December, 18, 2013
Sam Forencich/NBAE/Getty Images
Portland's 3-rich offense may be untraditional, but it's also off the charts.
The Blazers have the best record in basketball, the best offense in the game by a fair margin and egg on the faces of every pundit in the land.
They were supposed to be mediocre, and 26 games in they have been stellar.
A caterpillar of a 33-game winner has emerged from the chrysalis of the offseason and taken flight, on pace to win [gasp] 69.
Somebody has some explaining to do. Three prevailing theories:
THEORY #1: MVP Aldridge
LaMarcus Aldridge has emerged as an MVP candidate, they say. And he has been fantastic ... but his performance isn't so different from what he has done in recent years. This is only part of the story.
THEORY #2: Roster upgrade
General manager Neil Olshey deserves major kudos for his offseason, most notably in bringing in starting big man Robin Lopez who has been a monster on the offensive glass, the team's best rim protector and, most importantly, the player who let Aldridge play his preferred power forward position. Olshey also upgraded the bench, to be sure.
But remember whatever is working in Portland must account for massive, not incremental, improvement. The Pacers, Thunder and Spurs are 0-3 against this team. Could that really be attributable to Lopez, Mo Williams and Dorrell Wright -- even as most people rank this year's top four Blazer contributors as Aldridge, Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum, none of whom are new?
THEORY #3: Dumb luck
It is undeniable. Lillard can scarcely miss with the game on the line, including Tuesday night's off-the-dribble shocker, which, as Brian Windhorst points out, was "a game-winning 3-pointer that he drilled from the edge of the center court logo with less than a second left." Matthews is shooting an insane 46 percent from 3. Not to mention, they've had a knack for encountering opponents at the right time, for instance when key players are out injured.
But the biggest luck they've had of all, if you are to believe Charles Barkley on TNT the other night, or nearly any other pundit, is that they've hit jump shots.
And, the story goes, that's not how you win in the playoffs, when rim attacks, post-ups and power basketball carry the day. This is well-worn territory of NBA commentary; Mike D'Antoni's Suns and Rick Adelman's Kings tried this high-paced 3-rich offense, and it was cute for a while, but neither won a title, proving it's an offensive approach that is more of curio than a strategy worth fearing. Like those other soft teams, the Blazers will eventually start missing, and beat themselves.
Meanwhile, Portland head coach Terry Stotts chafes at the notion there's anything gimmicky about what's working. "That," he says, "is the easy way out."
The trickier analysis, the more nuanced one, is that these carefully constructed 3-rich offenses have intractable benefits. In Portland, it starts with Aldridge, who has the length and shooting touch to score like Dirk Nowitzki without the 3s. That's somebody you'd double-team.
But, how are you going to do that? The Blazers have, count 'em, five top-shelf 3-point shooters (each shooting 38 percent or better, with at least 65 attempts in the first 26 games). Other than garbage time, every single minute of this season Portland has had at least three of those top shooters on the floor. Help off one of them, and pay in 3s. The only other guy you might help off is the big man, generally Lopez, but how can you leave a seven-footer standing all alone under the hoop?
Every instant, every Blazer is a high-risk scoring threat. And, worse for the defense, they're all so darned far apart. Coaches always talk about spacing, on this team it's like outer spacing. The 3 shooters aren't within 20 feet of each other, leaving Aldridge an unperturbed acre on the left side to make the catch and exploit a defender. NBA defenses have schemes to help and rotate, but helping and rotating with players 20 feet away takes a lot of hard running, with all of its delay and imprecision. These are defenders out of position and under stress.
When such rankings are publicly available, it's a good bet we'll learn the Blazers lead the league in open shots.
And an emerging truism of both basketball history, and cutting-edge stat geekery: There's nothing like an open shot. Shooting those shots works, and has created a collaborative mood among Portland's players.
In a Wednesday phone conversation, Terry Stotts discusses his team's early success:
Charles Barkley says your success can't last because jump shooting teams can't win in the playoffs. Your thoughts?
I think that's the easy way out.
I don't like the idea that Phoenix didn't win a championship and so what they did was wrong. If that's the case, then 29 teams are wrong every season.
We won in Dallas [in 2011] with a lot of shooters. San Antonio has changed their style, and shoots more 3s now. Miami has their approach. There isn't one definitive style that wins. To win a championship you have to be very good, top ten or so, in both offense and defense.
The best defenses take away the paint, and not many teams have been able to score well against teams like that.
But every team can't shoot very well, because not every team has good enough shooters.
You have five elite 3-point shooters, in Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, Dorrell Wright and Mo Williams. I just looked it up, and except garbage time at least three of them are always on the floor. Is that by design?
Those five guys play all the minutes at guard and small forward, unless we play small, and then they're at the power forward too. I can't play any other way but to have three of them on the floor. Last year, we had a different makeup, and I tried to keep two starters on the floor at all times.
We have a lot of different lineups, but I'm not concerned about three shooters specifically, other than that's how our roster is constructed.
Wayne Winston consulted with the Mavericks when you were there. He is a pioneer of adjusted plus/minus, and once told me he suspects there's magic in lineups with at least three really good shooters. He has noticed they tend to perform very well, not strictly because of the 3s, but also because it gets the defense scrambling, and increases the chances every shot will be open.
I don't know about that theorem, but I firmly agree with the idea.
Look at last year's Finals. They say defense wins championships, and it does.
But look at the key adjustments in the series. The Heat brought Mike Miller in, and San Antonio responded by taking Tiago Splitter out. The key adjustment, for both teams, was to put another shooter on the court.
Meanwhile, one of the league's best shooters, Kyle Korver, a record-setter, recently told me he played for years before any coach drew up a play designed to get him a 3.
It goes against "old school" basketball, which says "pound it inside." And that can work.
But look at the history of this league. I'm big into looking at the history of this league and the ABA. Look at 3-point shooting. We were talking about this the other day: Rick Pitino's 88-89 Knicks team shot 40 percent more 3s than the next team, and won 50 games. That was radical! They shot more 3s than anybody.
And last season? That rate of 3s would have been 29th in the NBA.
