Rocky Widner/Getty ImagesWith Andrew Bogut sidelined, the Warriors will need to alter their approach in the playoffs.
Warriors fans will grouse about what could have been against the Spurs last season in the Western Conference finals, but in reality, Golden State had no shot of winning that series. It wasn’t just because the Spurs were great, which they were and continue to be. It was because Andrew Bogut and Stephen Curry were spent.
After the series was finished, both gingerly limped to their exit interviews. They had been pushing through searing foot ailments, buying breaks from the pain with injections. The end brought more relief than regret because there was little else to give. The end also brought hope, because imagine what this team could be at full health. Curry and Bogut might have walked like old men sauntering off into the sunset, but their pain-stricken accomplishments promised new beginnings.
Now we’ll never really know what this team could have been, as Bogut will be sidelined indefinitely. His ribs suffered the effects of what may as well have been the chestburster scene from "Alien." We might have an idea based on what transpired this season, but with Bogut out, we won’t see a fully realized Warriors squad in the playoff crucible. That’s a shame.
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This isn’t like the time David Lee got injured in last year's playoffs. Carl Landry was a capable Lee understudy, and the Nuggets couldn’t punish Golden State for going small. The outlook is a lot bleaker this time around, especially if the Warriors face the Clippers.
DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin already had the ability to crush Golden State on the boards before Bogut went down. Now Golden State will be relying on Jermaine O’Neal, a solid backup but also someone who jumps once in the time it takes Blake Griffin to jump twice.
Matchups aside, it’s difficult to replace someone with a fair claim to “best defensive player in the conference.” O’Neal can replace some of that rim protection, but it won’t really be the same. Bogut is a bit of a contradiction because his fragility belies an intimidating presence on the court. He’s a confrontational shot-blocker, often latching an offhand paw on his opponent while spiking the shot back from where it came. His offense might be even scarier, as he sets the kinds of screens that would get him fined by Roger Goodell.
Bogut will do anything to win, personifying team play with his defense, passing and willingness to take on physical contact. But he doesn’t exactly fit the bill of “team guy” in sense of office politics. The Aussie is a bit of a loner in this setting, and he’s blunt with assessments of teammates.
In February, Bogut had a bizarre clash with coach Mark Jackson over whether the center had injured himself sleeping. While Bogut never openly criticized Jackson after the oustings of assistant coaches, his “He’s the coach. He makes the decisions. We’re not silly enough to believe anything else” comments didn’t exactly mirror teammates’ glowing praise of their embattled leader.
Now that embattled leader, someone who evangelizes on the benefits of off-court harmony, is tasked with proving that togetherness can compensate for the loss of a 7-foot mercenary. Jackson has an exceedingly tough job, but there are ways in which Golden State could pull off the improbable.
In yet another playoffs, the Warriors must shrink themselves in pursuit of an upset. Small ball worked against the Mavs in 2007 and against the Nuggets in 2013. The future looks grim in 2014, but at least there’s a general precedent for success. Here’s the blueprint for an upset.
Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe pressure is on David Lee and Stephen Curry to step up in Andrew Bogut's absence.
Lee, the occasional fall guy for GSW shortcomings, gets an increased role doing what he does best: slipping screens and diving to the rim as a small-ball center. This ultimately isn’t a sustainable way to go long term, but such lineups can put up points in the right situations. If Lee is healed coming off this latest back injury, expect him to perform well offensively in the playoffs.
Draymond Green should see more time, especially at the 4 spot. Jackson has already said that he likes the Lee at center, Green at power forward lineup and that he will use it in the playoffs. This look makes for an intriguing playoff experiment, especially if Andre Iguodala plays within it. Green and Iguodala have comprised a vicious defensive one-two punch this season. Can they do it with almost no rim protection in the background? The Lee-Green-Iguodala-Klay Thompson-Curry lineup held opponents to a stingy 89.2 points per 100 possessions over the 105 minutes they shared.
Jermaine O’Neal as Bogut facsimile
It’s the backup’s time to shine. O’Neal is Bogut’s opposite in terms of locker-room demeanor -- hand him a mike and he could be mistaken for Jackson’s agent. Now he has the chance to step up for his coach in a huge way.
The Warriors need O’Neal to be a hero, but to pull it off, he must cool it with the hero ball. O’Neal’s 2001 isolation post-ups are fine when he’s sharing the floor with Marreese Speights and Jordan Crawford. When he’s getting minutes with Curry, he needs to be more of a screener, less of a scorer. O’Neal doesn’t screen as severely as Bogut, preferring to evade contact and dive toward the rim. For the Warriors to score at a series-winning pace, they have to adjust O’Neal’s role.
Defensively, O’Neal is just fine. He’s not quite Bogut with the rim protection, but he’s not far off.
One big to rule them all
I’ve long been a proponent of “Bogut, plus shooters,” but the truth is that Golden State’s one-big lineups seem to thrive no matter who the big guy is -- as long as it isn’t Speights, I should say. It might be tempting for Jackson to use two traditional bigs against lineups of size, but Golden State cannot pull off an upset as a conventional, weaker version of itself. To win, the Warriors need to stretch and prod the opposition’s traditional approach.
Stephen Curry needs to do cool dribbling stuff and hit ridiculous shots
It’s unfortunate we’ll never get to see that battered 2013 playoff team realize its potential in the 2014 playoffs. That hope is dead. In its place, the possibility remains that Golden State can once again shock the world. It’s unlikely, but it’s probably no more unlikely than Bogut finishing a season wire to wire.
Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News: The Nets (44-37) can still clinch the fifth seed with a win in the season finale Wednesday in Cleveland or a Wizards loss in Boston. But during a strangely defiant postgame press conference, coach Jason Kidd said for the first time that it doesn’t matter where the Nets finish. “Fifth, sixth, same thing,” said Kidd, whose team has lost three of its last four. “You know, we’re going to play Toronto or Chicago. You play 82 games to get a seed and we’ll be fifth or sixth.” Kidd said he’s still unsure who would play in Cleveland, but he seemed to go for it against the Knicks — playing Paul Pierce, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson each at least 21 minutes before the bench filled in for an extended garbage time. Regardless, as Kidd noted, their first-round opponent will either be Chicago (48-33) or Toronto (48-33), who are competing for the third seed.
Al Iannazzone of Newsday: Tyson Chandler had high hopes for himself and the Knicks this season, but both failed to live up to their expectations. Chandler broke his leg in the fourth game, and never regained the form or mobility that made him the Defensive Player of the Year two years ago. As for the Knicks, Chandler couldn't -- or wouldn't say -- exactly what went wrong, but he knows something was missing. "It never felt right," Chandler said before the Knicks played the Nets Tuesday night. "In all honesty, it never felt right throughout the season. We had some bright spots but never where we were on the level that we should have been." The Knicks, who were eliminated from the playoff race Saturday night, play their final game of the season Wednesday night against Toronto. Then an offseason filled with questions will begin. Chandler is signed for one more season, and said he wants "to be part of this program," and that "the future is bright." But Chandler could be one of the Knicks' few trade assets.
Dan McCarney of the San Antonio Express-News: Coach Gregg Popovich has backed away from previous jokes that he’ll be following Duncan out the door. And general manager R.C. Buford, who alongside Popovich and Duncan has helped establish the Spurs as one of the most stable organizations in North American professional sports, has every intention of overseeing the process. “I’m incredibly happy where I am,” Buford said. “If somebody tells me they don’t want me around here anymore, then I’ll have to worry about where I go next.” Buford’s comment was part of an extensive podcast with Grantland’s Zach Lowe, in response to why a team in a larger market wouldn’t simply throw a ton of money at he or former understudy Sam Presti, now the architect in Oklahoma City. But like many of his colleagues, particularly Popovich and Duncan, Buford treasures working in a smaller market where distractions from the task at hand — winning championships — are kept to a minimum.
Barry Jackson of The Miami Herald: James and Wade have played 1161 minutes together this season (well below last season’s 1932), making them the Heat’s ninth-most used duo. The Heat has outscored opponents by 6.3 per 48 minutes with James and Wade on court together, which ranked only eighth-best among the Heat’s 15 most-used tandems. By comparison, the Heat outscored opponents by a larger margin when James was paired with Chris Bosh, Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier, Norris Cole, Chris Andersen or Rashard Lewis (but not Wade). Over their first three seasons together, the Heat outscored teams by 11.8 per 48 minutes with James and Wade on the floor together in 2010-11, by 13.6 in 2011-12 (best two-man pairing on the team) and by 13.8 last season --- much higher than the Heat’s overall plus/minus those years. The difference this season between the Heat’s overall score differential (plus 4.9) and the James/Wade one (6.3) was much narrower.
Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer: Clifford and Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau worked together for Jeff Van Gundy with the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets. If their teams aren’t mirror images, they’re certainly reasonable facsimiles. The Bulls have won eight of their last nine and are tied with the Toronto Raptors for the third-best record in the East. The Bobcats are 0-3 this season against Chicago. ... The Bobcats will either finish seventh in the East and be matched against the Miami Heat, or finish sixth and face the Toronto Raptors. Either a Wizards victory at Boston or a Bobcats loss to the Bulls locks the Bobcats matchup against the Heat. ... Clifford figures that however Wednesday turns out, the Bulls should sharpen the Bobcats’ focus. “This is a big game for them and they’re good,” Clifford said. “That’s exactly what we need.”
Chris Haynes of CSNNW.com: When asked today if the two needed to talk before the series began in order to clear the air, since all this was just a simple misunderstanding, Lillard rebuffed that notion. “I don’t think it’s necessary,” Lillard responded. “I don’t have no beef with the dude. He’s competing just like I’m out there competing and that’s it. There’s nothing to hash out because we’re not best friends. We don’t know each other off the floor. There’s nothing really to hash out. But I respect him as a player, but the radio and all that stuff, that’s not my style. It was unnecessary.” There’s clearly respect from both sides. Beverley was disturbed that Lillard didn’t give him his due credit as he made that clear in the radio interview. Lillard didn’t feel he was criticizing Beverley’s play with his comments, but contends that radio interview was over the top. He says this series isn’t going to be about them. He stresses it’s the Portland Trail Blazers versus the Houston Rockets. He wants to do his part to the best of his ability, but most importantly, he wants to get the win.
Eddie Sefko of The Dallas Morning News: Fate has dealt the Mavericks a favorable set of cards. One of their primary stated goals — winning 50 games — coincides perfectly with their nobody-wants-to-say-it goal: avoiding San Antonio in the playoffs. They can accomplish both with one, final regular-season victory Wednesday against the Memphis Grizzlies. “Yeah, 50 wins is a great accomplishment in this league,” Dirk Nowitzki said. “I think we took 50 wins for granted a little bit there a couple of times when we just did it in a row a few times. We won 67 one year. You just think 50 wins is easy to get, but it’s really not. There’s a lot of good teams in this league that make you work. It means that you do a good job closing out games, especially on the road, finding ways to stick around and win at the end. That’s what this league is all about.”
Cathal Kelly of The Globe and Mail: Let’s try to play that one out at home. Mrs. Lowry: ‘What are we going to do with the dump-truck load of money you’re getting in July?’ Lowry: ‘What money?’ Lowry wants the money. He’s thought about the money (which will probably land in the $36 million (U.S.) over three years range), but he also wants to feel loved. That’s what they all really want – more than team pedigree or the chance to win. It’s a universal desire. The upcoming playoffs are not Lowry’s chance to win over Toronto. We’re past doubting. The playoffs are Toronto’s chance to prove it deserves him. “I’m happy,” Lowry says, trying to drill down to what this season means. “I’m not satisfied, but I’m happy.” That works for the Raptors as well. They should be happy with this season. Unless it’s capped by Lowry choosing to re-up in Canada, there is no satisfaction to be had from it.
Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel: The Orlando Magic's game tonight at Amway Center will close their 2013-14 season. It also could mark the end of the team's Jameer Nelson era. Nelson might not be with the franchise next season. Although he's about to complete just the second year of a three-year contract, his salary for the 2014-15 season is only partially guaranteed. If the Magic waive him before July 15, the team would owe him only $2 million instead of $8 million. ... "I'm very cognizant it could be my last home game," Nelson said. "It's not up to me. It's up to the team. It's the team's option. I would like to still be here and finish my career here. I have a lot more years left in me. ..." ... A league source said the Magic haven't made a decision on Nelson's future.
Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic: The Suns were a massive underdog to accomplish what they did this season, more than doubling victory expectations. The bigger upset might be which Suns player will be the only one to start every game of it. Channing Frye will start his 82nd game Wednesday night at Sacramento, completing an amazing journey of career restoration after an enlarged heart kept him from a year of basketball and most activities. Frye went from not knowing whether he would be cleared for this season to aiming for a December return to starting opening night and keeping the job. Frye, 30, will be the first Suns player to start 82 games in a season since Amar'e Stoudemire in 2009-10. Frye has never played an entire season in his eight-year career but did play 81 in 2009-10, when he was suspended for a game for fighting Danny Granger. After the ultimate health scare, he proved to be the sturdiest starter.
Ned Dishman/Getty ImagesBrook Lopez may be the Nets' best player. The Nets may also be better off without him.
Despite going 33-15 since Jan. 1, the Brooklyn Nets will end the 2013-14 season with a worse record than they had last season. Still, these Nets were a success. If this season’s team couldn't fully overcome a disastrous 10-21 start, it did accomplish something more meaningful than a higher seed: It found an identity.
Last season, the Nets were numbingly predictable. They routinely beat up on bad teams and faltered against tough competition. It wasn’t a question of character -- they played hard. For all of their veteran players, the Nets didn’t play like a clever, cagey team. Against the Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs, they were undone not by their willingness to battle on the boards with Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson, but by their inability to contain Marco Belinelli in the side pick-and-roll.
It wasn’t just the X’s and O’s. Last January, Howard Beck, then with The New York Times, wondered: “Who defines the Nets? Who is their driving force, their conscience, their soul?” In that same article, Beck referenced Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett as players who offer their team definition. They stand for something, whether it’s Pierce’s pump-up-the-crowd bravado or Garnett’s manic intensity.
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Now that Garnett and Pierce have joined the franchise, it’s hard not to notice the changed vibe in the Nets’ locker room. Before Deron Williams emerges from the showers, Pierce holds court, lobbing trash talk across the room at teammates, endearing himself to local media and fans with ready wit and a gravelly voice.
Garnett is something of a basketball mystic. In October he explained to reporters the benefits of a diversely talented team: “How you would write a story is different from how you would write a story or how this lady would write a story. You might be able to chug a gallon of milk quicker than she can. I don’t know. We all have our strengths, is the point I’m making.”
Brash, quirky and serious all at once. It’s that sort of vibe that connects the Nets with their fan base, as does a two-month home winning streak.
On the court, this comes through in the team’s unorthodox playing style: with a switching, reaching, deflecting defense (the Nets force turnovers more frequently than any team but the Heat and Wizards) and an offense that moves the ball and fires away from deep (the Nets have increased their 3-point attempts every month except one).
It’s that upward trend in 3-pointers and wins that reminds us of the elephant in the walking boot at the end of the bench. It’s working now, but the reality is this team wasn’t built with Pierce’s special brand of funky, stretch-4 hoops in mind. It was built for Brook Lopez, the best low-post scorer in the NBA.
Listed at 7 feet, 275 pounds, Lopez is a mammoth who almost always demands a double-team from 12 feet and in. Before he went down for the season with yet another foot injury, he had a 25.5 PER (which would rank seventh-best in the NBA) and career numbers in every meaningful offensive category. And at 26 years old, he’s still getting better.
But after breaking his right foot twice and missing 185 games in the past three seasons, it’s impossible not be skeptical about Lopez’s future with the Nets, especially with two more years and about $33 million left on his contract.
He was immensely valuable to last season’s squad, but removing Lopez from the equation this season clarified everything. Lopez is not a role player; he needs to ball to make a real impact. Even when he was playing well, catering to Lopez put players like Pierce in unfamiliar roles. All of Lopez's touches have been distributed among Nets shooters, while their big guards (Joe Johnson, Shaun Livingston and Williams) take turns attacking mismatches on the low block Lopez used to occupy.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty ImagesSince Lopez's injury, the Nets have embraced the bravado brought by Paul Pierce and others.
Lopez’s injury also made way for Mason Plumlee. The rookie forward is the type of high-flying, tip-dunking, LeBron-blocking big man that perfectly complements the Nets’ switching defense. To get the most out of Lopez, a team must slow it down and really grind out games through the post. Plumlee is simply a better fit for how the Nets are playing now on both ends.
Things are going well, but the question persists, even on the horizon of another likely first-round series with the Bulls: How long can the Nets pursue their current strategy?
Their opponent on Tuesday, the New York Knicks, know what a delicate brew good NBA chemistry can be. Last summer they lost Jason Kidd to retirement and replaced Chris Copeland and Steve Novak with lesser shooters who have hardly played in the second half of the season. After winning 54 games and the East’s No. 2 seed last season, the Knicks this year will watch the first round from home.
