- Gery Woelfel of The Journal Times: These have truly been trying times for Michael Carter-Williams. The recently-acquired Milwaukee Bucks point guard hasn’t only had to make the challenging transition of playing for a new team, but he’s been enduring some painful personal matters. On the court, Carter-Williams, whom the Bucks obtained from Philadelphia as part of a three-team deal on Feb. 19, has struggled to find his groove, particularly on the offensive end of the floor. ... But Carter-Williams will also acknowledge his mind hasn’t been totally on basketball. His grandfather, Leroy “Mike” Carter died Sunday in Hamilton , Mass. , from an apparent blood clot. He was 86. Carter-Williams said he and his grandfather had a special bond and spent a lot of time together over the years. Leroy was a veteran of the Korean War before becoming the owner of Carter’s Stables in Hamilton . He was an equestrian who trained race and show horses. “When I found out my grandfather had died, it hit me pretty hard," Carter-Williams said. “It still hurts. I was very close to him. He lived next door to my family my whole life. It was a tough loss for me and my family."
- Candace Buckner of The Indianapolis Star: The Indiana Pacers had another late-game moment with the ball in the hands of George Hill. Just the other night, Hill lofted the game-winning floater to cap a tedious comeback but the rally ended on Thursday inside the BMO Harris Bradley Center. The Milwaukee Bucks held on for the 111-107 victory after Hill's potential game-tying 3-pointer rimmed in and out during Indiana's final play. Buried under a 23-point lead in the first quarter, the Pacers (31-41) found themselves in the familiar way of playing from behind the entire game. However, after scoring 33 points through the fourth quarter and creating a chance to send the game into overtime, the comeback came up short. "You can't spot a team 23 points and expect to win," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. "I'm proud of our fight and trying to get back into it but we can't start that way." In a concerning trend, Indiana has trailed in the first quarter in its last 10 games, dating back to March 10. The early deficits have created unnecessarily difficult challenges and the Pacers have lost seven of those 10 games.
- Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News: Before the game, I watched and charted Stephen Curry's entire 17-minute warm-up session with assistant Bruce Fraser -- which began about 90 minutes before tipoff -- starting with a two-ball dribbling drill. Then the session ended with five attempts and five misses from halfway inside the Oracle tunnel on passes from courtside security guard Curtis Jones; and those were the shots that Curry recounted with the most animation. As if it was another part of the game. His game. "I didn't do it every single game until last year; but it won't stop now," Curry said, noting that he has made about 20 of them in 36 home games so far this season. For anybody else, the tunnel shot would be just a crowd-pleasing trick; in fact, former Warrior Monta Ellis used to finish many of his sessions in the same way. But for Curry, there is a point to the flashy way he ends his pregame work, because there is a point to every millisecond of what he does and every shot he fires up there. If he can imagine it, he can make it. Not counting the tunnel tries, Curry put up 182 shots in the session I watched -- made 120 -- and within the structure of his work, you saw the essence of Curry's offensive game. ... Curry does almost the exact same routine before every game, for just over 15 minutes every time, and aims to make 31 3-pointers and about 80 2-pointers of various types, at different spots, using either hand for the close-in shots.
- Bob Finnan of The News-Herald: The Cavaliers have two players shooting better than 40 percent from behind the arc. Hint: They are the only two Australian-born point guards on the roster. All-Star Kyrie Irving is the top 3-point shooter on one of the league’s most prolific long-range shooting teams. He’s shooting a team-high 40.9 percent from behind the arc (141 of 345). That’s almost to be expected from the 2013 3-point contest winner. Next on the list is Irving’s backup, Matthew Dellavedova, who is shooting 40.1 percent from the 3-point line (57 of 142). That isn’t expected, especially listening to all the noise on social media. Dellavedova, 24, is one of the most polarizing figures on the team. Many critics say the backup point guard spot is one of the few weaknesses on a team gunning for its first NBA championship.The Cavaliers’ front office kicked the tires on a few deals at the trade deadline. That reportedly included future Hall of Fame point guard Steve Nash. They had hoped that he would work out a buyout with the Lakers, but he wanted to retire with the storied franchise. So, like him or not, Dellavedova is the backup point guard heading into the playoffs. To be clear, Cavaliers coach David Blatt doesn’t just like him. He loves him as a player.
- Vincent Goodwill of CSN Chicago: The signs this time are undeniable, and aside from the disaster in Detroit last weekend, the Bulls have put together four dominant performances in their last four wins. Holding Raptors to 21 in the fourth on a nationally televised stage, winning going away on the road can’t be diluted by the fact the Raptors are imploding before everyone’s eyes (that 1.5-game difference between the two for the third seed is looking wider by the hour) and had the Hornets scoring decrease in every quarter (26-23-20-17) in Monday’s win. Taking advantage of a mentally wounded opponent is what playoff basketball is all about, and doing so in the Eastern Conference, where every team past the Washington Wizards will be happy just to have the “playoffs” decal on its home floor, the thought of competition-fueled lethargy cannot be used as an excuse. With the exception of the Cavaliers and Atlanta Hawks, every remaining opponent is below .500, a firm chance to nail down the third seed in the East is likely and if Rose comes back ready to jump right in — no small feat — this Bulls team won’t fear anyone standing in its way. That’s if they’ve cleared this past hurdle. If.
- Brendan Savage of MLive.com: Anyone who has watched Reggie Jackson closely when he's been on the bench this season might have noticed something a little unusual about his attire. In addition to the standard NBA uniform, Jackson also dons a pair of gloves when he's not in the game. Gloves? Yup, it seems the fourth-year point guard has a problem keeping his hands warm while not in the game so he began wearing the gloves while playing for the Thunder. "I found out in OKC I had a problem with my hands getting extremely cold," said Jackson, 24. "Once I started running, I started losing feeling in my extremities and the Oklahoma City training staff, and especially (head trainer) Joe Sharpe, found a way to get me hand warmers and keep my hands warm so I can keep feeling the ball. I'd get out of the game and my hands would get to the point where they were literally freezing. They're basically winter gloves but from a hunting store. They got hand warmers in them. You push a button on them and they keep my hands nice and warm and keep me ready for the game."
- Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News: During the course of his 18-plus seasons with the Spurs, Tim Duncan has made only 30 of 166 3-point shots, most of them desperation heaves as the shot clock or game clock neared expiration. Duncan’s perfect 3-point jumper from the left corner with 6:33 minutes left in the third quarter of the Spurs’ 130-91 dismantling of the Oklahoma City Thunder at the AT&T Center had the look of a designed play. Duncan wasn’t sure how he ended up in the corner where Danny Green typically spots up for long-distance attempts. But he knew what to do once he got there and took a pass from Tony Parker. “I don’t know,” said the Spurs captain. “Tony just drove at me. I just spaced the floor. My (defender) left and I shot it. Simple and easy.”
- Bob Cooney of the Philadelphia Daily News: His words were almost as bold as his center's play of late. Following Wednesday's 99-85 win at Denver, 76ers coach Brett Brown emphatically stated: "People have to really start talking about him for rookie of the year. You don't just repetitively bang out these types of performances and produce the numbers that he is producing. He is a complete game changer. He is a complete defensive presence when he's lurking to block shots. He just continues to improve at this time of year. He keeps moving up the food chain and heading in the direction that we're all so thrilled about." Nerlens Noel's progression certainly wasn't projected by anyone to be this quick. He has become a defensive monster in the lane. It isn't just one way in which he is doing it. And that may be what is most impressive. ... He has played 68 of the team's 72 games. He has battled through nicks and bruises throughout. He has gotten in better shape, become so much tougher around the rim with his shot-blocking and rebounding and has become more confident around the rim at the offensive end. Rookie of the year? Perhaps. His averages of 9.6 points, eight rebounds, two blocks and 1.8 steals put him in the mix with Andrew Wiggins, Elfrid Payton and Nikola Mirotic. He is the only player in the NBA in the top 10 in steals and blocks, and since the All-Star break he leads the league in rejects and is second in steals. Rookie of the year? Ask his coach.
