Grit, grind ... and something much more?

January, 26, 2015
Jan 26
10:29
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
Tony AllenAP Photo/Brandon DillAfter five years together, the Grizzlies' core is hoping to rise beyond their rough-and-tough identity.
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Last Thursday morning, Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger was live on ESPN Radio’s Memphis affiliate while driving into work. In an effort not to lose the signal, Joerger pulled a U-turn on low-traffic Fourth Street along the eastern wall of the arena as he approached the subterranean garage to FedEx Forum.

Cue police siren.

Joerger politely told host Geoff Calkins and the listening audience he needed to end the interview so that his moving violation could be adjudicated. Concerned about any appearance of preferential treatment for a VIP, Joerger said he insisted to the arresting officer he receive a ticket. A non-issue, Joerger said, because the officer, who had just returned to the United States from abroad, had never heard of Joerger, and knew virtually nothing about the Grizzlies.

Judging from the vibe around town, the patrolman is the exception in Greater Memphis. A city that has blanketed itself in "growl towels" the past four playoff runs is now a regular-season NBA hotbed. In a region where pro basketball franchises have to scrap for their share of the market, Memphis’ relationship with its team feels a lot like Portland Trail Blazers South. Grizzly Love is more than just fandom; it’s an expression of urban identity.

In the trendoid Cooper Young district, it’s yoga pants and Grizzlies tees. The hub of East Memphis’ stellar culinary scene, Andrew Michael, opened its new bar area over the weekend, in part because its proprietors feel they shouldn’t have to choose between haute cuisine and watching the Griz. Local TV ratings are up 30 percent over last season and the average home attendance of 17,200 is the highest in Grizzlies history.

It's the year. Everybody feels it. We feel it. We've been in the Western Conference finals. We've been that close.

- Zach Randolph
On Monday night at FedEx Forum, the Grizzlies closed out a 4-1 homestand with a 103-94 win over Orlando. The Grizzlies now stand at 32-12, second place in the Western Conference. Around the team, there’s a collective -- if cautious -- recognition that there’s a chance for the Griz to rise beyond the Grit 'n' Grind novelty act, that if they suspend personal agendas and shore up their weaknesses, something special awaits.

“It’s the year,” Zach Randolph said after Monday’s shootaround. “Everybody feels it. We feel it. We’ve been in the Western Conference finals. We’ve been that close.”

A few hours after Joerger was tagged as a public nuisance, Grizzlies center Marc Gasol was named an All-Star starter. For a franchise that’s rarely booked for national broadcast, Gasol’s selection is a huge affirmation -- and a signal that a star doesn’t necessarily need to look to the coasts during free agency to find broad appeal.

Point guard Mike Conley might not make the cut as a reserve, but he’s established himself as everyone’s favorite unheralded point guard. The Grizzlies compiled five of their 12 losses this season during an 18-day stretch when Randolph was sidelined with swelling in his right knee. He’s enjoying his best season in five years as the team’s bellwether. At 33, Tony Allen is the league’s top-ranked perimeter defender in real plus-minus.

This core, which has been together for five seasons, can rightly claim the mantle of “continuity,” which is holy water for teams with championships aspirations, as fashioned by the Spurs. Memphis’ core understands how to play together, and where each guy’s strengths and weaknesses lie. But after four seasons of hanging tough through mid-May, the Grizzlies are now set on figuring out what more they can be.

The arrival of Jeff Green from Boston has been a catalyst for this current self-examination. When a group has been together as long as the Grizzlies’ core has, staleness can seep into the practice gym. What more can we learn about each other? After nearly five seasons, is there really any magic to getting Z-Bo the ball on the right block or finding driving lanes for Conley from the left slot? At a certain point, preparation becomes rote and a team can get like an old married couple.

“We’ve been through it so long that we know how each other is going to react and that we can trust each other,” Gasol said. “But the game is evolving and we as players and as a team have to evolve. You have to change things and adjust. We’re the same players and we run the same sets, but -- it’s like the Spurs -- they need tweaks and changes and counters from game to game and year to year in order to evolve.”

[+] EnlargeJeff Green
AP Photo/Brandon DillThe Grizzlies are working former Celtic forward Jeff Green into a core with strong continuity.
So Green’s introduction gives Memphis occasion to re-learn its schemes. Over the lengthy homestand, the Grizzlies held a mini-mini camp of sorts, with the intention of reviewing Grizzly best practices and getting Green up to speed. Because as rosy as things have been in Memphis, the defense has slipped out of the top 10, and the team can run into roadblocks offensively against strong hard shows that cut Conley off from his lanes and second-side options. The Grizzlies know they need to get more aggressive about attacking those coverages -- and avoiding them altogether with early post-ups and drag screens. That’s where the reorientation can help.