There are no guarantees that Brooklyn’s current run of strong play will continue, with or without Lopez. The Nets aren’t exactly spilling over with young talent. Pierce and Garnett will be out of the league well before Lopez turns 30. Livingston’s injury struggles are well-documented, and Andrei Kirilenko hasn’t played 70 games since 2008.
The Nets could consider moving Lopez to upgrade their talent on the wings or improve long-term roster flexibility. Would post game-centric Denver be willing to trade Danilo Gallinari and a pick for a premier post presence? Would a couple of first-round picks get it done? The Nets have only one of those in the next three drafts.
When the Nets went “all in” by bringing in high-priced aging talent, the assumption was that Pierce & Co. were a luxury, but worth it. Overpriced, sure, but they would be a vital upgrade. Instead, they’ve contributed to a philosophical overhaul. In more ways than one, the Nets got more than they bargained for.
Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer: That Budenholzer chose to rest some starters with nagging injuries was no surprise. The eighth-seeded Hawks can’t move up in the standings and Budenholzer’s former boss, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, always has believed in resting veterans. Not that anyone would expect a Monday night Hawks-Bobcats game to be a big draw in Atlanta, but attendance was so sparse they could have curtained off the upper deck at Philips Arena. Bobcats coach Steve Clifford was asked before the game why he felt it was important that Kemba Walker play in at least one of the team’s final four regular-season games. Clifford said a player used to playing as many minutes as Walker can fall out of rhythm by missing four or five days of activity.
J. Michael of CSN Washington: The way the Wizards were in sync Monday, it may not have mattered had LeBron James and Chris Bosh played for the Miami Heat. They blew out the two-time defending champions, who chose to rest those starters and only allowed Dwyane Wade to play 19 minutes, 114-93 at Verizon Center in spectacular fashion in front of 20,356 for their fourth sellout of the season. The Wizards (43-38) placed five in double figures led by Trevor Ariza (25 points) Nene (18), Al Harrington (16), Bradley Beal (15) and Marcin Gortat (10) and are one game away from securing no worse than the No. 6 seed for the playoffs. The No. 7 Charlotte Bobcats (42-39) won at the buzzer vs. the Atlanta Hawks to keep the pressure on. A win by the Wizards or a loss by the Bobcats on Wednesday clinches the spot. The Wizards have an outside shot at the No. 5 seed if they win the regular-season finale and the Brooklyn Nets lose their last two games.
Ronald Tillery of The Commercial-Appeal: Memphis clinched its fourth straight playoff berth Monday night with a hard-fought 97-91 victory over the Phoenix Suns in US Airways Center. The Grizzlies’ victory eliminated the Suns from postseason contention with one game left to play. Now, the Griz will host the Dallas Mavericks Wednesday in FedExForum with a chance to move up to the seventh seed to meet Oklahoma City in the first round of the playoffs. Memphis would remain in eighth place and face top-seeded San Antonio should it lose the season finale. In some ways, the Grizzlies’ playoff clincher was a microcosm of their season. They overcame adversity – such as giving up 23 points off 19 turnovers -- and took care of business to come out ahead. “This is a culmination of everything we’ve been through since December," Griz coach Dave Joerger said. “It’s a happy locker room and a relieved locker room. They really did this whole thing together."
Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle: The Rockets waited until the regular-season was nearly over to escape the problem that has been most unrelenting, committing a season-low six turnovers on Monday against the Spurs. “That’s a great day for me and the team,” said Rockets guard Jeremy Lin, who did not have a turnover in his 19 minutes. “We really moved the ball. The scoring was really spaced out. The ball moved all night long and we took care of it. That was one of the things we talked about on the board before the game.” Only Philadelphia averaged more than the Rockets’ 16.2 turnovers per game this season. “It’s always huge to not turn it over against that team because they get out and run,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said.
Jimmy Smith of The Times-Picayune: Though Oklahoma City could have clinched the second seed in the Western Conference with a victory – and coming off a 116-94 win over New Orleans on Friday night, the Thunder didn't seem very motivated Monday night. OKC cruised in its home building just three nights earlier, leading that game by as many as 34 points. And the Pelicans entered the game on an eight-game losing streak. But the Pelicans' defense – and particularly that played by Darius Miller against soon-to-be-named MVP Kevin Durant, bolstered New Orleans' chances. Durant finished with 25 points but was just 9 of 23 from the outside.
Rick Telander of the Chicago Sun-Times: Remember Derrick Rose? Adidas barely does. The giant shoe company that signed the onetime Bulls superstar to a 13-year, $185 million endorsement deal back in 2012 — a "lifetime" contract that was inked mainly so Adidas could kick Kobe Bryant’s and LeBron James’ Nike butts in China — seems to have moved on. The company just signed the Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard to an eight-year contract, said to be the biggest since Rose signed his. The problem here for Rose? Lillard, a point guard, plays the same position. He’s the same size as Rose — 6-3, 195. He was the NBA Rookie of the Year in 2013, like Rose was in 2009. He was an All-Star this season. He performed in an astounding five events at the 2014 All-Star Weekend — from the slam-dunk contest to the three-point shooting contest — before playing in the game. ... In so many ways, he’s just like Rose. Except for three things: He has played in all of the Blazers’ games his first two seasons (Rose has played in 10 of the Bulls’ last 163 regular-season games). Both his knees are good (Neither of Rose’s is). He is 23, in his second year in the league (Rose is 25 and is in his seventh NBA season). Time waits for no one, and it seems doubtful Rose will come back as good as he was at his peak three years ago. He’ll be 26 in October. That’s a kid in almost any career except boy bands and pro basketball. Adidas was all in with Rose until his knees blew out. You can’t blame the company. How do you promote your latest Rose models with a guy on crutches?
Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle: The Warriors kind of had to feign a postgame celebration Monday after a comeback from 19 points down led to a 130-120 victory over Minnesota that clinched the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference. That's because before the game started, they were dealt a blow that could derail their playoff hopes. Andrew Bogut, the anchor of the league's third-best defense, was ruled out indefinitely after an X-ray revealed a fractured rib on his right side. The center initially was injured in the first half of Thursday's loss to Denver and then took what might have been a season-ending hit when he was sandwiched between two players in the fourth quarter of Sunday's overtime loss at Portland. Bogut said the broken rib is too close to his lung -- risking a potential puncture -- to consider playing through the pain. A fractured rib usually takes about six weeks to fully heal, according to WebMD.com.
Vincent Bonsignore of the Los Angeles Daily News: Till the bitter end, Mike D’Antoni refused to make excuses. Even as Lakers losses pile up at a record pace and fans constantly point an angry finger at him, D’Antoni still won’t throw his aging, injury-riddled roster under the bus or criticize the front office for handing him one of the most talent-deficient teams in franchise history. But an unyielding loyalty to a team comprised of backups isn’t enough to save his job as head coach. It’s time for the Lakers to move on from the awkward, ill-fated relationship they forged with D’Antoni upon hiring him over fan favorite Phil Jackson. Fair or not, it’s time to fire Mike D’Antoni. And soon after, convince Los Angeles native Kevin Ollie to leave national champion Connecticut to return home and coach his hometown Lakers. Or talk Derek Fisher out of playing one more season so he can accelerate the next chapter of his career. But more on that in a bit. ... In retrospect I underestimated just how angry Lakers fans really are and how much spite and resentment they hold for D’Antoni, whose only real failure was not being the beloved Jackson. It’s an anger and bitterness I don’t believe will ever be resolved, especially with some inevitably rough years ahead of the Lakers as they try to rebuild from essentially scratch.
Doug Smith of the Toronto Star: Even with DeMar DeRozan reduced to a mere spectator enjoying a night of rest, the Raptors claimed their franchise-record-setting 48th win of the year, dumping the Milwaukee Bucks 110-100 at the Air Canada Centre in the penultimate game of the regular season. “Guys came out with a total focus. We lost it there a little bit in the second half, but the start of the game, our guys were locked in, attention to detail was there on both ends of the floor,” said Casey. DeRozan’s greatest impact on the game was his short speech thanking the fans for the just-completed home season as the banner recognizing the team’s division title was unfurled in an understated, quick ceremony. “It definitely felt good to share it with (the fans) because they played a major part in it as well,” he said.
Bob Cooney of the Philadelphia Daily News: The talent appears to be there, somewhere, hidden inside the NBA body. But to get it to come to the surface has been forward Arnett Moultrie's problem in his two NBA seasons. He says now is the time, however, as the recently imposed five-game suspension given him for violating the NBA's anti-drug policy was what he needed to get himself on track. "It was a little dark spot for me, I guess, throughout the year I was just a little down on myself on the court, mainly, with no off-the-court issues," Moultrie said. "I'm upset with myself basketballwise. The mental part of the game is my biggest concern. Just to try and stay strong mentally. The five-game suspension was my wakeup call. So now everything is behind me, water under the bridge, I'm ready to move forward." Saddled for the first half of the season after undergoing ankle surgery in the preseason, Moultrie had trouble getting to playing weight. While the coaching staff waited for him to get there, Moultrie thought he was ready to go. When playing time didn't come, he visibly sulked and was soon sent to the Dealware 87ers, of the NBA Development League. Then came the drug suspension in late March, and now his return to the team last night.
Sam Forencich/NBAE/Getty ImagesSo long, Suns? Phoenix's postseason hopes are a slim 15.5 percent with just two games left to play.
Elite West teams should fear the Suns, but they’ll probably be spared. Phoenix, with its young, energetic band of 3-point slingers, looks the part of a prototypical giant killer. Unfortunately for the Suns, their fans and the League Pass addicts who emotionally invested in the rise of Goran Dragic, they essentially dropped off the playoff bubble with two games to go.
It’s a bleaker scenario than “one game back from No. 8” would indicate because the Suns lose tiebreakers to the Memphis Grizzlies (who haven’t clinched a playoff spot) and the Mavericks (who have). On Monday, Phoenix must beat Memphis. That’s not enough on its own, though. The Suns then need the Grizzlies on Wednesday night to lose to a Mavericks squad that will have little incentive to try. Oh, and then there’s Phoenix’s season finale in Sacramento. It would be so painful to see your playoff hopes die on a contested jumper from Travis Outlaw.
All of this is really a shame because the Suns are a rare lottery team that could actually matter if thrown into the postseason. High-variance squads like the Suns are the bane of favorites. Three-pointers are ammunition for David’s sling and give a team like the Suns a chance at beating a superior opponent over the course of a series.
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But it goes a bit deeper than “the Suns shoot 3s." This is a quirky team, one that forces more traditional teams to contort uncomfortably. Not many teams play a 3-point shooter at center like Channing Frye, forcing opposing slow-footed 5s to plod far beyond the friendly confines of the paint. Not many teams can go five-out, stretching defenses apart by playing five 3-point shooters at once. Not many teams can roll out two slashing, hyperathletic, elite combo guards.
Dragic traverses a full NBA court in the time it takes normal people to sprint across their living rooms, all the while remaining in complete control of his finishes around the rim. He’s emerged as a most improved player candidate while cracking MVP ballot conversation.
And Eric Bledsoe makes “The Dragon” look slow. It’s difficult to quantify Bledsoe’s physical gifts, but this moment cuts to the heart of the matter: He’s a 6-foot, 0.25-inch guard who once emphatically swatted Anthony Davis’ layup. Phoenix has been without his services for half the season, meaning that it's probably a good deal better than record would indicate.