- Marc Berman of the New York Post: The triangle offense has been a disaster in the D-League too. The Westchester Knicks’ inaugural season is coming to a close with five games left, ending April 4 and Phil Jackson’s D-League affiliate owns the second-worst record of the 18 teams at 10-35. At least Westchester’s .222 winning percentage is better than Derek Fisher’s big club — which is 14-58 with a .194 percent entering Friday’s Garden match against the Celtics. The organization was thrilled to have a D-League team in its backyard to develop players while running Jackson’s triangle, which has come under fire this season as being antiquated. First-year coach Kevin Whitted, according to an NBA source, hasn’t been on the same page as assistant Craig Hodges. Whitted was an Allan Houston hire as they were former Tennessee teammates. Houston is Westchester’s general manager.
- Joe Freeman of The Oregonian: The story behind why Nicolas Batum wears No. 88 is as unusual as the number itself. He originally tried to get No. 5, the number his mother selected for him the first time he played basketball in Normandy, France. But Rudy Fernandez had that number. So Batum asked for No. 8. That belonged to Martell Webster, he was told. Six times Batum requested a number. Six times he was denied because a current Blazers player already wore the number or it was retired. Finally, on his seventh request, Batum asked for No. 88 — a number so unique it couldn’t be denied. He settled on 88 because he was born in 1988. “It’s my birthday,” he said. “I’m going to stay 88 as long as I’m with the Trail Blazers.”
The coaching carousel slowed down in 2014-15 after a flurry of turnover the previous couple of seasons. While we could conceivably see a couple of firings ahead this summer, most NBA teams and head coaches seem to have happy marriages, as only Sacramento, Orlando and Denver have made in-season changes.
Does this relative calm suggest that NBA teams are getting better at the practice of hiring head coaches?
Like most marriages, it's impossible to know at the altar or under the chuppah what the relationship will look like 15 years down the road. But there's a healthy consensus around the league that the vacancies filled during the Great Purges of 2013 and 2014 were done so thoughtfully.
David Blatt, Mike Budenholzer, Steve Clifford, Jeff Hornacek, Dave Joerger, Steve Kerr, Jason Kidd, Quin Snyder and Brad Stevens -- none has completed two full seasons of service, yet all can claim success relative to expectation. Even Mike Malone, one of the three in-season dismissals, has plenty of sympathizers who feel he got a raw deal in Sacramento.
Numerous conversations with execs, current and former coaches, players and scouts revealed some common ideas about how the league is identifying and hiring coaching talent:
You're a manager first: It's not that whiteboard wizardry is out of fashion, but "can get the buy-in" is the new "defensive mastermind." Tactical prowess means zilch if a coach lacks the power of persuasion to get his team to run all that pretty stuff. To do that, a coach has to manage the sensitivities of his players, all of whom require different messages. He has to handle a large staff, sell ideas to the guys upstairs and schmooze the media (but resist taking credit, lest he tick off players, management and ownership). Owners and general managers hiring a coach appreciate more than ever not only the enormousness of the job, but the nuanced roles that go with it.
The new blood: A couple of general managers noted that the success stories from the classes of 2013 and 2014 are largely first-time NBA head coaches. More notably, the retreads are having a tough go of it. The game is evolving quickly, and those who see a head-coaching gig in the NBA as continuing education are reaping the benefits, and those who feel as though they have all the answers are finding themselves at a loss when they learn the questions have changed.
There's no hard-and-fast formula: The league is learning that there's no one single way to arrive at the first chair on an NBA sideline. Start from the top of the leaguewide standings and you'll find teams coached by: a former player who had stints as both a general manager and a color analyst, a career assistant to the game's top coaching luminary, a standout D-League and CBA champion coach, a Hall of Fame power forward and veteran point guard, neither of whom served a single game as an assistant coach, as well as a legend of European coaching. Accordingly, few front offices have a predetermined type anymore. It's the human, not the resume.
The dual role: Find a grouchy NBA head coach and there's a good chance his primary grievance is that he hasn't been furnished with a roster that can execute what he wants to run. He's also peeved because he hasn't been consulted sufficiently on the selection of those players. In response, a number of prestige head coaches are angling for final authority on all basketball operations matters. Doc Rivers, Stan Van Gundy and Flip Saunders have joined Gregg Popovich as principals who preside over both the sideline and front office. With Danny Ferry in exile, Budenholzer is currently the Hawks' senior basketball ops manager. George Karl and Kidd have a very strong say with ownership in Sacramento and Milwaukee, respectively. But there's good reason why this model rarely succeeds. NBA head coach and NBA general manager are jobs far too demanding to combine unless there's the utmost trust in those empowered with the day-to-day responsibilities (see San Antonio).
In the spring of 2013 and 2014, we canvassed insiders for the names of coaches who, given the opportunity to lead an NBA team, have the tools to succeed. Those on the previous two lists who subsequently have been hired include Blatt, Joerger, Kerr and Snyder.
An individual on the list can't have previously had an NBA head-coaching gig. We also bypass those who have been on the list previously, though it's worth noting Fred Hoiberg, Dave Fizdale, Jim Boylen and Adrian Griffin each popped up more than once this time.
Here are six coaches whose combination of intelligence, work ethic, experience, people skills and temperament make them interesting candidates for an NBA head-coaching position either sooner or later:
Kenny Atkinson, Atlanta Hawks assistant coach
The arrival of a new head coach often signals the exodus of the previous staff. But when Budenholzer was brought on in Atlanta in 2013, Ferry strongly recommended retaining Atkinson, his first hire. Budenholzer didn't need much persuading. Player development was Atkinson's strength and it was a priority in Atlanta. And feedback among the Hawks players was so overwhelmingly positive bringing Atkinson back was a no-brainer.
After four seasons under Mike D'Antoni in New York, Atkinson has flourished in Atlanta as far more than a player-development guy. He's earned a reputation as an affable teacher who is both cerebral and a high-level communicator. He thoroughly enjoys getting on the floor with a player and sees that individual development work as a collaboration between player and coach.
"He believes you can improve as a player, even at the highest level, and that there's always something you can add to your game," Hawks big man Al Horford says. "He's been here for three years with me, and he's challenged me. For instance, before he got here, I was pretty much a shooter on the pick-and-pop. I was never really driving. Kenny has challenged me to put the ball on the floor. It's something we've worked on together, and now it's something I feel comfortable doing."
After a nice college career as a point guard at Richmond, Atkinson had a long career in Europe, where he stayed to coach before heading to New York. He's worldly, with a curiosity for forward-thinking ideas, everything from injury prevention to analytics. He's someone who would look for new solutions as a head coach rather than insist he has every answer and rely on tired conventional wisdom.
Philadelphia general manager Sam Hinkie gave Atkinson a look in 2013, and there's a strong belief around the league that he's earned another series of interviews as one of the top assistant coaches currently on the market.
Tyronn Lue, Cleveland Cavaliers assistant coach
After three seasons under Rivers in Boston and Los Angeles, Lue has quickly established himself as a whole-package coaching prospect. He was pursued vigorously by the Cavs in their head-coaching search last spring, and ultimately finished as a strong runner-up to Blatt, making such a strong impression during the process that Cleveland offered him a deal in excess of $6 million to join them as associate head coach. Who better to complement an Ivy League-educated, often stubborn, first-time 55-year-old head coach who'd spent his career in Europe than a former NBA vet with a passionate knowledge of the NBA game and its rhythms to whom players flock?
