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November, 22, 2014
By Michael Wallace
WASHINGTON -- After spending the previous two days pushing and pleading for his team to show maturity and growth from characteristic lapses to start the second halves of games, Washington Wizards coach Randy Wittman found himself Friday night in a frustratingly familiar place.
Just 48 hours earlier, the same scenario played out at the start of the third quarter, with point guard John Wall spearheading the sloppy play and sulking that gave the Dallas Mavericks an opening to storm ahead for a double-digit lead and eventually a 105-102 victory.
Wittman spent that night and the next day constructively criticizing Wall’s competitive maturity. He challenged his team to grow up and learn how to prevent one bad stretch from leading to another and ultimately costing themselves winnable games.
Yet again, the Wizards were in the midst of a turnover-induced meltdown against Cleveland.
And again, an opposing team had converted those miscues into a string of unanswered baskets.
So again, Wittman tapped his shoulders as he stormed onto the court to break up the action. Only this time, unlike on Wednesday, Wittman’s actions spoke louder than any words he considered delivering.
“I called a quick timeout again,” Wittman said Friday of the pivotal moment before Washington regrouped to shut down LeBron James and the Cavaliers in a 91-78 victory. “Nothing really was said. It was a 20-second timeout. I just let them talk among each other. They knew that this was not the start we wanted. So I thought after that, we got going a little bit.”
Two days after Wall was called out and took responsibility for the Dallas loss, he shouted back with one of his most complete games of the season. It was a transformation from third-quarter scapegoat on Wednesday to third-quarter catalyst Friday, having scored 17 of his game-high 28 in that period.
Geoff Burke/USA TODAY SportsJohn Wall scored 17 of his 28 points in the third quarter Friday night.
Wall relished the opportunity for redemption on several levels. In addition to his stretch of turnover problems Wednesday, Wall also missed 12 of his 17 shots against the Mavericks. That kept him in the practice facility for an extended shooting workout that lasted nearly an hour after Thursday’s practice.
Another motivating factor, although Wall repeatedly downplayed it publicly, was his matchup with point guard Kyrie Irving, who was selected No. 1 overall a year after Wall was taken with the top pick in 2010. Wall has felt overlooked and underappreciated nationally when compared with Irving.
And it was also an opportunity for Wall to shine in a nationally televised game and return some of the same lessons on patience and process to the star-studded but struggling Cavaliers that James, then with the Miami Heat, used to routinely offer to Wall during tough stretches for the Wizards. The Wizards (8-3) are off to their best start in 40 years, but they lacked a signature victory over a quality opponent after losing to Miami in the season opener and recently to Toronto and Dallas.
Considering the state of disarray the Cavaliers are in right now amid a 5-6 start, it’s debatable how much of a statement victory Friday’s game was for the Wizards. But it didn’t lack for luster amid spotlight.
“I feel like, yeah, it’s a statement,” said Wall, averaging career-high marks with 19.5 points and 9.1 assists per game this season. “We lost to Toronto pretty badly. Dallas, we felt like we let that game get away. And we haven’t beaten a big-man team, everybody says. So this game was pretty big.”
But Wall insists the win only resonates and boosts the Wizards' profile as a legit contender if they can follow it up in the second game of a back-to-back set Saturday in Milwaukee.
“When you win this game, you have to back it up,” Wall said. “You win this one and then lose [Saturday], and you’re back to [critics] saying, ‘Are they really that or really this?’ If you want to be a legit team in this league, you’ve got to go right back out and win these type of games.”
Wall personified the three characteristics Wittman hoped to see from his team this week: resilience, toughness and maturity. It all resonated in Wall’s play, specifically in the third quarter. Wittman’s timeout was called about two minutes into the third quarter after Wall and Paul Pierce committed turnovers on consecutive possessions and Cleveland cut a 15-point deficit to nine.
Wall’s 3-pointer out of the timeout pushed the lead back to double figures, and his two free throws later in the quarter gave Washington its largest lead at 74-58. He shot 7-of-9 in the quarter and added two steals, two rebounds and an assist in the most productive quarter by a Wizard this season.
Wittman left his players to discuss among themselves the necessary corrective measures needed during that 20-second timeout. But what was actually communicated during that break?
Depends on which player was asked.
“I was telling my teammates to be aggressive,” Wall said. “If they have open shots, take them. If you miss them, we can live with that. But if we’re living with turnovers and bad shots, that lets a team get into the open court. We moved on. We failed quickly and moved on. Against Dallas, we’d get a turnover and hold our head [down]. Tonight, we just kept it moving, said it was our fault and kept playing.”
It took Wall about 30 seconds to deliver that quote, about 10 more than allowed during the timeout.
Bradley Beal, who had 12 points and five assists in his second game back from wrist surgery, suggested the message among players was about remaining focused and avoiding a repeat from Wednesday.
“We were able to stay poised,” Beal said. “It kind of got out of hand a little bit. We called a timeout and regrouped. We talked about the mistakes we made on the floor and what we needed to do better. And it stopped right there and we turned it around.”
Pierce, a 17-year veteran who has been a calming influence in those moments during his first season in Washington, couldn’t remember exactly what was said.
