington Post’s Dan Steinberg felt compelled to host a roundtable discussion asking the question, “Why aren’t people excited about the Wizards?”

It comes down to expectations. People don’t draw joy from basketball, from competition, in the same way an unrepentant completionist takes satisfaction from checking a necessary goal off of a reasonable checklist. Joy, pain and, to a similar extent, interest, are all generated by teams that brazenly disregard goals on their way to the sublime or into the abyss.

While other teams have adjusted and outstripped their initial expectations, the Wizards have done little more than meet them. Gifted every opportunity for success, the team has found unique ways to instead orbit mediocrity.

Tied with Miami and Toronto for the best road record in the Eastern Conference (22-19), Washington ended the season with the worst home record (also 22-19) of any playoff team.

At 9-9 in December, the Wizards briefly held the third seed in the East. Over the course of the season, the team stepped ponderously down the standings with the grim determination of a precompressed helical spring (er, a Slinky), but not because their play deteriorated. On the contrary, it showed gradual, if unexceptional, improvement.

The problem, then, was everyone else. While the Wizards mostly upheld the status quo, the Bulls obscured the loss of Derrick Rose and the trade of Luol Deng by rallying behind a galvanized Joakim Noah, the Nets dug themselves out of an ironclad coffin 60 feet under before kindly resting their aged roster, and the Raptors clawed callously at every well-meaning prognostication on their way to an identity and the third seed.

There are other, more nuanced concerns. Washington’s scoring strategy involves a prodigal amount of 15- to 19-foot shots, one of the least efficient shot types. The Wizards take the second most of these shots, but are the seventh worst at converting them. Without the 3-pointer (the Wizards are the NBA’s fifth best team from deep), Washington’s offense might be fairly abominable.

[+] EnlargeJohn Wall
AP Photo/Alex BrandonA first-round flop wouldn't be the worst thing if it led to big-time shakeups in the Wizards organization.
And then there’s young Otto Porter, Jr., third overall pick in 2013. The hushed, desperate and not-at-all-ironic chants for Porter have begun to seep over Wittman’s shoulder at Verizon Center in the waning moments of games no longer in question. As William Carlos Williams wrote in "The Descent," Otto’s “descent made up of despairs and without accomplishment realizes a new awakening: which is a reversal of despair.” At least, that’s the hope for an unready rookie who was touted as one of the more NBA-ready prospects in his draft class.

This is just to say that success, in this case, isn’t completely unburdened by disappointment. Losses to Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Boston, and various other non-playoff teams at home; eight overtime losses (the most of any team); and the inability to fully capitalize on the easiest schedule in the league are all bound up in an essential truth: These Wizards could have accomplished more.

They still might. The playoffs start now, and with nothing better to do, the Wizards will attempt to win as many games as they can. When “Uncle” Al Harrington was asked whether his younger counterparts were mentally prepared for what was to come, he simply replied: “We better be.”

Now the Wizards will check the postseason off their conservative list and cut their teeth on the playoff pavement. For Washington’s brilliant but unpracticed young backcourt of Wall and Beal, it could prove to be a necessary step. But while the team’s veterans hold the window open for the uninitiated to take in the playoff view, one has to figure that next season, the bar will be adjustable.

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