#HateHard with Tom: Giannis soft-served

April, 1, 2015
Apr 1
4:39
PM ET
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
ESPN.com
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The BIG Number: Amin's BIG Blunder

April, 1, 2015
Apr 1
4:38
PM ET
Elhassan By Amin Elhassan
ESPN.com
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TrueHoop TV Live

April, 1, 2015
Apr 1
10:00
AM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
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Brian Windhorst joins Tom Haberstroh and Ethan Strauss to debate who is the NBA's MVP and Durant's desire to remain in OKC.

First Cup: Tuesday

March, 31, 2015
Mar 31
4:44
AM ET
By Nick Borges
ESPN.com
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  • Ronald Tillery of The Commercial-Appeal: Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph didn’t need to bulldoze defenders and bully his way toward this basket. The lane opened up because of matador defense played by the Sacramento Kings. So Randolph, normally a ground-and-pound punisher, made the middle of the paint his runway, took flight and threw down a two-hand dunk. The Griz haven’t had many highlights over the past week, but they had several Monday night, with the best one the final score: a 97-83 victory in FedExForum. Memphis snapped a three-game losing streak that included convincing losses to San Antonio, Golden State and Cleveland. “We were desperate for a win,” Randolph said. “We came out and did what we had to do. We came out with the same approach we had against San Antonio. We wanted to play 48 minutes and that’s what we did. It was a team win.” A dry erase board displaying the Western Conference standings at the entrance of the Grizzlies’ locker room illustrated where coach Dave Joerger and his team want to be headed, too. One day after losing their hold on the Southwest Division and No. 2 playoff seed, the Griz moved a half-game back in front of the Houston Rockets for both spots.
  • Jay King of MassLive.com: A famous NBA gambler considers Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens the league's best in-game coach. Haralabos "Bob" Voulgaris might watch -- and critically analyze -- as much basketball as anybody. In 2013, an ESPN profile labeled him "the world's top NBA gambler." He makes a living by watching a ton of basketball, parsing through a heap of data, and determining which bets to take. His claims are backed by evidence and highly respected in the NBA world. And he believes Stevens -- not Gregg Popovich, Rick Carlisle, Erik Spoelstra, Mike Budenholzer, Steve Kerr or anyone else -- tops everyone with his game management skills. ... ESPN recently ranked Stevens the NBA's ninth-best coach -- one spot behind Doc Rivers -- and he might actually be better than that. Last summer, the Celtics hired one heck of a coach.
  • Michael Grange of Sportsnet.ca: James Harden may well be the NBA’s leading MVP candidate. At the very least, he’s on anyone’s shortlist as one of the best in the sport. But if DeMar DeRozan had his way, Harden wasn’t going to build his résumé Monday night. Not in his house, not against the Toronto Raptors. It took a career night from DeRozan to do it, but he got it done as a career-best 42 points held off the Rockets in a 99-96 win for the Raptors despite 31 points from Harden. The win, Toronto’s second in a row, improved the Raptors to 44-30 on the season as they head out on a brief, two-game road trip. With eight games remaining, the Raptors have a fighting chance to break the franchise record of 48 wins set last season. As an added bonus, with the win DeRozan earned some bragging rights over his longtime friend and rival. Harden and DeRozan came into the NBA together — taken No. 3 and No. 9 respectively in the 2009 draft — and battled each other on the Los Angeles high school and AAU scene well before that. They were teammates on USA Basketball’s world championship team this past summer. So Monday night was personal, as battles with friends can be.
  • Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times: This has become a March Madness all its own, the Lakers sitting perfectly healthy players not because they're preparing for a playoff run but because, um, let's just say it's complicated. The Lakers would never admit it publicly, but their 113-111 overtime victory Monday over the 76ers probably cost them something on lottery night. They moved three games ahead of Philadelphia in the overall standings and are practically locked in as the NBA's fourth-worst team. There is a 16% chance two teams could pass them in the May 19 draft lottery, at which point they would forfeit their first-round pick because of the Steve Nash trade. Had the Lakers fallen below the 76ers in the standings between now and April 15, there would be only a 3% chance of three teams passing them on lottery night. One more stat for lottery gluttons: The team with the third-worst record has a 15.6% chance at winning the No. 1 pick, the fourth-worst team only a 10.4% chance. The present-day Lakers don't care. The victory felt great. Their lottery-laden fans might say otherwise. Coach Byron Scott would gladly debate them. "I don't care about all that stuff," he said. "It's all about us trying to get better as a basketball team and trying to win games. Whatever happens after that happens. We can't control that."
  • Matt Winkeljohn of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Kyle Korver finally fell in love with his mask, which is saying something because he has hated that thing, but the best part of his shift Monday night against the Milwaukee Bucks did not come upon the occasions where he said, “it saved me [and his broken nose].” No, the best part of his work came when he pretended like “it” wasn’t there. As he blitzed the Bucks with 11 consecutive points in a span of 65 seconds in the third quarter for his only scores, the Hawks’ shooting guard looked like the pre-All-Star game sniper who put up remarkable shooting numbers. Korver missed his first five shots in the game, and then – with Milwaukee having whittled Atlanta’s lead to five points – he hit a 30-footer with 5:49 left in the period, a 21-footer at the 5:27 mark, and two more long balls at 5:05 and 4:44. ... Korver doesn’t want his nose separated from its moorings again. So, he’ll keep wearing that mask. “I really don’t want to talk about it. I shouldn’t have brought it up,” he said. “I’m grateful for it.”
  • Kerry Eggers of The Portland Tribune: A wag had the best line of the night after the Trail Blazers' 109-86 dismantling of the Phoenix Suns Monday night at the Moda Center. "I knew it was a bad idea to serve wine (in the Suns' locker room) at halftime," the member of the Fourth Estate observed dryly. No, the Suns weren't smashed, but their hopes for victory certainly were during a third quarter in which they were outscored 37-16. The result was a Portland victory that seemed as easy as a Maui sunset, clinching a Western Conference playoff berth for the Blazers (48-25) with still nine regular-season games yet to play. "It was a good way to clinch a playoff spot," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "We played well for most of the night. A win like that is always nice to have." But there was no celebration in the Blazer locker room afterward. "Our goals are beyond just making the playoffs," Stotts said. "With our magic number at one, it was inevitable. It's nice to clinch a spot, but we still have a few games to go that are important to us." None more so than Wednesday night when the Los Angeles Clippers come to town. The Clippers (49-25) are riding a seven-game win streak and are a half-game ahead of Portland in the battle for the fourth-best record in the West. When the Blazers clinch the Northwest Division championship -- their magic number is two (Portland wins or Oklahoma City defeats) -- it guarantees them at least the No. 4 seed in the conference. But if the first-round playoff opponent owns a better regular-season record, it will get homecourt advantage.
  • Aaron Falk of The Salt Lake Tribune: Flip Saunders was fired up after his team's win over the Jazz last week in Salt Lake City — and not just because of his short-handed squad's play in an overtime victory. Jazz broadcasters Craig Bolerjack and Matt Harpring had discussed the "tanking" in the NBA and mention was made of the Timberwolves dressing only seven healthy players against the Jazz. The Timberwolves, meanwhile, did not broadcast the game that night, so Minnesota fans who tuned in did so via the Utah feed. And after the game, Saunders said he had received some 25 text messages informing him of the conversation. "That's totally irresponsible, we're not tanking games," Saunders said to the Minneapolis Star Tribune and other reporters gathered. "If that's so, then [Utah] got beat by a team who was tanking. … We're playing to win. Our guys are out there: We won two games ago at New York, we lost in the fourth quarter against Charlotte last night. We're not tanking games. It is irresponsible for them to go on TV saying that. If you work at ESPN, you get fired for saying stuff like that." Bolerjack, however, apparently disagreed that the conversation went too far. And during Saunders' pregame interview Monday night, the Jazz play-by-play man asked the coach if his feelings had changed. "Still feel like the announcers need to be fired, including myself?" Bolerjack asked. "I didn't say you," Saunders replied. "I just said that at ESPN, you do things like that. … You know, we have these [interviews] beforehand, people come and ask us, you know, who we have, who's playing, who's not. So that's why we have this here." "But did you hear the broadcast?" Boljerack asked. "Yeah. I heard the thing. I heard the broadcast. I didn't go back and hear it again," Saunders said. The situation ended amicably.