“I don’t even know,” Pierce said. “It was like three timeouts during that quarter. I’m so pumped with adrenaline right now after the game, I can’t even remember. But I’m sure it was something about our defense. It was the defense. That’s our identity. We have to be a hard-nosed defensive team that can shut down teams when they come in here every night. We’re taking steps in the right direction.”
Friday was more than a step. It was more like a significant leap defensively.
On the heels of giving up 105 points to the league’s top-scoring team, the Wizards held the Cavaliers, who are fifth in scoring, to their lowest output of the season. Cleveland shot a season-low 38 percent shooting from the field, were outscored 50-34 in the paint and 40-9 off the bench.
Add the 24 points the Wizards scored off 19 turnovers by the Cavaliers, and it was a dominant display.
“We were really locked in with five guys, for the most part, all night,” Wittman said. “We were aggressive pretty much all night. John started it, obviously, bouncing back. He wasn’t happy with his last game against Dallas and stepped up and came back. He was really aggressive from the start.”
Pierce senses Wall had an extra edge when he entered the game.
By the time it was over, it was clear Wall had proved his point.
- Shandel Richardson of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel: Their transformations have been met with different reactions. When Miami Heat center Chris Bosh began to play more on the perimeter four seasons ago, it was met with mixed feelings. The reaction has been mostly positive for Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin making a similar move. "Of course, it's a great idea [when Griffin does it]," Bosh said, with a laugh. Bosh drew mostly criticism for taking too many jumpers while Griffin has drawn praise for adding to his game. The difference is Griffin remains an inside presence, whereas Bosh was asked solely to play on the perimeter. "You know what, you can't make everybody happy," Bosh said. "I just play my game and do it the fullest." Griffin has developed into of the league's premier frontcourt players because the addition of an outside game. Mostly known for his dunks, he is now just as effective with the 20-foot jumper.
- Dan Woike of The Orange County Register: Still, there’s reason to pause and look at the diminished numbers, with Griffin’s quest for balance as the most often cited reason for the decline. He’s shooting a higher percentage of his shots from 16 feet or further, with more than 35 percent of his attempts coming from the perimeter. Conversely, he’s shooting inside less, with only 27.9 percent of his attempts coming within 3 feet. Last year, 40.7 percent of his shots came from that area. For Griffin to achieve his full potential in Rivers’ eyes, it won’t be about excelling in the inside or on the outside. “I want it all,” Rivers said. “I’m greedy. I think you have to mix it up to be great. I don’t think Blake can just attack every possession and be good. I don’t think he can settle for jump shots."
- Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee: Mike Bibby said he hadn’t been to an NBA game since he played for the New York Knicks in 2012. But he took a break from his job as a coach with Shadow Mountain High School in Phoenix to be in attendance Thursday as part of the Kings’ Legends Night when Sacramento hosted the Chicago Bulls. Bibby came to the Kings from the Vancouver Grizzlies for the 2001-02 season in a swap of point guards that sent Jason Williams to the Grizzlies. Oddly enough, Bibby was a last-minute replacement for Williams, who had to reschedule his appearance. Bibby was scheduled to attend a Legends Night in April. “It was great,” Bibby said of playing in Sacramento. “I came from Vancouver and you’re playing in front of 2,500, 5,000 people a night. It was a little overwhelming at first, but you got used to it. It was fun.” Bibby played for six teams in his 14 seasons. He fondly recalls his six-plus seasons with the Kings when he was a part of the best teams in Sacramento history. “Probably one of the greatest teams and franchises I played on,” Bibby said. “I played for a few teams but playing here was the best. I learned from the best guys.” Bibby proved to be the ideal complement at the point for the likes of Chris Webber, Vlade Divac, Peja Stojakovic and Doug Christie. Bibby said he took the lessons learned with the Kings with him the rest of his career and passed them along.
- K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune: Simply put, if Gasol, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson all are healthy, Mirotic will be a situational player. Coach Tom Thibodeau has stated he doesn't want Mirotic guarding small forwards. Thibodeau added something even more fundamental. "Niko is playing behind three really good players and, right now, they're a lot better than he is," Thibodeau said. This isn't tough love. Thibodeau has praised Mirotic and fellow rookie Doug McDermott at almost any opportunity. He likes their practice habits, their film study habits and their talent. But with Mirotic only able to match up defensively against power forwards or centers, playing time will be scarce. Either way, Mirotic can handle the heat. This isn't a player who shies from coaching. "It doesn't matter if I play five or 15 minutes. Of course, everybody wants to play more. But I just need to work hard and keep learning," he said.
- Gery Woelfel of The Journal Times: Alex Rodriguez may be one of the most beleaguered and despised athletes in professional sports, but that apparently was of little consequence to the Milwaukee Bucks organization. The Bucks had the New York Yankees third baseman address their players while the team was in Miami last week to play the Heat. Rodriguez was suspended for 211 games – which was later reduced to 162 – and sat out all of last season after violating Major League Baseball’s drug policy. That suspension came after Rodriguez admitted to the Drug Enforcement Administration that he had used performance-enhancing drugs. Rodriguez’s admission also came after he repeatedly and vehemently denied using PEDs. There have been calls for the disgraced Rodriguez to be permanently banned from the game. But Rodriguez’s disturbing past seemingly didn’t bother Bucks management or Bucks players. Of the several players contacted about Rodriguez’s talk, all of them gave favorable responses. “I thought it was pretty good," Bucks point guard Brandon Knight said. “He talked about taking care of our money, our finances." ... And then there was Zaza Pachulia’s take on the Rodriguez’s address: “It was great," the Bucks veteran center said before adding, “We haven’t lost since."
- Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News: Kobe Bryant has already seen enough that he already envisioned Nick Young pursuing a significant accomplishment this season. “Have him be sixth man of the year,” Bryant said of Young. Last season, Young often talked about winning that award. He even jokingly suggested he would win defensive player of the year after spending his six-year NBA career cementing a reputation as an inattentive defender. Young averaged a career-high and team-leading 17.9 points per game last season. But that didn’t match Clippers forward Jamal Crawford, who won last season’s award by averaging a league-leading 18.6 points per game among reserves. Bryant likes Young’s chances this season for reasons beyond the fact that Crawford has since moved into the Clippers’ starting lineup. Bryant gushed how Young has morphed from an isolation scorer toward a catch-and-shoot player who does not require much dribbling to create his shot. “You got a player who can get buckets and create. He does wonders,” Bryant said. Nick is a phenomenal talent. He has a pull-up jump shot and is creating mismatches. I’m very happy to have him back.”
- Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope found humor in Phoenix Suns forward Markieff Morris' verbal blast. Detroit Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy questioned Morris' credentials. But both obviously disagreed with Morris' assessment that the Pistons' second-year shooting guard "doesn't have any heart." He said it after the Suns' 88-86 victory over the Pistons at the Palace when Caldwell-Pope missed a triple in the closing seconds that would have probably won it. "Caldwell-Pope got it and you know he doesn't have any heart, so we knew he was going to miss," Morris said. Van Gundy wasn't going to let such an insult slide. "I'm not quite sure - maybe he knows - I'm not quite sure what Markieff Morris has accomplished in the league that gets him to the point of mouthing off," Van Gundy said after today's practice. "I mean, I don't like the mouthing off anyway. It seems to me you should at least participate in a playoff game before you do. But maybe not, maybe that's not the standard anymore."
- Derek James of 1500ESPN.com: The biggest difference for Muhammad this season has been that he's grown more comfortable with the offense and has improved his shot selection. Once Muhammad developed his game enough to earn playing time, he still only managed to see the floor during garbage time. When you're sitting for much of the game, it makes it very difficult to get a feel for the game and get in rhythm. As a result, Muhammad tried to do a lot on his own, and the results were mixed, as we see above. Muhammad would typically get the ball in isolation to either take a long 2-pointer or, more commonly, back down his defender down low. In fact, the left spot on the block is where Muhammad has always looked comfortable. His 54.3 percent field goal percentage from that spot would have even rivaled some of the league's big men. This season, Muhammad has looked more natural getting into games earlier. For Muhammad, who is used to being a featured player, this is what he's most accustomed to. In addition to losing weight, returning to this more familiar role has helped Muhammad this season.
- A. Sherrod Blakely of CSNNE.com: In the early 2000s, we saw plenty of teams resort to a Hack-a-Shaq strategy where they intentionally fouled former Celtic Shaquille O'Neal who has been a bad free throw shooter his entire NBA career. Every now and then teams will resort to Hack-a-Dwight Howard tactic because like O'Neal, Howard struggles from the free throw line. Is Hack-a-Rondo next? One NBA scout thinks so. "What's he shooting, 30, 35 percent? You don't go into a game wanting to do it, but at the very least you can count on teams thinking about it," the scout said. "A lot depends on how the game goes, obviously. But if it's close and you need a possession and they (Boston) have the ball, why wouldn't you foul him?" And fouling him is easier than say O'Neal or Howard because Rondo has the ball in his hands the vast majority of the time he's on the floor. Rondo has never been a great free throw shooter, evident by his career 61.6 free throw percentage. But this season has been an absolute nightmare for him from the line, shooting a career-worst 33.3 percent (8-for-24).
- J. Michael of CSN Washington: For Friday's showdown between the Wizards and Cleveland Cavaliers, there are so many subplots in play: The preseason war of words between the backcourts; the rivalry between the teams during LeBron James' first stint with his hometown team; and Eastern Conference playoff position. But the main plot will focus on Paul Pierce and James. "I think a lot of it is misunderstood. If I see LeBron walking down the street, it's not going to be no fistfight. I got a lot of respect for him," said Pierce, who had triumphs and failures against him as a member of the Boston Celtics and last season with the Brooklyn Nets. "The competitive nature of both of us, being at the same position, being on top teams, gunning for the same trophy year in and year out, that's where that comes in to play. It's like fighting for the same girl. Why do I want to be cool with that guy? I've got total respect for him as a person. It's just the things that we go through are all on the court and that's where we leave it."
- John Smallwood of the Philadelphia Daily News: So really, based on age, maturity, talent and experience, Kentucky vs. Sixers might actually be a tossup. I'd take the Sixers in Game 7 on a last-second jumper, but thus far, nobody on this team has shown he can consistently knock down a jump shot. "People will talk about it, give us crap for it," Carter-Williams said of the Sixers' being winless, "but it is what it is. We have to stick together, keep working. Whatever it is now, we're going to be good someday." Perhaps someday they'll be good enough to convince Eric Bledsoe they are better than Kentucky.
- Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman: The most visible Oklahoma City-based brand is partnering with the most visible Oklahoma City-based man. Kevin Durant and Sonic — a match made in endorsement heaven — became official on Thursday morning, a multi-year deal between a local megastar and a local mega-corporation. We’re long-time fans of Kevin,” Sonic chief brand officer James O’Reilly told The Oklahoman. “And this is something we’ve been discussing for months.” Durant already has the most endorsement partners of any NBA player. But this immediately qualifies as one of his biggest. He’s teaming up with one of the most popular fast food chains in the country whose headquarters just happen to sit right down the street from both his home arena and his actual home. ... This is Durant’s second partnership with an OKC-based company in as many months. He recently signed on with Orange Leaf Yogurt. ... Durant becomes Sonic’s first athlete endorser.
- Chris Vivlamore of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: The Hawks reported an increased in both television ratings and home attendance through the first 10 games of the regular season. According to the team, viewership numbers on SportSouth are up 30 percent from last season in the Atlanta market. The highest ratings came in Tuesday’s home game against the Lakers. ... The Hawks are currently 19th in the NBA in average attendance. The Bulls are first with an average attendance of 22,094 in their five home games. The Pistons are last in the league at 13,852 in their six home games. The Hawks’ increases in both percentage and total numbers are the most in the NBA this season.
November, 21, 2014
By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Joakim Noah can be forgiven for his full-scale toy store aisle tantrum that earned him a third-quarter technical. The Sacramento Kings are a frustrating team to face. They thrash inside the paint, physically overwhelming the opponent, grabbing fistfuls of free throws. The league's newest team out of nowhere has a Chicago Bulls-esque charisma to them. They win ugly, and beautifully so.
Sacramento took only six 3-pointers in their 103-88 win over the Bulls. That was fine because they made 19 at the rim regardless. He might be the strongest star in the sport, but DeMarcus Cousins is nimble enough to find those creases around a crowded rim. His 22 points on 19 shots wasn't a superficially great performance, but he drained Chicago.
Containing Cousins is a full-time job for the opposition. When he's on, guarding him can seem as futile as trying to lasso an earthquake. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau sent hard double-teams at Cousins, in a rare strategic concession.
Hector Amezcua/Sacramento Bee/Getty ImagesDeMarcus Cousins had 22 points and 14 rebounds in the Kings' victory over the Bulls on Thursday.
It worked, at times, but the Kings did well to share the ball.
"Big Cuz is getting doubled almost every single game so far," Kings guard Darren Collison said. "I think our spacing's probably been the best, today. We talked about spacing last game, and this game our spacing was probably a bit better. And DeMarcus made some really, really nice passes to Ben McLemore for the 3 or a cut to Omri Casspi."
The compliments flow both ways between Collison and Cousins. When asked about his point guard, the burly big man said: "He's got my respect. I love him."
Cousins also had plenty of compliments for the coach on the opposing sideline. Thibodeau might be to blame for this loss, but not exactly how one might assume.
"I respect Thibs a lot," said Cousins, who played for a USA team that had Thibodeau as an assistant coach this past summer. "I learned a lot from him over the summer. He's basically a genius on defense. I mean I think our whole team basically flows from his defensive scheme over the summer."
Cousins spent much of the summer learning from Thibodeau and bonding with Kings teammate Rudy Gay. The results are paying off.
When pressed on the biggest thing he learned from Chicago's coach in these last FIBA World Championships, Cousins answered, "Just being vocal. Talking."
The big man has the best view of the floor on defense, and thus, the most responsibility. Communication is essential, and Cousins is doing more of it this season. That much was clear throughout the game when Cousins could be seen directing traffic, informing his guards of assignments and coming screens.
We're not yet sure how good these Kings can be, or whether success will be sustained. For now, they're talking to each other, enjoying each other and collectively animating themselves into a force to be reckoned with. Thibodeau may have created a monster.
November, 21, 2014
By Israel Gutierrez
MIAMI -- The season hadn't even reached double figures in games played, yet this early seven-game road trip for the Los Angeles Clippers felt very much like a soul-searching voyage.
Not that losses to the Sacramento Kings in the season’s first week, or to the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Chicago Bulls since then, is anything to be ashamed of.
What has made the Clippers rather confounding is that, despite relatively low roster turnover and a second year under Doc Rivers' watch, they haven't looked like a team benefiting from that continuity. They haven't looked like a team, frankly, that is better than last season's version.
Two games into this road trip, the results would make you believe the Clips are indeed finding themselves. Yet comfortable wins against the Orlando Magic and Miami Heat on back-to-back nights haven't exactly settled every concern in the town once known as Lob City.
"I don't think we were worried, but at the same time we're not trying to write ourselves as champions," said Chris Paul after compiling an effortless 26 points and 12 assists. "It's two games."
This wasn't exactly the Heat team against which the Clippers could truly measure themselves.
Not when Dwyane Wade is sitting out his third straight game, or when Shawne Williams is still starting because Josh McRoberts isn't fully healthy, or when Luol Deng remains lost in Miami's offense, or when Danny Granger is so rusty he hit the backboard on a wide-open corner 3.