When locked in, Bledsoe is a destructive defensive force, quite possibly best among point guards. Many Clippers fans would argue that Vinny Del Negro’s reluctance to use his young dynamo cost Los Angeles a first-round playoff series last year. It’s doubtful that Jeff Hornacek makes the same error now that he’s seen how productive Bledsoe can be with greater responsibility.
Bledsoe and Dragic aren’t the only Suns showing out this season. Gerald Green went from washout to occasional Tracy McGrady imitation. The Morris twins have found their niches as versatile, 3-point shooting power forwards. Frye is back to causing defenses fits in the pick-and-pop. Miles Plumlee has found the perfect platform for his athletic, high-energy game.
It's a funny circumstance we've arrived at with this vast East-West divide, when teams that have sat on the playoff bubble all season happen to boast MVP-ballot guys like Dragic and Dirk Nowitzki.
The greater absurdity is that we’ll likely be deprived of the Suns in the playoffs in favor of a Hawks team that traditionally makes less playoff noise than its brilliant organist. Although the Western playoff race has been a thrilling, protracted battle for survival, it’s underpinned by the sadness of knowing somebody has to go home far too early.
The NBA’s quirkiest matchup problem could potentially upset the Spurs and their slower bigs. They could have posed a threat to the Thunder’s distracted perimeter defense, but that scenario is out the window now. Unfortunately for fans of competitive basketball, the Suns are probably going fishing; as of Monday, their playoff odds stand at just 15.5 percent. (The Grizzlies make up the remaining 84.5.) In these last few games, they need skill, determination, and above all, luck. If only the NBA felt the need to showcase its best teams come postseason.
Ronald Tillery of The Commercial-Appeal: The Griz only need to win one of their two remaining games -- either at Phoenix on Monday or against Dallas in FedExForum on Wednesday -- and they’ll lock up a fourth straight postseason berth. “It’s amazing that we’re in this position,” Conley said. “If you would have asked me in November and December, I don’t know. You didn’t know what was going to happen with the year. So we’re happy with where we’re at. We still have a lot of work to do but we’re looking forward to (Monday).” Memphis moved to a game ahead of Phoenix for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Phoenix needs to beat Memphis to keep alive its postseason hopes. The Griz, though, own the tiebreaker against the Suns in the season series. “It’s going to be a playoff atmosphere and that’s what you want,” Griz reserve swingman Mike Miller said. “We are real fortunate. I don’t know if the NBA knew it was going to turn out this way. For us to be able to control our own destiny playing two teams we’re chasing is lucky for us and it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Jason Quick of The Oregonian: In short, Damian Lillard made a series of really poor decisions at the end of the first half, and another crucial mistake at the end of overtime that nearly cost the Blazers the game. Players make mistakes. Especially point guards who handle the ball as much as Lillard does. I understand that, and so does every player in the Blazers locker room. But there is some concern inside the locker room that Lillard is not held to the same accountabilities that other players are. In other words, his mistakes are often either overlooked, or not held to the same examination as others. That’s not to say there is raging discontent among the ranks when it comes to Lillard. From what I gather, he is respected deeply for his talent, his work ethic and his efforts at becoming a leader. But sometimes, even the great players need to be coached. Even the stars need to have their flaws pointed out. ... It’s time some teaching, and some accountability are stressed. Stotts, I believe, is a remarkable teacher. And Lillard, I believe, is an even more remarkable player. Let’s hope the flaws in Sunday’s entertaining victory can lead to greater success.
Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press: The Free Press learned Sunday that the Pistons will not renew president of basketball operations Joe Dumars’ contract and Dumas has accepted an advisory role with the organization. Though maintaining a bond with the only NBA franchise he has known since 1985, Dumars will have no say in the daily operations of the team. The Pistons consider this a respectful compromise, an appreciative thank-you for Dumars’ significant contributions to three NBA championships, but also a strong rebuke for his role in what has become five straight playoff-less springs. Yet, however Tom Gores dresses up this transition for public display, the owner got what he sought all along — a fall guy. Dumars should be relieved. He is free from this nonsense. ... Dumars could have rejected the proposal, but it would have contradicted the quiet dignity he has exhibited from his first days in Detroit as a shy, soft-spoken Southerner drafted in the first round out of McNeese State. ... The good equally balanced the disappointing during Dumars’ reign. That’s not good enough in a results-oriented business to spare even the best of people the worst of fates. But Dumars made one last classy gesture.
Mike Ganter of the Toronto Sun: With two games left to play before the Raptors get their first taste of playoff basketball in six years, there seems to be as many signs of concern as there are signs of optimism for this team. But through all the hand-wringing, the Raptors continue to find a way to win. Sunday, despite some newfound rebounding woes, not to mention a pooched 18-point lead, the Raps found the wherewithal to pull out a 116-107 win over Detroit, a team that is playing out the string and is as loose as any you’ll find in the NBA. With the victory the Raptors matched the franchise high for wins in a season with 47 and have two games left to improve on that. They are tied for third place in the East with the Chicago Bulls, but own the tiebreaker. Things got rather tense midway through the third quarter as the Pistons closed the gap. Leading by just two, the Raptors lost the services of point guard Kyle Lowry with 5:51 to go in the game. Lowry left with what was, at that time, a team-high 28 points. DeMar DeRozan surpassed it with 30, 14 of those coming in the final frame. DeRozan knew, just as he has known on so many other nights this season, when to turn it on and was there when the team needed him most.