The BIG Number: Supersized Westbrook

March, 30, 2015
Mar 30
7:21
PM ET
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
ESPN.com
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First Cup: Monday

March, 30, 2015
Mar 30
4:51
AM ET
By Nick Borges
ESPN.com
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  • Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News: It was the 13th win in the past 16 games for the Spurs, who completed March 9-1. "They have patience, they have experience," said Gasol, who struggled to 16 points after starting 1 for 7. "They know how to play together -- everything you can ask for as far as a team goes." When the fourth quarter dawned Sunday with the game still in doubt, the Spurs purposefully went away from their beautiful game offense. They found Leonard in a low-post mismatch, and they fed him like Thanksgiving dinner. "We went to him, and he went to himself," Popovich said. "He was rolling and he felt it." This is not a role Leonard would have been apt to fill a few seasons ago, when he was the Spurs' clear fourth scoring option behind the Big Three and still trying to feel his way. As Leonard has grown -- winning a Finals MVP in the process -- so has his confidence. "It has gotten easier, because I've been in the league," said Leonard, who also recorded his 18th consecutive game with at least one steal. "It's my fourth year, and Coach Pop has a little bit more confidence in me. I get to do a little bit more of what I want on the floor."
  • Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman: Sunday’s game came with some clear playoff implications. And Scott Brooks coached like it. The Thunder’s rotation, already decimated by this latest injury rash, was shortened even more against the Suns. Brooks essentially played only seven guys. Perry Jones, Jeremy Lamb and Steve Novak didn’t appear. Mitch McGary, surprisingly, only received eight quiet first half minutes. Anthony Morrow and D.J. Augustin were the only OKC bench players to receive significant run. But the duo, again, provided the type of offensive boost that’s made each so valuable over the past couple months. Morrow had 11 points in his 28 minutes, nailing three big 3s that each came with a wave of momentum. In his past 14 games, Morrow is 42-of-78 from three — a 54 percent clip that has raised his season percentage to 42.7, eighth best in the entire NBA. And Augustin, for stretches, was the most important player on the floor. In his 32 minutes, Augustin ran the offense smoothly in Westbrook’s absence and then served as a cold-blooded spot-up shooter when alongside OKC’s playmaking point guard.
  • Candace Buckner of The Indianapolis Star: The Pacers started the game like it finally meant something to them, and played until the end as the more desperate group on the floor, as shown by C.J. Miles' open-armed celebration after draining a clutch 3-pointer with a minute remaining and David West's rare show of triumphant emotion as he pumped his fist with Miles securing the final defensive rebound. With this victory, the Pacers (32-41) have given themselves a chance. Even some hope, which they'll need this week. The Pacers' next three straight games feature the same three teams crowding the standings for the final berth in the Eastern Conference playoffs. On Tuesday, Indiana plays Brooklyn, then the next night, the show moves to Boston: a road back-to-back against the two rivals ahead in the standings. By the time Indiana returns home, the final regular-season matchup with the Charlotte Hornets awaits on Friday night. And it doesn't end there, because a fourth team bunched at the bottom, Miami, currently in the seventh seed, comes to Bankers Life Fieldhouse next Sunday. The season, essentially, comes down to the next seven days. If the Pacers can break out of this late-season slide – they've only just improved to 2-7 over the past nine games – and somehow win these games, they'll be back among the top eight. And back to achieving the goal that was set in October, even when Paul George hobbled about in a walking boot.
  • Dave Hyde of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel: Before Sunday’s game, with Hassan Whiteside and Chris Craig “Birdman” Andersen injured, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told Haslem the game came to him playing Drummond. “You have to lead us with your physicality and toughness,” Spoelstra said. “Oh, and by the way, you can’t foul out.” The Heat had no other body to play Drummond. Henry Walker, at 6-7, did for a while out of desperation. But when Luol Deng and Michael Beasley couldn’t play in the second half, that limited every position to the point Wade even took some minutes at power forward. The Heat don’t make these playoffs without Wade being Wade, of course. Draining his knee Saturday. Uncertain to play. Then making big shot after big shot, just as he has since 2003. But the surprise to the season is the names that trail behind Wade like tin cans tied to a car. Mario Chalmers. Henry Walker. James Ennis. Tyler Johnson. And Haslem, still Haslem, back riding sidekick to Wade like he has since 2003. “He’s the ultimate pro,” Van Gundy said. “He had times in the last two years where he wasn’t in the rotation. Now he’s starting. That guy is going to be ready and compete all the time.” Van Gundy was Heat coach when Haslem came from the minor leagues.
  • John Reid of The Times-Picayune: Pelicans backup guard Toney Douglas was re-signed last week for the remainder of the season because of the uncertainty involving point guard Jrue Holiday's stress reaction injury in his lower right leg. Yet, already since his arrival after three games, Douglas has shown to be a defender to reckon with. In Sunday's 110-88 victory against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Douglas was all over rookie guard Zach LaVine, cutting off his movement on the perimeter and forcing him to make mistakes. Douglas' defensive play was particularly noticeable in the fourth quarter when he had three steals, all off LaVine's turnovers. With the Pelicans (39-34) in a tightly contested race with the Oklahoma City Thunder for the final playoff seed in the Western Conference with nine games remaining, Pelicans coach Monty Williams said they are going to need strong play from their bench like they got Sunday.
  • Jenny Dial Creech of the Houston Chronicle: The Rockets have just 10 games left in the regular season and the stretch before the playoffs will be far from easy. They have a back-to-back on the road with Washington and Toronto. They also have road games in Dallas, Oklahoma City and San Antonio in addition to having to host the Spurs as well. “I think it’s good,” forward Josh Smith said. “It gives us big challenges and opportunities to see what we are made of.” As center Dwight Howard gets back in the mix with the team, he said he is welcoming the tough schedule. Howard missed two months with edema in his right knee. He is currently on a minutes restriction, but hopes to be back at full speed by the time the team gets to the playoffs. “I think it’s a lot of fun, especially for me getting back into it,” Howard said of the upcoming schedule. “It gives me the opportunity to get back in shape and play against good guards, like Tony Parker and Russell Westbrook. That will be great for me, especially defending the pick and roll for the playoffs."
  • Tim Bontemps of the New York Post: As the Nets went through practice Saturday, Lionel Hollins was impressed with what he saw from rookie Markel Brown. “He was really shooting the ball well,” Hollins said, “and I just walked over and told him, ‘You’ve got to shoot with that kind of confidence in the game. Just play.’ ” Brown must have taken his coach’s advice to heart, as he had one of his best games of the season, finishing with a career-high 17 points to go with four rebounds and four assists to help the Nets to a 107-99 win over the Lakers. “I just felt more relaxed out there on the court,” Brown said. “I felt like I had a good rhythm going, and I wanted to keep shooting.” While Brown has been a consistent starter since entering the rotation after the All-Star break, he’s seen his minutes drop recently because of the uptick in production from fellow rookie Bojan Bogdanovic coming off the bench behind him. But Brown got into a rhythm early Sunday, scoring seven straight points in the first quarter — capped by a drive and emphatic baseline dunk after the defense had to commit to him after a pair of perimeter jumpers.
  • Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon-Journal: This isn’t going to take long. It was hard enough sitting through this game the first time without reliving it blow by blow. The Cavs can talk all they want about winning this with defense (they didn’t) and gutting out tough wins (I guess they did), the fact is this team has looked bored in three of their last four games. The one they were motivated to play was against the Grizzlies and they destroyed the second-best team in the West. This isn’t a huge concern. It’s tough to get “up” for every game, but the concern is whether the Cavs are taking full advantage of the games in front of them. If the starters are going to stumble around like this, it’s better to just sit them and knock the rust off guys like Mike Miller and Shawn Marion. At least get some sort of accomplishment out of the game. And while we’re on the topic, it is sounding as if J.R. Smith could get some time off soon. Neither team made a basket for the last 4 minutes of this game. The Sixers missed their last five shots and their last four free throws. The Cavs missed their last six shots. Kyrie Irving joked he kept looking up at the scoreboard, only the score wasn’t changing. “Hands down for me personally,” Irving said, “that was one of the ugliest games I’ve played in.”
  • Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times: It's the part of the Clippers' game that often goes unnoticed, like the upholstery in a Ferrari. Defense is easy to overlook when J.J. Redick swishes shots as if he's all alone in the gym or DeAndre Jordan jumps so high to dunk a lob that it seems like his head might graze one of the Boston Celtics' championship banners. "Our offense is beautiful to watch," Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said after Redick and Jordan wowed their teammates, not to mention the TD Garden crowd, Sunday during a 119-106 victory over the Celtics. And yet, Rivers also is the first to acknowledge it is the Clippers' defense that has triggered their seven-game winning streak and a monthlong stretch of play that might be as good as any his team has logged since he arrived in Los Angeles in the summer of 2013. "I think our guys have finally connected the dots," Rivers said. "When we're good defensively, we're really good offensively. That's something we've been trying to get them to see all year. ... They get it."
  • Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel: The Orlando Magic soon will seek to extend general manager Rob Hennigan's contract beyond the 2015-16 season, an industry source with knowledge of the team's plans told the Orlando Sentinel. The DeVos family and CEO Alex Martins are pleased with the job Hennigan has done since Hennigan was hired in June 2012. Martins, who would not comment for this article, likes to maintain continuity in key leadership positions. Martins also believes it's dangerous to have a key executive work in the final season of a contract because uncertainty about job status can prompt an executive to make risky decisions for short-term gains. When the team originally hired Hennigan, it signed him to a three-year deal with a team option for a fourth year. Last May, the team exercised its option for the 2015-16 season. Extension talks between the Magic and Hennigan or Hennigan's agent likely will occur after this season ends on April 15.