Most importantly, it's difficult for the Clippers to gauge just how effective they really are when the Heat defense was as bad as it has been this season.
Still, it was difficult to ignore just how crisp and natural that Clippers offense played, particularly in a first half that saw them shoot 59.5 percent and lead by as many as 24 points.
Los Angeles finished with 31 assists on 43 made field goals, with perhaps the most stunning statistic of the night being Jamal Crawford's 9-to-5 assist-to-point ratio. Crawford couldn't recall the last time that ratio was even 1-to-1.
AP Photo/Lynne SladkyChris Paul and the Clippers had little problem dispatching the shorthanded Heat.
"I think half-court-wise, we have some killer sets -- some sets we know that if we need a bucket, we're going to them," Blake Griffin said after a 26-point game where he never had to force anything. "And some sets that we run over and over and over until somebody stops it.
"That 'get out and run' is great. We don't want to shy away from it, but at the same time it's not something where if we don't get anything in transition that we're struggling to score still.”
Besides not truly knowing if the Clippers' offense was that good or the Heat's defense that bad, the other element of L.A.'s performance that leaves you wanting more is the lack of a running game.
Yes, the Clippers were surgical in the half court, and Thursday's contest didn't require that Griffin & Co. rack up the easy transition buckets (6 fast-break points).
But at this point, the Clippers haven't shown much of that style of game at all.
According to Synergy, Los Angeles is 21st in the league in transition scoring at less than 14 points a game.
Last season, the Clips were second in that category at 22.5 a game.
If you believe we're deep enough into the season to consider that a red flag, there are several available theories to explain that significant drop-off.
It could simply be an early-season malaise for a team with a deep postseason run in the plans. It could be the team's emphasis on establishing its half-court offense under Rivers.
Or it could be the same reason why the Clippers' defense has struggled early: a lack of dynamic ability on the wing.
It's the Clippers' most noticeable void. No offense to Matt Barnes, but he's 34 years old, won't consistently force turnovers to ignite a fast break, and doesn't get up the floor as quickly anymore. And behind him, the options don't get any better, with Hedo Turkoglu as the next best option.
The point is, Lob City may not have been the formula for a championship. But there has to be a few strolls through Lob Neighborhoods every once in a while if L.A. wants to compete for a title.
Thursday, the Clippers had seven lobs, but most of them were half-court gimmes against an overwhelmed Heat defense.
If Los Angeles is going to succeed against a team like Memphis, which happens to be the next opponent on this Clippers road trip, the fast break has to be more of a prominent element. And it's quite possible the Clippers don't have the necessary pieces at the shooting guard and small forward spots to make that happen.
"You have to have balance," Rivers said. "You're not going to be one or the other. You're not going to win [playing] all half court. You're not going to win [playing] all transition. You better be good at both of them."
The Clippers might want to go ahead and get good at both elements, too, because an early look at the Western Conference says it could be up for grabs. The Spurs are the early clear favorite to make a third straight Finals trip, but past San Antonio, every other team has visible flaws.
The Grizzlies don't have enough shooting, the Warriors are turnover-prone and lack interior scoring, and the Houston Rockets are weak at power forward and the bench (you can add the Dallas Mavericks and Portland Trail Blazers to that list if you like, but they remain a notch below contender status at the moment).
That should leave the Clippers as prepared as any team to come out of the West. And yet this group has yet to inspire confidence.
Somehow, Paul has managed to put even more responsibility on himself to make sure his team runs enough to truly reach its potential.
"The biggest thing for us is defending," Paul said. "When we defend like that [against the Heat], even when they were scoring, we were getting the ball out quicker and playing with a faster tempo.
"A lot of that's on me, not to walk the ball up the court and make sure I'm forcing us to play a little bit faster."
The Clippers managed to play fast enough Thursday, even against a Heat team that tends to slow the game down.
But again, how much can you gain from playing an overmatched opponent? Not much.
It won't be until Sunday in Memphis that the Clippers can learn if this road trip is some sort of vision quest, or just confirmation that the early-season inconsistencies are real, long-term concerns.
November, 20, 2014
By Patrick Redford
Special to ESPN.com
Special to ESPN.com
Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty ImagesAfter years of floundering and threats of relocation, there's purpose in Kings basketball yet again.You’d be forgiven for forgetting that an NBA team played in Sacramento between 2006 and 2012. Until recently, the Kings have almost always been an NBA backwater, only relevant to the non-Central Valley fan in specific instances.
The Kings spent the first half-decade of this century playing vibrant, synaptic basketball in front of boisterous crowds, but injuries and a mangled reloading project sent them scuttling toward basketball obscurity as quickly as they’d risen to join the NBA’s elite. In 2008-09, two years after their eighth straight playoff berth, they won 17 games. They were an irrelevant blank slate of a team, toiling to the lottery in a decrepit arena, playing John Salmons heavy minutes and napping so far on the fringes of the NBA zeitgeist you couldn’t see them unless you squinted. Believing in the Kings was like rooting for a ghost.