"He respects the work that's required to do the job and he has the gift of being able to verbalize things to players in a straightforward way without being offensive," Rivers says. "He sees things in games a lot of people can't see. He'd see opportunities for us -- in games, watching film, observing -- and would bring them to me. He has a chance to be very special."
When Rivers took over in Los Angeles in July 2013, he quickly dispatched for Lue, who spent the entire summer breaking down the league, and meticulously studying the Clippers' core. His observations were instrumental in building the architecture for a defense that finished the season ranked seventh in efficiency.
Clippers players loved Lue, and he's earned the trust of a Cavs roster with several combustible parts. By all accounts, he has been crucial in maintaining relative order and harmony in the locker room. Lue is on a four-year deal, but it's difficult to imagine he'll still be the associate head coach in Cleveland three seasons from now.
Jay Larranaga, Boston Celtics assistant coach
The basketball world is a far more interconnected place than it was 15 years ago. In that time, international basketball has made a strong imprint in the NBA game and the D-League has grown into a laboratory for ideas. As they survey the landscape for potential NBA head coaches, an increasing number of franchises value diversity of experience in a candidate. For those who do, Larranaga is a natural.
Mention of Larranaga's name was met with praise around the league as a hard-working pro who is universally liked and respected. Though Larranaga is the son of longtime college coach Jim Larranaga, he clawed his way up through the ranks without any free passes. He played pro ball in Europe for over a decade, enjoyed a solid run in the D-League as a head coach for two seasons before landing on Rivers' bench in Boston, where he remains under Stevens.
"Coaching is in his blood and he's been around the game his whole life," Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge says. "He's a class act, an intelligent, experienced basketball mind."
In a player's league with know-it-all owners, miked-up coaches and constant media scrutiny, temperament has never been more important. Larranaga scores well in this event, a coach who understands how to relate to a varied roster of players, can motivate a staff and whose likability will endear him to ownership and the media. In 2013, he got a close look from Philadelphia and consideration to succeed Rivers in Boston. He'll continue to appear on lists for vacancies as he hones his identity as a coach.
Sean Miller, University of Arizona head coach
College basketball is safe for fishing again. With the Celtics' hire of Brad Stevens in 2013, the league now has a blueprint for how to successfully transition an NCAA head coach into the NBA: Identify a thoughtful coach who understands that basketball is about the players and has an agile basketball philosophy. Then offer him security and guide him with patience as he builds a culture.
Hoiberg, whom we featured on the 2013 list, is widely regarded as the next college coach who will make the jump, once he finds the right gig. Over the past couple of years, Miller has emerged as a name execs and scouts view as strong NBA head coach material should he get restless in Tucson.
The son of a legendary high school basketball coach, Miller grew up absorbing the game like a sponge. He was a sick ball handler who, as a kid, showed off his skills in "The Fish Who Saved Pittsburgh," and on "The Tonight Show." Stan Van Gundy has said that Miller and Erik Spoelstra are the only two people he instantly knew were born head coaches. As an assistant at Wisconsin, Van Gundy got to know Miller, who was a Badgers graduate assistant.
"He has always understood the game inside and out," Van Gundy told me last year. "What really got me was how he connected with players. It's natural for players to be skeptical of a 23-year-old guy. But right from the beginning, he's working out high-level players -- Michael Finley, Tracy Webster. He knew what he was talking about, knew how to teach, and they connected to him and respected him. It was amazing to see."
Miller is a charismatic but still mild-mannered personality, a good fit for a team that sees the head-coaching position as an organizational pulpit. But he's also not a guy who carries himself as bigger than the job. In short, Miller is a celebrity coach, which will please an owner. But he's not a prima donna, which will please players ... and the exec making the hire. At the moment, there's no indication that Miller has immediate interest in leaving Arizona. Should that change, he'd have suitors in the NBA.
Nate Bjorkgren, Bakersfield Jam head coach
There's a school of thought among some in the NBA that the most valuable attribute a candidate can have is head-coaching experience somewhere -- be it college, the D-League or overseas. Working as a top assistant under an elite head coach offers all kinds of training, but a head coach is the chief operating officer above all else, and there's no substitute for spending time in the first chair, where the buck stops. For years, basketball's minor leagues served as a testing ground for potential NBA head coaches. Phil Jackson and George Karl both wet their feet in the Continental Basketball Association, and Joerger has proved that minor league basketball is still a quality finishing school.
Bjorkgren has compiled a robust D-League resume with sustained success wherever he's landed. He is known as an intensely self-critical coach who viscerally hates losing. His supporters describe someone who has markedly matured over the past four seasons, and he's learned when to push buttons and when to lay off, both with players and staff.
"He's won everywhere he's been," says Warriors assistant GM Kirk Lacob, who was instrumental in hiring Bjorkgren at Dakota when it was Golden State's affiliate. "He does a great job with players. He connects with them on a personal level, and also he cares about their personal careers."
Regarded less as an innovator-philosopher and more as pragmatic problem-solver, Bjorkgren is a likely candidate to soon find his way to an NBA bench as an assistant -- not unlike Nick Nurse, under whom he served as an assistant -- then possibly an opportunity to roam the sidelines down the road.
Ime Udoka, San Antonio Spurs assistant coach
The former journeyman has fewer than three seasons as an NBA assistant under Popovich, but already has a number of fans around the league who have a ton of admiration for his basketball smarts, manner and personal journey.
Udoka was a fourth-round pick in the NBDL draft, and toiled in obscurity until he got an invite from his hometown Portland Trail Blazers, who were in search of a warm body, and he ended up starting 75 games. Naturally, the Spurs came calling, and he was adopted as family, spending three of the final five seasons of his playing career in San Antonio.
"He exudes a confidence and a comfort in his own skin where people just gravitate to him," Popovich says. "He's a fundamentally sound teacher because he's comfortable with himself, he knows the material and players read it. Often times, I'll say, 'Ime, can you go talk to so-and-so? Go talk to Patty Mills, go talk to Timmy, go talk to Kawhi.' And he'll do it better than I would do it -- and I'm not blowing smoke. The only thing I don't like about him is that he doesn't drink, so I can't enjoy a glass of wine with him. He's really boring at dinner."
Players and coaches who know him describe Udoka as a stoic with an even disposition, more of an inner intensity than a roaring fire. At Spurs U, he's at the finest graduate school in the league, alongside another oft-mentioned name, Boylen, who was listed in 2014 as a future head coach. Udoka probably has a couple more years of seasoning ahead of him, but it's not long before he hits the interview circuit.
- Chris Vivlamore of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Take a deep breath. A season-long three-game losing streak came to an end – but not without a fourth-quarter rally. The Hawks used a 22-2 run in the final period to score a 95-83 victory over the Magic Wednesday night at Amway Center. The Hawks held the Magic to 12 fourth-quarter and 31 second-half points for the needed victory. “It was simple,” Paul Millsap said of the final quarter. “We got back to being us - getting stops.” The Hawks (54-17, 24-12 road) are three wins away from tying the franchise record for victories in a season. They also reduced their magic number to clinch the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference to two with 11 games remaining in the regular season.
- Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News: Figuratively, at least, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich laid out the road map ahead before tipoff Wednesday. What happens with the rest of the Spurs’ season, he said, will come down to a simple matter of geography. “They have to decide whether they want to be the team they were in New York,” Popovich said, “or the team they were in Atlanta.” In Wednesday’s 130-91 destruction of the snakebit Oklahoma City Thunder at the AT&T Center, the Spurs proved this much: They’ve still got Georgia on their mind. In a performance that reminded more of the their eye-opening, 19-point road win over the Eastern Conference-leading Hawks on Sunday — as opposed to the egg they laid against the hapless Knicks earlier this month — the Spurs sent the Thunder to a 21-point halftime deficit and never let them up for air.
- Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon-Journal: Of all the storylines the last few days, the most peculiar was how big of a deal people made of the now-famous “Clique up!!” picture James posted to his Instagram account in recent days. So we Cavs beat writers had a little fun with that one tonight (above). It was Chris Haynes’ idea and I was apprehensive to do it,but it was all in good fun. 13. The original, however, drew plenty of eye rolls around the team when people made a big deal about it. As for Love’s absence in the photo, he is routinely one of the last people out of the locker room. He is usually still in his jersey soaking his feet in an ice bucket while all of the others are showered and dressing. The picture was taken on the road, but following home games he also has an elaborate postgame routine that typically leaves him as the last player to leave the locker room. So it’s not really a surprise he wasn’t in the picture. But as one player pointed out, neither were James Jones and Mike Miller – two of James’ closest friends on the team. 14. With all of that as the preamble, I do think there are minor personality issues between Love and James. I wrote about it at length a few months ago and I won’t rehash it now. But Kobe and Shaq couldn’t stand each other and won three titles together. If the Big Three continue to play this way – all three scoring 20-plus points, Love and LeBron combining for 18 rebounds – they’ll work it out.
- Barry Jackson of The Miami Herald: As for Dwyane Wade, he said he isn’t sure if he will be able to play Friday in Atlanta, the final game of a four-game road trip. “I won’t know [until later in the week],” he said. Though Wade has now missed 19 of the Heat’s 71 games this season, this marked only the second game that Wade sat out with a knee injury, with both coming against Boston. Wade has missed 16 games with hamstring issues and one with a hip injury. Wade said he believes the injury happened during the second half of Tuesday’s game. “I took a fall and bumped it on the ground,” he said. “It’s a bruise. It swelled up pretty well on the flight and [Wednesday] morning. I went up for a shot and undercut it and came down bad.” Wade said he and trainers and coaches “don’t think it’s smart for me to play on it. … I felt it as the game [went on]. I’ll get a lot of treatment.”
- Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle: Dwight Howard was back on the court Wednesday, playing for the first time since Jan. 23 and the decision days later to shelve him, rehabilitate his knee, and bring him back in time for a late-season push to the playoffs. To the Rockets, the night marked the next step in his rehab rather than its end. But to Howard, those 16½ minutes were joyous, evidence that all those weeks of pushing himself through those grueling workouts would be rewarded. “My whole point was to do whatever I can to help this team win and play as hard as I can for as long as I can,” Howard said. “It just felt good being back out on the floor.” During the game, however, his body language screamed much more. Howard – who had four points and seven rebounds in the Rockets’ 95-93 win over the Pelicans – looked so spry before the game that he was practically jumping out of his skin. He came out for warmups early. Before tip, he was bouncing around the court, banging into Josh Smith, throwing down dunks. During the national anthem, he rocked back and forth like a fighter in the ring.
- K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune: Michael Jordan never experienced it. Neither did Scottie Pippen. Not even Phil Jackson accomplished the feat. With their 116-103 victory over the Raptors Wednesday night at Air Canada Centre, the Bulls guaranteed their fifth straight winning road record for the first time in franchise history. Overall, the Bulls improved to 113-79 away from the United Center under Tom Thibodeau. That's a .589 road winning percentage. And that, plus the eventual addition of Derrick Rose, who said earlier in the day he would be cleared for contact "sometime this week or next," is the kind of stuff that gives the Bulls confidence moving forward. That confidence is there regardless of their playoff seed, whether or not they have home-court advantage. This is why, after using a 39-21 fourth quarter to sweep the season series from the Raptors and take a 1-1/2-game lead in the race for the third seed, the Bulls aren't hung up on when or if they face the Cavaliers.
- Candace Buckner of The Indianapolis Star: Back when the Indiana Pacers glided to their season-best winning streak, they faced several rivals who were missing their star players. The list of absent or injured standouts could have made an All-Star team, but the Pacers took advantage and recorded seven straight wins. By Wednesday night, with the Pacers mired in a streak moving rapidly in the wrong direction, Washington Wizards point guard John Wall served as a reminder to the strength of star power. However, the Pacers, unfazed by the wattage of Wall's stardom, showed team balance as well as their own version of Capitol Hill. Indiana defeated Washington 103-101 after George Hill, in high pick-and-roll action with David West, zipped to the rim for the game-winning finger roll with only two seconds remaining.
- Jabari Young of CSNNW.com: Lillard got the praise, recording his fifth straight double-double this season (23 points, 12 assists), while Aldridge, who returned from a one-game absence (left index finger), shook off his early rust to finish with 19 points and nine rebounds. Thing is, Dorell Wright started it all when he provided that vocal leadership, and then backed it up with his play when the Blazers needed it most. ... This wasn’t the first time Wright came through when needed. Flashback to that triple-overtime game against San Antonio, when he hit some key shots down the stretch to help the Blazers get a victory. Against the Jazz, though, it was different. All the talk had been how the Blazers were not the same team without Wesley Matthews. But his passion, the ability to hit a key 3-pointer, play solid defense, and be that guy who says what needs to be said when it’s needed is gone. There is no hiding the Blazers miss what Matthews provided, but for at least one night, Wright took his place.
- Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times: The fun was just getting started for the Clippers when they walked off the court with their most lopsided victory at Madison Square Garden in franchise history. A Clippers official announced that Coach Doc Rivers had developed a stomach illness, leaving assistant Mike Woodson to address the media Wednesday night after the team's 111-80 victory over the New York Knicks. Those would be the same Knicks who fired Woodson in April, a season after he guided them to their first playoff series victory in 13 seasons. So, when did Rivers tell Woodson that he was going to be sick? "No comment," Woodson said with a sly smile. The Clippers could afford to be a touch mischievous after easily topping their previous biggest victory at the Garden, a 17-point triumph in March 1996.
- Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times: There will be a lot of movement this summer for the Lakers, who have only four players with fully guaranteed contracts next season — Kobe Bryant, Nick Young, Julius Randle and Ryan Kelly. They are also expected to bring back Jordan Clarkson, Tarik Black and perhaps Robert Sacre, all of whom have non-guaranteed deals, but might lose Ed Davis, who will almost surely decline a minimal player option to return. Wesley Johnson likes Los Angeles, enjoys living in Redondo Beach. He has considered returning to the Lakers despite their reluctance in the past to offer anything more than a one-year deal. "I actually have," he said. "It's one of those things where you definitely don't want to jump ship when something's going bad. I actually want to be a part of it to see if we can get back on the right foot. We'll see what happens this off-season, see what direction they're going."
- Tim Bontemps of the New York Post: The Nets picked up a key win, but also may have lost a key player. Because of a huge performance from Brook Lopez, who finished with 34 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks, the Nets emerged with a desperately needed 91-88 win over the Hornets Wednesday night inside Time Warner Cable Arena. The victory moved them back to within a half-game of eighth place as the death march for the final three playoff spots in the Eastern Conference continues. The win allowed the Nets (30-40) to remain 1 '/‚ games out behind in the race for the final playoff spot while also ensuring they clinched the tiebreaker over the Hornets because of a 2-1 edge in the season series.
- Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee: The Kings are on their second extended trip under George Karl, beginning a four-game trek Wednesday night against the Phoenix Suns at US Airways Center. Karl, however, hasn’t gotten over Sacramento’s eight-game trip earlier this month. “I’m still depressed over the last trip because if we make a layup in Miami and we beat Orlando, it’s a pretty good trip,” Karl said. “Instead, we go 2-6 and we come home and get beat by two contenders (Atlanta and the Los Angeles Clippers).” Karl took some blame for the last trip. Karl said more than once the Kings looked tired, especially at the end of the trip, when they blew big leads in the second half and lost to Philadelphia and Washington. ... After 19 games in his system, Karl believes the Kings are better conditioned for the running he demands to play at a fast pace. Karl said he notices fewer lulls in energy from his players.
