First Cup: Friday

February, 27, 2015
Feb 27
4:46
AM ET
By Nick Borges
ESPN.com
Archive
  • Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman: Kevin Durant and Steven Adams both went through light on-court workouts before Thursday’s game at Phoenix. Durant, who is recovering from a second surgery to his right foot, did some light shooting from various spots, even taking shots from as far out as the 3-point line. Durant, however, did not take jump shots. His feet barely left the court on all his shots. Durant also did a series of calisthenics, including inverted push-ups and a core exercise using resistance ropes. A timetable for Durant’s return to the lineup is still unknown. He is scheduled to be evaluated early next week. ... Adams, meanwhile, joined fellow big men Enes Kanter and Mitch McGary in a workout with coaches. ... Adams has been out since fracturing the fourth metacarpal in his right hand on Feb. 8. He also is scheduled to be re-evaluated early next week.
  • Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic: A year ago, Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic were the ceremonial co-captains of the Suns, but P.J. Tucker and Channing Frye emerged as the team's leaders. Tucker continues to bring the moxie to yell at teammates and display the unbridled effort for a young team to follow, but all of the ideal ingredients for the next Suns leader might be present in Brandon Knight. At 23 years old and one week as a Sun, it would be too soon to turn the franchise over to Knight's leadership, particularly with a restricted free agency status coming in July. But Knight is already showing a willingness to be vocal with teammates that is backed well by his playing ability and his basketball intelligence. "He understands the game, so that's always helpful," Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said.
  • Diamond Leung of The Oakland Tribune: Steve Kerr had a simple explanation for the Warriors' 110-99 loss at Cleveland. "The best player on the planet from the last five years had a huge night on us," the coach said. LeBron James dominated with 42 points in his first game against the Warriors this season, providing a reminder that he is once again very much a candidate for the NBA's Most Valuable Player Award. James' 15-for-25 shooting performance happened to come on a Thursday night when Stephen Curry, the Warriors' MVP candidate, was in the building. Curry scored 18 points on 5-for-17 shooting, with only four of his points coming in the second half. He also committed four turnovers. "If I'm playing one on one against (James) and you just look at tonight, then I lost obviously," Curry said of the MVP race. "But it's about a body of work. It's about what your team's doing. It's about just being consistent over the course of the season. And that's my job. Tonight just wasn't my best, and it won't be the last bad game of my career, so I'll be all right." ... "I gotta be the MVP for these guys, the 14 guys in this locker room," James said, downplaying that the presence of Curry had something to do with his big game."
  • Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon-Journal: Any celebration over this victory will have to wait until the results are back on Kyrie Irving’s MRI. It’s surprising, if he needs an MRI, that he was even put back in the game in the fourth quarter. The initial in-game injury update indicated Irving shoulder was “bumped” but he was fine. If he’s headed to the Clinic, clearly all is not well. Irving is listed as doubtful for Friday’s game against the Pacers, a team that ended the Cavs’ 12-game winning streak three weeks ago at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. This is why the Cavs were searching for another point guard at the trade deadline. It will be curious to see which way Blatt plays this. Common sense would indicate Matthew Dellavedova starts at point guard, but it wouldn’t completely shock me to see Iman Shumpert in the starting rotation. James is the pseudo point guard anyway and Shumpert has also played there in spurts this season. Again, the smart money is on Delly starting, but I don’t think that’s a lock at this point.
  • Eddie Sefko of The Dallas Morning News: Rick Carlisle and Rajon Rondo are going through the recovery process after their temper flare-up Tuesday led to Rondo’s suspension for Wednesday’s game at Atlanta. It’s a fact of life when you’re a point guard, said Devin Harris, a 10-year veteran. It’s particularly important when it comes to play-calling and what the right mix is for a coach calling the shots and a point guard having the freedom to run the team. He is, after all, an extension of the coach, right? ... At this point, it doesn’t matter if Rondo has any intentions of re-signing with the Mavericks beyond this season. All that matters is right now — and the Mavericks’ position as a legitimate contender with the ability to make serious noise in the playoffs. That still hasn’t changed, by the way. ... With only 22 games left in the regular season, the clock already is ticking. The Mavericks are coming off five games in seven days. They took Thursday as a complete rest day.
  • Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald: To think Rondo and Carlisle wouldn’t have problems is to mix two parts hydrogen with one part oxygen and be utterly stunned at the creation of water. The accelerant here was expectation. The Mavericks were hoping Rondo would be the element that could work well with what they already had and legitimize their shot at this season’s championship. But his play had grown inconsistent, and Rondo lost some important fourth-quarter minutes to others. With Dallas down nine to Toronto in the third quarter Tuesday, Carlisle called a play, but Rondo had something else in mind. And while it is generally accepted that, in such split-second situations, NBA teams most often go with the point guard’s call, a boiling point had been reached. And the fact is Rondo comes equipped with a Bunsen burner. His first coach with the Celtics, Doc Rivers, said that these things happen with a number of players and added that Carlisle and Rondo will “figure it out; I really believe that.” It’s all about adapting to one’s environment. This is not to suggest that Rick Carlisle needs to change his life to suit Rajon Rondo’s mood, but he should not have expected anything less than the response he got when he called out someone who’s made a living off small man’s anger.
  • Jason Reid of The Washington Post: The Washington Wizards have 24 games remaining in the regular season, and they seem utterly incapable of winning any of them. Their strong start a distant memory, the Wizards are lost, and Coach Randy Wittman appears to be asleep at the wheel. When a team that was on a fast track to joining the Eastern Conference’s elite can’t get anything right for months, the person in charge should come under the microscope. The debate about Wittman’s job performance figures only to intensify after the Wizards flopped again in Wednesday’s 97-77 road loss to the lowly Minnesota Timberwolves. ... For the Wizards to get it back together, Wittman must consider a lineup shakeup. Roles need to be redefined. The return of Beal, who is expected back soon, will give Wittman more lineup flexibility. And although tinkering always can be done with X’s and O’s, getting the Wizards’ heads right will be Wittman’s biggest challenge. He has to persuade them to recommit to what worked: playing sound defense, sharing the ball and being tough. He’ll have to rely on his motivational skills. Of course, the players have to expect more from themselves, too. Washington is a veteran team with a roster full of self-starters, though recent weeks have offered little evidence of that.

Jump shots win championships

February, 26, 2015
Feb 26
2:07
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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The opposite is the conventional wisdom, but teams like the Spurs and the Hawks are part of an evolving NBA where good shooting wins.