I don't think we talk enough about the effect the rule changes had on all this. For starters, for three years they moved the 3-point line in and the attempts exploded. Then they moved it back out, and the attempts stayed up, and then gradually went up even higher.
And the rule changes in 2001, that's about freedom of movement, and it changed a lot. The rules used to dictate that you could only play a certain kind of defense, and that kept the ball on one side of the court. But with more movement, you get more skill players on the court.
Those 2001 changes are still having an impact.
If your team shot even more 3s, would the offense be better or worse?
I'm not concerned with the number of 3s we take. I don't go into a game saying we need to take more 3s, and I don't worry about how many we shot after a game.
My biggest concern is the 3s that we get. If we get the ball in the post, kick out, swing pass, and you're open ... take a 3. We have five guys who are are basically shooting 40 percent. It's about quality of attempts. I'm not talking about dribbling down and taking a 3 off the dribble. Those aren't the 3s I'm looking for. It's about the ball popping and finding the open man. Those are the 3s we want, and they make us an unselfish team.
It's hard to get good shots in the NBA, if we're talking about a good shot for that player.
If you have it, you have to take it.
And there has to be buy-in of what we do. If there were a strategy that said we had to try to shoot a 3 every time down the court, that wouldn't fly with these players. Sometimes chemistry can get lost in the numbers. It's essential to get the buy-in. I'm really proud of how we're passing the ball. I think they're proud of how they run this offense. I think it's the style that works for us.
What about the idea too many 3s are bad for the game?
Change always divides people into two camps: People who want it and people who don't.
That's the way things work. All these 3s, they inspire debate. It might be good for the game. It might be bad. But the debate is good. That's how we learn.
Does it matter to you if your team is fun to watch?
I'm proud we're fun to watch. It wasn't a priority heading into the season. But it comes with what we wanted to develop. I like that kind of basketball, I enjoy it. But it wasn't the goal.
The Suns didn't win a title. Neither did the Kings. Did it delay the NBA's embrace of the 3 that those 3-heavy teams don't have rings?
Why does Dallas get left off the list? We won a title with passing and shooting. Was that too much of an outlier? Is that not accepted?
29 teams failed that year, by this measure.
I have a lot of respect for what Phoenix did for the game. The way they played? They made the game better. What we're doing right now is a byproduct of what they did, absolutely. And those Kings teams were awesome. Just because neither team happened to win a title we're going to assume nothing those teams did mattered?
To win a championship you have to be in the top ten in offense and defense, pretty much. We were outliers in Dallas, where we were 11th in defense, I believe. The other outlier is the Pistons, who were not in the top ten in offense. But if you're trying to be a champion, you have to be good in both.
So what about your defense? [The NBA's 21st-best when we spoke.]
We're working on it. And we have gotten better on D. It's not like we're not defending. Look at the different measures, we've been improving. In games decided by five points of fewer, we're a very good defensive team. We're 12-3, I happened to notice, in games when we've made 44 percent or less. It's not like we have to be making every shot to win.
- Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News: When he set foot in this city nearly 3½ years ago, Xavier Henry was considered a highly touted draft prospect that could help the Memphis Grizzlies toward a deep playoff push. Henry, whom Memphis selected with the 12th overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, never did that. A right knee injury sidelined him for 35 games his rookie season. The Grizzlies then traded Henry the following year to New Orleans, where overlapping injuries buried him on the depth chart. "I was just faithful to God and stayed true to the Bible," Henry said. "I perservered through it. I've been doing that so far in my career. It hasn't been easy," The Lakers signed Henry to a one-year deal this offseason with a partially guaranteed contract worth $884,293, and the move became a good investment. Henry only posted five points on 2 of 8 shooting in the Lakers' win Tuesday against Memphis. But he has averaged a career-high 9.8 points on 44 percent shooting in 20.1 minutes per game. He has also shown marked improvement from November (6.8 points on 37.9 percent shooting) to December (13.9 points on 50 percent shooting). "I'm trying to solidify myself and have a great career," Henry said. "But it doesn't happen in a day. I can't have too many highs or lows. It's about pushing through the whole season."
- Ronald Tillery of The Commercial-Appeal: The shoe that Tony Allen wore when he inadvertently kicked Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul in the face on Nov. 18 will be auctioned online to benefit Youth Villages. Allen, who was ejected from that game and suspended, donated the shoe to the national nonprofit organization headquartered in Memphis. Youth Villages is auctioning the shoe online as part of an effort to raise $15,000 to buy presents for children receiving help on its residential campuses and group homes. The shoe is autographed by Allen and is mounted in a custom Memphis Grizzlies display case. The eBay auction runs through Sunday. All proceeds generated from the sale of the shoe will be matched by an anonymous donor up to $10,000.
- Joe Freeman of The Oregonian: After Damian Lillard bludgeoned the Cleveland Cavaliers Tuesday night, swishing a game-winning three-pointer before the final buzzer to carry the red-hot Trail Blazers to another victory, the superlatives flowed as free and effortless as a shot off Lillard’s right fingertips. “Cold blooded,” Cleveland’s Dion Waiters said of the game-winner. “Incredible,” Joel Freeland said of the dominant individual performance. “He’s like a silent assassin on the court,” Earl Watson said of Lillard. “He’s deadly when he shoots the ball.” Lillard was certainly a last-second marksman for the Blazers on Tuesday, calmly and confidently nailing a 30-foot step-back three with 0.4 seconds left to lift them to a 119-116 victory over the Cavaliers before 15,689 at Quicken Loans Arena. It was the second consecutive game-winner for Lillard — who hit a fadeaway jumper to beat the Detroit Pistons Sunday — and provided another remarkable moment in a season that continues to amaze. “It’s crazy that we’re pulling off wins like this,” Freeland said of the Blazers, who possess the NBA’s best record at 22-4.
- Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon-Journal: Kyrie Irving was caught off guard by Nike’s official release of the Zoom HyperRev on Monday, which the shoe giant said was made with Irving in mind. "I wish Nike would have told me when they were going to release the images,” Irving joked. “But that’s just what the biggest brand in the world does that I’m grateful to be a part of." The shoes go on sale to the public Jan. 1. Irving has not worn them in a game yet, but there are pictures circulating on the internet of O.J. Mayo wearing them. Irving wasn’t sure how Mayo got a pair before he did. “I don’t know if you’ll see him again with them on, but we’ll see what happens,” Irving said.
- Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman: The analytic hoops world has been taken over by efficiency numbers and the advanced metrics craze. It’s understandable. And so useful. But it often can’t tell the whole story. Take a look at Russell Westbrook’s past six games. He’s shooting under 44 percent from the field and 20 percent (6-of-30) from three. Bad, right? Except that Westbrook may be in the midst of one of his best career stretches. Forget the percentages. Just look at his ridiculous per game averages in the past six: 21.1 points, 9.8 assists, 9.1 rebounds. Those are eye-popping, crazy, Oscar Robertson-type numbers. And only in a minor way do they tangibly explain his current impact on the court. He’s just been controlling games with his end-to-end energy and non-stop motor. Now if he would just stop jacking those long, early-in-the-shot-clock threes.
- Mark Kiszla of The Denver Post: The only place in the NBA where point guard Ty Lawson is more beloved than Russell Westbrook is Denver. In a nutshell, that represents the daunting challenge for the Nuggets to be taken seriously in the league. If Lawson can't blow by Westbrook, Denver will never catch Oklahoma City's elite status in the Western Conference. "When a great point guard comes up, you've got to respond to the challenge," Lawson said. Oklahoma City blew out the Nuggets 105-93 on Tuesday night. The problem: 17 points and 13 assists by Lawson were not enough. At 5-foot-11, Lawson is the biggest talent on the Denver roster. ... Is playing Westbrook on even terms an unreasonable expectation for Lawson? It might be. But here's the deal: The West will be won by an elite point guard. While Durant is the best player in the conference, the strength of the NBA leans hard to the Left Coast because of the talent at the position played by Lawson. Lawson is cut from all-star cloth. But name all the point guards in the West that Lawson must beat out for all-star glory, and you have a very clear picture of how hard it will be for the Nuggets to become a serious contender for a berth in the NBA Finals. Without a blockbuster trade or a draft lottery luck, the lone way this group of Nuggets is going to ever get to the championship round is if Lawson grows into one of the top 20 players in the league.
- Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer: Steve Clifford double-teamed Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins aggressively for much of the second half. That took some defensive pressure off Al Jefferson, and was just enough to secure a 95-87 home victory. Cousins ended the game with 30 points, 17 rebounds and six assists. Jefferson fouled out in the last two minutes, finishing the game with 10 points and nine rebounds. But it was the Bobcats who prevailed, improving to 11-14. Clifford had been advised by his mentors, particularly Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, to go slow in installing defensive principles. Establish the basic habits now, worry about exotic coverages and “special-player” counter-measures later. “Later” became last week’s road loss to the NBA-best Indiana Pacers. The Bobcats might have pulled that game off had they done something fresh in the fourth quarter to contain center Roy Hibbert and shooting guard Lance Stephenson.
- Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee: The first shooting guard off the bench the last two games hasn’t been a shooting guard. Malone has opted to bring 6-foot-9 forward Travis Outlaw off the bench and use him and the 6-foot-8 Gay as guards behind rookie guard Ben McLemore. “What I liked about it is we became very long and athletic out there on the perimeter,” Malone said. “At some points you had Derrick (Williams), Rudy and Travis out there and all those guys can switch screens, cover for each other and they all can make a play offensively. I liked it on both ends of the floor. We’ll continue to give it a look as the season goes along.” That has again cut into the playing time for Marcus Thornton. Thornton began the season as a starter but did not play at all Tuesday after playing seven minutes Sunday against Houston. Thornton was pegged as a source of offense with the second unit, but Williams will be looked at to fill that void.
- Carl Steward of The Oakland Tribune: Andre Iguodala is back, and not coincidentally, so are the Warriors. After missing the previous 12 games because of a left-hamstring strain, the versatile swingman returned to the lineup Tuesday night, and even though he personally showed some rust, the Warriors looked well-oiled in whipping the New Orleans Pelicans 104-93 at Oracle Arena. The Warriors, who went 5-7 without Iguodala, went wire-to-wire in improving their record to 14-12. They played upbeat and confident, buoyed by the return of Iguodala, who logged 17 minutes. He scored only two points -- on a dunk -- had two assists and didn't get a rebound, but as usual, he just seemed to make everybody better. "It felt good -- I got tired of watching," Iguodala said. "You get a little appreciation for the game, especially when you see your brothers struggle. I felt tonight was a great game by everyone just to get a win and put together a string of good basketball the way we did the first three quarters." Indeed, it was a big night for a number of Warriors, most notably Stephen Curry, who recorded a league-best 11th straight game with 20 points or more by pouring in 28 and adding 12 assists. David Lee, meanwhile, was active at both ends, scoring 21 points with 17 rebounds.
- John Reid of The Times-Picayune: The New Orleans Pelicans are working out final details on a potential two-year contract offer to acquire 7-foot-2 French center Alexis Ajinca, league sources confirmed Tuesday afternoon. Ajinca is in the process of working out a buyout agreement with his current Euro League team, Strasbourg. Meanwhile, Pelicans officials declined comment about the situation on Tuesday afternoon. Ajinça was the 20th overall pick in the 2008 NBA Draft by the Charlotte Bobcats, who eventually traded him to the Dallas Mavericks before the 2010-11 season. He played only a half season with the Mavericks before he was traded to the Toronto Raptors. The Pelicans are in desperate need of acquiring a center. Jason Smith is their starting center, but he's a natural power forward. Backup center Greg Stiemsma has been out since mid-November with a sprained left knee.
December, 17, 2013
David Thorpe says Anthony Davis is the best player in the NBA's sophomore class, but he's injured at the moment. That created a sophomore-ranking dilemma between Blazer Damian Lillard and Piston Andre Drummond, who vied for the top spot.
December, 17, 2013
By Blake Murphy
Special to ESPN.com
Special to ESPN.com
Dave Sandford/Getty ImagesThe Raptors have struggled to tap into their national identity in almost two decades in Canada.The Toronto Raptors began their journey in the NBA in November 1995. The feelings of inferiority among the fan base were born just two and a half seasons later.