There were brief glimmers of hope, as there are for any team. Kevin Martin rode his jittery offensive game to near-stardom, and Tyreke Evans won the 2009-10 Rookie of the Year, but their talents spoiled before the team could do anything with them. Those Kings were aimless, unmoored from any kind of long-term plan. They kept slipping and falling on banana peels that they themselves were throwing. Ownership was, at best, apathetic toward the on-court plight of the team, and more likely actively scheming on how they could pull up stakes and move the Kings to Anaheim, Seattle, Las Vegas, Virginia Beach or anywhere else. The fans that made ARCO Arena unplayable for opponents were sent out on an ice floe while the Maloofs gazed elsewhere.
The recession exacerbated the problems surrounding the team from every side. The Maloof brothers saw their Las Vegas-based properties radically devalued, and the Central Valley suffered as much as anywhere in the country. Suddenly, relocation was no longer a looming specter off on the margins of the Sacramento inferiority complex, it was an existential threat. Los Angeles was winning titles while the economically wrecked capital was looking at life without an NBA team.
See, the Sacramento civic identity is bound up in its contradictory proximities. Between San Francisco and Stockton, there is a daunting spectrum of cities Sacramento could be. Sacramento is the capital of California, sure, but it feels nascent and lumpy. The old line goes “Sacramento is a great place … to be from.” The Kings are an aspirational signifier, a mark that the city takes itself seriously and intends to become more than a Central Valley outpost or the Bay Area’s weird little cousin. When Phil Jackson called it a cow town in 2002, he put words to the regionally held anxiety that Sacramento, a diffuse, unglamorous city, was altogether unworthy of its team.
I couldn’t leave a game for years without thinking, “Was that my last one ever?” Thankfully, I don’t know when that will be. Jackson was wrong. The Maloofs came right to the cusp of a move to Anaheim and then a sale to a Seattle-based group -- the saga was so painfully drawn out that it has its own 1,500-word Wikipedia entry -- but NBA and city officials pulled them back both times. The drama and the worrying all ended when Vivek Ranadive officially bought the keys to the franchise from the Maloofs on May 16, 2013. Two antagonistic years of fake arena deals, under-the-table agreements and shady political maneuvers dressed up as grassroots activism culminated in an outcome Kings fans ached for. It was exhausting.
The team that Ranadive inherited was a tragicomic bunch, stuck running antiquated sets and squabbling with one another over who could take the most meaningless shots. Everyone was auditioning for a role elsewhere after the inevitable roster shake-up that comes with a new ownership group. There was a special awfulness about those pre-Vivek teams. The cartoonish vodka pitchmen at the top were so obviously apathetic about the team as anything other than a business object that games felt farcical. Fans showed up and cheered, because Kings fans have supported horrible teams for 25 years, but you never got the sense that the franchise could responsibly develop DeMarcus Cousins or any other young talents.
This led to such a dearth of on-court expectations that existing became all that mattered. As long as the Kings stayed in Sacramento, it was enough. It was almost comforting, watching and cheering for a team where winning and losing were ancillary. I could appreciate Cousins’ balletic moshing and Isaiah Thomas’ electron impersonation as basketball art pieces, divorced from consequence. But as liberating as freedom was, I got jealous. I watched fans of other waylaid teams rejoice when their clubs made the leap it never seemed like the Kings could.
Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty ImagesOwner Vivek Ranadive has brought ambition back to the franchise.
It’s only Year 2 of the Ranadive era, but that hangdog legacy is dead. This is the team of the expanding, forward-thinking Sacramento. The noxious self-defeatism of the Maloofs is all gone, and the new Kings are finally caught up with the rest of the league. Ranadive and his team are enthusiastically trying to push every boundary they can, for better or for worse. Some of their forays past the bleeding edge of basketball orthodoxy -- like biometric data gathering and the idea of playing with an ultimate frisbee-style cherry picker -- have drawn criticism and mockery. But look at their good ideas -- like signing up for the Catapult tracking system and hiring advanced stats wizard Dean Oliver -- next to the questionable ones, and you’ll see that the Kings aren’t blindly swinging out for megalomania or the sake of selling themselves as “NBA 3.0.” These new Kings are ambitious and aggressive about winning as many games as they can with whoever they employ or shuffling their roster around until it works.
For fans, this ambition is altogether unrecognizable. They have followed their team to the edge of what looked like a flat world and seen the abyss. Success, whatever shape that takes on if it comes, is at least in the parlance of the Kings now, and that’s obtusely scary. There’s a specific sense of paranoid joy that comes with going all-in. Losses hurt now, which is its own kind of novelty. When Vivek took over, the team crossed a rubicon. They’re probably in a transition phase, but don’t dare say that to the flesh-and-blood Kings.
The team started 5-1, their best in a decade and a half. After a wonky first season of trades and an on-the-fly identity reconfiguring, Michael Malone has his system in place, and management is edging closer to a roster that is of their making. The Kings aren’t playing pretty basketball, but it doesn’t matter. It wouldn’t quite make sense if they were.
Instead, their style has a visceral crunch to it. Some of this is the Kings’ first competent defensive scheme in 10 years. Some of it is Cousins’ immutable bigness. For all their early successes, the Kings aren’t a finished project, and they exude this roughness on the court. But it’s more satisfying this way. Reggie Evans cosplaying a tornado, Ben McLemore finally learning to channel his athleticism, the team’s craggy idiosyncrasies speak of ACTION and POWER and other big, loud words that the Kings have never embodied before. For a franchise just getting over deep uncertainty, winning ugly is the loudest and most gratifying way to assert importance.