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First Cup: Thursday

February, 26, 2015
Feb 26
5:01
AM ET
By Nick Borges
ESPN.com
Archive
  • Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee: George Karl has a certain level of empathy for the Kings after more than a week on the job. The Kings are playing for their third coach this season, and they’re adjusting to different strategies for the second time this season. ... Karl knows he must be patient. But patience shouldn’t be confused with acceptance of how things have been. The Kings need to break habits such as taking contested shots, not passing enough and committing turnovers. They are far from being what Karl wants them to be, but they were good enough to beat one the NBA’s best teams, the Memphis Grizzlies, 102-90 Wednesday night at Sleep Train Arena. Sacramento is 2-1 under Karl, with both victories coming at home. The Kings pleased Karl when they didn’t cave in after the Grizzlies roughed them up with their physical style while taking the lead at the end of the third quarter.
  • Jason Quick of The Oregonian: On Wednesday, in a game that was bigger than any Trail Blazers player let on, Matthews was the tipping point in an 111-95 win over San Antonio that cauterized some festering anxiety in Rip City. With 31 points, five rebounds, three assists and three steals - and a handful of court burns - Matthews helped stop a two-game losing streak and provided what could turn out to be a game we circle at the end of the season as an important date. Every once in a while during the long and winding NBA season, there comes a game, or a moment, that goes a long way to changing a team's season. Last season, the benchmark date came at the end of March, in Orlando after a loss to the lowly Magic. It was the eighth loss in 11 games for the Blazers and suddenly their cozy playoff standing was not only slipping, it was in jeopardy. In the locker room after that game Matthews stood before the team and gave a spirited and to-the-point speech that it was time to wake up. The Blazers closed the season winning nine of their final 10 games. After the season, LaMarcus Aldridge said of the team's turnaround: "Wes did it. Give all the credit to Wes. His speech." Fast forward to this season, and Wednesday at the Moda Center. In a different way, Matthews once again provided an important wake-up call.
  • Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News: Jordan Hill sat on the bench staring at his cell phone and looking fairly downtrodden. Nick Young showed as much stoicism as he sat by his locker. Their demeanor prior to when the Lakers visited the Utah Jazz on Wednesday at EnergySolutions Arena starkly contrasted to how they acted following the Lakers’ overtime win on Sunday over Boston. Then Hill, Nick Young and Carlos Boozer crashed Jeremy Lin’s postgame interview and expressed elation over a rare victory. The footage soon aired on Jimmy Kimmel Live, where Kobe Bryant offered an annoyed and silent reaction. Lakers coach Byron Scott then reported scolding his team about the incident. “Kobe, in particular, made everybody look at it differently,” Young said. “If ESPN said something about it the night it happened or the next day, I understand. To me, they waited until they saw Kobe react to it.” ... "We’ve been doing this the whole season, but I guess it’s a problem now,” Hill said. “It is what it is.” Yet, Young and Hill walked the tight rope between respecting Scott’s criticism and defending their behavior. “He’s right about it,” Hill said about Scott. “But we’re just trying to finish this season out with our heads high.” Young acknowledged he defended himself “a little bit” to Scott.
  • Andrew Krammer of 1500ESPN.com: The Timberwolves and nearly 20,000 fans partied like it was 1995 on Wednesday night. The Target Center walls were donned with fresh murals, the crowd exceeded seating capacity, Montell Jordan was the halftime act and 20 years later, a fairy tale story came full circle for a sports city in need of energy. Flashes from the past hovered over Kevin Garnett as a video tribute began: "With the fifth pick in the 1995 draft, the Minnesota Timberwolves select..." And for the first time in 588 games, "Wolves" draped across Garnett's chest once again. "It actually felt like my rookie year," Garnett said. "With the energy and anticipation, looking in the crowd, saw my friends and family. Glad my daughters were here to see that. It was a really special time, I can't even put it into words. I thank everybody that came out to show love for the city. I'm happy to be here. I'm hoping we can get some more wins, give the city and everybody something to be excited about." In the 7.5 years without Garnett, the franchise has been starved of success and currently holds the NBA's longest drought without a playoff berth. There won't be a postseason in Minnesota again this year, but fans and moving tributes created a playoff atmosphere for the Timberwolves' 13th win of the season and first with Garnett since 2007.
  • Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle: The Rockets had lost their previous six and 11 of 12 games against the Clippers when finally, they took a one-point game and played their own greatest hits. The Rockets took off with waves of 3-pointers, a run from their suddenly high-flying bench and enough of James Harden down the stretch to knock off the Clippers, 110-105, their way. “We just wanted to … be able to create our own identity,” Josh Smith said. “That’s playing up and down and playing the way we know how to play.” That meant moving the ball to open 3-pointers. With the Clippers putting two defenders on Harden outside and swarming to him inside, the Rockets matched their season-high with 17 3-pointers, putting up 44 attempts from beyond the arc. They had made at least 15 3s in an NBA record 14 games (going 12-2), already four more than the previous record. It meant turned to their high-speed second unit led by Corey Brewer and Smith to start the fourth quarter, scoring nine fast break points – including a no-look pass Pablo Prigioni bounced through his legs to Brewer – in a 15-1 run that changed the game. “They played well,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said.
  • Matt Winkeljohn of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "Yeah, I think Dennis likes playing Dallas for a couple reasons,” teammate Kyle Korver said after Schroder led Atlanta in scoring in a 104-87 win. “It’s the German thing.” Indeed, leading Atlanta’s bounce-back from a dreadful 34-22 first-quarter hole, Schroder was special. He scored eight points in the second while draining 2-of-3 3-pointers and adding two of his four assists.Yep, there’s something about the big D – Dirk Nowitzki. Schroder’s countryman, easily the most famous German basketball player, was in the house with the Mavs. So, Dennis did what he does with amplitude in helping the Hawks pull within 53-47 by halftime. On a a 7-of-15 shooting night that included a career-high three 3-pointers made in five attempts, he brought attitude. “With Dirk, another German player, yeah, I’m competitive, too,” Schroder said. “You want to show other German players that you can play the game at a high level.
  • Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer: The perception in July: Lance Stephenson’s versatility will lift this team and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is some dude who can’t shoot. The reality in February: Kidd-Gilchrist’s versatility lifts this team and Stephenson looks like a dude who can’t shoot. Mo Williams had a horrible start to this game, committing two shooting fouls outside the 3-point line in the first seven minutes. But his third quarter – 13 points and three assists – might have been the biggest factor in the Hornets breaking that five-game losing streak. You won’t see the Hornets score 17 fast-break points on a regular basis. It’s not because they don’t choose to run, they’re just not particularly built to be that team.
  • Jay King of MassLive.com: Calling a stress fracture in his left foot "God's plan," Boston Celtics big man Jared Sullinger said the light switched has finally flipped in regards to changing his body. The 22-year-old said he will not undergo surgery, but has been ruled out for the rest of the season. Discussing his approach to recovery, Sullinger said, "Change the physique, change the way I look. That's the biggest thing, I think, is just change the way I look. I'm tired of looking on camera and just seeing how I look and seeing how I play during extended minutes. Conditioning's going to be a big factor." Including a back surgery that ended his rookie season, this will be the second season-ending injury of Sullinger's career. The third-year pro has long called shedding weight a focus. He stated a goal of losing more than 20 pounds last offseason. He openly acknowledges his lack of conditioning and has always suggested he could reach another level with improvement in that area. ... Despite his goals, Sullinger said he has no plans to hire a personal nutritionist, adding that he has lost weight and changed his body before.
  • Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel: The Bill Walker Game! (I mean the Henry Walker Game!) Heck, it could have been the Henry Winkler Game. This was one the Heat could not lose. Somehow they found a way. Barely. Not that that matters in the standings. What matter is a victory gained when not all was going as scripted. So while Goran Dragic was off with his shot, he did keep the ball moving. And he did make the most important free throws of the game.Elfrid Payton's defense against Dragic also was a factor. But the Heat also recognize that this has to be about more than Dragic. And there was a lot more Wednesday. When no one else could, Dwyane Wade stepped up with a 3-pointer when needed in the fourth quarter, when the Heat were 3 of 20 from beyond the arc to that stage. A wayward hero-ball attempt followed. And another. Then Walker turned into the game's true hero. Bang. Bang.
  • Charles F. Gardner of the Journal Sentinel: John Henson played a big role off the bench in Milwaukee's 104-88 rout of the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday night. Henson finished with a season-high 21 points and added nine rebounds, three blocks and two steals while playing 29 minutes. "Left hook, that's my thing," Henson said. "Whenever I can get that off, there's a good chance it can go in." Henson hit 9 of 12 shots and fell just two points shy of his career-high point total established last season against Toronto. Henson had been starting at center for the previous 11 games, but Bucks coach Jason Kidd went back to veteran Zaza Pachulia as the starter on Wednesday. "I thought John was great for us coming off the bench," Kidd said. "He gave us a big spark. We even played through him in the post to give him some opportunities. "He's doing a lot of work for us defensively, rebounding and blocking shots and helping the little guys on the pick-and-roll." The Bucks bench had slipped a bit recently but it was back in form with 50 points against the 76ers, including 13 by Jerryd Bayless, nine by newcomer Tyler Ennis and seven by Jared Dudley.
  • Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic: On trade day a week ago, Suns executives put a selfish label on some of the Suns players who were traded and implored the team to recapture last season's unselfishness. In the first three games after the break, the Suns averaged 24.3 assists after averaging 20.6 on the season. "Everybody gets involved," Jeff Hornacek said. "Everybody's moving the ball. When you hesitate with the ball and don't move it, then it ends up being a one-on-one. Things are designed to move the ball and make quick decisions. Hopefully, we'll do a better job of that and continue that. It also doesn't allow the defense for the other team to set. When you go one-on-one, they're in the help spots."

While Atlanta goes crazy, Hawks are chill

February, 26, 2015
Feb 26
2:11
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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ATLANTA -- There's no fire drill more absurd than the metro Atlanta area bracing for winter precipitation. The region, which has grown exponentially since the Hawks moved to town, has little regard for tradition, so it's almost quaint to see that the afternoon before a forecasted dusting the scene at the Kroger hasn't changed in three decades. Grown adults storm the frozen-food aisle like it's the last chopper out of Saigon. The Storm Team from the local television affiliates are out in full force. By 3 p.m., major thoroughfares typically choking on traffic are deserted.

