Sideline view: Thunder at Lakers

December, 20, 2014
Dec 20
11:53
AM ET
Adande By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com
Archive
Notes and observations from working the Thunder-Lakers game Friday night:

Kevin Durant feared the worst. When he stepped on Marreese Speights’ ankle while driving to the basket near the end of that scintillating first half in Oakland Thursday night his first thought was that he had bent or broken the screw that was inserted into his right foot during his October surgery.

X-rays showed that the screw was intact. That was the big relief. But on Friday morning the ankle still felt too sore to play in that night’s game against the Los Angeles Lakers. Durant took a few set shots about an hour before tipoff, then gingerly walked over and took a seat on the sideline. I asked him if he would be able to play in the Thunder’s game against the New Orleans Pelicans in Oklahoma City on Sunday and he said he wasn’t sure. The expression on his face could best be classified as “questionable.”

Given the Thunder’s penchant for caution when it comes to dealing with injuries, I would guess he’ll sit out again. The Thunder didn’t rush him back from surgery even while the losses mounted. They tried to limit his workload when he first returned after missing the first 17 games of the season following the surgery; he didn’t play more than 30 minutes in any of his first seven games back. But he played 35 minutes against the Sacramento Kings Tuesday night, and was on pace for 38 minutes Thursday against the Warriors. He also was on pace for 60 points, hitting 10 of 13 shots, playing so well that coach Scott Brooks was reluctant to take him out at all.

“I was on my way,” said Durant, who scored a career-high 54 points the previous time he played the Warriors.

Durant said it as he was on his way back to the locker room, where he remained for the game Friday night. He couldn’t watch the Thunder beat the Lakers from the bench because he didn’t have a suit or sport coat with him, so he couldn’t be dress code-compliant. (You try last-minute shopping to find a jacket to fit a 6-10 guy with outlandishly long arms). Maybe it’s time to re-evaluate the dress code. Would it really be so bad to see Durant on the bench cheering on his teammates, even if he were dressed as outlandishly as Russell Westbrook?

LAKER LETHARGY: Something looked off with Kobe Bryant throughout the game. When he was on the bench his head was down and he sucked in air like a Shop-Vac. On the court he kept squinting, as if his eyes had trouble focusing. I asked three members of the Lakers organization – two who were seated on the Lakers bench and one who was in the locker room at halftime – if Bryant was sick and they all said no.

Bryant told reporters after the game that he was fatigued, and he and Byron Scott wondered if practicing Wednesday had taken his legs from him. Maybe the Lakers need to adopt the Dallas Cowboys’ Tony Romo plan and hold him out of Wednesday practices from here on out.

The troubling thing for the Lakers is that Bryant’s fatigue seemed to drag some of his teammates down with him. In a timeout midway through the third quarter Scott implored his players to “suck it up” for the rest of the game, and he spent most of our interview after the third quarter discussing his concern about their lack of energy.

The flip side is that the Lakers’ reserves showed plenty of energy in the fourth quarter – even after their scoring and spiritual leader Nick Young was kicked out for a flagrant two foul. The lineup of Wesley Johnson, Jeremy Lin, Carlos Boozer, Wayne Ellington and Robert Sacre took the Lakers from an eight-point deficit to a three-point lead, which the Lakers couldn’t hold when starters Bryant and Ed Davis returned.

Boozer has responded the best way possible since Scott moved Ed Davis into his starting role on Dec. 7. In the six games he’s played as a reserve Boozer has scored in double figures each time (he never hit double-digits in more than five consecutive games as a starter this season). He’s averaging 15 points and 9.5 rebounds and shooting 54 percent off the bench, compared to 12.6 points and 6.6 rebounds and 50 percent shooting as a starter.

To go from a starter on a playoff team in Chicago last season to a backup on a losing team can be jarring. But Boozer has remained engaged. His behavior in the huddle is telling. Sometimes players who aren’t in the game spend timeouts hang out on the fringes, checking out the crowd or the dance team. Boozer spent a third-quarter timeout hovering over Scott’s shoulder, listening intently, staring at the play Scott drew up even though Boozer wouldn’t be on the court to execute it.

Small bits of professionalism like that are reasons the Lakers’ season hasn’t tumbled into a freefall. But the heavy legs of their highest-volume shooter, Bryant, are among the reasons they won’t leap into the playoffs.

Mamba Out (Of Control)

December, 19, 2014
Dec 19
2:43
PM ET
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
ESPN.com
Archive
Here's a look inside the numbers to show how Kobe Bryant's love affair with the contested midrange jumper has burned the Lakers.

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Hints of Tim Duncan

December, 19, 2014
Dec 19
1:59
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
76ers coach Brett Brown on the status of the prized, injured big man Joel Embiid.

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TrueHoop TV Live

December, 19, 2014
Dec 19
12:17
PM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
Archive
Chat. 2 p.m. ET. Be here.


Kings a conundrum under Ranadive's reign

December, 19, 2014
Dec 19
11:39
AM ET
By Patrick Redford
ESPN.com
Archive
Vivek Ranadive' and Rudy GayRocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images
Mike Malone’s sin wasn’t that he was incompetent, it’s that he was unspectacular. The deposed Sacramento coach was coaching the Kings like a basketball team. Team owner Vivek Ranadive wants them to be an evolutionary basketball experience.

There are plenty of rationales floating around as to why Ranadive fired Malone. Almost none of them implicate the 2-8 slide since DeMarcus Cousins came down with a nasty case of meningitis as anything more than the Trojan horse that provided cover for the decision. The most revealing answers Ranadive has given have been about style. He wants the Kings to play fast and reactive, like a jazz band. He wants them to abandon their plodding, grinding ways for a hyperkinetic style without classical restrictions like positions. Ranadive wants to re-engineer the Kings from the circuits up. That they have only one true 3-point threat to fan out to the corners on a fast break doesn’t factor into the philosophical revolution Ranadive is planning. Winning isn’t so much the point as the theoretically inevitable result of innovating a new coordinate system and language for basketball.

The problem is that Ranadive isn’t a decorated basketball thinker; he’s a wildly successful Malcolm Gladwell-lauded technology businessman. Ambition looks like hubris, because he doesn’t have any credentials beyond coaching his daughter’s youth team to a national championship game. There might not be another basketball revolution out there for Ranadive to innovate up, but he’s going to try. The NBA is in a golden age of discovery and advancement, fueled by new-money owners and veterans of the technology industry. Analytics have changed how players are scouted, the way the game works possession by possession, and how fans interact with their favorite teams.

Ranadive is at the forefront of this wave and his Kings are as much basketball team as they are science experiment. Where even the most ambitious of his contemporaries are working for marginal gains, he is a heart-on-sleeve futurist. Exhibit A: The system that Sacramento’s D-League affiliate, the Reno Bighorns, is running. Holding on to Malone would have been the sensible basketball move, as he helped create an environment where Cousins could thrive and presided over improvements from most other Kings. But at his best, Malone probably rates out as a good, traditional coach. “Good” and “traditional” would be desirable adjectives for most coaches in the league, but not for the Kings. They’re dreamers.