- Keith Pompey of The Philadelphia Inquirer: Joel Embiid is checking things off his list, 76ers coach Brett Brown said. "He's ticking boxes in regards to increased time on the court and reduced weight," Brown said of the rookie center. "His weight is going down." The Sixers, who won't disclose Embiid's weight, opted to sideline the 7-foot center this season after he had foot surgery in June. The 21-year-old has been participating in pregame workouts with Brown on the court. Embiid has been displaying a soft shooting touch and athleticism that are rare for a man of his stature. "His needle is clearly pointing in the right direction," Brown said. "And you heard me say this a lot lately, he's setting the stage for a great summer. He sees his reward will be summer league, trying to get ready to actually play again."
Doc Rivers doesn't have to build a contender -- Rivers himself was supposed to be the missing piece -- he just has to maintain it. That's the privilege allowed by a roster featuring two top-10 players near the peak of their powers. That's the luxury of carrying at least the fourth-most efficient lineup by net rating each of the past two seasons.
So when Rivers, now in his second season as team president, consistently reaffirms "I like our team" because they're capable of playing at a higher level than last season, he's right; the core has a season under its belt, and the starters plus a sprinkling of Jamal Crawford have scorched defenses.
But when Rivers says they've played worse than they have last season, he's also right. The struggles of the bench have been the haunting issue for the Clippers all season. All of their offseason value acquisitions have underachieved (a strategy not dissimilar to the previous offseason, when the essential difference was Darren Collison wildly overachieving), and the objectives set out for Los Angeles reserves seem to be more about maintaining a pleasant work environment than production off the bench.
Managing expectations has been the story for this front office since the demise of the Sterling regime. The practice facility was top-notch and top players were well-compensated, but basketball operations were left to languish; there was no analytics department previously, no dedicated salary-cap manager. Much of the staff is new and still figuring out how they fit together, even more so with the installation of Rivers’ proxies in Kevin Eastman and Dave Wohl to share the day-to-day general manager duties with Gary Sacks (the lone survivor of Shelly Sterling’s sale stipulations after son-in-law Eric Miller left before the season began). That’s how gaffes like unknowingly hard-capping themselves occurs; the head of the office is focused on playbook strategy and scouting, not salary accounting and regression analysis. As a result, it's been a season of half-measures, backtracking and indecision.
Take, for example, the arrivals for two recent roster additions: Austin Rivers and Jordan Hamilton. In the case of Austin Rivers, the number of mistakes that needed to be hastily corrected to acquire him is startling: It required the admission that Jordan Farmar and Chris Douglas-Roberts were incompatible for this team, that using the bi-annual exception on Farmar -- which contributed to the Clippers’ hard cap and thus the trading away of Jared Dudley and a first-round pick -- was a mistake. That's a lot of errors to own up to in quick succession.
Taking a low-risk flyer on a struggling lottery pick who was once the top high school prospect in the nation is a reasonable proposition. Even if said prospect is the son of the coach and carries perception issues of nepotism. The Clippers are a team sorely in need of players that can be developed.
But pair that with the decision to move another asset in Reggie Bullock and a second-round pick to the Phoenix Suns -- primarily because Doc & Co. were acquainted with GM Ryan McDonough from their Boston days -- well, now at the very least it becomes a justifiable decision executed poorly.
The eternal optimist will consider the acquisitions of Austin Rivers and former first-round pick Jordan Hamilton as a glimmer of hope, though. At least these weren’t aged journeymen staving off retirement, overseas duty in China or both.
The front office flirted with three recent draftees who were at least well-regarded prep prospects if not collegiately (Quincy Miller and Darius Miller being the other two), eventually settling on Hamilton, and that method of thinking runs directly counter to the social-media punchline of Rivers preferring veterans that peaked in 2009. And even then, after announcing intentions to sign Darius Miller to a 10-day contract, the Clippers reversed course and brought good locker-room presence Dahntay Jones. Why? After deciding to try Miller out, they discovered he was not at a satisfactory fitness level, a factoid that would seem like a part of basic due diligence.
It’s a common tactic of the “smart” teams: cycle through young, underachieving prospects. Is it the player? Was it the fit? Is it something their particular organization could address? Danny Green, the former second-round pick who fell out of the league -- that the Spurs waived multiple times -- before catching on and becoming an elite 3-and-D guard, is the most famous recent example.
Players like Green are much more the exception than the rule, though. And if the draft is like playing the lottery, then plucking a player who has slipped through the cracks is like hoping someone couldn’t be bothered to cash a winning ticket: profit can be discovered, but not without a lot of effort.
Which leaves Doc speaking out of both sides of his mouth. He likes his team, but he’s rummaging through castoffs in search of a contributor. His starters play with the urgency of a title window closing at any moment, but he casts the bench with players just happy to be around. And the Clippers keep winning. They’re still third in Hollinger’s Power Ranking, still second in Pythagorean Winning Percentage.
Being innovative is hard. And who needs to do things the hard way when you’re as talent-rich as the Clippers?
Andrew Han is an editor at ESPN.com. Follow him @andrewthehan.
Special to ESPN.com
On Dec. 31, the Toronto Raptors ruled the Eastern Conference. On the heels of a magical season, with the corporate and cultural tenacity of #WeTheNorth at its peak, Kyle Lowry’s bullheaded heroics and a smoking-hot bench propelled Toronto to a reason-defying 24-8 record. The believers were vindicated, DeMar DeRozan’s return from injury was on the horizon and the East was there for the taking.
And yet, the Raptors have fallen almost as quickly as they ascended. To watch Toronto since the start of 2015 is to witness hope’s ugly side: bloodless regression.
They’ve gone 18-21 since the new year, dropping to fourth in the East, in danger of losing home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, while the Cleveland Cavaliers and Atlanta Hawks have turned into juggernauts. Lowry, who carried the team in DeRozan’s absence, has spent 2015 worn down and injured while DeRozan, mired by timidity after returning from a groin injury, is only now starting to pick up the head of steam that earned him countless trips to the free-throw line and a spot at the 2014 All-Star Game.
And all of this is overcast by the big defensive elephant in the room. The ball-pressure and double-teaming defense, an undercurrent to their success after the Rudy Gay trade, has completely vanished this season. Since Jan. 1, only five teams have performed worse defensively.
Post-whiplash, a fan base already heavy on emotional extremism -- remember the frenzy at the Air Canada Centre during last year’s playoffs? -- is reacting to something as overlooked as defense with a familiar refrain: panic.
Overhaul the defense. Overhaul everything. Fire the coach. Fire Drake.
But wholesale change in mid-March isn’t only impossible, it’s in nobody’s interest. The execution gap between these and last year’s Raptors is tremendous but the roster is fundamentally the same. Accepting that the problem lies in the nuts and bolts, not the machinery, is vital to understanding the collapse. What’s missing here is what, on both ends, was the catalyst to the 2013-14 Raptors’ success: trust.
With Gay gone, DeRozan and Lowry became the Raptors’ identity. DeRozan’s ability to shed the empty-calorie attempts from his shooting diet, force his way to free throws and hone his drive-and-kick game was vital to the team’s attitude shift. Patrick Patterson and Amir Johnson set hard screens from the short corner and rolled knowing that Lowry and DeRozan wouldn’t waste them on long 2s unless they had to.
The plan heading into the season was to build on that continuity and leverage incremental improvement. But at some point during the early hot streak, the gears shifted and realigned, like a button in the wrong hole of a shirt. Lowry’s early-season tear justified some individualistic decision-making off screens, but that, along with DeRozan forcing things post-injury and Lou Williams’ score-first mentality, led to a backward shift in the identity they created last season. Once better than the sum of their parts, the Raptors became disjointed.