Ranking NBA owners

March, 27, 2015
Mar 27
4:13
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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TrueHoop TV Live

March, 27, 2015
Mar 27
11:08
AM ET
Elhassan By Amin Elhassan
ESPN.com
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See you at 2 p.m. ET.

First Cup: Friday

March, 27, 2015
Mar 27
5:45
AM ET
By Nick Borges
ESPN.com
Archive
  • Gery Woelfel of The Journal Times: These have truly been trying times for Michael Carter-Williams. The recently-acquired Milwaukee Bucks point guard hasn’t only had to make the challenging transition of playing for a new team, but he’s been enduring some painful personal matters. On the court, Carter-Williams, whom the Bucks obtained from Philadelphia as part of a three-team deal on Feb. 19, has struggled to find his groove, particularly on the offensive end of the floor. ... But Carter-Williams will also acknowledge his mind hasn’t been totally on basketball. His grandfather, Leroy “Mike” Carter died Sunday in Hamilton , Mass. , from an apparent blood clot. He was 86. Carter-Williams said he and his grandfather had a special bond and spent a lot of time together over the years. Leroy was a veteran of the Korean War before becoming the owner of Carter’s Stables in Hamilton . He was an equestrian who trained race and show horses. “When I found out my grandfather had died, it hit me pretty hard," Carter-Williams said. “It still hurts. I was very close to him. He lived next door to my family my whole life. It was a tough loss for me and my family."
  • Candace Buckner of The Indianapolis Star: The Indiana Pacers had another late-game moment with the ball in the hands of George Hill. Just the other night, Hill lofted the game-winning floater to cap a tedious comeback but the rally ended on Thursday inside the BMO Harris Bradley Center. The Milwaukee Bucks held on for the 111-107 victory after Hill's potential game-tying 3-pointer rimmed in and out during Indiana's final play. Buried under a 23-point lead in the first quarter, the Pacers (31-41) found themselves in the familiar way of playing from behind the entire game. However, after scoring 33 points through the fourth quarter and creating a chance to send the game into overtime, the comeback came up short. "You can't spot a team 23 points and expect to win," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. "I'm proud of our fight and trying to get back into it but we can't start that way." In a concerning trend, Indiana has trailed in the first quarter in its last 10 games, dating back to March 10. The early deficits have created unnecessarily difficult challenges and the Pacers have lost seven of those 10 games.
  • Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News: Before the game, I watched and charted Stephen Curry's entire 17-minute warm-up session with assistant Bruce Fraser -- which began about 90 minutes before tipoff -- starting with a two-ball dribbling drill. Then the session ended with five attempts and five misses from halfway inside the Oracle tunnel on passes from courtside security guard Curtis Jones; and those were the shots that Curry recounted with the most animation. As if it was another part of the game. His game. "I didn't do it every single game until last year; but it won't stop now," Curry said, noting that he has made about 20 of them in 36 home games so far this season. For anybody else, the tunnel shot would be just a crowd-pleasing trick; in fact, former Warrior Monta Ellis used to finish many of his sessions in the same way. But for Curry, there is a point to the flashy way he ends his pregame work, because there is a point to every millisecond of what he does and every shot he fires up there. If he can imagine it, he can make it. Not counting the tunnel tries, Curry put up 182 shots in the session I watched -- made 120 -- and within the structure of his work, you saw the essence of Curry's offensive game. ... Curry does almost the exact same routine before every game, for just over 15 minutes every time, and aims to make 31 3-pointers and about 80 2-pointers of various types, at different spots, using either hand for the close-in shots.
  • Bob Finnan of The News-Herald: The Cavaliers have two players shooting better than 40 percent from behind the arc. Hint: They are the only two Australian-born point guards on the roster. All-Star Kyrie Irving is the top 3-point shooter on one of the league’s most prolific long-range shooting teams. He’s shooting a team-high 40.9 percent from behind the arc (141 of 345). That’s almost to be expected from the 2013 3-point contest winner. Next on the list is Irving’s backup, Matthew Dellavedova, who is shooting 40.1 percent from the 3-point line (57 of 142). That isn’t expected, especially listening to all the noise on social media. Dellavedova, 24, is one of the most polarizing figures on the team. Many critics say the backup point guard spot is one of the few weaknesses on a team gunning for its first NBA championship.The Cavaliers’ front office kicked the tires on a few deals at the trade deadline. That reportedly included future Hall of Fame point guard Steve Nash. They had hoped that he would work out a buyout with the Lakers, but he wanted to retire with the storied franchise. So, like him or not, Dellavedova is the backup point guard heading into the playoffs. To be clear, Cavaliers coach David Blatt doesn’t just like him. He loves him as a player.
  • Vincent Goodwill of CSN Chicago: The signs this time are undeniable, and aside from the disaster in Detroit last weekend, the Bulls have put together four dominant performances in their last four wins. Holding Raptors to 21 in the fourth on a nationally televised stage, winning going away on the road can’t be diluted by the fact the Raptors are imploding before everyone’s eyes (that 1.5-game difference between the two for the third seed is looking wider by the hour) and had the Hornets scoring decrease in every quarter (26-23-20-17) in Monday’s win. Taking advantage of a mentally wounded opponent is what playoff basketball is all about, and doing so in the Eastern Conference, where every team past the Washington Wizards will be happy just to have the “playoffs” decal on its home floor, the thought of competition-fueled lethargy cannot be used as an excuse. With the exception of the Cavaliers and Atlanta Hawks, every remaining opponent is below .500, a firm chance to nail down the third seed in the East is likely and if Rose comes back ready to jump right in — no small feat — this Bulls team won’t fear anyone standing in its way. That’s if they’ve cleared this past hurdle. If.
  • Brendan Savage of MLive.com: Anyone who has watched Reggie Jackson closely when he's been on the bench this season might have noticed something a little unusual about his attire. In addition to the standard NBA uniform, Jackson also dons a pair of gloves when he's not in the game. Gloves? Yup, it seems the fourth-year point guard has a problem keeping his hands warm while not in the game so he began wearing the gloves while playing for the Thunder. "I found out in OKC I had a problem with my hands getting extremely cold," said Jackson, 24. "Once I started running, I started losing feeling in my extremities and the Oklahoma City training staff, and especially (head trainer) Joe Sharpe, found a way to get me hand warmers and keep my hands warm so I can keep feeling the ball. I'd get out of the game and my hands would get to the point where they were literally freezing. They're basically winter gloves but from a hunting store. They got hand warmers in them. You push a button on them and they keep my hands nice and warm and keep me ready for the game."
  • Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News: During the course of his 18-plus seasons with the Spurs, Tim Duncan has made only 30 of 166 3-point shots, most of them desperation heaves as the shot clock or game clock neared expiration. Duncan’s perfect 3-point jumper from the left corner with 6:33 minutes left in the third quarter of the Spurs’ 130-91 dismantling of the Oklahoma City Thunder at the AT&T Center had the look of a designed play. Duncan wasn’t sure how he ended up in the corner where Danny Green typically spots up for long-distance attempts. But he knew what to do once he got there and took a pass from Tony Parker. “I don’t know,” said the Spurs captain. “Tony just drove at me. I just spaced the floor. My (defender) left and I shot it. Simple and easy.”
  • Bob Cooney of the Philadelphia Daily News: His words were almost as bold as his center's play of late. Following Wednesday's 99-85 win at Denver, 76ers coach Brett Brown emphatically stated: "People have to really start talking about him for rookie of the year. You don't just repetitively bang out these types of performances and produce the numbers that he is producing. He is a complete game changer. He is a complete defensive presence when he's lurking to block shots. He just continues to improve at this time of year. He keeps moving up the food chain and heading in the direction that we're all so thrilled about." Nerlens Noel's progression certainly wasn't projected by anyone to be this quick. He has become a defensive monster in the lane. It isn't just one way in which he is doing it. And that may be what is most impressive. ... He has played 68 of the team's 72 games. He has battled through nicks and bruises throughout. He has gotten in better shape, become so much tougher around the rim with his shot-blocking and rebounding and has become more confident around the rim at the offensive end. Rookie of the year? Perhaps. His averages of 9.6 points, eight rebounds, two blocks and 1.8 steals put him in the mix with Andrew Wiggins, Elfrid Payton and Nikola Mirotic. He is the only player in the NBA in the top 10 in steals and blocks, and since the All-Star break he leads the league in rejects and is second in steals. Rookie of the year? Ask his coach.
  • Marc Berman of the New York Post: The triangle offense has been a disaster in the D-League too. The Westchester Knicks’ inaugural season is coming to a close with five games left, ending April 4 and Phil Jackson’s D-League affiliate owns the second-worst record of the 18 teams at 10-35. At least Westchester’s .222 winning percentage is better than Derek Fisher’s big club — which is 14-58 with a .194 percent entering Friday’s Garden match against the Celtics. The organization was thrilled to have a D-League team in its backyard to develop players while running Jackson’s triangle, which has come under fire this season as being antiquated. First-year coach Kevin Whitted, according to an NBA source, hasn’t been on the same page as assistant Craig Hodges. Whitted was an Allan Houston hire as they were former Tennessee teammates. Houston is Westchester’s general manager.
  • Joe Freeman of The Oregonian: The story behind why Nicolas Batum wears No. 88 is as unusual as the number itself. He originally tried to get No. 5, the number his mother selected for him the first time he played basketball in Normandy, France. But Rudy Fernandez had that number. So Batum asked for No. 8. That belonged to Martell Webster, he was told. Six times Batum requested a number. Six times he was denied because a current Blazers player already wore the number or it was retired. Finally, on his seventh request, Batum asked for No. 88 — a number so unique it couldn’t be denied. He settled on 88 because he was born in 1988. “It’s my birthday,” he said. “I’m going to stay 88 as long as I’m with the Trail Blazers.”

Ranking NBA coaches

March, 26, 2015
Mar 26
3:48
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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The NBA's top head-coaching prospects

March, 26, 2015
Mar 26
12:41
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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Sean miller, Tyronn LueUSA Today SportsArizona's Sean Miller and the Cavs' Tyronn Lue may be coming to an NBA head-coaching job near you.

The coaching carousel slowed down in 2014-15 after a flurry of turnover the previous couple of seasons. While we could conceivably see a couple of firings ahead this summer, most NBA teams and head coaches seem to have happy marriages, as only Sacramento, Orlando and Denver have made in-season changes.

Does this relative calm suggest that NBA teams are getting better at the practice of hiring head coaches?

Like most marriages, it's impossible to know at the altar or under the chuppah what the relationship will look like 15 years down the road. But there's a healthy consensus around the league that the vacancies filled during the Great Purges of 2013 and 2014 were done so thoughtfully.

David Blatt, Mike Budenholzer, Steve Clifford, Jeff Hornacek, Dave Joerger, Steve Kerr, Jason Kidd, Quin Snyder and Brad Stevens -- none has completed two full seasons of service, yet all can claim success relative to expectation. Even Mike Malone, one of the three in-season dismissals, has plenty of sympathizers who feel he got a raw deal in Sacramento.

Numerous conversations with execs, current and former coaches, players and scouts revealed some common ideas about how the league is identifying and hiring coaching talent:

You're a manager first: It's not that whiteboard wizardry is out of fashion, but "can get the buy-in" is the new "defensive mastermind." Tactical prowess means zilch if a coach lacks the power of persuasion to get his team to run all that pretty stuff. To do that, a coach has to manage the sensitivities of his players, all of whom require different messages. He has to handle a large staff, sell ideas to the guys upstairs and schmooze the media (but resist taking credit, lest he tick off players, management and ownership). Owners and general managers hiring a coach appreciate more than ever not only the enormousness of the job, but the nuanced roles that go with it.

The new blood: A couple of general managers noted that the success stories from the classes of 2013 and 2014 are largely first-time NBA head coaches. More notably, the retreads are having a tough go of it. The game is evolving quickly, and those who see a head-coaching gig in the NBA as continuing education are reaping the benefits, and those who feel as though they have all the answers are finding themselves at a loss when they learn the questions have changed.