Ranadive has spoken with grandiose effect about NBA 3.0. He’s teased Sacramento’s new arena as “one of the most iconic structures on the planet,” and pitched Nik Stauskas as a taller Steph Curry. His whole professional career, Ranadive has thrived by seizing on little opportunities and untouched ideas, then blowing them up to an extreme. You don’t make it as a tech pioneer without aggressive self-belief. It’s logical to assume he’ll run the Kings like he’s run many successful companies, and early returns bear this out. He is betting that the NBA is ripe for another strategic renaissance and he’s not settling for a coach who is simply good and traditional.

Ranadive’s intergalactic ambition makes for a revealing contrast with Robert Pera’s tenure as owner of the Memphis Grizzlies. Pera is the youngest owner in the NBA at 34 and, like Ranadive, he entered the league with big ideas. He also sent away Lionel Hollins early in his time as owner and, this summer, was very close to letting Dave Joerger walk before he eventually retained him. The Grizzlies are now second in the West at 21-4 with a core largely unaltered from the time before Pera took over. Pera intended to make big moves that marked the Grizzlies as his territory, and he did. But they were confined to the front office, and never affected the Grizzlies’ on-court chemistry.

Pera had his own ideas about how the team should work, yet he ultimately resigned himself to the inarguable fact that team success is primarily tied to personnel. The Grizzlies organization is one of the most analytically progressive in the league, from Joerger up to Pera, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Grizzlies play revolutionary basketball. Style isn’t a relevant indicator of how forward-thinking a team is. Playing ugly doesn’t mean playing inefficiently.

The idea that Ranadive will force the Kings to play 4-on-5 with a cherry-picker is a paper tiger, an easy target that’s been blown out of proportion, but it’s a signifier of how he sees the league. Rather than focus on acquiring the best players he can and hiring a coach to spin them into a functioning unit, he is concerned with acting as chief visionary, and that’s the central tension of the Sacramento Kings. In a vacuum, looking toward the future and refusing to settle are beneficial organizational strategies. But centralizing capital-I Ideas at the expense of the actual basketball team can be detrimental. Instead of asking “How can I put DeMarcus Cousins in the most efficient structure I can?” Ranadive is asking “How can I change the fabric of basketball?"

The NBA won’t continue to evolve without powerful people like Ranadive actively pushing boundaries and taking risks. But there is too much entropy in the NBA world. Where Ranadive sees firing Malone as the first domino in an evolution toward an elite, innovative Kings team, Cousins might see the signs of a trigger-happy ownership group that wants to implement an unfeeling vision no matter what. Unlike Ranadive, Cousins does the boots-on-the-ground work of winning basketball games. Essentially, Ranadive is gambling on his ability to see the future and get there before any other team.

It’s a tremendously risky proposition, one Kings fans are totally unfamiliar with. After seven glorious -- nearly great -- seasons with Rick Adelman, the Maloofs' reign in Sacramento was the diametric opposite of Ranadive’s relentless ambition. After a long period of malaise, Ranadive’s impatient time at the helm looks tinged through with megalomania. Casting off Malone abruptly while things were going bumpy feels impulsive and rash, yet it was in service to an ideal. He envisions himself an auteur -- as evinced by his draft room takeover -- but the crucial point that Ranadive misses is that innovation in the NBA is player-centric.

This is the orthodoxy that Ranadive thinks he can overcome, that the system can somehow supersede the player rather than simply amplify his talents. The honeymoon period he enjoyed as Sacramento’s savior is now over. With the firing of Malone, Ranadive will now be judged on his own merits, not against the Maloofs. Philosophical ambition and snappy mantras will play only as long as the Kings win basketball games. Malone’s dismissal would have been understandable if he was inadequate, but he clearly was not. The first quarter-season of 2014-15 has been the best stretch of Kings basketball since Adelman left, and Ranadive threw it away because Malone wouldn’t buy into his eccentric ideas. It’s not about basketball, because if it was, Malone would still be the coach. As Ranadive ignores the present, his futurism rings hollow. It is still early in his tenure, but right now, he looks more like an ideologue than a visionary.

Patrick Redford is a contributor to VICE Sports, Deadspin and The Classical. Bug him on Twitter @patrickredford.

Nothin' but the same old Nets

December, 19, 2014
Dec 19
9:30
AM ET
By Devin Kharpertian
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
NetsAP Photo/Kathy WillensThree years after making the move to Brooklyn, the Nets are ... still the Nets.
It was 24 minutes of basketball bliss, the perfect half to respond to Joe Johnson’s vicious comments lambasting unnamed teammates for selfishness. At a rare moment of full health, the Brooklyn Nets spread the ball around to find open shots with slick improvisation and skillful execution. They took command against the Phoenix Suns, a tough team from a tougher conference, leading by as much as 19 points and boasting six different players with at least three makes from the floor.

Twenty-four minutes later and the house of cards had come crumbling down. The Suns, led by New Jersey Nets castoff Gerald Green, took full control over their suddenly hapless opponent, winning 112-104 as Brooklyn reverted to isolation basketball and confoundingly poor play for a collection of stars.

It was the perfect summation of the Nets’ first three seasons in Brooklyn: a flashy beginning, flush with promise, ending in a thud.

Since moving from Newark in 2012, the Nets have tried to have it all: Spurs crispness, Celtics legacy, Lakers glamour and Knicks fans. A supremely executed marketing blitz took over the perpetually up-and-coming borough, with players plastered everywhere from subway advertisements to bridge billboards. The team opened last season flush with 36 combined All-Star appearances on its roster, with marquee names and championship aspirations.

But nearly four years since the day the team cashed in its blue-chip assets for Deron Williams, one that then-Nets coach Avery Johnson called a "celebration," they’ve ended up with … well, the Nets: a collection of overpaid, underathletic, fading stars who can't keep up with the newer, fresher NBA flying past them.

They had a plan: win before 2016, and if they didn’t, wipe the slate clean and try it again, with superstars like Kevin Durant entering the free-agent market. But outside of a few surprising moments of clarity, their on-court product has been bland and depressing, leading to rumors of an expedited rebuild. Even Russian ownership seems willing to take a step back, listening to offers for minority stakes (and, as the rumor goes, for majority ones) this season. So much for faith in 2016.

With two years left on the docket, with two playoff exits and a $144 million loss in basketball-related expenses last season, the Nets can only claim exhausting mediocrity. This isn't an identity crisis; that would require having an identity in the first place. There's no unifying aspect of the Nets to point to. They're just trying to make sure you're pointing at them.

Their three best players, earning a combined $58.65 million this year, are now on the trade block, and more known for their flaws than their strengths. Williams has regained some of his quickness and shooting touch, but has struggled to score around the basket the past two seasons. Joe Johnson earned the moniker "Joe Jesus" for his near-invincibility in crunch time, but is one of the worst offenders in the team's isolation-heavy attack when things go downhill. Brook Lopez is a talented post scorer and walking trade asset who has barely been able to walk the past year.