On defense, Lowry hasn't resembled the bulldog from years past. Same goes for DeRozan, who made important strides on that end last season. That, combined with Johnson’s wobbly left ankle hindering his mobility in the early going, has made every other deficiency more glaring.
The Raptors let the results overshadow their goals, and solvable problems turned into entrenched habits. Necessity may be the mother of invention -- the Raptors learned as much in the aftermath of the Gay trade. But progress is never promised.
Friday’s loss to the depleted Chicago Bulls proved a sobering backdrop for overdue self-evaluation. Even with Lowry missing in action, the team finally had to backtrack from its stance that they could, in Johnson’s words to the Toronto Star, “hit the gas” and “pull a San Antonio.”
Anyone who saw the thrashing could understand why. Over and over again, the Raptors tried desperately to muster a big moment and came up empty. DeRozan scored a lean 27 points but couldn’t stop Tony Snell from getting into the paint. Patterson snarled and flexed after made triples, trying to siphon fresh blood from a corpse.
“We didn’t win a championship last year,” said DeRozan after the loss. “We haven’t done nothing to feel that way, think that way. We need to grow every single day and get better, and understand how to win games game in and game out, and not wait for a big situation.”
With 11 games left until the playoffs, the Raptors should be fine-tuning their attack. Instead, they’re trying to rediscover it, grappling with the question of whether a formula predicated on belief can be reclaimed once it is lost.
The soft schedule ahead has built-in advantages; it’s easier to find and stay true to principles when things are easy. But if Toronto finds its groove, it’ll go untested until the playoffs, where the stakes are high and the room for mistakes is thin.
At best, the Raptors can enter the postseason with blind faith, not the level of trust they built last season, and hope things go their way from there. That’s the hole they’ve dug themselves into, their punishment for staying in the dirt for so long. It’s time to see if they can find their way out.
Seerat Sohi is a writer from Edmonton, Canada. Follow her @DamianTrillard.
- Charles F. Gardner of the Journal Sentinel: Instant karma's going to get you. It certainly got the Miami Heat as it dropped an 89-88 decision to the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday night. The Heat was well on its way to victory when its offense shut down in the fourth quarter, making just 3 of 14 shots and scoring a total of nine points. "I mean sometimes the momentum turns in a game like that, and it's the karma of the game," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "They really started to impose their will on the game with their pressure and really forcing us into some tough possessions. That sometimes is how this game works. Things start to avalanche from there, and it did." The Heat was swept by the Bucks, 4-0, in the season series, the first time that has happened since the 1990-'91 season. Dwyane Wade had two of the Heat's three baskets in the fourth quarter and led his team with 21 points while playing 31 minutes. "Everything that could go wrong went wrong," Wade said of the finish and Khris Middleton's winning three-pointer at the buzzer. "That's got to be the perfect storm. Everything went exactly as planned for them."
- Shandel Richardson of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel: Heat center Hassan Whiteside is listed as questionable for Wednesday's game against the Boston Celtics. Whiteside missed the second half of Tuesday's loss to the Milwaukee Bucks due to a laceration between his right middle and ring finger. "I don't know if I'm going to be able to play," Whiteside said. "We're going to see how it feels day-to-day, just see how long the stitches are in." Whiteside, who had seven points and eight rebounds, sustained the injury at the 5:41 mark of the second quarter. It occurred when he was trying to block a dunk attempt by Bucks forward Miles Plumlee. He received 10 stitches and wore a protective bandage over his hand after the game. He was also given a pain-killing shot in the training room. "I can't feel my hand right now," Whiteside said.
- Terry Foster of The Detroit News: The good word comes down on an almost daily basis. It is a simple message from Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy to his guards Reggie Jackson and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Attack! Attack! Attack! Push the ball up the floor. Attack the rim and be as aggressive as possible. Mission accomplished again. The Pistons (27-44) won their thirdstraight game against a team playing for something, playoffs-wise. The victim Tuesday night was the Toronto Raptors, who nearly pulled it off after erasing an 18-point lead but again fell, 108-104, to the hot Pistons. The only clunker during this stretch was a loss to Philadelphia, which is not playing for anything. Caldwell-Pope (26 points, six rebounds and four assists) and Jackson (28 points and nine assists) combined for 54 points. That is because they attacked. "He (Van Gundy) is making it easy," Jackson said. "He is always saying attack and always be in attack mode. He said be aggressive and look for shots and the game will play out how it should be played. If the pass (is open) I will make the pass. I will also attack and look for my teammates, as well." ... The Pistons have scored 100 or more points in four of five games since Greg Monroe was sidelined with a right knee injury. But it was a small number that impressed him the most. Zero turnovers for aggressive Caldwell-Pope and Jackson.
- Richard Griffin of the Toronto Star: Injured all-star point guard Kyle Lowry was a game-time decision for the Raptors, having missed two previous contests with back spasms. That he manned up and started at the point on Tuesday at the Palace was admirable, but with 10:37 left in the second quarter, Lowry exited with a recurrence of his back issues, gone for the night. But the Lowry injury wasn’t the reason the Raptors lost 108-104 by the already-eliminated Pistons. There are bigger concerns. On a night that should have been cause for major celebration in the land of the Raptors, with thousands of Canadian fans once again invading The Palace, the Pistons stood their ground, postponing the clinching of a second straight playoff spot. Understandably, Raptors coach Dwane Casey was remarkably subdued about the thought of a seventh post-season berth in team history. ... The problem for the Raptors is, even if they clinch the Atlantic Division on Wednesday against the Chicago Bulls at the ACC, or whenever it surely happens, it won’t have very much meaning. All the division title will mean is a nice banner to hang in the rafters next year.
- Dwain Price of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram: It didn’t take Monta Ellis very long to rebound from his worst shooting performance of the season. One game after making just 4-of-22 baskets while scoring only 11 points Sunday in a road loss to the Phoenix Suns, Ellis regrouped and poured in a season-high tying 38 points Tuesday during the Dallas Mavericks’ crucial 101-94 victory over the defending world champion San Antonio Spurs at American Airlines Center. Ellis converted 16-of-27 shots and also contributed five assists and two steals. But afterwards he refused to admit he was the catalyst behind a win which improved the Mavs’ record to 45-27. "It was a total team effort," Ellis said. "I was just taking what the defense gave me. Everybody was juiced up and we came out playing very aggressive." Ellis was so aggressive that he scored seven of the Mavs’ first nine points and already had 28 points after three quarters. The 10-year veteran was in attack mode all night and the Spurs had no defense that could contain him.
- Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News: The Spurs were ahead by 14 points early in the second quarter, seemingly preparing to cruise toward a fourth consecutive victory. Monta Ellis and the Dallas Mavericks would have none of that. The maligned Dallas guard rang up 38 points, as the Mavericks rallied to hand the Spurs a 101-94 defeat Tuesday at American Airlines Center. A game after going 4-for-22 in a loss to Phoenix, Ellis helped Dallas end the Spurs’ three-game winning streak, going 16 for 27 to spark a spurt in which the Mavericks outscored the Spurs by 31 points. It was the second time this season Ellis notched 38 against the Spurs. “We started out well,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “After that, it was a Mr. Ellis Show. We didn’t contain him, and he really went off.” Kawhi Leonard scored 19 points with nine rebounds and four steals for the Spurs, who were outscored 59-37 combined in the second and third quarters. The Spurs ended with the same number of assists as turnovers (16). “We just went cold,” Tim Duncan said. “There’s no two ways about it.” With the loss, the Spurs remained in sixth place in the Western Conference, percentage points ahead of Dallas. The Spurs face eighth-place Oklahoma City on Wednesday at the AT&T Center, with a rematch with the Mavericks looming Friday in San Antonio.
- Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman: Listed at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, Dion Waiters is wide and sturdy for a shooting guard, typically holding the strength advantage in almost all his matchups. It helps him bull through minor contact on the perimeter and deftly slide into the lane on a relatively consistent basis. But for most of this season, Waiters has struggled mightily to finish once in the paint. Often, he’d seem to exaggerate what he felt was foul-worthy contact, loudly belting ‘And-1’ toward the referees mid-shot, even when it had no chance of converting and the whistle wasn’t blown. Waiters said he’s done with that. “I ain’t worried about contact no more,” Waiters said. “I’m either gonna get it or I’m not gonna get it.” Entering Tuesday, Waiters was shooting 47.3 percent at the rim, far below the league average. It’s been a major problem. Listen to him tell it, though, and he’s found the solution. But the quirky Waiters has a track record of being a bit unpredictable on the court. So only time will tell. But his recent play is encouraging and, with the team’s injury situation what it is, Waiters’ improved efficiency is much needed.
- Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times: The already forgettable Lakers season took another bizarre turn to nowhere when Carlos Boozer and Jordan Hill sat on the bench an entire game. Boozer then said he was told by Coach Byron Scott he'd be sitting out "four or five games" so the Lakers could evaluate their young big men. Tanks a lot? Boozer is a free agent in July and essentially playing for his next contract but isn't upset about the benching, at least publicly. "Byron came and talked to us, me and J-Hill, before the road trip so we knew," Boozer said. "He said he wanted to take a good look at the rest of the young guys … so me and J-Hill are, I guess, just resting for the next four or five games. It makes sense for the future, trying to figure out and evaluate what guys you want to bring back in the future and give guys an opportunity to play and shine."
- Ailene Voisin of The Sacramento Bee: Omri Casspi feels a different vibe. He sees glimpses of a promising future. He has been encouraged enough during the opening weeks of the George Karl Era to say unequivocally that he wants to re-sign with the Kings when his contract expires at the end of the season. ... Auditions are ongoing. Karl is continuing to experiment. Vlade Divac is watching intently and studying everything, including locker room dynamics. “I want to come back here so badly,” Casspi, a first-round draft pick by the Kings in 2009, said. “I love the community and I feel like the team is finally moving in the right direction. George Karl’s system is great, and I’m not just saying that because I play for him, but because I really do believe this is the right way to play basketball. Spacing the floor. Moving, making extra passes, sharing the ball. Getting our hands on balls, deflections, then getting out and running. Unfortunately, coach Karl has not had a lot of time to teach us everything, but these last two games, you can see what we can become.”
- Bob Cooney of the Philadelphia Daily News: After a few games when his pregame routine wasn't quite as strenuous as it had been, Joel Embiid was back to getting in his normal work before last night's game. He was with Brett Brown before the game, working on his post moves and outside jump shot. Sunday in Los Angeles at the team's morning shootaround, Embiid shed his shirt and showed a very toned upper body. "He's ticking boxes in regards to increased time on the court, into reduced weight - his body weight is going down," Brown said. "It's a good sign that you're feeling pretty good about yourself. How about that, you see him drenched in sweat, he takes his shirt off. All fantastic signs that his needle is pointing in the right direction. We're trying to set the stage for a great summer. He sees that his reward will be summer league and trying to get ready for playing basketball again. He's most definitely heading in the right direction."
- Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle: With the Trail Blazers missing three-fifths of their starting lineup, including All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge, it should have been easy for the Warriors. But nothing comes easy when you’re trying to accomplish something that hasn’t been done in 39 years. The Warriors overcame a sluggish start and a 12-point, second-quarter deficit to clinch the franchise’s first division title since 1976 with a 122-108 victory over Portland in a nationally televised game Tuesday night at the Moda Center. “It’s a big deal for us,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said. “If you haven’t done something for that long, it should be a big deal.” Just as when they became the first Western Conference team to secure a playoff berth last week, there was little on-court celebration by the Warriors. The players were given gold T-shirts that read: “PACIFIC CLAIMED,” and they huddled for a team photo in the locker room.
- Sean Meagher of The Oregonian: There was no LaMarcus Aldridge, no Nicolas Batum, no Chris Kaman and too much Stephen Curry for the Portland Trail Blazers Tuesday night at the Moda Center. Curry scored a game-high 33 points and dished out 10 assists as the Golden State Warriors won their seventh straight, clinching the Pacific Division title while handing Portland its fifth consecutive loss, 122-108. The shorthanded Blazers had just 10 available players and rolled out their 16th different starting lineup of the season after using just two all of last year. Head coach Terry Stotts elected to go with Damian Lillard, Arron Afflalo, Alonzo Gee (in place of Batum), Dorell Wright (in place of Aldridge) and Robin Lopez, a combination that paid off early. The undermanned Blazers, fueled by an energetic Moda Center crowd watching the home team in person for the first time in 11 days, took the fight to the Warriors early, going blow-for-blow for two quarters. "I thought we gave a good effort tonight," Stotts said.
- Ronald Tillery of The Commercial-Appeal: Jeff Green had just completed a postgame radio interview when he turned and saw his path to the locker room blocked by a black rope barrier. A security guard quickly removed the hurdle as a smiling Green strolled by. “Ah man, I was going to jump over it,” the Grizzlies forward said. “I’m feeling good. The playoffs are almost here.” With an easy 103-82 victory over the New York Knicks on Monday night, the Griz continued to leap forward in a quest to make this a special season. They exited Madison Square Garden having clinched a fifth consecutive playoff berth by securing a third straight 50-win season. The same Grizzlies who found little reason to celebrate a week ago are figuratively jumping for joy about rhythmic performances throughout a three-game winning streak. “We’re starting to click a little bit,” said Griz coach Dave Joerger, who picked up his 100th win as an NBA head coach. ... The Griz have taken care of Joerger, too, making him the second-fastest active NBA head coach to reach 100 coaching victories. Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau picked up 100 in 130 games. Joerger did so in 153.
- Mitch Abramson of the New York Daily News: How long will it take Marc Gasol to figure out his pending free agency plans, and are the Knicks part of his thinking? Before the Grizzlies clinched a playoff spot with a 103-82 win against the shorthanded Knicks on Monday at the Garden, Gasol addressed those issues. No, he wouldn’t say if the Knicks, who have lost 11 of their last 13 games and were booed at the final buzzer, are a team he is considering. “I haven’t put any time in it,” the highly-skilled 7-1 center said. “You guys know how hectic an NBA season is.” He was then stopped by a reporter. "We can give you five minutes for you to make up your mind." Gasol laughed. If only it was that easy.
- Vincent Goodwill of CSN Chicago: Clinching a playoff spot is an annual rite of early spring for the Chicago Bulls, but it was the only constant coming into Monday night’s game against the Charlotte Hornets. Would Jimmy Butler’s return have an adverse affect on the Bulls team, especially coming off their dud in Detroit? Would they be bullied for the third time against a team that performed the basic tenets of Bull philosophy better than them this season, especially without the services of Joakim Noah, a late-game scratch (soreness)? No, and no — and Nikola Mirotic has the late-game poster on Hornets forward Jason Maxiell to prove it, as the Bulls clinched their seventh straight playoff appearance with a 98-86 win Monday at the United Center. By the time Mirotic nailed an open three in transition with 2:33 left to put the Bulls up 89-82, the question was no longer centered about Mirotic being lost in crunch time with Butler back and more around how could the Hornets players repeatedly lose sight of the impressive rookie. “While we are waiting on our other guys to get back, Niko tends to get overlooked by the other team,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “And we can use that to our advantage.”