Damon Stoudamire was the first draft pick ever made by the franchise and the face of NBA basketball in Canada up to that point. But after two losing seasons with the expansion team and faced with another, the point guard demanded a trade. He wanted out.
He wouldn’t be the last.
Tracy McGrady left in 2000 in search of an opportunity to become a franchise player. Vince Carter, credited with putting the Raptors on the map during his six-year stint, famously followed. Chris Bosh never fully embraced the void left by Carter and was all too happy to ditch Toronto for Miami seven season later, burning bridges on his way out as he complained about getting the “good cable” and that “it’s all about being on TV at the end of the day.”
Those kind of remarks infuriate Canadian basketball fans. Sonny Weems also criticized the cable service. Antonio Davis worried about his children learning the metric system. And Othella Harrington, believe it or not, said the cream in the center of Vancouver’s Oreos tasted funny.
Sam Forencich/Getty ImagesWill Andrew Wiggins, the pride of Canada, wind up in Toronto?
Each player who has left the country had his reasons, but whatever the rationale, the takeaway was often the same: Canada isn’t a place an NBA star can be happy.
Perhaps that’s why Steve Nash’s stretch with the Phoenix Suns resonated so much with Canadian fans. While technically born in South Africa, Nash grew up here, became the player he is here. If the Raptors’ stars wouldn't embrace the country, perhaps the country could embrace one of its own.
In January 2007, the Raptors, months away from their lone division title, hosted Nash’s Suns and staged a 15-point second-half comeback. But Nash scored 13 points in the final seven minutes, sending the crowd into a frenzy with each basket. He was burying the home team at the Air Canada Centre and ruining a chance to upset one of the league’s elite teams, but the fans loved it. He wasn’t some visiting player. He was one of us.
The dream, then, became to have Nash play in Toronto -- Canada’s greatest basketball export leading what was now Canada’s only team. Canadian fans went crazy in 2012 as then-general manager Bryan Colangelo tried to lure his former point guard home as a free agent. That effort ultimately proved fruitless, but it showed a clear desire among local fans to embrace one of their own.
Jay Triano, a Canadian who served as the Raptors’ head coach from 2008-11, has seen it firsthand.
“I felt it was an honor to be in that position,” said Triano, the coach of Canada’s national team and the only Canadian-born head coach in NBA history. “I think players are happy to be in the NBA. There wouldn’t be extra pressure, but maybe extra demands on their time.”
As it stands, Jamaal Magloire is the only Canadian to have played for the Raptors, in a one-season, 34-game victory lap in 2011-12.
That could soon change. A record nine Canadian players can currently be found on NBA rosters, and it’s hardly a coincidence. Guys like Tristan Thompson and Anthony Bennett are a product of the first generation to grow up with basketball in this country, and the hope is that more Canadians in the league “will drive more athletes out to the playground and grow that basketball culture,” as Rowan Barrett, assistant general manager of Canada’s men’s team, put it.
When Nash won his second straight MVP award, Andrew Wiggins was 11 years old. Now the Kansas freshman is the unquestioned face of Canadian basketball, and the new homegrown product Raptors fans have chosen as their savior. Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri is reportedly enamored with the idea of bringing the kid from Thornhill -- 25 minutes away from the Air Canada Centre -- to Toronto, too.
Perhaps most importantly, Wiggins seems to want to play here. When asked in July who he’d most like to be drafted by, Wiggins said: “I would like to say the Raptors. I want to play for them.”
If attracting and retaining players is difficult, building around a home-grown potential All-Star who wants to play for you is an absolute best-case scenario.
Trading Rudy Gay on Dec. 9 was viewed by fans as a sign that the Raptors were doing what they could to make that happen. The team is still too talented to tank properly, especially given how putrid the Eastern Conference is, but more moves to push them higher in the draft lottery may be coming.
“One thing I can say is we won’t be stuck in the middle, we won’t be in no-man’s land,” Ujiri said last week.
Nineteen years after the birth of the NBA in Canada, basketball’s presence in Canada probably isn’t as large as what was expected. This is unquestionably a hockey country, making the experience of a Canadian basketball fan a peculiar one. Perhaps that’s why, despite being smaller in numbers, Raptors fans are regarded as one of the most rabid and passionate groups in the league. Outcasts in their own country and afterthoughts on a league scale, they’re ready to put everything into a winning team or, failing that, a top Canadian player, as we saw with Nash.
It feels almost cruel, then, that the 2014 NBA draft is dangling a potential merger of those two interests above their heads. But given how things have gone in the first two decades of Raptors basketball, even a 25 percent chance at Wiggins is worth dreaming on.
- Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel: As the Orlando Magic's losses have increased this season, Arron Afflalo has kept a lid on his disappointment. The losses have worn on him, but he never has singled out teammates even though he has played at an All-Star level. On Monday night, Afflalo channeled any lingering frustrations onto the court. Afflalo scored 13 of his team-high 23 points in the third quarter, and the Magic needed all of the cushion that he helped provide. The Magic led by as many as 17 points midway through the third quarter and just barely held on to beat the struggling Chicago Bulls 83-82 at United Center. "We were holding on, surviving tonight," Magic coach Jacque Vaughn said. "This game was a first-one-to-80 kind of game. We needed points, and there was a stretch he was really good for us."
- Steve Hummer of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: For all the Los Angeles Lakers residual marquee value, in the cold, hard light of the standings, Monday’s meeting with the Hawks amounted to No. 3 in the East vs. No. 12 in the West. Granted, L.A. plays in a much, much tougher neighborhood. But still, for a night, the result almost spoke mismatch. Before the usual lively crowd that the Lakers bring with them, the Hawks beat the Lakers 114-100. They saved their highest-scoring game of the young season for the one night the Lakers came to town. The Hawks seized control of the game with a third quarter surge and on this occasion refused to melt. They overwhelmed the Lakers with their energy. Eleven three-pointers didn’t hurt either. In L.A., the Lakers won the first meeting of the season in early November by two with a markedly different starting lineup than Monday’s. Four different bodies in royal purple ambled onto the Philips floor, the one with Bryant stitched across his shoulders being the most noted.