[+] EnlargeKevin Garnett
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesDespite paying a high price for veteran talent, the "new-look" Nets have yet to forge an identity.
Sure, there was one exciting five-month stretch, starting in January 2014, when the Nets went full-bore weird to smooth over the loss of Lopez and confounded opponents by favoring players over positions, putting Paul Pierce next to three perimeter players and using Shaun Livingston as a point guard/power forward hybrid. The Nets went 34-17 in that stretch, played an exciting-as-all-hell first-round series with the Toronto Raptors that went down to the last play of Game 7, and eventually fell to the Miami Heat in Round 2.

Outside of that, the Nets have largely gone to the same formula, despite three coaching changes since the move to New York. They've played one of the league's slowest paces. When their offense begins to fail, they inevitably fall into the traps of iso basketball. They have yet to figure out how to put together a top-10 defense around Lopez, or how to get Johnson and Williams clicking together for long stretches. They run Lionel Hollins' throwback flex offense in staggered stretches, and turn to Johnson at the end of close games. That’s about it.

They leave you wanting. You see the flashes of greatness, and at the same time know they won’t ever be great. There's no dynamic star, no blue-chip building block, no ace draft pick. Just a lot of money and an increasingly disinterested group ambling toward nowhere.

The Brooklyn Nets have built their identity on what they could be, what they should be. But in three seasons, they have yet to be much of anything at all. Now comes hints of another rebuild, which almost seems necessary at this point, if only to give a wavering fanbase a fresh face to believe in. But for now, they are what they are: walking and talking, but yet to figure out where they want to go or what they want to say.

Devin Kharpertian is the managing editor and founding partner at The Brooklyn Game. Follow him, @uuords.

First Cup: Friday

December, 19, 2014
Dec 19
4:41
AM ET
By Nick Borges
ESPN.com
Archive
  • Diamond Leung of The Oakland Tribune: With Andrew Bogut out indefinitely, there will be times Draymond Green will be asked to guard taller and bulkier offensive players. And then there is Green’s ears perking up when something is said about him that he doesn’t particularly like. For instance, Avery Johnson on SportsCenter after the Warriors lost at Memphis had words that Green remembers. “Funny guy,” Green said of Johnson. “Funny guy. Jalen Rose is a funny guy, too. It’s funny to me. They just keep lighting that fuel and adding more fuel to the fire.” Rose, who played at Michigan and rival school of Green’s alma mater Michigan State, said earlier this month while largely praising Green that, “Draymond Green I don’t think he would be in the league if he wasn’t in the right place at the right time and get developed.” Johnson made out Green to be someone for opposing teams to go after. ... Green, however, appears up for the challenge of taking on offensive players of all shapes and sizes. “I’m going to do whatever it takes to win,” Green said. “I trained all summer. I always like to say I’m made for this."
  • Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman: There aren’t many NBA players who seem to catch Kobe Bryant’s eyes for the right reasons. But Russell Westbrook – and his fear nobody attitude – is one of them. Bryant recently told ESPN that Westbrook is the closest player in the NBA to him in terms of intensity. “He just plays with a rage that’s not very common,” Bryant told reporters. Of late, Westbrook has been receiving heaps of praise and some strong MVP buzz. But last year’s MVP says Westbrook isn’t letting that get to his head. “As a teammate and brother, I’m happy he’s getting the praise,” Kevin Durant said. “Because just last year everyone had something negative to say about him. But that’s how the world is. They’ll build you up then break you down then build you up again. So he’s not sweating that. He’s gonna keep playing his game.”
  • Mike Singer of CSN Chicago: But for all that went wrong on Thursday night, there were two examples of what went exactly right as a result of the Bulls missing out on Anthony during the free agency period: Pau Gasol and Jimmy Butler. If only every contingency plan (Gasol) could yield 15 double-doubles, good for second-best in the NBA, 18.7 points per game and 11.9 rebounds per game, which ranks third in the league. Gasol has been nothing short of revitalized under Thibodeau and the Bulls’ tight-knit locker room. “We ended up fine, as we did in 2010,” Thibodeau said on Thursday referencing the free-agency process. “Free agency, there’s no guarantees. Everyone is trying to get everyone. You’re hopeful. It’s really designed to keep the player with the team that he’s with. I feel we came out great with Pau.” Great would be an understatement, as Gasol has galvanized the frontcourt with Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson missing significant time with various injuries. ... When asked in particular whether Butler can maintain his furious early-season pace, Thibodeau seemed to acknowledge that this big an improvement was surprising, even to him. “My thing to him is, ‘Why put a lid on it?’ Where can it go? I don’t know. All I know is it keeps going up.” So while Thursday might have opened up old wounds with Anthony's return to the United Center, it also illuminated just how much better off the Bulls are with Gasol stabilizing the frontcourt and Butler emerging as a star.
  • Peter Botte of the New York Daily News: Carmelo Anthony joined a few injured teammates on the sidelines for the putrid Knicks, and Derrick Rose was ill and not among those playing for the Bulls. As TNT analyst Charles Barkley quipped to reporters before Thursday night’s game, “My God, it’s gonna be awful tonight.” Anthony sat out his second game in barely a week because of lingering left knee soreness, and the telecast of the game featured a snippy Twitter retort at Barkley from team president Phil Jackson before the bare-bones Knicks fought hard but still lost for the 13th time in 14 games, 103-97, to the Bulls at United Center. Barkley continued his standup routine at the 5-23 Knicks’ expense throughout the nationally televised game, and even prompted Jackson — who earlier in the day defended his offseason trade of Tyson Chandler on Twitter — to tweet during the second quarter: “Do I have to mute this game? Chuck just remember your fundamental...key to (the triangle).” ... Jackson appeared particularly frustrated and got more defensive on Twitter on Thursday than the Knicks have been all season. The Zen Master responded unprompted in three separate reply tweets to a link about a story suggesting he “got hornswoggled in his first big move” in trading Tyson Chandler to Dallas in June.
  • John Reid of The Times-Picayune: Almost at the same time the Pelicans were making their decisive fourth-quarter run against the Rockets on Thursday night, the Mavericks were finalizing a trade agreement to acquire All-Star guard Rajon Rondo from the Celtics. It's a move that's possibly strengthens the Mavericks into a serious NBA title contender. It also makes things much more tougher for the Pelicans and the remaining teams in the Southwest Division. ... The Western Conference already have a number of talented point guards that includes San Antonio Spurs' Tony Parker, Oklahoma City Thunder's Russell Westbrook, Los Angeles Clippers' Chris Paul, Memphis Grizzlies' Mike Conley and Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry. "The conference is crazy, there is so much talent," Pelicans forward Ryan Anderson said. "It's a challenge every night. We've had a tough schedule so far and it's going to get even tougher. Obviously with Rondo, it's going to take them a little while to figure stuff out, but they were already a tough team."
  • Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle: The Dallas Mavericks pulled off the first major deal of the season, trading for Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo by outbidding the Rockets among others to land Rondo’s still pesky – if no longer as nasty – defense and elite playmaking. The Rockets were in talks on several potential deals, but according to an individual with knowledge of their plans were closest to trading for Minnesota guard/forward Corey Brewer, a wing defender they have long sought and could acquire as soon as Friday. The Rockets would be able to fit Brewer into the trade exception they had saved from the Jeremy Lin trade and would not have to match his $4.7 million salary. Brewer would bring much-needed depth behind Trevor Ariza and James Harden who are second and third in the NBA in minutes per game respectively. With Brewer going Usain Bolt on the break, the Rockets will need to push pace off the bench, something that like almost everything else with the Rockets’ reserves has been inconsistent, but he also could kick-start the second unit’s break, a goal since training camp. Still, that deal would be far more of a tweak than the potentially enormous impact of the Mavericks adding Rondo.
  • Charles F. Gardner of the Journal Sentinel: A short-handed Milwaukee Bucks team forgot to count all its missing players on Thursday night. Instead the nine-man gang that showed up to play at Sleep Train Arena dug in and dug out a 108-107 victory over the Sacramento Kings. Center Larry Sanders was missing due to a one-game suspension and power forwards were hard to find. So what did Bucks coach Jason Kidd do? He stuck rookie forward Johnny O'Bryant in the starting lineup and relied on veteran center Zaza Pachulia to bang bodies against Kings center DeMarcus Cousins, who returned after missing 10 games with viral meningitis. Of course the game came down to a final shot, with the Kings going to Cousins on the final play. Pachulia used his skill and savvy to force Cousins into a tough fadeaway jumper, and it bounced off the front rim as the Bucks celebrated. Milwaukee (14-13) improved to 2-1 on its West Coast trip with one stop remaining Saturday night in Los Angeles against the Clippers.
  • Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee: Michael Malone received the phone call Sunday night that ended his time as the Kings’ coach. Fired 24 games into his second season, Malone believes the Kings made great progress during his tenure. “Though my time as head coach ended much sooner than anticipated, I am extremely proud of what we were able to accomplish during our time together,” Malone said. “Anchored by a loyal and dedicated coaching staff, we worked hard to instill a culture of discipline, trust and respect that progressed this team further than many expected in a short time.” After winning only 28 games last season, the Kings were 11-13, including 2-7 without star center DeMarcus Cousins.