About that time on Wednesday, Hawks players were told the team's game against the Dallas Mavericks at 7:30 p.m. was off. The governor of Georgia had declared a state of emergency for 50 counties in North Georgia. And beyond any official order, Atlanta is still spooked by last January's Snowpocalypse, which snuck up on the city, stranded tens of thousands and became "Daily Show" gold. Unamused at being a national laughingstock, Atlantans have decided to play it safe this winter.

The city of Atlanta's paranoia notwithstanding, an NBA game isn't cancelled lightly, and about an hour later, Hawks players who were hunkering in to wait out the storm received word that the ball would be tipped, as scheduled. After a rough first quarter, the Hawks played some of their best basketball since January and pummeled the Mavericks 104-87.

Like any honest-to-goodness Atlantan, Hawks forward DeMarre Carroll went to the grocery store with his family when he learned that he needed to return to work.

"We thought we were going to get snowed in, and I was on Aisle 7 when I looked at my phone," Carroll said. "I told my fiancee, 'The game is back on.' So we had to rush, hurry up, get back and get here. I think that had a lot to do with it."

[+] EnlargeAtlanta Hawks leaky roof
AP Photo/John BazemoreA leaky roof delayed Hawks-Mavs for five minutes on Wednesday night at Philips Arena.
The "it" Carroll referred to was the Hawks' ragged start, during which they fell behind 14 to the Mavericks in the first quarter and finished the period down 34-22. Though coach Mike Budenholzer was quick to point out that Dallas was also waiting in basketball purgatory to see if the game was a go, Hawks center Al Horford allowed for the idea that the indecision didn't help the Hawks out of the gate.

"It's hard mentally," Horford said. "You're preparing, then they tell you it's not, so you kind of let your guard down. Then, it's like, 'Wait. We are playing.' It definitely affected me. I'm not going to lie."

Truth be told, the defense wasn't as atrocious as Dallas' 34 points would suggest. Monta Ellis and J.J. Barea combined to shoot 7-for-8 in the quarter without a trip to the line, but six of those seven shots were long 2s off the dribble, largely contested. Yet, the Hawks felt like the Mavericks' backcourt was getting off a little too easy.

"We changed a few coverages," Hawks forward Paul Millsap said. "We were showing out, but we were focused in too much on Dirk [Nowitzki] and the bigs, and the guards were giving us problems, finding shots."

The Hawks' on-court personnel was just one piece of the dysfunction in the first quarter at Philips Arena. Toward the end of the quarter, a small leak in the arena's roof caused a five-minute delay. Three times in the period the official game clock froze, causing a stoppage in play as the hamster required resuscitation before being reinserted onto its wheel.

Out in the stands and up in the concourse, the Hawks and Philips Arena were working short-staffed, as the organization advised game-night staff with travel or family issues to stay at home. All but a couple of concession stands were open for business, and the Hawks' chief revenue officer was pouring beer.

Problem solving has been a Hawks trademark this season, and as the second quarter got underway, the defense addressed the first-quarter hemorrhaging. Hawks defenders didn't exactly neglect Nowitzki, who finished with only four points, but they refocused their efforts of their pick-and-roll coverage onto the Mavericks' platoon of quick guards, which did not include Rajon Rondo, who was serving a one-game suspension for conduct detrimental to the team.

"They're a pretty good defensive team," Nowitzki said. "Their bigs are very mobile. They show on the pick-and-rolls hard. They corral our ball handlers. They rotate around on the perimeter. They have quick hands."

After notching 34 points in the first quarter, the Mavericks managed only 67 over the 53 possessions of the final three quarters -- an anemic 79.1 offensive efficiency rating. On the other end, it was the usual Hawks blueprint: Six players in double digits but none with more than 17.

The Mavericks were also under the impression the game would likely be canceled. They were loading up their luggage in an effort to try to beat the weather out of town when they learned they'd need to be in uniform for the national anthem at 7:30 p.m.

"The afternoon was weird," Nowitzki said. "I don't think the NBA handled it pretty good. They screwed this one up pretty good. They kept telling us, 'We're waiting to hear from the NBA.' The next thing you know, we're all kind of sitting around. We didn't know if we should go to our meeting or not, so I thought they played that pretty poorly. We fought through it and I thought we were ready to play."

Carroll ultimately left Aisle 7, but not before loading up on Little Debbie cakes in the event the Atlanta storm obliterated glucose from the area.

"That's my aisle," Carroll said.

As of publication, the temperature had not yet dropped below freezing at Philips Arena.

In return, KG shows Wolves what could be

February, 26, 2015
Feb 26
12:38
AM ET
McPherson By Steve McPherson
ESPN.com
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It is simply impossible to undersell the hard thrum that began coursing through the Target Center when Kevin Garnett came charging out of the tunnel for the first time in 7½ years wearing a Minnesota Timberwolves uniform. If you knew nothing about Garnett's history with the team, if you were too young or not into basketball, you might not have understood it, but it was impossible to deny it as a felt thing within the arena.

With the four other starters introduced, the screen above the scoreboard fell black, the stands spiked with the stars of cellphones' flashes. Former NBA commissioner David Stern's voice poured out: "With the fifth pick in the 1995 NBA draft, the Minnesota Timberwolves select …"

And it hung there, Kanye West's "Homecoming" rising up into the silence as clip after clip of a young Garnett unspooled and the crowd spiked the tense silence with whistles. They were clips we'd seen perhaps hundreds of times: Garnett leaping on the scorer's table, dusting his palms with talcum, his teammates piling crazily on top of him. But stacked one on top of another, with Garnett waiting there in the darkness by the bench, it built into something towering. When fireworks shot out from the stanchions, it was practically redundant. The place was already on fire.

[+] EnlargeKevin Garnett
David Sherman/Getty ImagesKevin Garnett's impact on the Wolves in his return went beyond the box score.
Of course, there was also a basketball game to play, and it did not start promisingly for the Wolves. Minnesota's first basket didn't come until more than five minutes had passed with the Washington Wizards up 13-1. They were, to put it simply, too keyed up -- both Garnett and the young players on the Wolves.

But almost inexorably, they began to pull it together. From the moment Garnett went to the bench, he was in the players' ears, from Andrew Wiggins to Adreian Payne to Gorgui Dieng. On the court, he shouted his teammates into place, and the Wolves defense took a noticeable step up, showing how much one player who knows how to show and recover can anchor the rotations of a whole team.

By halftime, Minnesota had pulled even with Washington at 42, and the second half began with a bang-bang play that had Ricky Rubio running off a Garnett screen, getting the ball back to him at the top of the arc, and Garnett threading a perfect pass to Wiggins cutting past a downscreen from Nikola Pekovic for a dunk.

Garnett contributed directly in these ways, plus brought in eight rebounds to go with five points, but it was his indirect effect on the other Wolves that stood out. Although they had to overcome that early tightness, once they got into the second half, they played hard without tensing up, with an edge. They cut harder, moved with purpose, snapped the ball, jumped out on screens -- all stuff they've been working on since training camp but with a new kind of energy.

It became clearer as they started to push out the lead in the second half of the second quarter. Going back at least to Rubio's sophomore season -- when Kevin Love began the season injured and never truly came back -- this team has been living too much in its head. The pieces -- Rubio's passing, Love's shooting and rebounding, Pekovic's immovability, Martin's scoring -- looked right on paper but struggled to jell on the floor. The team so far this season has flashed glimpses of a promising future, but it's also full of young players struggling to reconcile their innate feel for the game with all that they're learning.

But as smart as Garnett is on the floor, he lives the game farther down in his body, not even in the heart so much as the belly. Whatever he's sparking in these players, it's only just beginning, and there's no guarantee it won't falter or fail to sustain itself.

But in his first game back, he showed the Wolves' players and reminded the Wolves' fans that it's okay to want: to not just hit your marks and do what you're supposed to but in that moment to want to make the play so badly that you want it more than anything else -- to know that you can make that feeling happen when you need it.

This is the magic and the promise of Kevin Garnett. This is the possibility that the move to acquire him was not just fine or even good, but possibly brilliant.