- Filip Bondy of the New York Daily News: Of all the remarkable season stats for Joe Johnson, the most impressive one right now rests directly below the “G.” There, you will find the number 24, which means that Johnson is one of only four Nets, and the only one who really matters, not to have missed a single game this year due to injury. It is a wonder how he has remained in one piece, while all around him his teammates have been felled like Christmas trees in early December. “I love to come out and play,” Johnson said after he had done something remarkable on Monday night. “I just try to be here for the guys.” Johnson wasn’t merely there for the guys at Barclays Center, he was ablaze. Johnson went on a record-tying 3-point streak that suddenly made a lopsided game worth watching, at least for a period. In that third quarter, he scored 29 points and buried eight of 10 threes, including an impossible bomb from the left corner with defender James Anderson draped all over him — while drawing a foul. “I got a good look, got separation,” Johnson insisted. “I just let it go. I was in the right spot a lot of times, at the right times, catching the ball with the seams every time in the right place.” It was all more than enough to bury the Sixers, 130-94, and to demonstrate again how Johnson has become the rock on a team largely comprised of delicate sand pebbles. “Got to keep giving him the ball, keep giving it to him,” Andray Blatche said.
- Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press: After scoring 31 points on 13-for-17 shooting on mostly inside post-ups in Sunday’s home loss to Portland, Pistons forward Josh Smith told reporters to expect more of it the rest of the season. Smith kept his word with 30 points on 13-for-29 shooting in Monday’s win over the Indiana Pacers. That news should be music to the ears of fans who have watched Smith chuck up long jumper after long jumper in the early season. The inside emphasis was prompted by coach Maurice Cheeks, who met with the free-agent acquisition to discuss ways to get him on track offensively. “We talked about it, playing him a little bit more, putting the ball in his hands a little bit more, trying to get him off the perimeter, not allowing to catch so many jump shots on the perimeter,” Cheeks said before the Pistons faced the Indiana Pacers on Monday night. “Just give him more opportunities scoring-wise." Through the first 25 games Smith spent a lot of time on the perimeter and not using advantage of his athletic gifts. He always has been one of the most efficient players in the NBA in the paint. And he punished the Trail Blazers with an array of jump hooks and power moves for dunks.
- Michael Lee of The Washington Post: Bradley Beal now has a Madison Square Garden moment that he will forever cherish, taking the ball from John Wall – right in front of Spike Lee, looking on with his hands in his pockets – and driving left around New York Knicks point guard Beno Udrih for a layup that stunned a sellout crowd. At the NBA’s most storied arena, Beal scored the Wizards’ final eight points to lead his team a 102-101 victory that ended a four-game losing streak and gave Washington a win in New York that the franchise had been seeking since Gilbert Arenas had his first knee surgery. But Beal wouldn’t have been in position to make his second career game-winning shot – and first on the road – if not for an unexpected second-half run that turned a five-point deficit into a seven-point lead, all with Wall watching from sideline. Playing his first came in three weeks, Beal certainly had a hand in the swing, but Martell Webster, Jan Vesely and Garrett Temple made the shots and the plays on both ends that spared the team from another collapse.
- Shandel Richardson of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel: Heat guard Dwyane Wade's health is often judged by others based on the ability to make athletic plays on the court. He says it's the exact opposite. Wade can tell if his knees are causing problems mostly on jumpshots. "A lot of my jumpshot is how my legs feel," Wade said. "I'm strong enough to get down on my shot and get up in the air on it. … You got to plant, you've got to be able to raise. Everybody looks at dunking as everything. You can feel great one day and dunking is not going to be a part of it. … It's about how you're able to get up on your shot." Wade used guard Ray Allen as an example. Allen was bothered by sore ankles during the 2012 playoffs, making it tough to shoot, even at the free throw line. "It's just little things like that, that hurt you," Wade said. "The average fan would maybe not know how the body works when it comes to basketball."
- Scott Souza of the MetroWest Daily News: It was a quintessential Boston moment two years in the making. As Celtics forward Jared Sullinger stepped to the free throw line with his team up three points in the closing seconds of Monday night’s game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Garden crowd saluted the emerging talent with the chant of "Sully! Sully! Sully!" Sullinger hit one of the two free throws, then rebounded a Minnesota miss down the other end, to help cap a tremendous final 12 minutes in a 101-97 Boston victory. Sullinger — whose deep 3-pointer put the Celtics up for good with 2:45 left — finished with 24 points, 11 rebounds and five assists in 35 minutes against the punishing Minnesota frontcourt of Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Love. He was a monster in the fourth quarter with 15 points and seven rebounds. Sullinger credited another old fan favorite — assistant coach Walter McCarty — for giving him the confidence to pull the trigger on the killer trey. "I passed up a lot of shots in the third quarter," he said. "I tried to get better shots for my teammates. Then Walt grabbed me on the bench and told me, ‘Just shoot the ball. That’s what players do. When you’re wide open, shoot the ball. We believe in every shot that you take. You have to have confidence in yourself to shoot it.’ "
- Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times: Their contrasting styles were on display before, during and after the Clippers defeated the Spurs, 115-92, on Monday night at Staples Center. Arriving about 80 minutes before tip-off because a team bus was running late, Popovich noticed a group of students standing across the hallway from the Spurs' locker room. Informed they were aspiring journalists from Long Beach State, Popovich quipped, "Keep them away from me or they'll want to change their majors." It was a classic retort from a coach who can be gruff and seems to delight in making others — mainly the media — squirm. Consider his response to a harmless question about why the Spurs were running late: "Ah, the sunset was great over in Santa Monica," Popovich said, "so we stayed a little bit longer to watch the sunset." Meanwhile, Rivers exchanged pleasantries with reporters and patted one on the shoulder as he entered a room for his pregame news conference. He was warm, engaging and made you feel as if he wanted to invite everyone over to his home for a Sunday barbecue. It should come as no surprise that he once played in a flag football league with reporters who covered his team when he coached the Orlando Magic. Their different demeanors carried over to the game. Popovich mostly stayed seated on the bench. When he rose, he often stood expressionless, with arms folded in front of his chest or his hands in his pocket. Rivers couldn't seem to stay in one place for more than a moment, clapping furiously after a Darren Collison steal and layup. He later wildly gestured for his players to get back on defense after Chris Paul drove to the basket for a layup. The coaches communicate in their own ways, challenging their players when necessary but also keeping things light whenever possible. ... When it was over, the coaches shared a hearty laugh and a few warm pats. "He's the king," Rivers would say later. Between Popovich and Rivers, it's more like two of a kind.