TrueHoop TV Live: After Dark

December, 18, 2014
Dec 18
5:31
PM ET
Elhassan By Amin Elhassan
ESPN.com
Archive
Join us for some late-night hoops talk following the conclusion of Thursday night's Knicks-Bulls game.


Who will be rookie of the year?

December, 18, 2014
Dec 18
5:22
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
With Jabari Parker out for the season, David Thorpe says it is Andrew Wiggins' award to lose.

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First Cup: Thursday

December, 18, 2014
Dec 18
4:54
AM ET
By Nick Borges
ESPN.com
Archive
  • Ronald Tillery of The Commercial-Appeal: They burned 63 minutes of game clock and more than three hours in real time. They reveled in Marc Gasol’s first 3-pointer this season, however improbable, because it banked in from 30 feet and beat the final buzzer in regulation. They even took a 23-point lead, then gift-wrapped the advantage and handed it back. But finally the Grizzlies did enough, overcame plenty and beat the San Antonio Spurs. Memphis snapped a nine-game losing streak to San Antonio with a 117-116 triple overtime victory Wednesday night in AT&T Center. Forward Zach Randolph scored all six points for the Griz in the third extra session and finished with 21 points and 21 rebounds. Gasol tossed in 26 points and Memphis enjoyed season-highs from Vince Carter (18 points) and Kosta Koufos (16 points) in winning their sixth straight game.
  • Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle: Dwight Howard played on Wednesday after sitting out Tuesday’s practice because of soreness in his right knee. He said he was not concerned that he has had to ease his way back after missing 11 games with a strained knee, having been told to expect an ongoing process. “They said the recovery process will be a little slow right now since this is my first couple games back,” Howard said. “I just have to do whatever I can to keep my legs loose and try not to do too much jumping on the days we don’t have games. I’ve got to save it for the games. “I expected there to be some swelling, my first time playing in a game in 11 games. After missing a month of basketball, I expected it to be like that. There’s nothing I can do about it but continue to play.” That does, however, make his availability to play the second half of a back-to-back uncertain with the Rockets facing the Pelicans in Houston on Thursday. “Hopefully, it’s not an ongoing thing,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said
  • Jeff Schultz of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: For those who haven’t been paying attention to the Hawks through the first 25 games of this NBA season, here are three things you need to know: 1) They’re better than 5-9 (Falcons); 2) They’re better than 79-83 (Braves); 2) They’re better than the Belk Bowl (Georgia). They’re 18-7. They just went on the road and crushed the Cleveland Cavaliers 127-98. Yes, LeBron James played. So did Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. The only team missing a starter was the Hawks. They played without their starting point guard, Jeff Teague. That didn’t matter because guard Shelvin Mack came off the bench to score 24 points and went 6-for-6 on three-pointers. Question: Can Mack pass rush, too? Or play center field and hit leadoff? Maybe build a privately funded stadium? The Hawks trailed the Cavaliers by eight points after the first quarter, then outscored them by 37 over the next three. Cleveland could’ve done that without LeBron. ... Championships aren’t awarded in mid-December but coach Mike Budenholzer is maximizing the talent on his roster, which is a nice change of pace for local teams. It’s unfortunate the Hawks are struggling to get on the radar in their own town. Their average (announced) home attendance of 15,345 ranks 25th in the league. Maybe it’s time to start paying attention.
  • Robert Morales of the Long Beach Press-Telegram: Clippers coach Doc Rivers this week told reporters he’ll be looking “at everything” now that the two-month trading period for the NBA has begun. There’s also a free agent that could draw interest from Rivers — also the team’s president of basketball operations — and that’s guard Ray Allen. Allen, the all-time leader in 3-point baskets with 2,973, is 39. He’s currently not playing after having spent the past two seasons with the Miami Heat after a five-year stint with the Boston Celtics, where he was coached by Rivers. But a variety of reports indicate he might be interested in resuming his career. If Allen were to come to L.A., that seemingly could change things for Clippers’ sixth-man Jamal Crawford, another 3-point-shooting machine who sits 10th all-time with 1,743. Allen, an 18-year veteran, would presumably come off the bench for any team, and that’s where Crawford — a two-time NBA Sixth Man of the Year and also a guard — rules. Not only is Crawford not concerned, he said he would welcome Allen with open arms. ... Even though this is not a trade rumor, per se, Crawford noted that he always seems to be the subject of trade rumors. Over the next two months, there figure to be many about many players.
  • Erik Gundersen of The Columbian: Damian Lillard is shooting 68 percent from less than three feet according to Basketball-Reference. Over the last two seasons, Lillard has never shot better than 53 percent from that distance. Lillard is taking a near identical percentage of his shots around the basket. He's just been much better at it and lots of summer work is paying off. "Going up to the rim and getting hit with pads and stuff like that," Lillard said of the summer workouts to improve his finishing. "Playing against contact. Sitting down in a the chair then just coming out, getting pushed and still trying to come out and finish. It's just paying off." Other techniques such as getting the ball higher on the glass, Lillard says, have helped improve his finishing. Despite Lillard, the Blazers are in the bottom-five in points in the paint.
  • Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic: Earlier this year, Suns Managing Partner Robert Sarver acknowledged the need and desire for the franchise to play in a new arena with eight years left on the US Airways Center lease. Sarver also shared that sentiment with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver recently. "I had this conversation with him just the other day," Silver said Wednesday night in Charlotte before the Suns-Hornets game. "I don't think it's imminent but, yes, over time, there's no question that what was once one of the very best buildings in the league is becoming older. "They invested in a renovation there, the prior ownership did. Robert, as he looks out into the next decade, realizes that at some point he's going to need a new building. It's early stages but it's something that the league office can be helpful with. At least we have the experience of many more markets."
  • Jay King of MassLive.com: The latest batch of trade rumors did nothing to shake Rajon Rondo. "It's a way of life since I've been here," he said Wednesday night after notching 13 points and 15 assist as the Boston Celtics toppled the Orlando Magic. ... For his part, Rondo says all the right things. He genuinely seems to exercise patience with Boston's rebuilding process and has held himself accountable all season long. Asked whether he wants to stay with the Celtics, he repeated a desire to remain with the organization. "How many times do you want me to say it?" the four-time All-Star replied, smiling. "We discussed it on media day. My thoughts and opinions as far as the organization hasn't changed. "I'm enjoying life. You can't win them all but these guys are funny. I'm young and I'm doing what I love to do. It's a dream come true. I can't be upset about anything." Not even the trade rumors. ... This is all just part of it. Buckle up. Strap on your helmets. Dust off your shin guards. The two months until the trade deadline should bring plenty more rumors, if Rondo stays around that long.
  • Eddie Sefko of The Dallas Morning News: Do you think Monta Ellis has any shot at making the All-Star team? Sefko: Can't see it. He's falling in somewhere behind Chris Paul, James Harden, Tony Parker, Damian Lillard, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and maybe Mike Conley, Russell Westbrook and Goran Dragic. There are only spots for six guards/wings on the West squad, maybe seven tops. It's just too competitive.
  • Jeff Blair of Sportsnet.ca: This time Kyle Lowry stood by the Toronto Raptors bench as the Brooklyn Nets walked by following the game, shaking hands with every one of them. A post-game interview awaited on court — this time Lowry was the winner. It was like last season’s playoffs had been stood on their head. The Raptors and Nets usually have to fight and claw when they play each other – in the four regular season and seven playoff games between them last season, six games were decided by four points or less, only two by double digits and the aggregate score of those games was 1,070-1,070. But the Raptors won Wednesday night’s game at a canter, 105-89, and there was no repeat of the ending of Game 7 of last year’s first-round series, won 97-96 by the Nets when the enduring image was Lowry lying on the court at the Air Canada Centre, arms crossed over his head after his last-second shot went awry. The Raptors (20-6) have reached 20 wins before the Christmas mark for the first time in club history. They have two more games against sub-.500 teams – the Detroit Pistons and New York Knicks – before a six-game road trip that starts in Chicago and hits all points west. The question is: how much was Wednesday’s win a measure of revenge? “For sure,” answered the Raptors’ James Johnson.
  • Jody Genessy of the Deseret News: There was a point in Tuesday’s game at New Orleans when Rudy Gobert and Enes Kanter were yapping at each other while walking off the court for a timeout. Quin Snyder met them at midcourt and had a quick chat, while team captain Gordon Hayward huddled with his two teammates from behind. The Jazz coach wasn’t trying to put out a team fire. Snyder absolutely loved what was going on between the two players, even if it seemed that they were bickering. “That was great. I was so glad to see them. I don’t care if they yell at each other. I like the communication,” Snyder said. “Once you start talking to each other like that, now you’ve got a chance to grow and to stretch. It’s when they don’t say anything that I get concerned.” The incident — if it can even be called that — stemmed from a defensive possession before the timeout was called. Gobert explained that he was simply trying to help Kanter get into the proper position, so he pushed him in the back. Yes. Gobert literally shoved Kanter toward his spot.