There are many games to go. At 38 years old, Garnett is likely to miss several of them. The Wolves are going to lose a bunch of them -- they even need to if Garnett's return is truly going to lay the groundwork for future growth. They will, after all, need someone to replace him, and there are strong power forward prospects in this draft.

When the season ends, one win over the Wizards at the tail end of February is not going to look like much. It won't stand out amid the wins and losses, the final box score bearing nothing so epic as Mo Williams' 52-point outburst earlier this season or Love's 31-point, 31-rebound masterpiece against the Knicks in 2010.

But it's not a game that will be quickly forgotten by anyone who was there. For one night, the Timberwolves felt like a different team -- one that mattered, even if it was only to themselves. The trick, now, is making that change stick.

TrueHoop TV Live

February, 25, 2015
Feb 25
12:00
PM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
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We're chatting at 2 p.m. ET.

First Cup: Wednesday

February, 25, 2015
Feb 25
4:46
AM ET
By Nick Borges
ESPN.com
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  • Chris Fedor of the Northeast Ohio Media Group: Speaking to reporters after the game, Kevin Love admitted something that has been apparent for quite some time: Cleveland's balance has helped take the offense to a new level, with a different guy capable of stepping up each night. Tuesday night belonged to Love, who had the hot hand early. "You just have to have a good rhythm and I felt I had that tonight, at least from the outside," Love said. "I knew it was going to be tough for them to guard me with their bigs that just aren't used to that. Being a 4-man and knowing the game, at least for that position, continues to go away from the basket, it's a tough guard. I knew the shot was going to be there all night and when you have LeBron finding guys the entire night it's just really tough to guard." He used that versatility to his advantage, with 14 of his 16 shots coming from three-point range. He made eight triples on the night, falling one shy of matching J.R. Smith's record of nine three-pointers made against the Pistons. "Kev had it going," James said.
  • Jeff Seidel of the Detroit Free Press: The fog machine went off, and the laser light show started, and Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores was sitting on the sideline. In the midst of this season of transition and transformation for the Pistons, here came Tayshaun Prince, back in the starting lineup for the Pistons, a blast from the past. On Tuesday night, Prince started his 837th game for the Pistons, counting playoffs and regular season. And he received a loud standing ovation from the crowd in the Palace before the Pistons played the Cleveland Cavaliers. It felt like old times all over again. ... Somebody asked him if the atmosphere in the Palace on Tuesday night compared to the old days, early in his career. When Prince was 24, the Pistons won the 2004 NBA title. "No," Prince said. "No. This place was rockin' man, no matter what the situation was at that time." No. This isn't the same. And this team is certainly not the same. Prince is in a different place now. He'll turn 35 on Saturday, the old veteran. But he still has something he can give this team, once he gets his legs back.
  • Jorge Castillo of The Washington Post: A seething Marcin Gortat, usually gregarious and effusive, was blunt Tuesday night as the Washington Wizards gathered their belongings for a late-night flight to Minneapolis. The Wizards had lost their fourth straight game, but his frustration went beyond the team result. Gortat spent three quarters tormenting the undersized Golden State Warriors front line. Coming off a 24-point, 10-rebound performance in Sunday’s loss to the Detroit Pistons, he had 16 points and 11 rebounds through three quarters of the Wizards’ 114-107 loss to the Warriors. But he didn’t log a second on the floor in the final period, continuing a recent trend of sitting out fourth quarters. Visibly perturbed after the game, Gortat said he expected to play in the fourth quarter. Asked if he was discouraged by Wittman’s decision to bench him, Gortat declined to respond. “Uh,” Gortat said before pausing for six seconds. “I’ll just say next question.” Coach Randy Wittman explained he decided not to play Gortat to counter the Warriors’ small-ball lineup, which featured the 6-foot-9 David Lee at center for most of the quarter. ... Point guard John Wall echoed Wittman’s reasoning. “It’s tough when a team goes with all five shooters,” Wall said.
  • Diamond Leung of The Oakland Tribune: Warriors guard Stephen Curry is scheduled to speak at the White House on Wednesday in support of the fight against malaria and could meet with President Obama. Curry, whose team plays at Washington on Tuesday, for the past three seasons has donated three insecticide-treated mosquito nets for every 3-pointer he makes as part of the United Nations Foundation’s Nothing But Nets campaign. Curry traveled to Tanzania in 2013 as part of the campaign to assist in the distribution of 38,000 bed nets, which are designed to be cost-effective in helping families in sub-Saharan Africa avoid malaria infection. Curry has been active with malaria issues since attending Davidson College, where his roommate, Bryant Barr, encouraged him to get involved. The White House event will mark 10 years of American leadership in fighting malaria, according to the President’s Malaria Initiative, which was launched by George W. Bush in 2005 and expanded under the Obama administration.
  • Brad Townsend of The Dallas Morning News: Though Tuesday night’s heated verbal exchange between Rick Carlisle and Rajon Rondo probably shocked many, Mavericks veteran Dirk Nowitzki pointed out that he’s seen others. “In my time now, in 17 years, I’ve been a part of a few,” Nowitzki said. “Bother guys are very competitive, want to win. So that was unfortunate, but like I said that wasn’t the first time I’ve seen anything like that happen and it won’t be the last.” During Carlisle’s seven seasons in Dallas, though, no one could recall a player-coach exchange quite this heated. During Dallas’ 2010-2011 NBA championship season, Jason Terry and J.J. Barea got into a shouting match during the game after Terry was critical of a play Barea made. Carlisle interceded and chewed out Terry. In essence, the coach had Barea’s back. “Sometimes dust-ups can even bring you together,” Nowitzki said. “I remember Coach had a dust-up with Jet right before the playoffs in 2011 and that probably was the best thing that happened to us — was Jet was on his best behavior throughout the whole playoffs. Sometimes stuff like that can bring both sides together.”
  • Mike Ganter of the Toronto Sun: Between them, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan were a combined 3-for-16 in the second half. Mix that with the 20 points off 12 turnover in the half the Mavericks were gifted and it’s pretty easy to see how a game that had looked so good for the Raptors for three quarters could wind up in the loss column. Lowry refused to use fatigue as an excuse. “I don’t even think it was fatigue,” Lowry said. “I don’t know what it was tonight. We played hard and they just went on a run. We dropped our heads and myself I couldn’t make a shot.” Lowry for the first time all season admitted he’s in a bit of a funk. “They started blitzing me and double teaming me but they are shots I should make and right now I’m just not playing good basketball,” Lowry said. “Personally, I don’t believe I am.” That’s not to say the 99-92 final wasn’t a fitting result as the Mavericks were the much better team down the stretch. Unlike the night before in New Orleans, the Mavs had a clear advantage in the rest department and took advantage of that. Casey, though, saw as much good in last night’s game than he has in most of the Toronto losses this year.
  • Candace Buckner of The Indianapolis Star: Even when expecting an offensive flurry and the torrent of noise cascading down from the cheap seats inside Chesapeake Energy Arena, the anticipation isn't enough to actually endure the blows. In the quiet time before Tuesday night's game, the Indiana Pacers had prepared for everything that makes the Oklahoma City Thunder one of the most feared home teams in the NBA. But then, Russell Westbrook shrieked and scored. The Thunder splashed 3s. The sold-out arena went unhinged and the Pacers, for the first time in more than a month, digested a blowout defeat, 105-92. Indiana never held the lead and by the fourth quarter had fallen into a 23-point deficit even before coach Frank Vogel emptied the bench of his DNP crew to finish the game. "I don't remember the last time," C.J. Miles said, referring to the team being on the wrong end of a big loss. Miles would have had to think all the way back to the Jan. 21 game in Atlanta to recall that bad memory.
  • Jenni Carlson of The Oklahoman: Russell Westbrook sat out the fourth quarter Tuesday night.Didn’t do much sitting, though. There was arm waving. There was dancing. There was fist pumping and high fiving and smiling (yes, smiling) and head bobbing and merry making. These days, the Thunder superstar is worth watching no matter where he is on the court. On a night that the Thunder dispatched the Pacers, 105-92, grand play came from many. Serge Ibaka looked like he might not miss a shot. Enes Kanter showed offensive skill that will make Scott Brooks think long and hard about who will start at center once Steven Adams is healthy. And the Thunder bench was flat-out spectacular. Yet, there were times when you simply didn’t want to take your eyes off Westbrook. “He just continues to stack games up on top of one another,” Brooks said. “He’s played well.” Well? Westbrook’s stat line would suggest a more glowing term is in order — 20 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists. And remember, he notched that triple-double in three quarters, the second time this season he has done that.
  • Rick Morrissey of the Chicago Sun-Times: It’s looking more and more as if Derrick Rose’s body wasn’t built for the NBA, or maybe more to the point, that his knees weren’t built for the torque his explosive style of basketball puts on them. His spirit is most definitely willing, but that flesh of his is weak. The Bulls announced Tuesday night that their star guard would undergo surgery for a torn meniscus in his right knee. It will be his third knee surgery in almost 34 months, and his entire career is now in question. If you’re someone who relies on your knees for a living, you don’t go under the knife that many times and not feel the effects of it long-term. What a sad, depressing story it is. Many of us had held out hope that Rose would be fine after surgeries to each of his knees. We had seen how much he cared, had seen how much effort the kid had put into his rehabs. We had heard all the criticism that he wasn’t being tough enough in his comeback. Whether you liked him or hated him, everybody was frustrated by his lack of progress. Looking back on it now, maybe he knew something we didn’t.
  • David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune: The surreal news release came from the Bulls at 9:38 p.m., words that had to be read twice to be believed: "Derrick Rose reported today with right knee pain. An exam and subsequent MRI confirmed a medial meniscus tear of the right knee. Surgery will be scheduled, after which a timeline for his return will be determined." All over the town, jaws dropped and stomachs turned as shock slowly settled in. Huh? This couldn't be. No. Way. Not D-Rose. Not again. No athlete deserves three surgeries in three years, let alone a former MVP playing in his hometown. No matter how many bizarre things Rose said on the record, at least he was on the floor. No matter how crazy Rose drove you with his recent nonchalance or how many bricks he laid from 3-point range, as long as he was driving to the basket in good health, the Bulls had a chance to think NBA title. Now what are we to think about the Bulls' chances? (Not much.) What are we to make of Rose's future after a second surgery on the same right knee repaired in 2013? (Iffier than ever.) Wasn't Patrick Kane's injury enough angst for one night in the city? (Absolutely.)