Wheat Hotchkiss of Pacers.com: Sunday afternoon’s game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse featured two teams with aspirations of hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy in June. But the championship formula for each of those teams couldn’t be more different. In one corner, you had the Oklahoma City Thunder, whose title hopes rest squarely on the shoulders of their two superstars. In the other corner, you had the Indiana Pacers, a team that thrives when it has a balanced attack. For the most part, the Thunder got what they wanted on Sunday. Kevin Durant, the NBA’s leading scorer and the prohibitive favorite to be named the league’s Most Valuable Player, was his usually brilliant self on the offensive end, scoring 38 points on 13-of-27 shooting (including a perfect 10-of-10 from the free throw line). Russell Westbrook, a three-time All-Star, put up big numbers as well: 21 points, nine rebounds, and seven assists. But the Pacers’ balance helped them overcome OKC’s Batman and Robin act in a 102-97 win.
Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee: Barring a reprieve from the NBA, tonight was DeMarcus Cousins’ last game of the season. Cousins was called for his 16th technical foul in the fourth quarter of the Kings’ 106-103 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves at Sleep Train Arena. That technical foul means Cousins is suspended for Wednesday’s season finale against Phoenix. Cousins did not want to talk about the technical foul, but did talk about the Kings and the game in general. The Kings are off Monday, and assuming Cousins does not speak to the media Tuesday after practice, this would be his last media session of the season if he’s suspended. ... "I think the future is bright. I’m with Malone until the end -- he knows that. He has my back, I’ve got his. You’re going to be seeing him for awhile until he gets rid of me because it won’t be my choice.”
Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News: True, they should have finished in the top eight in a terrible East. But here we are, ready to embark on the most significant offseason around here since the Knicks came up short for James in the summer of 2010. There’s a coach to hire, whether it’s Steve Kerr or someone else aligned with Jackson. Who’s going to do the daily GM grunt work? Don’t know, but it’s imperative for Jackson to select a person with previous general manager experience. As for this roster, the offseason begins with Anthony, who at least didn’t underachieve. Jackson has stated he wants to build around the player Dolan moved heaven and earth to get. Can the Zen Master change his mind? Sure, but it’s impossible for him to know which player he can definitely bring in to build around. ... As brutal as this season was for Anthony, New York is still New York. He wanted the big stage, he got it. The big money, too. We don’t see him leaving...unless Jackson has a better plan.
Neil Best of Newsday: Two hours before Sunday night's game, Nets coach Jason Kidd spoke about how difficult it will be to find sufficient minutes for his three big men -- Kevin Garnett, Andray Blatche and Mason Plumlee -- once the playoffs begin. Fifteen minutes after the game, Kidd was looking at Plumlee's statistics sheet, marveling at yet another dynamic performance that proved his point. The rookie from Duke had 17 points, 11 rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block in the Nets' 97-88 victory over the Magic at Barclays Center. He shot 6-for-8 from the field and is 38-for-46 in April. Plumlee is so hot, he even got credited with two points for a ball the Magic's Dewayne Dedmon accidentally tipped into the wrong basket, because he was the closest Net to the play. Now what, though? Garnett, who scored three points in 19 minutes Sunday night, surely will start when the playoffs open this weekend, and Blatche is a veteran presence. "There are 48 minutes [in a game]," Kidd said. "I don't know if I can play all three of them, but we'll try to play all three. But ... in the first round, where it's spread out, KG has a little bit more rest, so we'll see. Sometimes there might be an odd guy out. That's just the way it goes."
Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman: One of Heath’s tweets proclaimed: “NBA, the ONLY professional league in the US with the reputation that the games are rigged. Know why? Because of games like tonight.” The persecution complex of some people is a little overwhelming. Blaming officiating is for losers. Claiming officiating conspiracies is for the simple-minded. Various reports say NBA commissioner Adam Silver wanted to suspend Heath from his microphone duties but settled for a $25,000 fine levied against the Mavs. Heath is not a full-time Maverick employee, so suspension would have been legally squishy. Too bad. Silver’s thoughts are solid. Suspension would have been good. Banishment would have been better. Anyone who believes the NBA rigs games should not be involved with the league. Anyone who promotes the belief needs to move on down the road. It’s asinine that NBA people can keep talking about rigged games and fixed results. They are damaging the league’s reputation much more than a missed call. Much more than 100 missed calls.
LOS ANGELES -- Pau Gasol looked out onto the court, where the team from his past played the team of his present, then looked up to the scoreboard, where the clock ticked down toward the start of his future.
The Memphis Grizzlies, Gasol’s team from draft night in 2001 until the 2008 trade that sent him to the Los Angeles Lakers, were finalizing the Lakers’ 55th loss of the season. Same old story for the Lakers: hang tight for a half, lose by double digits. And a frustratingly frequent tale for Gasol: sidelined by injury, missing his 20th game and counting, with a bout of vertigo guaranteed to keep him sidelined for the Lakers’ two remaining games on the road.
He’ll be a free agent this summer, which means this might have been his last home game at Staples Center. It certainly meant he felt the emotional impact. As the game drew to a close he reached toward the seat to his right and tapped teammate Jordan Farmar’s leg to signal that it was time for them to leave. Except Gasol wasn’t really ready to leave. He congratulated his brother, Grizzlies center Marc Gasol, then playfully shoved Marc away so he wouldn’t sweat on Pau’s nice, movie-ticket-taker- burgundy red jacket. He moved on to other players and coaches, stopped to talk to a couple of fans, then chatted with courtside regulars Jimmy Goldstein and Dyan Cannon.
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsMarc and Pau Gasol, the brothers who were traded for each other in 2008, greet each other Sunday.
He stopped and signed autographs for fans on the other side of the courtside seats. He leaned in behind a woman who took a selfie with her phone. He entered the tunnel and accommodated more fans who reached through the rails to have him sign programs, hats, tickets and -- just when he was ready to cut things off -- a fan who dangled a No. 16 Gasol golden Lakers jersey.
Finally he said no mas.