TrueHoop TV Live

December, 17, 2014
Dec 17
12:06
PM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
Archive
Join the yuletide fun at 3 p.m. ET.

Vivek Ranadive looking for a 'jazz director'

December, 17, 2014
Dec 17
11:41
AM ET
Ham By James Ham
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
videoSACRAMENTO -- When the door opens to the makeshift owners lounge that used to act as a media workroom, former St. John’s teammates Mark Jackson and Chris Mullin are standing in the center of the room reminiscing and sharing a laugh. General manager Pete D’Alessandro is sitting at a table with white linens in preparation for an influx of former Kings, all in attendance for the jersey retirement ceremony of Peja Stojakovic. And owner Vivek Ranadive is waiting anxiously for his last of many one-on-one interviews.

It’s been a rough 48 hours for the former tech giant. The firing of popular head coach Michael Malone on Sunday night has been received quite poorly almost across the board. The media has come calling in search of answers, and Ranadive has a list of five points, memorized, that he wants to share.

“There are five things I want to say,” the soft-spoken Ranadive begins. “The first thing is -- look, I know the fans have reacted to this aggressively, and it just underscores for me that we have the best fans in sports. They’re passionate, they’re engaged, they let their views be known, even if they don’t agree with what we’re doing.”

Ranadive is correct. Sacramento Kings fans are dumbfounded. After a 9-6 start to the season, DeMarcus Cousins came down with viral meningitis and hasn’t played since. Without Cousins, the Kings are 2-8 and losers of four straight.

Now 11-14 on the season, D’Alessandro, with the backing of Ranadive, handed Malone his pink slip.

“Michael Malone is a good man, he’s an honorable man and that he did great things for this organization,” Ranadive says, moving to Point 2. “I, personally, and the Sacramento Kings will always have the highest respect and regard for Michael Malone. And that whatever he does, we know that he will continue to have a great career in the NBA.”

The typical exit speech from an owner when a coach is fired. In Sacramento, there is a template sitting in a drawer somewhere.

“When we got Michael Malone, we believed it was absolutely the right thing to do,” said Ranadive, who hired Malone soon after he agreed to purchase the Kings and before he hired D’Alessandro. “I was handed the keys to the kingdom, and the place was literally and figuratively falling apart. The roof was falling down, we hadn’t sold a single ticket. There was chaos, even anarchy, in the locker room, and the draft was only weeks away. So we needed a coach that would restore structure, restore discipline, restore a system, defense and I consulted with some of the experts in the business, and they said he was a great choice.”

This third point should come in bold print. Chaos and anarchy are perfect descriptions for where the Kings were when Ranadive took control of the team from the Maloofs, who nearly sold the team to owners who intended to move to Seattle. In 18 months, Malone transformed one of the most dysfunctional locker rooms in the league, without giving up on Cousins.