- Mike Vaccaro of the New York Post: This one is different. This one strikes the Knicks in a deep, dark place, a loss that isn’t as much about a lack of execution or a lack of effort, the usual suspects of this epic fail of a season to date, 17 losses now in 24 games, every light-at-the-end-of-a-tunnel moment met by a steaming locomotive, every single time. No. This one’s different. After this calamitous 102-101 loss to the Wizards, the questions are simpler than any that have come before, speaking to the very competence of the basketball operation: Can’t anybody here play this game? Can’t anyone here coach this game? Does anyone here have the slightest idea what they’re doing? “This,” J.R, Smith said, “is a frustrating way to lose a game.” Frustrating? Frustrating is only prologue to what this was. Frustrating barely gets you past the table of contents. It’s one thing to lose, after all. It’s something else entirely to do as many things wrong as the Knicks did in the final 24.2 seconds of this game — mental, physical, all of it, right down to a team-wide basketball IQ that barely hovers around room temperature now. ... Nineteen thousand people knew enough to call a timeout there. One coach didn’t. His players have been loud in their defense of him throughout these nightmarish 24 games, but what good is any of that? How do you defend a coach who oversees those final 24.2 seconds? Here’s the thing: You can’t.
- Chris Dempsey of The Denver Post: Kenneth Faried is about to embark on a path he would not have chosen – in fact did not choose – but might turn out to be a benefit to him just the same. The Nuggets third-year forward was recently named the team’s National Basketball Players Association player-rep. He’ll be the Nuggets player liaison, attending occasional NBPA meetings and reporting back to the team on league matters that impact them. He’ll be the eyes and ears for the others in the locker room, keeping them up-to-date on matters like the collective bargaining agreement. One large issue on the table right now is the prospect of HGH testing in the NBA. But the players association and NBA are reportedly far apart on agreeing to any kind of deal there. It is Faried’s first year in the position. Asked why he wanted to do it, he swiftly shot that notion down. “I didn’t,” he said. Asked if he knows his exact duties just yet, Faried said, “No. I really don’t. That’s why I’m confused, lost, baffled at the opportunity. But maybe it’s a blessing in disguise. You can learn a lot. They said they would help me through it, other player reps from other teams that have been through it to understand and know what I have to do. So it should be interesting.”
December, 16, 2013
By Kevin Arnovitz
David Liam Kyle/NBAE/Getty ImagesAbsent Larry Sanders and several others to injury, the Bucks are winning the race to the bottom.
Playing without him was an inconvenience, but not debilitating. Brandon Knight had earned the starting gig at the 1 for Milwaukee, and the third-year point guard was raring to go. But 1 minute and 45 seconds into his Bucks debut, Knight strained his hamstring pushing the ball upcourt in transition. He promptly checked out of the game, and so began the career of Nate Wolters -- South Dakota State Jackrabbit and No. 38 overall pick in the 2013 draft -- under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden on opening night.
The injuries to the point guard corps were merely the newest installments in the Bucks’ medical drama. Milwaukee signed Carlos Delfino this past offseason under the assumption that the bone fractured in his right foot during the playoffs would be healed for the start of the season. But in September Delfino suffered a setback in his recovery that moved his estimated return date back to around just before the new year. He'd need extensive bone repair therapy.
While Delfino was rehabbing, big man Ekpe Udoh had his knee scoped Oct. 10. He missed the start of the season and didn’t return to the court until Nov. 6.
The Bucks received the worst news of all only three games into the season, when Sanders was lost after tearing a ligament in his right thumb at a Milwaukee club the night of Nov. 3. The pin that protects the ligament reconstruction was removed a week ago, and he's just been cleared for light basketball activity. The hope is that Sanders will return soon after Christmas.
Hours before Sanders found trouble, Ersan Ilyasova aggravated the nasty right ankle sprain he suffered during the preseason. Four days later, Ilyasova had joined Sanders, Knight, Ridnour and Delfino on the shelf (Udoh was just about to make his return). He’d miss six games for the Bucks, then return to play sporadically for the remainder of November. The results have been dispiriting: Statistically, Ilyasova is putting up the least impressive numbers of his six-year NBA career.
The hits kept coming for the Bucks: A week after the Sanders dust-up and Ilyasova, Delfino announced via his website Nov. 9 that he’d need another round of surgery, a procedure he underwent Saturday in Argentina. The team says Delfino will be out at least another eight weeks, but it's possible he won't suit up for Milwaukee this season.
Feel-good story Caron Butler didn't feel so good. On Nov. 15, he flew to Los Angeles to consult a specialist about his tweaked shoulder and missed consecutive blowout losses to Indiana and Oklahoma City. Two weeks later, Butler was sidelined again, this time with a swollen left knee. He isn’t expected back in uniform for another week. Meanwhile, Gary Neal has missed a couple of games because of a foot injury and left Saturday's game against Dallas because of plantar fasciitis in his left foot.
There's more: Center Zaza Pachulia will be in a walking boot on his right foot for the foreseeable future after suffering a stress fracture a week ago. That leaves the Bucks with a frontcourt rotation of John Henson, Udoh, a hobbled Ilyasova and first-year import Miroslav Raduljica.
That’s a matter of interpretation.
If you’re owner Herb Kohl, the 5-19 start is a travesty. The Milwaukee Bucks brand might not register nationally, but the team’s annual pledge to put a competitive product on the floor for the community has been compromised.
One of the hallmarks of Milwaukee Bucks basketball has been the promise that if you buy a ticket on a cold winter night, there’s a better than even chance you’ll see a win for the good guys. The Bucks haven’t had a losing home record at the dilapidated Bradley Center since the 2007-08 season, but they’ve treated the local folks to only two wins in 12 games there this season.
Allen Einstein/Getty ImagesJohn Henson has unintentionally benefited from Milwaukee's woes.