There's no hard-and-fast formula: The league is learning that there's no one single way to arrive at the first chair on an NBA sideline. Start from the top of the leaguewide standings and you'll find teams coached by: a former player who had stints as both a general manager and a color analyst, a career assistant to the game's top coaching luminary, a standout D-League and CBA champion coach, a Hall of Fame power forward and veteran point guard, neither of whom served a single game as an assistant coach, as well as a legend of European coaching. Accordingly, few front offices have a predetermined type anymore. It's the human, not the resume.

The dual role: Find a grouchy NBA head coach and there's a good chance his primary grievance is that he hasn't been furnished with a roster that can execute what he wants to run. He's also peeved because he hasn't been consulted sufficiently on the selection of those players. In response, a number of prestige head coaches are angling for final authority on all basketball operations matters. Doc Rivers, Stan Van Gundy and Flip Saunders have joined Gregg Popovich as principals who preside over both the sideline and front office. With Danny Ferry in exile, Budenholzer is currently the Hawks' senior basketball ops manager. George Karl and Kidd have a very strong say with ownership in Sacramento and Milwaukee, respectively. But there's good reason why this model rarely succeeds. NBA head coach and NBA general manager are jobs far too demanding to combine unless there's the utmost trust in those empowered with the day-to-day responsibilities (see San Antonio).

In the spring of 2013 and 2014, we canvassed insiders for the names of coaches who, given the opportunity to lead an NBA team, have the tools to succeed. Those on the previous two lists who subsequently have been hired include Blatt, Joerger, Kerr and Snyder.

An individual on the list can't have previously had an NBA head-coaching gig. We also bypass those who have been on the list previously, though it's worth noting Fred Hoiberg, Dave Fizdale, Jim Boylen and Adrian Griffin each popped up more than once this time.

Here are six coaches whose combination of intelligence, work ethic, experience, people skills and temperament make them interesting candidates for an NBA head-coaching position either sooner or later:

Kenny Atkinson, Atlanta Hawks assistant coach

The arrival of a new head coach often signals the exodus of the previous staff. But when Budenholzer was brought on in Atlanta in 2013, Ferry strongly recommended retaining Atkinson, his first hire. Budenholzer didn't need much persuading. Player development was Atkinson's strength and it was a priority in Atlanta. And feedback among the Hawks players was so overwhelmingly positive bringing Atkinson back was a no-brainer.

After four seasons under Mike D'Antoni in New York, Atkinson has flourished in Atlanta as far more than a player-development guy. He's earned a reputation as an affable teacher who is both cerebral and a high-level communicator. He thoroughly enjoys getting on the floor with a player and sees that individual development work as a collaboration between player and coach.

"He believes you can improve as a player, even at the highest level, and that there's always something you can add to your game," Hawks big man Al Horford says. "He's been here for three years with me, and he's challenged me. For instance, before he got here, I was pretty much a shooter on the pick-and-pop. I was never really driving. Kenny has challenged me to put the ball on the floor. It's something we've worked on together, and now it's something I feel comfortable doing."

After a nice college career as a point guard at Richmond, Atkinson had a long career in Europe, where he stayed to coach before heading to New York. He's worldly, with a curiosity for forward-thinking ideas, everything from injury prevention to analytics. He's someone who would look for new solutions as a head coach rather than insist he has every answer and rely on tired conventional wisdom.

Philadelphia general manager Sam Hinkie gave Atkinson a look in 2013, and there's a strong belief around the league that he's earned another series of interviews as one of the top assistant coaches currently on the market.

Tyronn Lue, Cleveland Cavaliers assistant coach

After three seasons under Rivers in Boston and Los Angeles, Lue has quickly established himself as a whole-package coaching prospect. He was pursued vigorously by the Cavs in their head-coaching search last spring, and ultimately finished as a strong runner-up to Blatt, making such a strong impression during the process that Cleveland offered him a deal in excess of $6 million to join them as associate head coach. Who better to complement an Ivy League-educated, often stubborn, first-time 55-year-old head coach who'd spent his career in Europe than a former NBA vet with a passionate knowledge of the NBA game and its rhythms to whom players flock?

"He respects the work that's required to do the job and he has the gift of being able to verbalize things to players in a straightforward way without being offensive," Rivers says. "He sees things in games a lot of people can't see. He'd see opportunities for us -- in games, watching film, observing -- and would bring them to me. He has a chance to be very special."

When Rivers took over in Los Angeles in July 2013, he quickly dispatched for Lue, who spent the entire summer breaking down the league, and meticulously studying the Clippers' core. His observations were instrumental in building the architecture for a defense that finished the season ranked seventh in efficiency.

Clippers players loved Lue, and he's earned the trust of a Cavs roster with several combustible parts. By all accounts, he has been crucial in maintaining relative order and harmony in the locker room. Lue is on a four-year deal, but it's difficult to imagine he'll still be the associate head coach in Cleveland three seasons from now.

Jay Larranaga, Boston Celtics assistant coach

The basketball world is a far more interconnected place than it was 15 years ago. In that time, international basketball has made a strong imprint in the NBA game and the D-League has grown into a laboratory for ideas. As they survey the landscape for potential NBA head coaches, an increasing number of franchises value diversity of experience in a candidate. For those who do, Larranaga is a natural.

Mention of Larranaga's name was met with praise around the league as a hard-working pro who is universally liked and respected. Though Larranaga is the son of longtime college coach Jim Larranaga, he clawed his way up through the ranks without any free passes. He played pro ball in Europe for over a decade, enjoyed a solid run in the D-League as a head coach for two seasons before landing on Rivers' bench in Boston, where he remains under Stevens.

"Coaching is in his blood and he's been around the game his whole life," Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge says. "He's a class act, an intelligent, experienced basketball mind."

In a player's league with know-it-all owners, miked-up coaches and constant media scrutiny, temperament has never been more important. Larranaga scores well in this event, a coach who understands how to relate to a varied roster of players, can motivate a staff and whose likability will endear him to ownership and the media. In 2013, he got a close look from Philadelphia and consideration to succeed Rivers in Boston. He'll continue to appear on lists for vacancies as he hones his identity as a coach.

Sean Miller, University of Arizona head coach

College basketball is safe for fishing again. With the Celtics' hire of Brad Stevens in 2013, the league now has a blueprint for how to successfully transition an NCAA head coach into the NBA: Identify a thoughtful coach who understands that basketball is about the players and has an agile basketball philosophy. Then offer him security and guide him with patience as he builds a culture.

Hoiberg, whom we featured on the 2013 list, is widely regarded as the next college coach who will make the jump, once he finds the right gig. Over the past couple of years, Miller has emerged as a name execs and scouts view as strong NBA head coach material should he get restless in Tucson.

The son of a legendary high school basketball coach, Miller grew up absorbing the game like a sponge. He was a sick ball handler who, as a kid, showed off his skills in "The Fish Who Saved Pittsburgh," and on "The Tonight Show." Stan Van Gundy has said that Miller and Erik Spoelstra are the only two people he instantly knew were born head coaches. As an assistant at Wisconsin, Van Gundy got to know Miller, who was a Badgers graduate assistant.

"He has always understood the game inside and out," Van Gundy told me last year. "What really got me was how he connected with players. It's natural for players to be skeptical of a 23-year-old guy. But right from the beginning, he's working out high-level players -- Michael Finley, Tracy Webster. He knew what he was talking about, knew how to teach, and they connected to him and respected him. It was amazing to see."