Described as both a disciplinarian and players' coach, Malone laid a foundation that interim coach Tyrone Corbin, the former head coach of the Utah Jazz, now takes over.

“The NBA has become like the high-tech business,” Ranadive said. Point 4. “Just because you invented the iPhone, doesn’t mean you can rest on your laurels, because somebody else is building a better iPhone. Just because you win 50 games, doesn’t mean you can be satisfied with the status quo. Just because you win 16 games in a row, doesn’t mean that you don’t look for Ray Allen to make your team better. So we live in a time when good enough isn’t, and we need to keep getting better. So while we have a good foundation, we needed to pivot. We needed to go.”

Ranadive wasn’t finished with this point. In fact, of the five, this is the one he says led to Malone’s dismissal.

“Defense is great, but we need defense and offense,” he said. “We need to go from a rules-based organization, which was important when you had chaos, to a values-based organization. From kind of a programmatic offense, to a read-and-respond, free-flowing offense. I like to use a music metaphor. We had a Sousa marching band, which was needed when there was chaos, but now we need to shift to a jazz band, where people can be individually showcased and improvised. What we need is a jazz director. I think that’s the kind of leadership moving forward.”

Known for his defensive coaching acumen, the Kings under Malone felt more like the New York Knicks from the early 1990s. Before owning the Kings, Ranadive was a co-owner of the Golden State Warriors, long known for their offense. D’Alessandro was the assistant GM for George Karl’s high-octane Denver Nuggets.

There was a clear mismatch in styles. While the brass preached pace, Malone emphasized defense. A middle ground was never reached.

Now the last point.

“This ownership group has shown a willingness to open its wallet,” Ranadive said. “Open it for the players, for the coaching staff, for the facility, for the old arena, the new arena, the downtown Sacramento development, and we will continue to do that because we have the best fans in sports.”

After running through his list, we have time for one question before we lose our spot on the white leather couch. Ranadive has taken a beating in the press, both locally and nationally. How is he holding up under the scrutiny?

“I’ve been beaten before,” he said. “They said that Seattle had won, and we would never be able to keep this team. People said that Cousins was toxic, and he was a cancer and we should get rid of him. They said that Rudy [Gay] was terrible, and even if he came, he would never stay. They said if Isaiah [Thomas] left, the team would fall apart. So look, I’m surrounded by really smart people, and they give me great advice. They call the shots, and I support them.”