First Cup: Tuesday

February, 24, 2015
Feb 24
4:43
AM ET
By Nick Borges
ESPN.com
Archive
  • Ronald Tillery of The Commercial-Appeal: With boxing icon Floyd Mayweather sitting courtside, the Grizzlies used their speed and craftiness on defense to keep the NBA’s second highest scoring team on the ropes all night. Point guard Mike Conley’s steal on the Los Angeles Clippers’ second to last possession ended up being the Grizzlies’ last strong jab in their 90-87 victory Monday night in Staples Center. The Griz led by a single point but the Clippers had the ball with a chance to win with less than 15 seconds left. That’s when Conley stole the ball from Chris Paul and sprinted the other way. Conley was eventually fouled and converted two free throws, leaving just 1.5 ticks on the clock. The game ended with Matt Barnes throwing the ball the length of the court and right into the hands of Courtney Lee. Los Angeles had no timeouts left to advance the ball. Fittingly, defensive stops saved the Griz.
  • Ted Lewis of The Advocate: Whatever Dell Demps thinks his team’s playoff odds are, he isn’t saying. He won’t even refute the 10 percent notion. “We’ve still got an opportunity to make a playoff run,” he said. “But I’m not qualified to answer anything about somebody else’s numbers.” And while Demps is quick to point out that although the Pelicans have suffered a seemingly inordinate number of injuries for the second straight season, every NBA team has to deal with them to some extent. He has not been happy about the team’s continuing inability to step up when others are out. The losses to Utah and Indiana after Davis’ original injury and the one at Orlando were the Pelicans’ ninth, 10th and 11th losses to teams with losing records. In contrast, they’re 11-10 against the nine Western Conference teams ahead of them in the standings. Monday’s though, was the second against Toronto, the No. 2 team in the East, with Davis and Holiday out. Go figure. ... The Pelicans should be able to hang close in the duration. Over the next 12 days, they play seven games, five of them at home and five of them against teams with losing records, starting with Brooklyn in the Smoothie King Center on Wednesday. Given the Pelicans’ record in games they were supposed to win, nothing is a given. Except the unexpected.
  • K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune: The Bulls are in no position to judge victories, and that's six in seven games after Monday's 87-71 triumph over the Bucks at the United Center. This season hasn't been a particularly aesthetically pleasing one. To wit, all the improved offense has done is raise concerns about the defensive issues — and on and on and on. It's odd, to be sure: On one hand, the Bulls now sit 15 games over .500 and a game ahead of the Cavaliers for third in the Eastern Conference. On the other, players keep shaking their heads postgame, trying to clearly voice the team's issues, answering more questions about what's wrong than right. "We're OK with where we're at," guard Jimmy Butler said. "I'm not going to say we like it because we know we can be much better on both ends of the floor. And we've got to get it turned around before the playoffs start." Indeed, they do. Monday brought the usual mixed bag of positives and negatives, the biggest being the regular lineup is now 15-4. There was also a contribution of 20 points off the bench from Tony Snell, playing extended minutes for the ill Kirk Hinrich. There was Nikola Mirotic's fourth career double-double of 16 points and 14 rebounds as the rookie logged extra time with Taj Gibson sick as well.
  • Joseph Goodman of The Miami Herald: It should be noted that Erik Spoelstra has been a rock of positivity throughout his team’s trying season. Depending on perspective, Spoelstra is on his fourth or fifth rebuild of the Heat’s lineup this season, and each time the coach and team have been handed a setback or injury, they have adapted and improved. Spoelstra, of course, is facing his toughest rebuild yet. “We’re coming off an emotional 48 hours, and we had to address that, but [Sunday] was just about moving forward and trying to find some solutions for this team and make the new guys feel comfortable, but also the guys that are already here, getting them all on the same page,” Spoelstra said. There have been new wrinkles, necessary changes, rebuilds and all-out reinventions of the Heat’s system, but the team’s attitude hasn’t faltered yet. “We’re still in a position where we still have a playoff spot, and that says a lot about our team and says a lot about our character,” co-captain Udonis Haslem said. “Obviously, things haven’t gone the way we would like them to go, but we continue to work the process, and I’m proud of the way we responded as a group. Wish we could be a lot better off health-wise, but it hasn’t worked out like that.”
  • Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle: Terrence Jones put one last offensive rebound back in, turning the final minutes of a tight game into a rout, then leaned his head back to shout to the Toyota Center rafters as he bopped his way back down the floor. With power forwards all over the Rockets' rotation now that Jones was ready to play starter's minutes, coach Kevin McHale decided he could no longer have one of his young big men spending so much time sitting next to him. So for the only time this season, save a brief experiment with starting then-newly acquired Josh Smith, McHale made a lineup change that was not forced by an injury. Jones on Monday returned to the starting lineup for the first time since the season's fourth game. It was not how he started but how he finished that made the move pay off and sent the Rockets past the Minnesota Timberwolves 113-102.
  • Brad Rock of the Deseret News: Dennis Lindsey will report to the gym Tuesday morning around nine. But there will be no scouting reports, players-to-be-named-later, draft picks, trades or cash considerations involved. The Jazz’s general manager will be watching his favorite team for pure enjoyment. The object of his affection won’t be the Jazz, though. It will be the Olympus Titans, who meet East in the first round of the state 4A playoffs. Five days after dealing Enes Kanter and Steve Novak to Oklahoma City, Lindsey will be watching his sons, Jake and Matt, chasing the brass ring. “I’d say 75 percent of the time I do a good job of keeping the emotions in check,” Lindsey says. “But if it happens to be a tough matchup, or a heightened game, as you can imagine, I can have some opinions.” His first opinion might be surprising: No “daddy coaching.”
  • A. Sherrod Blakely of CSNNE.com: Isaiah Thomas really did try to say all the right things after Boston’s 115-110 victory over his old team, the Phoenix Suns. He wanted to say that it was good to get a win, regardless of the opponent. But this wasn’t just any game or opponent. This was the same team that signed him to a four-year, $27 million deal this past summer and then turned around and traded him months into it. And as much as he would have loved to have said Monday’s game wasn’t personal, it was so, so personal. “It meant a lot,” Thomas said afterwards. “I just wanted to win at the end of the day.” And then came the smile, followed by, “it felt good to beat a team that traded you away.” Making the night even sweeter was Thomas coming through with a four-point play with 1:37 to play and the Celtics clinging to a one-point lead. He finished with 21 points.
  • Tim Bontemps of the New York Post: Even Markel Brown was stunned by his performance in his first NBA start Monday night. “I didn’t realistically think about even playing that much,” Brown said with a smile after stuffing the stat sheet with 10 points, 11 rebounds, two assists, two steals and four blocked shots in 45 minutes — all setting or tying career-highs — to help the Nets cruise to a 110-82 victory over the Nuggets on Monday night. ... Brown impressed Lionel Hollins as far back as training camp, when he repeatedly earned the praise of the Nets coach. But after falling ill for several days after the team returned from its preseason trip to China, Brown fell down the depth chart and spent the first few months of the season almost exclusively watching from the sidelines. But after playing 15 minutes in Friday’s win over the Lakers, Hollins chose to start Brown in part due to injuries to Jarrett Jack (hamstring) and Bojan Bogdanovic (ankle), and Brown didn’t disappoint. A wiry, athletic 6-foot-3 guard, Brown — whom the Nets took with the 44th pick in last year’s draft out of Oklahoma State — was all over the court, getting a pair of highlight-reel blocks on jump shots, throwing down a huge alley-oop from Deron Williams and giving the Nets an adrenaline shot of athleticism they have lacked for most of the year.
  • Jenni Carlson of The Oklahoman: Striding into the reading room that now bears his name at Martin Luther King Elementary, Russell Westbrook was greeted by a chorus of oohs and aahs. He’s getting that reaction a lot lately. Monday afternoon was all about his latest community endeavor. Through his Why Not? Foundation, the Thunder superstar opened a reading room in an Oklahoma City school for the second time this academic year. He wants to promote literacy. He wants to provide a welcoming environment. He wants to encourage kids who might be low income and at risk. But even as Westbrook hoped to inspire off the court, that reaction from the kids when he arrived was a reminder of what he’s doing on the court. The way he’s been playing is worthy of oohs and aahs. Even more than that, it’s worthy of MVP consideration.