The Kings, now 6-5, may or may not matter this April, when the playoffs start. But for the first time in years, it’s the biggest priority. For years, it was putting roots down in Sacramento and defying the city’s geographically circumscribed narrative. Somehow, that worked, and it’s time to move on up. There is no ride off into the sunset now. This season isn’t the epilogue. This is the start of the Kings’ time as a legitimate, functioning NBA team.
Patrick Redford is a contributor to VICE Sports, Deadspin, and The Classical. Bug him on Twitter @patrickredford.
- Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News: Relief over a rare Lakers win has quickly morphed into signs they have solved some fundamental problems. The Lakers’ 98-92 victory on Wednesday against the Houston Rockets (9-3) at Toyota Center established a two-game winning streak, an accomplishment that merits some applause given the circumstances. For the second consecutive game, the Lakers (3-9) fixed some issues that had otherwise assured them of last place in the Western Conference standings. “We had a bad start,” Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said. “But are we a 3-9 team? No, we’re a much better team.” The Lakers have established some balance on offense. Bryant’s 28 points on 10-of-28 shooting featured both hot and cold stretches. But the Lakers absorbed that with Jordan Hill’s emerging mid-range game (16 points on 7-of-12 shooting) and Nick Young’s high-volume shooting (16 points on 6-of-15 shooting). But even if it does not show up in the box score, the man of the hour was Wesley Johnson. In the final minute of the game, Johnson finally lived up to his vow that he would play like a “wild man.”
- Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times: Doc Rivers exchanged warm greetings with members of the local media. J.J. Redick was cheered during player introductions. Hedo Turkoglu shared a laugh with a familiar face behind the scorer's table. Matt Barnes had little chance of taking a wrong turn inside the Amway Center. For Glen Davis, it was a reminder of the most trying 2 1/2 seasons of his NBA career. The irregular playing time and continuous injuries were nothing compared to the epic losing. "It was tough, losing games back to back, not really understanding which way are we going," Davis said Wednesday before his first appearance here since the Orlando Magic bought out his contract in February. "It's tough to go through that and not play for something. My whole career leading up to that, I've always played for something, played for something bigger, and to go through that just to keep going and keep going, it drains you."
- Dan McCarney of the San Antonio Express-News: If you overlooked the gray hairs flecking Tim Duncan’s beard, and the ever-expanding circumference of Manu Ginobili’s bald spot, it would be easy to confuse these Spurs for those of yore, suffocating their opponents on defense while grinding out whatever point they can muster. OK, so those Spurs weren’t as bad on offense as they’re made out to be. But with Gregg Popovich acknowledging again before Wednesday’s game at Cleveland that they aren’t anywhere near last year’s level, they’re a long way off from the free-flowing precision we’ve come to expect. And for the time being, with a third of their main rotation nursing injuries, that seems to be just fine. With their offense again lurching along in fits and starts, the Spurs relied on their dominant defense to earn a 92-90 victory against the Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena. The Cavaliers had been averaging almost 110 points per 100 possessions coming in, second only to white-hot Dallas. But their scoring rate was just 93.1 against the Spurs, with LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love all held below their season averages. Kawhi Leonard was particularly impressive in his individual matchup with James as the four-time MVP scored just seven points on 3-for-14 shooting over the final 43 minutes. (He had 15 overall.)
- Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald: The pressure was not on the team that arrived here with 10 losses in 10 games to open the season. Rather the weight was on the Celtics to avoid being the 1. If they won here, no one would pay attention (in fact, there’s a good chance you’re not reading this). But a loss would most certainly get them an ignominious position on “SportsCenter.” And history was bearing down on the Bostonians, as well. The 76ers were 5-42 in their last 47 games, and the C’s were 3 of the 5. But last night they managed to break free from a terribly played affair. Brandon Bass came off the pine to deliver 23 points, Jared Sullinger had half of his 22 in the last quarter, and Rajon Rondo had 11 of his 13 assists in the second half as the Celts scored a 101-90 victory, improving to 4-6 and dropping the Sixers to 0-11. To call this game ragged would be to invite a defamation suit ... from ragged. But the Celtics will take it. “Yeah, you don’t want to be that guy, or, in this case, you don’t want to be that team,” said Rondo.
- Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic: The point guard overcrowding in Phoenix is well known, but T.J. Warren has created a cluster at small forward, too. After scoring 72 points in two D-League games and having an icy seven-point fourth quarter Monday night at Boston, Warren stayed in the rotation even with the return of P.J. Tucker. Detroit has two giants up front with Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe but they were rarely on the court together Wednesday night. Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said early Suns foul trouble might help him squeeze Warren into the mix but it was Drummond's early fouls that enabled him to go with Tucker at power forward and Warren at small forward. Warren played six first-half minutes and scored inside off of a Gerald Green feed but did not return for the second half, just has been the case usually for Anthony Tolliver.