Miller is a charismatic but still mild-mannered personality, a good fit for a team that sees the head-coaching position as an organizational pulpit. But he's also not a guy who carries himself as bigger than the job. In short, Miller is a celebrity coach, which will please an owner. But he's not a prima donna, which will please players ... and the exec making the hire. At the moment, there's no indication that Miller has immediate interest in leaving Arizona. Should that change, he'd have suitors in the NBA.

Nate Bjorkgren, Bakersfield Jam head coach

There's a school of thought among some in the NBA that the most valuable attribute a candidate can have is head-coaching experience somewhere -- be it college, the D-League or overseas. Working as a top assistant under an elite head coach offers all kinds of training, but a head coach is the chief operating officer above all else, and there's no substitute for spending time in the first chair, where the buck stops. For years, basketball's minor leagues served as a testing ground for potential NBA head coaches. Phil Jackson and George Karl both wet their feet in the Continental Basketball Association, and Joerger has proved that minor league basketball is still a quality finishing school.

Bjorkgren has compiled a robust D-League resume with sustained success wherever he's landed. He is known as an intensely self-critical coach who viscerally hates losing. His supporters describe someone who has markedly matured over the past four seasons, and he's learned when to push buttons and when to lay off, both with players and staff.

"He's won everywhere he's been," says Warriors assistant GM Kirk Lacob, who was instrumental in hiring Bjorkgren at Dakota when it was Golden State's affiliate. "He does a great job with players. He connects with them on a personal level, and also he cares about their personal careers."

Regarded less as an innovator-philosopher and more as pragmatic problem-solver, Bjorkgren is a likely candidate to soon find his way to an NBA bench as an assistant -- not unlike Nick Nurse, under whom he served as an assistant -- then possibly an opportunity to roam the sidelines down the road.

Ime Udoka, San Antonio Spurs assistant coach

The former journeyman has fewer than three seasons as an NBA assistant under Popovich, but already has a number of fans around the league who have a ton of admiration for his basketball smarts, manner and personal journey.

Udoka was a fourth-round pick in the NBDL draft, and toiled in obscurity until he got an invite from his hometown Portland Trail Blazers, who were in search of a warm body, and he ended up starting 75 games. Naturally, the Spurs came calling, and he was adopted as family, spending three of the final five seasons of his playing career in San Antonio.

"He exudes a confidence and a comfort in his own skin where people just gravitate to him," Popovich says. "He's a fundamentally sound teacher because he's comfortable with himself, he knows the material and players read it. Often times, I'll say, 'Ime, can you go talk to so-and-so? Go talk to Patty Mills, go talk to Timmy, go talk to Kawhi.' And he'll do it better than I would do it -- and I'm not blowing smoke. The only thing I don't like about him is that he doesn't drink, so I can't enjoy a glass of wine with him. He's really boring at dinner."

Players and coaches who know him describe Udoka as a stoic with an even disposition, more of an inner intensity than a roaring fire. At Spurs U, he's at the finest graduate school in the league, alongside another oft-mentioned name, Boylen, who was listed in 2014 as a future head coach. Udoka probably has a couple more years of seasoning ahead of him, but it's not long before he hits the interview circuit.