- Sam Perley of Hornets.com: The Hornets finally put together a strong start to a game but ultimately couldn’t stay with the Bulls in the second half as they fell, 98-86, on Monday, Mar. 23 in Chicago. In the finale of their five-game road trip, the Hornets were unable to follow up a strong outing in Minnesota with another victory as they managed only one win away from home during this stretch. Kemba Walker led the Hornets with 29 points while Nikola Mirotic had another impressive performance off the bench for Chicago, finishing with 28 points. ... Kemba Walker had his highest-scoring performance since returning from a knee injury on Mar. 11, leading the Hornets with 29 points, two rebounds, two assists and zero turnovers. Walker is averaging 21.0 points, 3.3 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 3.3 steals over his last three games since being reinserted into Charlotte’s starting lineup on Mar. 20.
- Jenny Dial Creech of the Houston Chronicle: While there is no set return date for Rockets center Dwight Howard, coach Kevin McHale said it has to be soon. After the team’s 110-100 win over the Pacers on Monday, McHale said he might have to start putting Howard back into games. “We are so down on bodies and we don’t have a lot of practice time,” McHale said. “We might have to start throwing him out there and letting him get some minutes in the game, whether he starts out 15-20 minutes and getting game time. But he has to start playing here pretty soon because otherwise the season is just going to go by and you can’t wait for the playoffs to come back, so we’ll see.” The Rockets next game is on Wednesday night in New Orleans.
- Scott Agness of VigilantSports.com: When is Paul George returning? That’s the big question, and the one I get asked frequently via text and Twitter, more so than usual this last week. On Monday, President Larry Bird, coach Frank Vogel, and Paul George himself all spoke to the media. All three stuck to the company line and did not provide a timetable, though within the next week seems likely. Paul said he is nearing 100 percent and still hopes to play this season. ... There are 12 more dates left in the regular season where George could return. What I’ve heard from those at practices say George is steadily improving, but still isn’t quite ready. One more week to improve his conditioning and get in the right frame of mind will be good for him. Through all of this talk of a return, particularly in the last week, coach Vogel does not believe it’s annoyed or distracted the team. “Maybe it’s in the back of our guys’ minds, but I really don’t think so,” he said. “It’s not in my mind at least because I haven’t viewed him as being ready to go yet.” Paul George wants to play, it seems he still must pass the eye test for the coaches and training staff.
- Marcus Thompson II of the San Jose Mercury News: So how has Stephen Curry done against the “best” at his position? He has totaled 20 games against this group. After Monday’s easy win over Washington, this crop of point guards is averaging 17.3 points on 36.3 percent shooting with 6.3 assists and 3.2 turnovers against the Warriors. The biggest scoring performances against Curry were by Westbrook and Rose, who scored 33 and 30, respectively. But Westbrook needed 30 shots and Rose needed 30. Parker had the most dominant performance, scoring 28 points on 11 of 17 shooting. But the next game he had 2 points on 0 of 4. Parker is still the only player in this collection to shoot 50 percent or better against the Warriors. Ty Lawson (14 for 28), not on the list, also shot 50 percent against the Warriors in two games. Eric Bledson (13 of 28), also not included, also came close. Again, there are other factors. So this doesn’t mean Curry is doing this by himself. But Curry’s improved defense is a big part of it. He was always tougher than people gave him credit for, especially when teams are trying to post him up.
- Jorge Castillo of The Washington Post: On Sunday evening, minutes removed from a disappointing loss to the inferior Sacramento Kings, Washington Wizards Coach Randy Wittman insisted offense was not his team’s dilemma even though it had mustered just 86 points against the NBA’s 27th-ranked defense. Instead, he emphatically asserted the Wizards’ problem was on the defensive end. Focus on defense was absent Sunday, he maintained, and Washington needed to manufacture a better showing at Oracle Arena on Monday if it was to stand a chance to overtake the Golden State Warriors, owners of the best record in the league. Twenty-four hours later, the Wizards’ offense wasn’t an issue opposite the league’s top-rated defense in a 107-76 loss. It was an absolute disaster. After going into halftime trailing by three points, the Wizards missed their first 15 shots in the third quarter and didn’t convert a field goal until Kevin Seraphin bounced a hook shot through the basket with 1 minute 2 seconds remaining.
- Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune: The Timberwolves lost yet another player to the injured list on Monday when they played at Utah without shooting guard Kevin Martin and his ailing hamstring. Meanwhile, rookie forward Andrew Wiggins just keeps on going. Wiggins confessed months ago, admitting that a demanding NBA schedule three times the length of anything he has played before is wearing him out. Maybe that’s why his teammates had taken to calling him “Sleepy.” Still, here he is, one of only two Wolves players — Gorgui Dieng is the other — who has played in all 69 games this season and has the chance still to finish the 82-game season with perfect attendance. “Knock on wood,” superstitious coach Flip Saunders said. And Wiggins is quite aware of it. “Yeah, it’s my goal,” he said, before playing nearly 49 minutes and scoring 22 points in a 106-104 overtime victory over the Jazz. “My coaches told me that’s a big accomplishment. If you play 82 games your rookie year, you should be proud of that. That’s what I aim to do.” He has done so while his teammates seem to drop beside him. ... Wiggins is averaging 35 minutes a game — nearly 38 a game since just before Christmas — and it shows sometimes.
- Aaron Falk of The Salt Lake Tribune: The Jazz's large cast of rookies has produced its share of growing pains over the course of the season. But there was strength in numbers Monday morning when the team's youngsters performed their rookie duties and sang "Happy Birthday" to 25-year-old veteran Gordon Hayward. "It was more of us today," forward Rodney Hood said. "... Everybody chipped in today, so it wasn't as bad." In total, there are seven first-year players on the roster. "You guys have a full chorus now," a reporter said to Hood. "Yeah, we do," he replied. "It was beautiful. You guys should have caught it."
- Mark Murphy of the Boston Herald: Marcus Smart returned from a one-game suspension for punching the San Antonio Spurs’ Matt Bonner in the groin, and the Celtics rookie took an interesting dual position on the incident. He continues to insist the punch, in response to a hard pick by Bonner, wasn’t intentional. Then again, Smart also said he understands the reason for the suspension. ... Smart also insists that he’s not developing a dirty reputation — an especially taboo situation for a rookie. “No, not at all,” he said. “My coach and my teammates know I am not a dirty player. I’m a physical player, but a dirty one? That’s not my reputation.” Smart also agrees with the view that he has to, in the philosophy of Frank Sinatra, be himself, though naturally with limits now that he’s the only player in the league with two flagrant-2 fouls to his name this season. The previous flagrant-2 came earlier this month when he connected with an elbow to the jaw of Orlando Magic guard Elfrid Payton on a drive to the basket.
- Harvey Araton of The New York Times: The all-out assault on the Knicks at the expense of young talent and draft picks was only an imperative that Prokhorov created, nothing that the Brooklyn market demanded. The Nets could easily have approached relocation as an expansion team with the understanding that they had history on their side, the return of a major professional sport to Brooklyn to sell, along with those sharp-looking T-shirts and jerseys. They had a sparkling new arena, with the greatest teams and players on earth scheduled to visit and at least couple of years to just deal with the followers of those opponents showing up in multitudes. After so much invested, so much lost, that has still been the case, which means that the Nets tried too hard to impress a fan base that really did not exist. This all started with the February 2011 acquisition of Deron Williams from Utah, the headline-grabber soon after they had lost out on Carmelo Anthony, who went to the Knicks. ... Just recently, Brett Yormark, the team’s chief executive officer, told a sports symposium: “I want to own this city. That’s critical for us. I think the way you own it is by winning and getting to the playoffs this year.” Good luck with that tired line. The Nets tried. They really did. But they failed, and it’s time for a retrenchment, a Plan B, just start worrying about themselves, along with their borough. Owning Brooklyn will be a feat in itself.