Still, Green gives the Grizzlies something they haven’t had since Rudy Gay left town -- a big wing who can create. In a perfect world, Green will get into the lane a dozen times a game and work his way to the line for more than half a dozen attempts. Though Green has always lagged as a rebounding forward, he’s a guy who, theoretically, could work the glass, then push the ball up in transition. Gasol noted on Monday that the Grizzlies have been polishing off some of the better sets they used to run for Gay.

The live integration of Green began last Wednesday against Toronto when he made his first start as a Grizzly, supplanting Courtney Lee. Lee was shooting 47 percent from beyond the arc and laying out defensively virtually every night, often against bigger competition on the wing. He ultimately played 29 minutes against the Raptors, more than either Green or Allen, but there’s personal satisfaction that comes with starting, and for Lee it was a tough beat. But that’s rub for the Grizzlies -- Lee is essentially a shooting guard disguised as a small forward.

Truth is, no matter who gets the call on the wings for Memphis, there’s always a compromise. Allen is essential to what the Grizzlies want to accomplish defensively each night, but his presence in the half-court offense cramps their spacing. For every wily baseline cut behind the defense, there are possessions when opponents have insta-help from Allen’s guy. And Green is hardly the second coming. He shoots 30 percent from 3-point range and inefficiently from midrange, rebounds like a shooting guard and his size might be his only real asset as a defender.

In sum, this is still a team with imperfections, whose style bucks league trends and whose roster features a lot of guys who excel at their positions but doesn’t have a ton of versatility (e.g. the Grizz can’t switch defensively). Apart from Conley, Memphis is an emotional group, with live wires (Allen) and slow boilers (Gasol), among others.

Yet in some sense, that’s the NBA. There are no perfect teams, because the salary cap prevents it. The ones who win are those that excel at grappling with those imperfections, that can reduce those weaknesses to small blemishes.

When you observe the Grizzlies, they seem like a team that’s become expert at the management of those weaknesses. Since their competitive advantage offensively exists down low and their Achilles heel on the perimeter, they’ve mastered the swing-swing-post entry. Since their shortcoming defensively is a lack of size on the perimeter, Conley, Allen and Lee fly around with abandon. The staff handles individual sensitivities delicately and with trust.

Once they fully incorporate Green into their schemes and culture, they should be at peak self-awareness -- Grit, Grind, with a little more Glow. And there are few things more dangerous in spring than an NBA team that knows what it is.