The litany of injuries is undeniable, as is the fact that the summer’s projected starting lineup of Knight, O.J. Mayo, Butler, Ilyasova and Sanders hasn’t played a second together. The team doesn’t have a single five-man unit that’s been on the floor for 100 minutes this season. You can boast about the potential of rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo and marvel at the length Larry Drew will be able to assemble on the floor once Sanders returns to play alongside Henson and Antetokounmpo.
Yet businessmen tend to be fixated on results -- and 5-19 is 5-19. City governments and those listening to proposals about the construction of new facilities in a depressed urban economy don’t read draft reports or go to NBA salary sites for a rosy picture of the franchise’s cost structure.
A project like the Milwaukee Bucks can’t afford bad morale when it’s up against all kinds of adverse conditions. Last summer, assistant general manager David Morway spoke about how losing, even with the disclaimer that losses can be teaching moments and part of the life cycle of a young team, can become habit, which is dangerous. It’s not just players. Organizations who aren't winning and/or don’t have a definable mission like the one Sam Hinkie has in Philly, can be infected off the court, too. There are a couple of examples on opposite sides of the East River.
But if you’re a pragmatist or, possibly, a cynic, the organization might have lucked into something. Kohl’s mandate to win as many games as possible is born out of noble intentions and menschkeit, but it costs you several draft slots each season and, often, a reasonable chance at a transcendent talent.
The Bucks have some promise on the roster. Sanders has the opportunity to grow into one of the five most valuable defensive players in the NBA. We need to see more of Antetokounmpo to make a legitimate estimate of his potential, but from the ground floor it looks like a vaulted ceiling. With the front-court depth depleted, the Bucks are asking a lot of Henson and he’s delivering consistently. He doesn't currently have the stretch to be a logical counterpart to Sanders up front, but the learning curve is on a steep upward ascent.
No one in good conscience can say injuries are anything but bad -- they cause victims pain in the present and anxiety about the future. But unintended consequences can have benefits. Speaking of Henson, his smart, confident voice is growing louder in a locker room that needs some young guys who express a belief in what might be possible in Milwaukee. The Oklahoma City model is referenced a lot, but one thing that’s commonly left off its list of characteristics is how the young Thunder core took ownership of the enterprise, even when they were losing a ton of basketball games.
There were questions coming into the season about how much action Antetokounmpo would see. The injuries to Delfino and periodic absence of Butler have wedged the door open a little bit more. People around the league have been surprised by what Khris Middleton has demonstrated in big minutes as a starting small forward.
But the Bucks need another big talent before this thing becomes real, and if current trends continue, they’re in prime position to add one through the June draft. There’s a good deal of irony at work, namely that a team that promised to make every attempt to be competitive is the Eastern Conference’s least. Sometimes serendipity is better than brilliance.
- Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman: The Thunder has turned Chesapeake Energy Arena into a pretty scary venue for visitors. With a 101-98 win over Orlando, the Thunder continued its winning ways at home, where it improved its league-best record to 12-0 and again left you thinking how long this record Oklahoma City-era streak can last. The next two home opponents, Chicago and Toronto, are Eastern Conference foes that don't figure to pose much of a threat. The two after that, Houston and Portland, could get it done. But if they don't, the Thunder's streak could stretch into February. “We never really talked about it, to tell you the truth,” Thunder guard Russell Westbrook said of this year's home dominance. “But I think as individuals and around the locker room, we do a good job of just coming in here taking care of our fans and coming in and competing each and every night and trying to win the game." Before this season, the Thunder's best start at home was a modest 3-0 mark. For whatever it's worth, the franchise's all-time home winning streak to open a season is 13-0, which the Seattle SuperSonics did in the 1976-77 season. The Thunder can match that mark Thursday against the Bulls in a nationally televised game on TNT.
- Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel: Victor Oladipo admired Kevin Durant from afar for a long time, and now Oladipo is happy and honored to call Durant a friend. They grew up in the Washington, D.C., area, so Oladipo always was attuned to Durant's accomplishments. But since Oladipo is four years younger than Durant, they hadn't met face-to-face until this past summer when Oladipo visited a basketball camp that Durant was running in Washington. ... Both Oladipo and Durant were selected second overall in the NBA Draft — Durant in 2007 and Oladipo in 2013. ... "I think he's a tremendous player, a guy that brings so much to an organization," Durant said before tipoff. "He's a great kid off the floor. Just humble, hard-working. He loves the game of basketball. Of course, on the court, he plays so hard. He just plays to win. He plays team basketball and plays to win. I was just trying to help him out. I was just letting him know how this life is going to be and the struggles he's going to go through. I'll just keep trying to encourage him. I'm rooting for him. He's from my area, and I want everybody from my area to do well. So I'm excited for him."
- Ailene Voisin of The Sacramento Bee: Suddenly, neither does Kings coach Michael Malone. Rudy Gay is that guy. He will be that guy for the remainder of the season, and after that, who knows? His $19.3 million player option for next season would break a lot of banks. His contract was too steep for Memphis, and his stats and earnings apparently didn’t satisfy the new management group in Toronto. But the NBA is a league littered with tales of redemption and rehabilitation, of players changing ZIP codes and thriving in different circumstances, some pertaining to personnel, others to economics. Chris Webber’s jersey hangs from the rafters. Doug Christie, Mike Bibby and Vlade Divac enjoyed their best seasons here. And it works both ways; Omri Casspi is a much happier man and a more consistent contributor with the Houston Rockets. So while Gay’s Sacramento story consists only of a few words on a page, his Kings debut was impressive, and his Kings home debut at Sleep Train Arena on Sunday was even better.
- Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle: The Rockets’ injury issues took another unexpected turn when guard Jeremy Lin developed back spasms following a collision Friday with Golden State center Andrew Bogut. Lin missed Sunday’s loss and is expected to be out Wednesday against Chicago, having played two games after missing six with a sprained and bruised right knee. Lin said he ran into Bogut on a screen in the first half, but kept playing. He played 21 minutes in that game and returned in the final minutes after Pat Beverley fouled out. In addition to leaving the Rockets short-handed, it took away another game for Lin to work his way back from the six games out. ... Guard James Harden left Sunday’s game with a sprained ankle. With Lin and center Omer Asik out, Rockets players have been out for a combined 43 games. The entire roster was out for a combined 50 games last season. Forward Terrence Jones played a second consecutive game with the flu, but struggled and did not finish the game.