NBA geek stories

February, 23, 2015
Feb 23
1:38
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
David Thorpe with first-person tales of analytics informing decisions by the Rockets, 76ers and Mavericks.

video

It's all geek to me

February, 23, 2015
Feb 23
1:36
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
Kevin Pelton says there are some things teams do on the court that telegraph they are not embracing the lessons of analytics.

video

First Cup: Monday

February, 23, 2015
Feb 23
4:42
AM ET
By Nick Borges
ESPN.com
Archive
  • Ronald Tillery of The Commercial-Appeal: The Portland Trail Blazers unloaded a bunch of long-range bombs. The Grizzlies emphatically countered when they brought out the ball and chain. Just when it seemed as though the Trail Blazers’ impressive 3-point shooting would rule the night, the Grizzlies’ lockdown, fourth-quarter defense propelled them to a 98-92 victory Sunday night in the Moda Center. Portland made 13 3-pointers, including seven in the third quarter when it put Memphis in a 13-point hole. The Griz, though, began the final period on a 23-8 run that included a stretch in which they scored 12 straight points. By the time Tony Allen’s dunk gave the Griz an 87-85 lead, they hadn’t allowed the Trail Blazers to score for more than four minutes. “We weathered the storm,” Allen said.
  • Chris Vivlamore of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: There must be something in the water. For the second time this season, the Hawks rebounded from a blowout loss at home with a victory in Milwaukee. The Hawks suffered through a dreadful third quarter, losing a 15-point lead before pulling away for a 97-86 victory over the Bucks at the Bradley Center on Sunday afternoon. The win, which snapped a season-long two-game losing streak, came after the Hawks were blown out by the Raptors on Friday following the All-Star break. The Hawks avenged a 30-point home loss to the Bucks following the December holiday break in the second of back-to-back games. “Activity,” Al Horford said of the difference in the past two games. “I feel like we were much better, more in sync. That first game after All-Star (break) is always hard. We were able to get it together tonight and have a much better effort.” The Hawks (44-12) have won six straight games in Milwaukee.
  • Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon-Journal: For all of the talk of the Cavs’ Big Three, I don’t think it’s an overstatement to declare the Little Three of J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Timofey Mozgov have saved the Cavs’ season. “The three of them have really changed the fortunes of this team because of their particular skill sets, but more importantly the attitude they brought and the way they fit right in with our guys,” David Blatt said. “They’re all good players and very good people. They’ve all jelled with their teammates quickly and easily and naturally. We know the three of them can play and they’ve shown that since they’ve come here.” The original plan was for Shumpert to supplant Smith in the starting lineup, but that has obviously been tabled at least for now. The Cavs have won 16 of their last 18, so now is not the time to start juggling things. Besides, Smith is enjoying this starting role and even told me the other day he prefers to start. 7. Smith is in a curious position with his contract. He is playing so well, he could decline his $6.4 million player option and force the Cavs to renegotiate a longer term deal. Or he could pick up his option and hope to cash in on the 2016 spending bonanza when the cap explodes. But that’s a concern for the summer, not now.
  • Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press: All Reggie Jackson needed was to see the ball go in the hoop this afternoon. Suffering through a nightmarish debut with the Pistons, Jackson missed his first eight shots and nerves forced him to exit the game in the first quarter and he promptly vomited. But veterans John Lucas III and Anthony Tolliver were there with comforting words. And when he finally got to the line late in the second quarter against the Washington Wizards and swished a free throw, it was time to play ball. "Anthony told me once I got the first free throw, 'the lid's off the basket now.' Just continue to be yourself and just don't put too much pressure on myself." Jackson recovered to score 17 points, hand out five assists and grab five rebounds in helping the Pistons to a 106-89 victory at the Palace. ... Like a new employee trying to make a good impression on the first day at a new job, Jackson was a bundle of nerves. "He had a tough first half," Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said.
  • Gregg Doyel of The Indianapolis Star: There is a very good Rodney Stuckey, and there is one who is not so very good, and there is no mystery about the difference. The very good Stuckey, as weird as this might sound, is the one who doesn't start. Stuckey didn't start on Sunday night. Pity, Golden State. With Stuckey coming off the bench to score 30 points for the second game in a row, the Pacers rallied from a dismal opening quarter to beat the NBA's best team, 104-98, albeit a team missing its best player. Warriors guard Stephen Curry sat out with an ankle injury. Anyone around here feel bad for Golden State? Hope not. The Pacers have played all season without their best player, Paul George. They also have played weeks at a time without David West and George Hill. And without C.J. Watson and C.J. Miles. And without Stuckey. But 55 games into the season they have hit their stride with Stuckey coming off the bench. I'd love to give Pacers coach Frank Vogel credit for the move, because I'm a big Vogel guy, but he had nothing to do with this particular discovery. He was determined to put Stuckey in the starting lineup until Stuckey came to him three games ago and asked him to please stop.
  • Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel: After six games, what James Borrego will emphasize as the Orlando Magic's interim coach is becoming clearer. His defense will attempt to build a barrier around its paint. On Sunday night, the Magic took advantage of the Philadelphia 76ers' shortage of quality big men, played quality one-on-one defense and beat the Sixers 103-98 at Amway Center. Orlando outscored Philadelphia 50-26 in the paint. "We're going to hang our hat there," Borrego said. "That's what we do. We want to win the paint every single night." Magic center Nikola Vucevic led the way, scoring 31 points and collecting 14 rebounds, both game-highs, and guard Willie Green added 16 points off Orlando's bench. The Magic extended their winning streak to three games — their first three-game winning streak this season and their first three-game winning streak since Feb. 5-9, 2014.
  • Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman: The Thunder’s peculiar season continues. Extreme Makeover: Thunder edition. Kevin Durant is laid up again, cut on to fix soreness in his foot, but in the two most recent games, without Durant and with four newcomers traded in from Salt Lake and Detroit, the Thunder has prospered. Thanks to Russell Westbrook, who is playing the best basketball of his life and the best basketball of anyone in the NBA. But also thanks to the meshing of the new guys, who have acclimated on the fly. Tougher tests await — at Phoenix on Thursday, at Portland on Friday — but this is an excellent start to the post-Reggie Jackson/post-Kendrick Perkins era. “Definitely has been a challenge,” Scotty Brooks said of this crazy season, in which patchwork lineups have been the norm, not the exception. But the challenge is made easier when Westbrook plays like this: 21 points, 8-of-12 shooting, a career high 17 assists, eight rebounds, in just 27.5 minutes.
  • Eddie Sefko of The Dallas Morning News: Dirk Nowitzki’s longtime mentor Holger Geschwindner wrapped up his midseason visit over the weekend and headed back to Germany. But before he did, he put in some time working with Dallas Mavericks point guard Rajon Rondo. “Holger helps everybody,” Rick Carlisle said. “He spent quite a bit of time with him before the [All-Star] break, too. I’m pretty certain that work is going to be a positive thing. Holger is a brilliant guy when it comes to shooting. I don’t know if there’s anybody on the whole planet I would recommend more than him.”
  • Bill Oram of The Orange County Register: Byron Scott was a man without a job in the summer of 2013, and the Boston Celtics needed a new coach. The Celtics search was stealthy and quick. General Manager, and longtime guard, Danny Ainge landed Brad Stevens. But what if they had been interested in Scott. Would he have been interested? “Probably not,” Scott said. “Seriously. Probably not. (Couldn’t have) coached or played for them. I couldn’t be like Rick Fox.” Fox spent the first five years of his career with the Celtics before signing with the Lakers in 1997.