First Cup: Thursday

March, 26, 2015
Mar 26
5:05
AM ET
By Nick Borges
ESPN.com
Archive
  • Chris Vivlamore of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Take a deep breath. A season-long three-game losing streak came to an end – but not without a fourth-quarter rally. The Hawks used a 22-2 run in the final period to score a 95-83 victory over the Magic Wednesday night at Amway Center. The Hawks held the Magic to 12 fourth-quarter and 31 second-half points for the needed victory. “It was simple,” Paul Millsap said of the final quarter. “We got back to being us - getting stops.” The Hawks (54-17, 24-12 road) are three wins away from tying the franchise record for victories in a season. They also reduced their magic number to clinch the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference to two with 11 games remaining in the regular season.
  • Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News: Figuratively, at least, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich laid out the road map ahead before tipoff Wednesday. What happens with the rest of the Spurs’ season, he said, will come down to a simple matter of geography. “They have to decide whether they want to be the team they were in New York,” Popovich said, “or the team they were in Atlanta.” In Wednesday’s 130-91 destruction of the snakebit Oklahoma City Thunder at the AT&T Center, the Spurs proved this much: They’ve still got Georgia on their mind. In a performance that reminded more of the their eye-opening, 19-point road win over the Eastern Conference-leading Hawks on Sunday — as opposed to the egg they laid against the hapless Knicks earlier this month — the Spurs sent the Thunder to a 21-point halftime deficit and never let them up for air.
  • Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon-Journal: Of all the storylines the last few days, the most peculiar was how big of a deal people made of the now-famous “Clique up!!” picture James posted to his Instagram account in recent days. So we Cavs beat writers had a little fun with that one tonight (above). It was Chris Haynes’ idea and I was apprehensive to do it,but it was all in good fun. 13. The original, however, drew plenty of eye rolls around the team when people made a big deal about it. As for Love’s absence in the photo, he is routinely one of the last people out of the locker room. He is usually still in his jersey soaking his feet in an ice bucket while all of the others are showered and dressing. The picture was taken on the road, but following home games he also has an elaborate postgame routine that typically leaves him as the last player to leave the locker room. So it’s not really a surprise he wasn’t in the picture. But as one player pointed out, neither were James Jones and Mike Miller – two of James’ closest friends on the team. 14. With all of that as the preamble, I do think there are minor personality issues between Love and James. I wrote about it at length a few months ago and I won’t rehash it now. But Kobe and Shaq couldn’t stand each other and won three titles together. If the Big Three continue to play this way – all three scoring 20-plus points, Love and LeBron combining for 18 rebounds – they’ll work it out.
  • Barry Jackson of The Miami Herald: As for Dwyane Wade, he said he isn’t sure if he will be able to play Friday in Atlanta, the final game of a four-game road trip. “I won’t know [until later in the week],” he said. Though Wade has now missed 19 of the Heat’s 71 games this season, this marked only the second game that Wade sat out with a knee injury, with both coming against Boston. Wade has missed 16 games with hamstring issues and one with a hip injury. Wade said he believes the injury happened during the second half of Tuesday’s game. “I took a fall and bumped it on the ground,” he said. “It’s a bruise. It swelled up pretty well on the flight and [Wednesday] morning. I went up for a shot and undercut it and came down bad.” Wade said he and trainers and coaches “don’t think it’s smart for me to play on it. … I felt it as the game [went on]. I’ll get a lot of treatment.”
  • Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle: Dwight Howard was back on the court Wednesday, playing for the first time since Jan. 23 and the decision days later to shelve him, rehabilitate his knee, and bring him back in time for a late-season push to the playoffs. To the Rockets, the night marked the next step in his rehab rather than its end. But to Howard, those 16˝ minutes were joyous, evidence that all those weeks of pushing himself through those grueling workouts would be rewarded. “My whole point was to do whatever I can to help this team win and play as hard as I can for as long as I can,” Howard said. “It just felt good being back out on the floor.” During the game, however, his body language screamed much more. Howard – who had four points and seven rebounds in the Rockets’ 95-93 win over the Pelicans – looked so spry before the game that he was practically jumping out of his skin. He came out for warmups early. Before tip, he was bouncing around the court, banging into Josh Smith, throwing down dunks. During the national anthem, he rocked back and forth like a fighter in the ring.
  • K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune: Michael Jordan never experienced it. Neither did Scottie Pippen. Not even Phil Jackson accomplished the feat. With their 116-103 victory over the Raptors Wednesday night at Air Canada Centre, the Bulls guaranteed their fifth straight winning road record for the first time in franchise history. Overall, the Bulls improved to 113-79 away from the United Center under Tom Thibodeau. That's a .589 road winning percentage. And that, plus the eventual addition of Derrick Rose, who said earlier in the day he would be cleared for contact "sometime this week or next," is the kind of stuff that gives the Bulls confidence moving forward. That confidence is there regardless of their playoff seed, whether or not they have home-court advantage. This is why, after using a 39-21 fourth quarter to sweep the season series from the Raptors and take a 1-1/2-game lead in the race for the third seed, the Bulls aren't hung up on when or if they face the Cavaliers.
  • Candace Buckner of The Indianapolis Star: Back when the Indiana Pacers glided to their season-best winning streak, they faced several rivals who were missing their star players. The list of absent or injured standouts could have made an All-Star team, but the Pacers took advantage and recorded seven straight wins. By Wednesday night, with the Pacers mired in a streak moving rapidly in the wrong direction, Washington Wizards point guard John Wall served as a reminder to the strength of star power. However, the Pacers, unfazed by the wattage of Wall's stardom, showed team balance as well as their own version of Capitol Hill. Indiana defeated Washington 103-101 after George Hill, in high pick-and-roll action with David West, zipped to the rim for the game-winning finger roll with only two seconds remaining.
  • Jabari Young of CSNNW.com: Lillard got the praise, recording his fifth straight double-double this season (23 points, 12 assists), while Aldridge, who returned from a one-game absence (left index finger), shook off his early rust to finish with 19 points and nine rebounds. Thing is, Dorell Wright started it all when he provided that vocal leadership, and then backed it up with his play when the Blazers needed it most. ... This wasn’t the first time Wright came through when needed. Flashback to that triple-overtime game against San Antonio, when he hit some key shots down the stretch to help the Blazers get a victory. Against the Jazz, though, it was different. All the talk had been how the Blazers were not the same team without Wesley Matthews. But his passion, the ability to hit a key 3-pointer, play solid defense, and be that guy who says what needs to be said when it’s needed is gone. There is no hiding the Blazers miss what Matthews provided, but for at least one night, Wright took his place.
  • Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times: The fun was just getting started for the Clippers when they walked off the court with their most lopsided victory at Madison Square Garden in franchise history. A Clippers official announced that Coach Doc Rivers had developed a stomach illness, leaving assistant Mike Woodson to address the media Wednesday night after the team's 111-80 victory over the New York Knicks. Those would be the same Knicks who fired Woodson in April, a season after he guided them to their first playoff series victory in 13 seasons. So, when did Rivers tell Woodson that he was going to be sick? "No comment," Woodson said with a sly smile. The Clippers could afford to be a touch mischievous after easily topping their previous biggest victory at the Garden, a 17-point triumph in March 1996.
  • Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times: There will be a lot of movement this summer for the Lakers, who have only four players with fully guaranteed contracts next season — Kobe Bryant, Nick Young, Julius Randle and Ryan Kelly. They are also expected to bring back Jordan Clarkson, Tarik Black and perhaps Robert Sacre, all of whom have non-guaranteed deals, but might lose Ed Davis, who will almost surely decline a minimal player option to return. Wesley Johnson likes Los Angeles, enjoys living in Redondo Beach. He has considered returning to the Lakers despite their reluctance in the past to offer anything more than a one-year deal. "I actually have," he said. "It's one of those things where you definitely don't want to jump ship when something's going bad. I actually want to be a part of it to see if we can get back on the right foot. We'll see what happens this off-season, see what direction they're going."
  • Tim Bontemps of the New York Post: The Nets picked up a key win, but also may have lost a key player. Because of a huge performance from Brook Lopez, who finished with 34 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks, the Nets emerged with a desperately needed 91-88 win over the Hornets Wednesday night inside Time Warner Cable Arena. The victory moved them back to within a half-game of eighth place as the death march for the final three playoff spots in the Eastern Conference continues. The win allowed the Nets (30-40) to remain 1 '/‚ games out behind in the race for the final playoff spot while also ensuring they clinched the tiebreaker over the Hornets because of a 2-1 edge in the season series.
  • Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee: The Kings are on their second extended trip under George Karl, beginning a four-game trek Wednesday night against the Phoenix Suns at US Airways Center. Karl, however, hasn’t gotten over Sacramento’s eight-game trip earlier this month. “I’m still depressed over the last trip because if we make a layup in Miami and we beat Orlando, it’s a pretty good trip,” Karl said. “Instead, we go 2-6 and we come home and get beat by two contenders (Atlanta and the Los Angeles Clippers).” Karl took some blame for the last trip. Karl said more than once the Kings looked tired, especially at the end of the trip, when they blew big leads in the second half and lost to Philadelphia and Washington. ... After 19 games in his system, Karl believes the Kings are better conditioned for the running he demands to play at a fast pace. Karl said he notices fewer lulls in energy from his players.
  • Keith Pompey of The Philadelphia Inquirer: Joel Embiid is checking things off his list, 76ers coach Brett Brown said. "He's ticking boxes in regards to increased time on the court and reduced weight," Brown said of the rookie center. "His weight is going down." The Sixers, who won't disclose Embiid's weight, opted to sideline the 7-foot center this season after he had foot surgery in June. The 21-year-old has been participating in pregame workouts with Brown on the court. Embiid has been displaying a soft shooting touch and athleticism that are rare for a man of his stature. "His needle is clearly pointing in the right direction," Brown said. "And you heard me say this a lot lately, he's setting the stage for a great summer. He sees his reward will be summer league, trying to get ready to actually play again."

The trouble with Doc's orders

March, 25, 2015
Mar 25
1:22
PM ET
Han By Andrew Han
ESPN.com
Archive

RiversKelley L Cox/USA TODAY SportsThe Clippers can still contend, but Doc the GM hasn't made things easier this season on Doc the coach.

Doc Rivers doesn't have to build a contender -- Rivers himself was supposed to be the missing piece -- he just has to maintain it. That's the privilege allowed by a roster featuring two top-10 players near the peak of their powers. That's the luxury of carrying at least the fourth-most efficient lineup by net rating each of the past two seasons.

So when Rivers, now in his second season as team president, consistently reaffirms "I like our team" because they're capable of playing at a higher level than last season, he's right; the core has a season under its belt, and the starters plus a sprinkling of Jamal Crawford have scorched defenses.

But when Rivers says they've played worse than they have last season, he's also right. The struggles of the bench have been the haunting issue for the Clippers all season. All of their offseason value acquisitions have underachieved (a strategy not dissimilar to the previous offseason, when the essential difference was Darren Collison wildly overachieving), and the objectives set out for Los Angeles reserves seem to be more about maintaining a pleasant work environment than production off the bench.

Managing expectations has been the story for this front office since the demise of the Sterling regime. The practice facility was top-notch and top players were well-compensated, but basketball operations were left to languish; there was no analytics department previously, no dedicated salary-cap manager. Much of the staff is new and still figuring out how they fit together, even more so with the installation of Rivers’ proxies in Kevin Eastman and Dave Wohl to share the day-to-day general manager duties with Gary Sacks (the lone survivor of Shelly Sterling’s sale stipulations after son-in-law Eric Miller left before the season began). That’s how gaffes like unknowingly hard-capping themselves occurs; the head of the office is focused on playbook strategy and scouting, not salary accounting and regression analysis. As a result, it's been a season of half-measures, backtracking and indecision.

Take, for example, the arrivals for two recent roster additions: Austin Rivers and Jordan Hamilton. In the case of Austin Rivers, the number of mistakes that needed to be hastily corrected to acquire him is startling: It required the admission that Jordan Farmar and Chris Douglas-Roberts were incompatible for this team, that using the bi-annual exception on Farmar -- which contributed to the Clippers’ hard cap and thus the trading away of Jared Dudley and a first-round pick -- was a mistake. That's a lot of errors to own up to in quick succession.