- Joe Freeman of The Oregonian: There wasn’t a massive dog pile at center court. No wild, jubilant celebration. After Damian Lillard knifed the Detroit Pistons in the back with a fadeaway game-winning jumper just before the final buzzer, he didn’t sprint around The Palace of Auburn Hills like a madman. No, when Lillard delivered the Trail Blazers another did-that-really-just-happen victory — 111-109 over the Pistons in overtime on Sunday night — it was as if it were any ordinary win. Lillard briefly posed along the sideline and then casually strolled off the court, slapping a high-five with Nicolas Batum and taking a mild chest bump from a giddy Wesley Matthews before greeting the rest of his teammates, who had spilled away from the bench. “We were like, ‘It’s over, now let’s get the hell out of here,’” Lillard said, explaining the muted celebration. “Because we just stole one.”
- Terry Foster of The Detroit News: The Pistons blew another game they had no business losing because they lost focus of what pushed them to the brink of beating the red-hot Portland Trail Blazers. Coach Maurice Cheeks wanted to blame offensive rebounding for the Pistons’ 111-109 overtime loss. I won’t argue with him. But the Pistons abandoned one of the old rules of the NBA. Do not abandon the hot hand. During critical stretches they stopped going to Josh Smith, who played his best game as a Piston. Instead of watching Smith add to his season-high 31 points on 13-for-17 shooting, we got to see Rodney Stuckey floaters and Brandon Jennings dribbling between his legs and launching moon shots that clanked off the iron. The Pistons fumbled an 88-76 lead over the last 9½ minutes because they treated Smith like the fat kid who was picked last to play.
- Christopher Dempsey of The Denver Post: In the hours leading up to the Nuggets' game against the New Orleans Pelicans on Sunday, Denver coach Brian Shaw issued challenges to some of his team's most important players. Ty Lawson. Kenneth Faried. J.J. Hickson. And others. "I put everybody on alert," Shaw said. "I challenged Ty as a leader, whether he wants to accept that responsibility or not. I challenge Kenneth and J.J. and just the starters in general that they have to start games (well)." Challenge accepted. The Nuggets' 102-93 win over New Orleans at the Pepsi Center wasn't the completely polished product Shaw was looking for, but his players at least looked to take more ownership in the effort and focus they put on the court. And that was a start. "I thought the starters gave a better effort tonight," Shaw said. "They're pros, and they have pride. Ty and Randy (Foye), I felt that (going scoreless last game) was an aberration more than anything else. And they still can do better."
- Jimmy Smith of The Times-Picayune: Even though he experienced a bit of a cold spell from the outside in the second half, power forward Ryan Anderson continues to prove he's invaluable to this team. Anderson displayed his offensive versatility Sunday night, from finger rolls to reverse layups to tip-ins when his long-range accuracy was suffering. After hitting his first two 3-pointers of the night, Anderson went on to miss his next five. But his value far exceeds his offensive ability. He crashes the boards, even had a pair of steals Sunday night. He's been extraordinary before, and during, Anthony Davis' absence. Anderson had a team-high 26 points on 10 of 21 shooting.
- Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune: On Friday in San Antonio, Spurs guards Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili attacked the basket with impunity and produced a fourth-quarter comeback victory over the Timberwolves. On Sunday, Memphis point guard Mike Conley did the same, scoring 28 points and willing his team back from a 19-point second-quarter deficit using drives that again exposed both the Wolves’ perimeter defense and lack of a shot blocker. This time, the Wolves persevered and won in Memphis for the first time in nearly five years. But coach Rick Adelman said he knows opponents watch game footage and note his team’s weakness. “We’re not really challenging people at all, and we have to get better at it,” Adelman said. “We’ve talked about it all year long. It has been more evident the last three weeks. We’ve played some very good teams, but we still have to do a better job defending people, and we’re just not doing it. Either you challenge shots at the basket or you get outside the arc and take some charges. That’s the way you can protect the rim. We’re not doing either one.” The Wolves’ only real shot blocker sits on the bench nightly because Adelman deems rookie Gorgui Dieng not ready to play important minutes yet. “It’s one of those things,” Adelman said.
- Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic: A pair of explosive backcourts faced off Sunday night with Golden State and Phoenix, but the Warriors’ dynamite is in Stephen Curry’s and Klay Thompson’s 3-point shooting while the Suns launch cannonballs with the speed of Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic in penetration and transition. Bledsoe and Dragic entered Sunday averaging 11.1 points per game combined on just drives with Bledsoe ranking fourth in the NBA at 6.2 points per game off drives. Bledsoe makes 60 percent of his shots off of drives while Dragic makes 44 percent. “When a team really focuses on one guy, you can give it to the other guy and play off the ball," Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said. “A lot of times, teams’ schemes are when a guy is handling the ball. It’s easier to make one or two passes and get it back to that guy, there are no schemes for that and that’s where we have the advantage." Bledsoe and Dragic both had made at least 49 percent of their shots this season, getting the biggest chunks of their points off of pull-up jumpers. Bledsoe gets 7.5 pull-up points per game while Dragic averages 6.7.
- Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle: It has become redundant. And, such redundancy has provided the ultimate frustration for the Warriors. "We are not playing 48 minutes with a sense of urgency, and that's the disappointing part," head coach Mark Jackson said Sunday night after his team's 106-102 loss to the Suns. "We came in talking about having to be the hardest-working team, and we did not do that. I'm disappointed, and we've got to find answers. I'm finding it that the guys in the suits and ties want it more than the guys in uniform." Playing against surprising Phoenix (14-9) at the US Airways Center, the Warriors (13-12) repeated the same mistakes that have led them into a spiral of losing nine of their past 14 games. They got off to another terrible start, falling behind by 13 points before halftime, and needed a public scolding just to inspire enough effort to make it a game. For the eighth time in the past 14 games, the Warriors coughed up at least 18 turnovers - many of the unforced, careless variety. They couldn't summon the energy needed to challenge three-point shooters and allowed an eighth opponent to make at least 40 percent of its long-range shots in the past 14 games.