- Ryan Wolstat of the Toronto Sun: Vince Carter was not sure what to expect from Raptors fans after nearly 10 years in the basketball wilderness. Aware the team would be honouring the contributions of its all-time best player as part of its 20th anniversary celebrations on Wednesday night, Carter did his best not to fret ahead of the game, but it was clear he was wondering if the customarily chilly reception would thaw at all. Forget thawing, a near decade of animosity vanished in a flash, as the video of Carter’s high-flying Raptors days was met with a standing ovation from the ACC crowd, along with loud cheers. Carter, looking surprised, mouthed “wow” and had to dab away tears from his eyes with his shirt. Fittingly, once Carter checked into the game, he was booed every time he touched the ball, marking a return to normalcy. “It was an amazing feeling to relive it as it was happening. As each play was happening, I could remember it like yesterday,” Carter said afterward, calling his tears “an honest reaction.” “I couldn’t write it any better. I’m extremely thankful.”
- Brad Townsend of The Dallas Morning News: Owner Mark Cuban and by extension his Mavericks are about to score another NBA technology first. Cuban said Wednesday that company in which he has invested – freeD (Free Dimensional Video) – has completed six weeks of installing high-resolution cameras in the American Airlines Center rafters and will begin testing a revolutionary product as soon as Friday, when the Mavericks host the Lakers. Sports fans may recall having seen freeD’s technology in use during recent NFL games and the 2014 NBA All-Star Game. With the high-resolution cameras, data collected from the digital images and software, any video image can be frozen and turned 360 degrees, giving fans seeing the images on the AAC videoboard and viewers watching Fox Sports Southwest telecasts highly unique views of the action. ... Cuban said that becoming an investor gave him exclusivities. Initially, the Mavericks will be the only NBA team to have the technology for videoboard and TV replays. Other NBA teams will be able to purchase the technology for those videoboard and local TV use _ which in turn will make Cuban money _but the Mavericks will be the only team allowed to use the technology from an analytics standpoint.
- Charles F. Gardner of the Journal Sentinel: That took some guts from coach Jason Kidd to insert three subs in the lineup to begin the third overtime period. Then Khris Middleton, Ersan Ilyasova and John Henson made their coach look like a genius. Henson and Ilyasova were active in defending the paint and the activity of the trio was evident. Ilyasova scored the first two baskets of the third OT for Milwaukee and Middleton scored the next two as the Bucks outscored the Nets, 10-6. Henson had eight points, two rebounds and three blocks in 19 minutes. Ilyasova had his second straight strong game with 14 points and five rebounds. "It's my first third overtime game ever, I think," Henson said. "I'm going to remember this one." O.J. Mayo had 21 points and seven rebounds to pace the Bucks subs. For the record, the Bucks bench outscored Brooklyn's bench, 55-33.
- Scott Agness of VigilantSports.com: Solomon Hill was reserved to rookie duties last year on a team that advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals. Guys were healthy, unlike the start of this season, and there was quality depth ahead of him. That typically left him as the team’s designated inactive player. He’s far from that this season. In Wednesday’s game against the Charlotte Hornets (4-8), where ex-Pacer Lance Stephenson’s return dominated the headlines, Hill defended him well throughout most of the game — Stephenson shot 4-of-12 — and was the story by night’s end. It was Hill’s put-back, which came off of his lone offensive rebound of the night, that secured the 88-86 win for the Pacers (5-7). It was their fourth win in five games. The final play set up like this: Knotted at 86 with 18 seconds and out of a timeout, Pacers guard Rodney Stuckey got the ball and waited for seconds to tick off before making a move. Kind of odd that they designed a play for Stuckey, who returned to the court after missing seven games due to a foot injury. “You put the ball in the hands of your best isolation player,” Pacers head coach Frank Vogel said afterwards. Stuckey wasn’t surprised. Those two have discussed how he’s going to be looked upon late in critical situations.
- Andy Greder of the Pioneer Press: Timberwolves center Nikola Pekovic said both his right wrist and his right ankle are bothering him. The wrist was sprained in Saturday's 131-117 loss to Dallas; the ankle, previously described as bursitis, has been a nagging issue dating back to last season. "Because of my wrist, the doctors just decided to take a few games off to just settle it and not make it worse, obviously," Pekovic said Wednesday. ... Pekovic said he will see a doctor in four or five days and expects to practice soon after that. Meanwhile, he's expecting to do some exercises on the side. Pekovic said part of his injury issues is just a work hazard. "I don't work in an office," said Pekovic, a bruising big man at 6-11, 295 pounds. "You get hurt, you get hit, especially me."
- Jason Quick of The Oregonian: When reporters report, their recorder is among the most important tools. One, it allows us to accurately relay what our subjects were saying. And sometimes, it protects us against claims of subjects suggesting they were "taken out of context" or misquoted. In December of 2005, Nate McMillan's first year as head coach of the Trail Blazers, a story I published in The Oregonian was cited by the team as "twisting" the words of McMillan. They sent out a press release disputing the article. I went back to my tape and listened. It was spot on. I stood my ground, and eventually, a meeting was held at the Blazers' practice facility in Tualatin on a Saturday morning. Frustratingly, the tape was never played in that meeting. The Blazers had their own agenda at the time and were more interested in convincing managing editor Peter Bhatia and sports editor Mark Hester that I should be taken off the beat. Hester and Bhatia had heard the tape. They weren't budging. Nothing was resolved in that meeting, but it was a good lesson in recording interviews and standing your ground.
November, 19, 2014