The Hawks' defensive Muppet Show

February, 22, 2015
Feb 22
8:02
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
video
MILWAUKEE -- Everything you’ve heard about the Atlanta Hawks’ appealing style of play -- the elegant motion, the silky shooting touch, the sharing of the basketball, the beautiful choreography -- not much of that was on display the first three quarters on Sunday afternoon in Milwaukee. What’s been less discussed this season, though, is the Hawks’ solid No. 6-ranked defense, behind which they locked down the Bucks for a 97-86 win.

“It was a complete turnaround [defensively], a lot better than the past few games,” Hawks forward Paul Millsap said. “The aggression was there. The discipline was there.”

Millsap made a distinction between effort and discipline, a variation on the old John Wooden trope, “Never mistake activity and achievement.” The Hawks aren’t a team predisposed to phoning it in. But in their recent spate of ugly losses, there’s been a lack of precision, which is death for a scheme that relies on being in the right place at the right time, Exhibit A being their 105-80 hemorrhaging at the hands of Toronto on Friday night.

“Last game we felt like there was no discipline,” Millsap said. “We have to have help. We have to have our big -- he’s got to be back there. We got to have guys rotating. We have to have guys boxing out.”

[+] EnlargeAl Horford
Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty ImagesAl Horford and the Hawks applied enough defense to keep the East front-runners 6 1/2 games in the lead.
The Hawks nailed their coverages on Sunday and, even better, applied their smarts to shore up what could’ve been some real vulnerabilities. Case in point: One of the better defensive sequences of the night for Atlanta came in the second quarter when the Hawks left Dennis Schroder out on the floor to guard the bigger O.J. Mayo.

Sniffing the mismatch, the Bucks dumped the ball in to Mayo in the post against Schroder. In an instant, Hawks center Al Horford blitzed Mayo, pinning the Bucks guard against the end line. The Bucks aren’t dummies, and they did what any team worth its salt would do in that situation -- send the guy Horford was guarding, in this case beloved former Hawk Zaza Pachulia, on a basket cut.

But there was Mike Scott, hardly a nominee for defensive player of the year, sliding over from his assignment on the weak side to wedge himself between Pachulia and the rim. After Mayo kicked the ball out of the double-team to the perimeter, the grenade landed back in his hands with the shot clock expiring. Another Horford trap, with Mayo losing the ball out of bounds against the pressure.

The Hawks don’t run a lot of traps, which is why I asked Horford if that was a new coverage scheme triggered when Schroder was matched up against a bigger shooting guard. Turns out that was entirely Horford’s call.

“I saw an opportunity, and we can do that because I know my teammates will cover for me,” Horford said. “There’s a lot of trust.”

Just as the Hawks run a good amount of read-and-react offense, they're given the same kind of freedom to make intuitive, opportunistic decisions on the defensive end as they are in their vaunted offense. Most coaching staffs in the league won’t vest that kind of trust in their team, either because the sense is there isn’t a collective wherewithal to manage those kinds of decisions, or because they’re control freaks who prefer schemes with no room for errors in interpretation. Not so with the Hawks.

“That’s the beauty of our team -- trusting each other, not only on the offensive end, but the defensive end,” Hawks defensive stopper DeMarre Carroll said. “Our defense is just like our offense. Coach allows freedom.”

With freedom comes responsibility, and for the first time in a good while on Sunday, the Hawks played on a string -- “like Muppets,” said Carroll -- and accountability is fundamental to that process. Otherwise, for example, Pachulia is left alone under the basket, where Mayo finds him for an easy two. Therein lies the difference between good and bad defensive teams.

Even at 44-12, the Hawks aren’t without weaknesses. They struggle on the boards, ranking dead last in offensive rebounding percentage -- though, admittedly, Mike Budenholzer subscribes to the coaching school that preaches transition defense, even at the expense of the second-chance opportunities. But the Hawks rank only 23rd on the defensive glass, which is a cause for concern.

On Sunday, the Muppet Show cleaned up, collecting 77 percent of the Bucks’ misses and gobbling up more than a third of its own. In a game in which Atlanta was outshot from the field and equaled at the free throw line, the margin was crucial, as were the 24 Milwaukee turnovers the Hawks forced with plays like the Horford-Schroder trap.

After the game, the visitors locker room at the Bradley Center was cheery, as the Hawks rushed to catch a flight back to Atlanta, where they’ll take on Dallas on Wednesday night. In front of the locker of Kyle Korver, whose three 3-pointers during the first 150 seconds of the fourth quarter stretched a 2-point lead to 11, sat a large pizza. This for a fitness freak who carries boulders across the floor of the ocean during the offseason?

“Sometimes you just need the calories,” Korver said.

Another hiccup for the East-leading Hawks

February, 20, 2015
Feb 20
11:53
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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ATLANTA -- The fear with any streak is that it’s nothing more than an outlier, a torrid affair that doesn’t represent reality so much as an idealized version of it. This is the worry that’s threatening to creep into Atlanta, where the Hawks dropped their fourth game in seven outings since their historic 19-game run with a 105-80 loss to the Toronto Raptors on Friday.

It’s not in the Hawks’ character to panic, nor should they. Stinkbombs are inevitable over an 82-game season and there’s no shame in falling to a Raptors team that may have played its most complete defensive performance of the season. The Raptors wanted to neutralize the Hawks by accelerating their perimeter rotations and chasing the Hawks off the 3-point line. Mission accomplished.

“You have to give Toronto a lot of credit,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “They gave it to us good tonight. There are a lot of reason we didn’t play well. They were a big part of that.”

Another reason: crisp Raptors rotations aside, the Hawks shot horrendously. Kyle Korver missed 9 of 11 from beyond the arc, far and away his most missed attempts of the season. Only Shelvin Mack shot better than 50 percent from the field for Atlanta, and those buckets were firmly in the time o’ garbage. There’s a certain comfort in the ugliness because nobody in the Hawks' locker room believes for an instant that these numbers are any more sustainable than the ungodly shot charts they posted during January.

[+] EnlargePero Antic
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesPero Antic and the Hawks came out of the All-Star break with a thud against the visiting Raptors.
“Missing shots, you can’t [be concerned],” Hawks forward DeMarre Carroll said. “The shots we took were good shots. We just missed them. We had a week off. We just have to get back in the lab, get to the film.”

This is a team of basketball cinephiles, as film study was cited by Budenholzer, Carroll, Korver and Al Horford as required viewing Saturday before the Hawks take off for Milwaukee to face the Bucks on Sunday afternoon. Though nobody would explicitly lay the loss on the Hawks’ heavy presence at All-Star weekend in New York, Korver allowed for the possibility that a group so reliant on rhythm, timing and routine probably didn’t benefit from the disruption and demands of the festivities.

Still, the Hawks now face realities they knew to be true but until recently hadn’t had to confront. As selfless and appealing as they play on both ends of the floor, those systems have vulnerabilities. For one, pass-happy teams produce beautiful basketball, but passes present a greater risk of turnovers than dull iso sets. On Friday, their classical ballet turned into a game of Twister. The Hawks turned the ball over on almost a quarter of their possessions, which netted the Raps 30 points.