Taking a low-risk flyer on a struggling lottery pick who was once the top high school prospect in the nation is a reasonable proposition. Even if said prospect is the son of the coach and carries perception issues of nepotism. The Clippers are a team sorely in need of players that can be developed.

But pair that with the decision to move another asset in Reggie Bullock and a second-round pick to the Phoenix Suns -- primarily because Doc & Co. were acquainted with GM Ryan McDonough from their Boston days -- well, now at the very least it becomes a justifiable decision executed poorly.

The eternal optimist will consider the acquisitions of Austin Rivers and former first-round pick Jordan Hamilton as a glimmer of hope, though. At least these weren’t aged journeymen staving off retirement, overseas duty in China or both.

The front office flirted with three recent draftees who were at least well-regarded prep prospects if not collegiately (Quincy Miller and Darius Miller being the other two), eventually settling on Hamilton, and that method of thinking runs directly counter to the social-media punchline of Rivers preferring veterans that peaked in 2009. And even then, after announcing intentions to sign Darius Miller to a 10-day contract, the Clippers reversed course and brought good locker-room presence Dahntay Jones. Why? After deciding to try Miller out, they discovered he was not at a satisfactory fitness level, a factoid that would seem like a part of basic due diligence.

It’s a common tactic of the “smart” teams: cycle through young, underachieving prospects. Is it the player? Was it the fit? Is it something their particular organization could address? Danny Green, the former second-round pick who fell out of the league -- that the Spurs waived multiple times -- before catching on and becoming an elite 3-and-D guard, is the most famous recent example.

Players like Green are much more the exception than the rule, though. And if the draft is like playing the lottery, then plucking a player who has slipped through the cracks is like hoping someone couldn’t be bothered to cash a winning ticket: profit can be discovered, but not without a lot of effort.

Which leaves Doc speaking out of both sides of his mouth. He likes his team, but he’s rummaging through castoffs in search of a contributor. His starters play with the urgency of a title window closing at any moment, but he casts the bench with players just happy to be around. And the Clippers keep winning. They’re still third in Hollinger’s Power Ranking, still second in Pythagorean Winning Percentage.

Being innovative is hard. And who needs to do things the hard way when you’re as talent-rich as the Clippers?

Andrew Han is an editor at ESPN.com. Follow him @andrewthehan.

Nothing the same for once-surging Raptors

March, 25, 2015
Mar 25
12:30
PM ET
By Seerat Sohi
Special to ESPN.com
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Drake/RaptorsRichard Lautens/Toronto Star/Getty ImagesAfter a fast start to 2014-15, the Raptors face an identity crisis heading back into the postseason.

On Dec. 31, the Toronto Raptors ruled the Eastern Conference. On the heels of a magical season, with the corporate and cultural tenacity of #WeTheNorth at its peak, Kyle Lowry’s bullheaded heroics and a smoking-hot bench propelled Toronto to a reason-defying 24-8 record. The believers were vindicated, DeMar DeRozan’s return from injury was on the horizon and the East was there for the taking.

And yet, the Raptors have fallen almost as quickly as they ascended. To watch Toronto since the start of 2015 is to witness hope’s ugly side: bloodless regression.

They’ve gone 18-21 since the new year, dropping to fourth in the East, in danger of losing home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, while the Cleveland Cavaliers and Atlanta Hawks have turned into juggernauts. Lowry, who carried the team in DeRozan’s absence, has spent 2015 worn down and injured while DeRozan, mired by timidity after returning from a groin injury, is only now starting to pick up the head of steam that earned him countless trips to the free-throw line and a spot at the 2014 All-Star Game.

[+] EnlargeKyle Lowry
AP Photo/The Canadian Press/Frank GunnTeam bulldog Kyle Lowry, a first-time All-Star, has been hampered by injuries and other issues.

And all of this is overcast by the big defensive elephant in the room. The ball-pressure and double-teaming defense, an undercurrent to their success after the Rudy Gay trade, has completely vanished this season. Since Jan. 1, only five teams have performed worse defensively.

Post-whiplash, a fan base already heavy on emotional extremism -- remember the frenzy at the Air Canada Centre during last year’s playoffs? -- is reacting to something as overlooked as defense with a familiar refrain: panic.

Overhaul the defense. Overhaul everything. Fire the coach. Fire Drake.

But wholesale change in mid-March isn’t only impossible, it’s in nobody’s interest. The execution gap between these and last year’s Raptors is tremendous but the roster is fundamentally the same. Accepting that the problem lies in the nuts and bolts, not the machinery, is vital to understanding the collapse. What’s missing here is what, on both ends, was the catalyst to the 2013-14 Raptors’ success: trust.

With Gay gone, DeRozan and Lowry became the Raptors’ identity. DeRozan’s ability to shed the empty-calorie attempts from his shooting diet, force his way to free throws and hone his drive-and-kick game was vital to the team’s attitude shift. Patrick Patterson and Amir Johnson set hard screens from the short corner and rolled knowing that Lowry and DeRozan wouldn’t waste them on long 2s unless they had to.

The plan heading into the season was to build on that continuity and leverage incremental improvement. But at some point during the early hot streak, the gears shifted and realigned, like a button in the wrong hole of a shirt. Lowry’s early-season tear justified some individualistic decision-making off screens, but that, along with DeRozan forcing things post-injury and Lou Williams’ score-first mentality, led to a backward shift in the identity they created last season. Once better than the sum of their parts, the Raptors became disjointed.

On defense, Lowry hasn't resembled the bulldog from years past. Same goes for DeRozan, who made important strides on that end last season. That, combined with Johnson’s wobbly left ankle hindering his mobility in the early going, has made every other deficiency more glaring.

The Raptors let the results overshadow their goals, and solvable problems turned into entrenched habits. Necessity may be the mother of invention -- the Raptors learned as much in the aftermath of the Gay trade. But progress is never promised.

Friday’s loss to the depleted Chicago Bulls proved a sobering backdrop for overdue self-evaluation. Even with Lowry missing in action, the team finally had to backtrack from its stance that they could, in Johnson’s words to the Toronto Star, “hit the gas” and “pull a San Antonio.”

Anyone who saw the thrashing could understand why. Over and over again, the Raptors tried desperately to muster a big moment and came up empty. DeRozan scored a lean 27 points but couldn’t stop Tony Snell from getting into the paint. Patterson snarled and flexed after made triples, trying to siphon fresh blood from a corpse.

“We didn’t win a championship last year,” said DeRozan after the loss. “We haven’t done nothing to feel that way, think that way. We need to grow every single day and get better, and understand how to win games game in and game out, and not wait for a big situation.”

With 11 games left until the playoffs, the Raptors should be fine-tuning their attack. Instead, they’re trying to rediscover it, grappling with the question of whether a formula predicated on belief can be reclaimed once it is lost.

The soft schedule ahead has built-in advantages; it’s easier to find and stay true to principles when things are easy. But if Toronto finds its groove, it’ll go untested until the playoffs, where the stakes are high and the room for mistakes is thin.

At best, the Raptors can enter the postseason with blind faith, not the level of trust they built last season, and hope things go their way from there. That’s the hole they’ve dug themselves into, their punishment for staying in the dirt for so long. It’s time to see if they can find their way out.

Seerat Sohi is a writer from Edmonton, Canada. Follow her @DamianTrillard.

Westbrook vs. Curry: Part 2

March, 25, 2015
Mar 25
12:21
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Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
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