“I gotta go in,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
He blew the fans a kiss with both hands, bowed and moved on to the Lakers' locker room.
“I always appreciate the fans,” Gasol said. “You never know. The last couple years when I walked out of this building it’s been emotional. This year it’s been a little bit different because we haven’t been successful as a team, we had a lot of injuries, I haven’t been able to finish the season playing. So I kind of had it more in my mind.
“The last couple of years I didn’t know if I was going to be back. This year with even more reason, because now I’m a free agent. It’s just a way of me appreciating everyone and our fans.”
The fans showed their appreciation, giving him a warm cheer when he was showed on the scoreboard video screen late in the game. Will the Lakers do anything similar -- something along the lines of the golden parachute they granted Kobe Bryant? The Kobe contract might actually preclude a Gasol gift by eating up too much salary cap room. Gasol can’t expect to match the $19 million he made this season; he might get about half of that, from what some general managers say. It's also possible that the Lakers could sign him to a short deal that would give them the possibility of using him as a trade asset next season.
But a multi-year contract would alter any Lakers plans to make a big splash in the 2015 free agent market -- or even to bring in the additional pieces the Lakers would need around Bryant and Gasol.
That’s why Sunday was the night for sentiment. Come July 1 it will be all business.
“You’ve got to put heart and emotions aside a little bit and think what’s going to be the best position for me to succeed, not just individually but collectively,” Gasol said. “And hopefully help put myself in a position where I can win a championship. That will be the goal. Where can I win and where can I be a key piece to help a team win, whether it’s here or another team? I don’t know exactly what’s going to be the structure or the roster [with the Lakers], so there’s going to be a lot of question marks here. But I’m open to listen. I’m a good listener. I will listen to what’s offered.”
Then there’s the possibility of playing with his brother in Memphis.
“It’s appealing,” Gasol said. “We have a lof of fun always in the summers [playing together with the Spanish national team]. But I don’t know if it’s going to be completely 100 percent up to me, because there’s going to be a lot of teams that are going to be probably limited or conditioned to a trade, and the Lakers will probably have some say in that. We’ll see. It’ll be an interesting process. I don’t know if the Grizzlies are one of the teams that are most interested.
“I’d love to play with Kobe more, because he’s a friend, he’s a winner and he’s a guy that I’ve been through a lot and won championships with. I would love to play with my brother, but you can’t have everything. Just try to think where is the best position for me to succeed collectively and individually.”
Time passes so quickly in the NBA, turning from ally to enemy. Gasol made the Lakers championships contenders when he arrived in February of 2008, and they were on their way to three consecutive NBA Finals. In April of 2014, the only player in uniform who was around for that heyday was Farmar. It’s no accident that he was sitting next to Gasol.
“[The bond is] even sweeter for us because we lost one [NBA Finals] first,” Farmar said. “ We got all the way there, we lost, and then we learned as a group and came back to win back-to-backs. So we’re a little closer. It’s a little more special. It’s experiences you can’t really teach. You just have to go through it and know what it takes. It’s hard to pass that knowledge on to young guys. There’s just no way they can understand the dynamics of a championship team unless you’re on that caliber of a team.”
You can see why playing for another team consisting primarily of those young players wouldn’t appeal to Gasol at age 33. You also can see how a 33-year-old who has missed 53 games over the past two seasons with injuries stretching literally from his feet (plantar fasciitis) to his head (vertigo) might not have GMs filling his voicemail inbox this summer. But he’s still an experienced big man who averaged 17.4 points and 9.7 rebounds this season.
“In this league, no one person can do it by themselves,” Farmar said. “You need to put a team together of guys that understand the importance of winning,
that are committed to it and fit well together. I think that’s what it comes down to. The front office knows that. I think Pau, whether it’s here or someplace else, will be on a team like that.”
For the past three seasons we’ve wondered if the Lakers would send him someplace else before the trade deadline. Now it could be of his own volition. That’s why this wasn’t just another night in Staples Center, the building where the two most recent Lakers championship banners hang as a result of his handiwork.
If the NBA’s decision to fine the Dallas Mavericks for public address announcer Sean Heath’s tweets about the officiating seems very David Stern-like, it could be because new commissioner Adam Silver is doing his best to NOT be like Stern.
“I wish I had to do it all over again and, starting 20 years ago, I’d be suspending Phil and Pat Riley for all the games they play in the media,” Stern said.
Stern believes that failing to do so allowed the conspiracy theories to fester, making the default explanation for any blown whistle become either “the TV networks want the series to last longer” or “the NBA wants the biggest TV markets to meet in the Finals.” If the most prominent coaches said it, why wouldn’t the fans believe it? Every fan believes the league is out to get his favorite team. Hearing the same thoughts come from the participants themselves only encourages them.
Apparently, Adam Silver’s regime won’t make the same mistake as Stern. When Heath took to Twitter to complain about the officiating following a Mavericks loss to the Golden State Warriors on April 1, Heath’s biggest mistake in a series of tweets was writing “@NBA: the ONLY professional league in the US with the reputation that the games are rigged. Know why? Because of games like tonight. #shame”
Actually, the shame is that a representative of a team would do anything to fuel the conspiracy-minded fans. “Rigged” is too serious an accusation to casually toss around without consequences. This week we learned what they were: a $25,000 fine for the Mavericks, as reported by Tim MacMahon of ESPNDallas.com.
MacMahon wrote that the league’s first impulse was to suspend Heath, but that action would be complicated by the fact that he is technically a contract worker, not a team employee. That still sounds like the revised mindset of which Stern spoke four years ago.
I bet it’s something that Silver will not regret upon reflection 20 years from now.
It was once known as a "one-player draft." But now that we're seeing Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, Andre Drummond & Co. in the NBA, David Thorpe says this class is likely better than the celebrated class of 2014.