First Cup: Wednesday

December, 17, 2014
Dec 17
4:50
AM ET
By Nick Borges
ESPN.com
Archive
  • Ronald Tillery of The Commercial-Appeal: Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger didn’t appreciate being down after the first quarter mainly because his starters were slogging along. That all changed when the second unit stepped onto the court Tuesday night. Memphis picked up the pace, started the second period by scoring 20 unanswered points and rode the momentum to a 105-98 victory over the NBA-leading Golden State Warriors in FedExForum. “I think we gave them a little bit of their own medicine,” backup point guard Beno Udrih said. “They like to play that way. We came out with energy. We picked up the pace and we came out making shots.” The Griz made a six-point deficit disappear quickly and held several double-digit leads throughout the game before fending off the Warriors’ late rally. In stopping Golden State’s 16-game winning streak, Memphis (20-4) improved its league-best home record to 12-1. “I thought we were going to win,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “It was just too much to overcome. That’s a great team over there. We had to fight really hard just to get back to where we were.”
  • Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle: All good things must come to an end. For the Warriors, the ending to their franchise-best, 16-game winning streak came Tuesday night with a 105-98 loss to the Grizzlies that the Memphis public-relations team dubbed “Splash vs. Smash.” Without center Andrew Bogut (right knee) and power forward David Lee (left hamstring), the Warriors didn’t have enough size to compete with Grizzlies’ big men Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. The duo combined for 41 points and 17 rebounds, and the Warriors couldn’t find enough of the magic that characterized most of their historic run. The Warriors shot 41.1 percent from the floor — their second-worst shooting night of the season (35.5 percent at Oklahoma City on Nov. 23), had only 18 assists — their second-worst total of the season (16 at Phoenix on Nov. 9), and were held to fewer than 102 points for just the second time in the past 12 games (also 98 vs. Orlando on Dec. 2). “Our competitiveness is what stands out above all with this team — just how gritty they are and how tough they are,” said Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, who called Tuesday’s offense “scattered.” “Even on a night when we were not playing that well, we found a way to get it within two down the stretch against one of the best teams in the league on their home floor. That says a lot about our guys.”
  • Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman: Throughout a nightmare opening month, the Thunder’s health luck was unbelievably rare in the worst of ways. But during this renaissance December run, the Thunder’s health luck has been mildly rare in the best of ways. Twenty-five games into the season, the Thunder has all its rotation players healthy. A good portion of teams across the NBA don’t. And a suddenly red-hot OKC team is feasting on it. The Kings were the latest victim, going down 104-92 to the Thunder at home on Tuesday night. Sacramento surprisingly fired its well-liked coach a day earlier and was without its star center DeMarcus Cousins because of viral meningitis. A bad break and a tumultuous situation. But not one the Thunder was concerned about. “This is an ‘I don’t feel sorry for you’ league,” Scott Brooks said. “When we had a lot of guys hurt, I didn’t get a lot of text messages saying: ‘Hey, hang in there,’ from the other 29 coaches in the league.” So you didn’t hear Brooks doing the same over the past week. Not when the Cavs chose to rest LeBron James in Oklahoma City. Or when OKC faced a depleted Timberwolves team without Ricky Rubio or Nikola Pekovic. Or even when Goran Dragic missed his first game of the season with a minor back ailment on Sunday night in OKC. The Thunder just showed up and continued finding its rhythm and rolling up the standings. Tuesday night served as the latest example.
  • Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee: Amid cheers of “Peja! Peja!” the third jersey number from the best time in the Sacramento era was retired at Sleep Train Arena. Peja Stojakovic’s No. 16 was retired at halftime of the Kings’ game Tuesday against the Oklahoma City Thunder. “This is an unbelievable moment for me and family,” Stojakovic said during the ceremony. Stojakovic thanked former general manager Geoff Petrie and assistant Wayne Cooper for drafting him, coach Rick Adelman and his staff and his teammates for the honor, as well as the new ownership group that kept the team in Sacramento. Stojakovic joins teammates Chris Webber (No. 4) and Vlade Divac (No. 21) with retired numbers from the Kings’ teams from the late 1990s and early 2000s. The night included videos of former and current Kings talking about Stojakovic and highlights from his time with the team. At his best, Stojakovic was one of the most feared perimeter shooters in the NBA.
  • Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel: Amid all the absences and injuries, Erik Spoelstra said there has been a move toward simplicity, "Yeah, we've been trying to simplify as much as possible, particularly when you don't know from shootaround to the game who's going to be playing. But our system is our system. We've been trying to simplify for the last month, anyway, just to try to find some consistency with how we're playing." While Spoelstra said the goal was to have distinct first and second units, that simply is not as possible now, "As much as you can, but this is a little bit extreme." Spoelstra insisted there can be no feeling sorry for themselves. "For all of us, you have to embrace the different challenges of the NBA," he said. "It is a privilege to be in this league. Every season is going to be different, different challenges." And, "Look, we're not above having to grind and work and roll up your sleeves and try to build a successful team. So it's different but it's a good challenge." Asked if the absences have the Heat moving more toward player development, Spoelstra said, "Well, we try to incorporate player development with all of our players, even the veteran players."
  • Filip Bondy of the New York Daily News: Sometimes we all need to be reminded of a team’s sodden roots, of a franchise’s historically comedic existence. Dress up the Nets in hip-hop black uniforms, move them to Brooklyn, sit Beyonce courtside to meet the duchess, and they’re still, somehow, the Nets. They might as well be playing in Commack Arena, forfeiting a playoff game to the Kentucky Colonels. There they were Tuesday night at fancy new Barclays Center, busily losing another game, 95-91, offering little defensive resistance against the Heat, when suddenly water began to drip onto the court in the first quarter. A puddle formed. Puddles are not a good thing on an NBA floor. They can wreck knees and ankles. They might as well be giant banana peels. It took 31 minutes to deploy a tarp up above and stop the leak, caused by the faulty installation of what the Nets called “a new green roof." ... It is hard to emphasize just how poorly the Nets played Tuesday after the water stopped dripping and the floor was toweled off. They didn’t take care of the ball. They couldn’t keep up with Dwyane Wade, who scored 28 points despite a stomach virus. The Heat, playing without Chris Bosh, had dropped six of eight games and was drastically shorthanded. The Nets were playing at home on two days’ rest. No matter. The Nets were beaten and the puddle made the whole place look ridiculous. This team can move from Teaneck to Commack to Nassau to Piscataway to East Rutherford to Newark to Brooklyn. The Nets will never escape their fate. Coaches will flee. Trades will fail. Water will find its own level.
  • Nakia Hogan of The Times-Picayune: Nearly two months into the season, the New Orleans Pelicans hadn't yet encountered one of those truly embarrassing moments. They barely escaped such disaster at the Smoothie King Center on Tuesday night. With All-Star forward Anthony Davis back in the lineup, the Pelicans had to scratch and claw their way back into the game in the fourth quarter just to get by the lowly Utah Jazz, 119-111. It was quite a contrast to the performances against the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday and the Golden State Warriors on Sunday. But it's one the Pelicans will take, nonetheless. "I think there still was a hangover from the other night," Pelicans coach Monty Williams said.
  • Gordon Monson of The Salt Lake Tribune: The Jazz are losing again, but the feel of this season is 50 lengths down the track from a year ago. Nearly all the players utilized in key roles this time around are in them not just to try to win, rather to advance their games, individually and collectively. The losses, and there have been bunches of them, feature a double-barreled usefulness. 1) Players are edging forward through their playing time. 2) Losing will facilitate another crack at a high lottery pick for a franchise still searching for a star. Many Jazz fans don’t want to hear that because such an admission is too frustrating for them, and because they fear the Jazz are tumbling into the same sort of competitive crater that has trapped other clubs over long periods of time, especially those that have been perennially mismanaged. The Jazz may not be winning yet, but at least they’re united in their plan to fix their shortcomings. Quin Snyder will not be fired because the owner wants him to run four guys back on defense, leaving a cherry-picker at the offensive end, mirroring the successful scheme his 12-year-old daughter’s team had in their junior girls league. No. The Jazz are not the Sacramento Kings.
  • Dwain Price of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram: Tyson Chandler isn’t the petty type of player who takes solace that the New York Knicks are struggling mightily without him. Struggling after they claimed he was part of the team chemistry issues that doomed last year’s squad. That claim apparently led the Knicks to trade guard Raymond Felton and Chandler to the Dallas Mavericks on June 25. Still, despite being made out to be one of the scapegoats of a Knicks team that failed to qualify for the playoffs last season, Chandler isn’t snickering at the Knicks’ dismal 5-21 record. After all, with a new coach in Derek Fisher and a new offense in the triangle, he saw some of this coming more than a thousand miles away. “Clearly they’re struggling, but you knew they were going to take some lumps with a new coach, new offensive structure,” Chandler said. “The triangle takes some time to learn, so I was expecting it. I don’t know if anybody expected them to be where they are right now. But I expected them to take some lumps early on.”
  • Frank Isola of the New York Daily News: When Anthony became a free agent last July, Knicks president Phil Jackson expressed hope that Anthony might give the Knicks a hometown discount, a la Nowitzki and Duncan. And Anthony responded. Sort of. He could have made $129 million over five years and instead “settled” for $124M. Maybe stars LeBron, Carmelo and even Kobe Bryant are simply products of an AAU system where the best players are told at an early age that it really is all about you. The best players should make the most money but in a salary cap league those deals can hinder a club. The sporting cultures in Germany and the U.S. Virgin Islands are a little different and therefore Nowitzki and Duncan, respectively, are a little different. Duncan, 38, and Nowitzki, 36, are both in the twilight of their brilliant careers. Their ability to stay healthy, motivated and effective is admirable. But the fact that they have put winning above earning every last penny is what now defines them today. Some superstars talk sacrifice. Others live it and keep contending for championships
  • J. Michael of CSN Washington: This is starting to sound like a broken record, repeating itself over and over again, but John Wall is playing at yet another level for the Wizards after Tuesday's 109-95 win vs. the Minnesota Timberwolves. Wall posted his 15th double-double of the season, tied for the most in the NBA with Pau Gasol of the Chicago Bulls, with 21 points and tying a career-high with 17 assists. He already had 17 assists in a double-overtime game this season. "I still think he has the best head of him," coach Randy Wittman said after his team improved to 18-6 with their ninth victory in 10 games. "I want him to keep driving. He's really been understanding that there's nothing to rest on here. ... He has an opportunity, from a leadership standpoint, to continue to push this team. I don't want him to take his foot off the pedal and be satisfied. There's nothing surprising here. Let's just keep doing it."
  • Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune: The Timberwolves will contemplate their options now that veteran center Ronny Turiaf won’t play again this season after he underwent surgery to repair his hip in New York City on Tuesday. Turiaf’s contract with a $1.6 million salary expires after this season, which means the Wolves eventually will waive him to clear a roster spot. The question is when and how will they use it, particularly if Ricky Rubio’s return from a severely sprained ankle is on a faster track than once believed. They could simply decide to keep hardship-exception signee Jeff Adrien on because of his bulk and muscle. They could let Adrien’s exception expire Friday and choose to sign a guard — maybe D League sharpshooter Brady Heslip — after that, particularly if they believe Mo Williams’ back problems will remain a consideration. Or maybe they add a player — a versatile defender who can shoot — now that Dec. 15 has passed and teams can trade players they signed as free agents last summer.

Upgrade the Warriors!