“We were just sloppy,” Horford said. “We were throwing the ball all over the place. Bad turnovers.”

On the other end, the Hawks rely on smart, situational coverages that require trust and decisiveness. Apart from Carroll and possibly Horford (who routinely has to match up against larger centers), they lack the personnel to fall back on lockdown, one-on-one defense. And on Friday, they suffered an unusual number of breakdowns.

“You have to rely on defense when you don’t make shots, and I don’t think we were good on the defensive end of the court,” Budenholzer said. “I’m more concerned with the shots [the Raptors] were getting.”

There’s a popular perception that the Atlanta’s Achilles' heel resides in its lack of a volume scorer, but that’s not really it. The Hawks didn’t fail on Friday night -- or in their excruciating loss at Boston just before the break -- because there wasn’t a superstar to take over. They lost because when you operate a system, you commit to a process, and right now that process looks gummed up.

Fortunately for the Hawks, an exquisite version of that system won them 19 games in a row and bought them some breathing room at the top of the Eastern Conference. Let the FilmFest begin.

Suns reload for future with flurry of trades

February, 20, 2015
Feb 20
6:47
PM ET
Schwartz By Michael Schwartz
ESPN.com
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Goran DragicAP Photo/Rick ScuteriBy trading the unhappy Goran Dragic, the Suns' young core got even younger.
PHOENIX -- The Suns didn’t have much of a choice.

By making public his intentions not to re-sign with the team when he could become an unrestricted free agent this offseason, Goran Dragic forced the Suns to make a move or risk losing their third-team All-NBA performer from a season ago for nothing, a potentially disastrous outcome for a front office intent on asset accumulation.

So in a flurry of moves before the deadline Thursday, out went Dragic and in came Brandon Knight as Phoenix made three trades minutes before the deadline to reshuffle the deck and make one of the league’s youngest cores even younger.

“At the end of the day, I’m absolutely convinced that we are in a better place now than we have been since I’ve been here,” Suns president of basketball operations Lon Babby said at a news conference Friday.

The main reason for that is the Suns’ crucial 2015 free agent now becomes the 23-year-old restricted free agent Knight rather than the 28-year-old Dragic, who can become an unrestricted free agent.

If the team signs Knight to an extension of at least four seasons, Eric Bledsoe (age 25), Knight and Markieff Morris (25) will be under contract through the 2018-19 season and Alex Len (21) will be under team control through 2016-17. Dragic, meanwhile, turns 29 in May and will be eligible for a more lucrative long-term contract this offseason than Knight based on his years of experience in the league.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Knight
Gary Dineen/Getty ImagesBrandon Knight's ability as a closer is a welcome addition for a Suns team that struggles to finish off opponents.
“A major motivation was going from 28 [Dragic’s age] to 23 [Knight’s], and I think that’s a major positive for us,” Babby said. “The group will hopefully stay together and grow together and reach their prime together.

“Maybe if we’re lucky, by that time Tim Duncan will be 48 years old and things will begin to change in the Western Conference. You have to look at the whole picture of where we are and where everybody else is.”

That whole picture includes a loaded Western Conference with seven teams boasting winning percentages of at least .630. Unless one of those teams falters, that leaves the Suns fighting with Oklahoma City for the final playoff spot in the West -- the teams currently own identical 29-25 records -- and, of course, that’s just to reach the postseason, to say nothing of making a run.

Beyond their building blocks, the Suns’ youth includes recent first-rounders Archie Goodwin (20), T.J. Warren (21) and Reggie Bullock (23), as well as overseas stash Bodgan Bogdanovic (22) and the three first-round picks acquired Thursday to keep the Suns’ future pick stash full.

“The principle we follow is the same principle that we’ve been following for the last couple years,” Babby said. “We’re not going to do anything to help us in the short run if it’s going to hurt us in the long run. We expect to compete for this playoff spot, and we’re excited about the opportunity. We get the challenge, but at the same time we have to be focused on the future.”

The Suns’ wealth of draft picks and young prospects could put them in a good trading position the next time a disgruntled star seeks to force his way to a new squad, but for now the Suns are relying on the improvement of their young core.

That now includes Knight, a player Suns general manager Ryan McDonough lauded for being a “closer,” citing his stats in late-game situations. Knight has scored 85 points in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter or OT when the score is within five points, the seventh-most such points in the league. The Suns could use help in clutch situations as they are just 2-9 in games decided by three points or fewer, the second-worst win percentage in the league in such games.

Knight will now share a backcourt with a fellow former Kentucky guard in Bledsoe, giving the Suns a pair of multitalented players to push the pace and share lead guard roles just as Bledsoe did last season with Dragic.

As a 40.9 percent 3-point shooter this season, Knight could be a good fit playing off the ball while also being able to attack when called upon.

“We have two very high-level guys in Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight that we feel like have the potential to be All-Stars and have the potential to be a terrific backcourt for years to come,” McDonough said.

The Suns have spent much of this season in one of the top eight spots in the Western Conference, yet Thursday’s activity is a reminder that Phoenix is still a rebuilding team, albeit one with a better record than most of the league’s other young teams, as McDonough pointed out at Friday’s news conference.

The team now has additional future cap space with Isaiah Thomas off the books, draft picks far enough down the line that Babby joked owner Robert Sarver’s children will be making one of the selections, and a potential cornerstone player five years younger than the cornerstone the Suns shipped out.

“We have a lot of young players we feel are just starting to scratch the surface of their potential, and we feel like their best basketball is ahead of them,” McDonough said. “The goal is to get to that championship level. Every move we’ve made over the last couple years is with that in mind. I feel like we’re getting closer to seeing the core of the next great Suns team, but we’re not going to stop until we get it right.”

Who wins from 'Hack-A-Shaq' strategy?

February, 20, 2015
Feb 20
1:45
PM ET
Adande By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com
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Since appreciation for the beauty of basketball can’t stop coaches from intentionally fouling bad free throw shooters away from the ball, perhaps we can appeal on these grounds: the hoops higher-ups hate it. I’m not talking about the occupants of the NBA offices, who continue to pay lip service to their distaste for the slew of fouls but refuse to legislate against it. I’m talking about the deities, the basketball gods. They have a way of punishing those who desecrate the game by fouling repeatedly, and rewarding those who abstain.

The best evidence comes from the playoff record of Shaquille O’Neal, the Don Dada of getting fouled away from the ball, the origination of the modern “Hack-A-...” strategy and the only person for whom that moniker fit. (“Hack-A-Shaq” was catchy. “Hack-A-Howard” or “Hack-a-Jordan” is derivative and lame.)

From 2000 to 2006, Shaq’s teams won 22 out of 25 playoff series. Two of the three series he lost were to teams coached by Larry Brown, whose “play the right way” mantra prevented him from fouling Shaq without the ball every time down the floor.

“I’m not going to make a farce of the game,” Brown once said. “I’d rather have people beat us in basketball plays.”

It wasn’t just an appeal to the greater good of the universe. It also was a message to his players: man up and play good defense. Brown didn’t mind fouling Shaq if he was about to tear the basket down with a dunk. He just didn’t endorse fouling him 50 feet from the hoop without the ball.

Brown’s Detroit Pistons beat the Lakers in the 2004 NBA Finals while O’Neal attempted only 11 free throws per game, by far the fewest in his four Finals appearances with the Los Angeles Lakers (he averaged 16 attempts per game in his previous three Finals in L.A.). The next year, Shaq’s first season with the Miami Heat, the Pistons won the Eastern Conference finals while sending Shaq to the line only seven times a game.

Perhaps I could endorse the constant stoppage of play if fouling bad free throw shooters was the way to beat them. But with Shaq it was actually the opposite. At his peak, the more free throws he shot the better his winning percentage. From 2000 to 2006 his teams were 22-4 in playoff games when he attempted 15 free throws or more, including 6-1 when he attempted at least 20 free throws.

Some of the tactical arguments against intentional fouling are that it also disrupts the rhythm of the team doing the fouling, while eliminating the chance for transition baskets by allowing the defense to get set. Some research also shows it doesn't work. I choose to believe it’s mainly because the basketball gods don’t want to see games dragged out to three hours, marred by watching bad free throw shooters parade to the line.

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