December, 16, 2014
Dec 16
11:56
AM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
Golden State is rolling, but David Thorpe says now is the time to fix the shocking lack of guard scoring when the starters sit.

video

Z-Bo makes way for the reign of 'Big Spain'

December, 16, 2014
Dec 16
10:00
AM ET
By Chris Herrington
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
GasolNelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsZach Randolph has ceded the spotlight in the Grizzlies' frontcourt to the emerging Marc Gasol.
One minute after his putback sealed a win over the Dallas Mavericks, Marc Gasol stepped to the free throw line to polish off the fourth 30-point game of his 2014-15 season -- this after hitting that threshold only once in 436 prior in the NBA. As the 7-footer toed the charity stripe, "MVP" chants rang out in the Memphis Grizzlies' FedExForum for the first time this season.

Gasol was predictably sheepish about the fan response after the game, but he'll have to get used to it. Already an elite defender and playmaker, Gasol's scoring boost -- at 19.4 points per game, he's nearly five points ahead of his previous career best -- has helped make the Grizzlies something more than daydream believers for the NBA championship and, yes, put him firmly in the early-season conversation for MVP.

But while the spotlight has shifted to Gasol this season -- which also happens to be the last on his current contract -- the Grizzlies' interior attack in last week's win over Dallas, and much of the team's 19-4 start, remains a tag team.

Gasol scored 14 points in the first quarter against the Mavs. Zach Randolph, after a slow first half, scored 13 in the third, including multiple point-blank buckets over the top of former defensive player of the year Tyson Chandler. (Randolph, a couple of days later, joking: "Yeah, but I been doing that to Tyson since high school.")

Three nights later, after the duo combined for 39 points and eight blocks in a double-overtime win over the Charlotte Hornets, Hornets center Al Jefferson called Gasol "the best all-around big man in the game" but also declared the Randolph-Gasol duo "the toughest frontcourt I've ever played against."

In an era in which brawny, skilled post players are increasingly hard to come by and the stretch-4 is becoming the norm, the Grizzlies have been blessed with two of the league's best true big men. Gasol and Randolph rank seventh and eighth in "close touches" (i.e., within 12 feet of the rim) per game, according to the NBA's player tracking data, while Gasol leads the league in "elbow touches." And the big trains from Memphis are rumbling like never before, even with a slight, but welcome, reduction in Randolph's playing time.

Per 36 minutes, Randolph and Gasol's combined averages of 38.6 points and 20.7 rebounds are the highest of their partnership. Both have a player efficiency rating (PER) above 20 for the first time, too.

After six seasons together in close quarters, executing high-low feeds in the paint or riffing off of each other at adjoining lockers, Gasol and Randolph have developed an on- and off-court bond -- Randolph made the scene at Gasol's Barcelona wedding the summer before last, as did Mike Conley -- that might be one of the coolest things in the NBA, especially given how ostensibly different they are.

Randolph is a bootstrapping success story from hardscrabble Marion, Indiana, and Gasol the son of educated medical professionals, who grew up in beautiful Barcelona and matriculated at Memphis' Lausanne Collegiate School, with an NBA star older brother. Think Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer, with malice toward fewer.

Their rare basketball union has also been an evolving one, with this season the culmination of a gradual -- and easy to overstate -- role reversal in which Gasol has gone from Randolph's frontcourt sidekick to the team's offensive alpha dog, and vice versa. It's a shift that runs counter to the duo's natural temperaments -- Randolph entering the league with the "get buckets" gene, Gasol always more deferential.

"Marc's always been so unselfish," Randolph says. "Forget that, man. We need you to go to work, not just make a play for someone else. I tell him every game, 'Go out there and dominate.'"

That instruction is starting to take, and while Gasol's slimmed-down physique clearly helps, it's been as much mental as anything -- Gasol (finally) recognizing that the best shot might come from him, even if it isn't always the "best" shot.

"This year I changed my mindset," Gasol says. "Instead of taking eight or nine shots, I might need to take 14 or 15 or 16 because that's what the team needs. It's not easy, because when you have a good shot and you feel like someone else has a great shot, it's just in [my] DNA to swing the ball."

Gasol says he wanted to step up more last season but didn't feel physically ready to do so.

That's where his improved conditioning comes in. Long on the heavy side, Gasol slimmed down like never before this offseason. And while it indeed comes right before he's set to cash in with a deal, Gasol cites the knee injury that knocked him out of 23 games last winter as the impetus.

[+] EnlargeGasol
Justin Ford/USA TODAY SportsA slimmer Gasol (19.4 PPG) is leading the way for the 19-4 Griz.
"The injury was eye-opening to me," Gasol says. "I was a little naive. I thought I wouldn't get hurt because, you know, I'm not a high-flier. I do dive on the floor a lot, so I thought the most I'm going to get are bruises. I never thought I would have a knee injury or something like that, but, of course, I was dead wrong, and that made me realize if I'm going to be the player I want to be and push the limits -- not only for myself but for the team -- I have to be able to do more on the floor."

Gasol says former coach Lionel Hollins used him as a "focal point in the post-up game" early in his career, but the arrival of Randolph in 2009 changed that. With Randolph occupying the low block, Gasol happily migrated more to the high post, where his European-bred skills as a passer and shooter excelled.

Now Randolph is returning the favor. With Gasol emerging as a more prolific scorer, Randolph's abilities off the ball have smoothed the transition.

"I don't have to always get the ball. I can get offensive rebounds, dump-offs, tip-ins," says Randolph, who is currently sporting the best rebound rate (20.3) of his career. "I don't have to be the focal point. I can get it out of the mud."

But Randolph acknowledges moving back into a more secondary role would have been more difficult if it weren't Gasol to whom he was yielding touches.

"It's a lot easier [with Marc]," Randolph says. "I love the guy, man. I call him my brother from a different mother. We have a special bond."

Gasol also sees the duo's ability to shift roles as a function of trust.

"The truth is that we both look at basketball in kind of the same way and that we've always been really honest with each other," Gasol says. "We always have each other's back, no matter what it is. We have an understanding. When I catch the ball, I don't just hold it and look for him like I [used to]. If my man is playing off of me, I'll shoot it from the top or try to get in the lane and drive it. It depends on where the game takes you, but I still take care of him. And he's always in my peripheral vision because he's someone, when he gets going, who is a special force."

Randolph cites Gasol's time spent playing high school basketball in Memphis as informing his demeanor, a common observation that Gasol dismisses even as he confirms the tug the city has on his heart.

"I don't know the reason [Zach and I] kicked it off so fast," Gasol says. "I guess it just clicked for both of us at the perfect time."

With Randolph under contract for two more seasons and Gasol heading toward free agency this summer, the Grizzlies hope to extend the relationship. For now, they are happy to bear witness to more dual domination. And Randolph, who led the charge when the Grizzlies first re-emerged into relevance, is happy to have Gasol out front for a change.

"I've always seen it. I've just been waiting on him," Randolph says of Gasol's new aggressiveness. "Some people find it earlier, some people find it later.

"I helped him out a little bit," Randolph continues, laughing. "I put a little bit of that in him."

Chris Herrington is an entertainment editor and NBA contributor for the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Follow him, @HerringtonNBA.

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