First Cup: Monday

January, 26, 2015
Jan 26
4:49
AM ET
By Nick Borges
ESPN.com
Archive
  • Matt Winkeljohn of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Budenholzer said the fact that Horford has been taking the ball at the basket has opened up his jump-shooting game more. Defenders struggle to decide whether to switch off Horford when he sets a screen and take the ball, or trail him. That often leaves an opening for the driver, or Horford – who finds those spots. It might not be right to say that Horford "drifts" to these marks. A refined instinct usually leads him to an open spot. His streak began on the night he registered his first career double with 21 points, 10 rebounds and a career-high 10 assists Jan. 13 in a win in Philadelphia. So he started by making so many passes, and has averaged 18 points on 10.3 shots attempts over the seven games while getting in position to take passes. Horford has scored 126 points on 72 field goal tries in that span – an average of 1.75 points per shot attempted. Houston’s James Harden is leads the NBA in scoring at 27.3 points per game on 18.3 field goal attempts – an average of 1.49 points per shot attempt. Now, that is efficiency.
  • Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle: To Lakers coach Byron Scott, seeing Rockets coach Kevin McHale still brings memories of the NBA Finals battles between the Lakers and Celtics. Having McHale around, however, no longer stirs the same emotions. “Everybody remembers the ‘80s when he wore that green and white,” Scott said. “I’ll never forget that. Kevin is no different. Cedric (Maxwell,) when we go to Boston, he’s working radio and television. When I see them, it always goes back to the ‘80s, but I don’t have that dislike or hate for them, anymore. I like Kevin. He’s a good guy." Asked if that meant he had forgiven McHale for the hard foul he laid on Kurt Rambis in Game 4 of the 1884 Finals, Scott said, "I didn’t say that."
  • Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle: In the quiet of summer, at a gym in his hometown of Charlotte, N.C., Stephen Curry works on his ballhandling. He dribbles two basketballs at once, he dribbles while tossing a tennis ball to a nearby trainer and he dribbles side-to-side with a resistance band wrapped around his waist. Most intriguingly, Curry also dribbles while five lights alternately flash on a wall in front of him. His quest in this innovative drill is to quickly react to the lights, making a specific move — yellow might mean “crossover” — and reaching out with his other hand to tap the light and hurry to the next one. “The lights mimic what’s happening on the court,” Curry said. “If there’s a defender in front of me, then I’ve got to know where he is and still be ready to initiate whatever move I’m going to make.” Curry long ago gained acclaim as one of the NBA’s best outside shooters, but the roots of his captivating game rest in his extraordinary ballhandling. He has all but mastered the art of dribbling, a fundamental and sublime skill closely connected to all those majestic jumpers. So in the din of sold-out arenas across the land, Curry shows off his “handle.”
  • Joseph Goodman of The Miami Herald: The familiarity between Hassan Whiteside and NBA officials is increasing, and that recognition contributed to the Heat center’s record-setting game on Sunday. Whiteside picked up two fouls in seven minutes in the first half of the Heat’s 96-84 victory at United Center, but he played nearly 18 minutes in the second half, including all 12 minutes of the fourth quarter. He finished with a triple-double and set a franchise record for blocks after speaking with officials about his defense before the start of the second half. “I asked the refs what was I doing,” Whiteside said. “I know the guys are going to keep pump faking me, and so I told them they were just leaning their shoulders into me and the ref said he saw that." The communication helped, and it was one of the behind-the-scenes factors that contributed to Whiteside finishing with 14 points, 13 rebounds and 12 blocks.
  • Chris Haynes of Northeast Ohio Media Group: Sunday in the Thunder locker room, Dion Waiters had to answer why the fans at The Q booed him. "I don't know," he said. "It didn't do anything to me. I'm still going to go home and sleep at night. It is what it is." Then he was asked if any of his former teammates talked trash during the game and Waiters provided a Waiters-like response. "Ain't nobody saying nothing to me," he said adamantly. "We just played basketball and kept it at that." Overhearing Waiters, Kevin Durant, a couple of locker stalls away, lifted up his head from tying his shoes and said, "That's a real one right there." That's accurate. Waiters is real and authentic as it gets. He's the total opposite of soft. However, his hardness simply wasn't what the Cavaliers needed. Mozgov imparts a force that can be utilized on the court, where it's needed most. Don't let the young, innocent face fool you. When Mozgov is on the court, he's instilling fear. The Cavaliers have gotten their defensive anchor, and it's no surprise they suddenly have a new competitive edge.
  • Dan Woike of The Orange County Register: Just like the local greenery, the Clippers were a little prickly Sunday in Phoenix. There was some jawing, some heated discussions, some difficult truths being told. Lightning bolts of frustration struck multiple times, and the Clippers genuinely looked ticked off – sometimes with each other. And then they won by 20. The Clippers survived the momentary in-fighting and a quarter-long defensive hiatus on their way to a 120-100 win over the Phoenix Suns. The Clippers have won four games in a row. “The keyword we’ve been saying is ‘spirit,’” Clippers guard Chris Paul said. “Everyone’s been engaged, and it’s a good feeling.” Spirit doesn’t always mean positive energy. Spirit means passion, and passion sometimes can lead to cursing on the way off the court. It can lead to intense discussions on the sidelines. And that’s OK. “Sometimes, that stuff is healthy,” Paul said.
  • Michael Grange of Sportsnet.ca: After a scintillating start and a befuddling beginning to their mid-season it’s hard to know exactly how things are going to end up for the Toronto Raptors. Are they the team that started 22-6? Or the one that was just 6-9 since, including a touch-and-go come-from behind effort against the hapless Philadelphia 76ers on Friday? They got another chance to stake a claim on Sunday night against the Detroit Pistons and showed tentative signs of progress as they barely avoided snatching defeat from the jaws of victory as they won 114-110 to improve to 29-15 and remain third place in the Eastern Conference. Not pretty, but effective, and they get two more chances to build on it in the next three days, with a visits to Indiana on Tuesday before hosting Rudy Gay and the Sacramento Kings Wednesday. But there’s little risk in saying this: They’re going to need a little from everyone and a lot from a few. Sunday night held hope they might get the help necessary. As the Raptors swooned it became apparent that they were missing DeMar DeRozan, who proved his value as a foundation piece both in his 21-game absence and in his sluggish performance in his return.
  • John Reid of The Times-Picayune: In most games, Pelicans forward Anthony Davis rarely shows much emotion. But Sunday was different. Davis screamed, pumped his fist and even hugged a fan standing near the court at the end of the game. Most importantly, Davis made the necessary critical plays down the stretch to help the Pelicans beat the Dallas Mavericks, 109-106, to extend their winning streak to three in a row for the first time this season. The Pelicans (23-21) also ended a nine-game losing streak to the Mavericks that dated back to 2013, which included two losses earlier this season. "This was fun," Davis said. "Big win, everyone contributed with our hearts and it's a big team win. A division opponent, a team that's in our conference, and a team that's up there (in the standings)."
  • J. Michael of CSN Washington: As trade and free-agent signing discussions heat up, it seems weekly that a report will come out about the Wizards' chase for Ray Allen -- reported here Jan. 8 that they're still pursuing him with a vengeance -- who has been on their radar since July. They're not moving on their 15th roster spot until they're certain that Allen is off the table, and true to form John Wall isn't going out of his way to convince the veteran sharpshooter to join him. "I think it would be great, another knockdown shooter and a guy that's a veteran that knows how to play the game. That's basically what (he'd) add, a guy that's won a championship," said Wall when asked what he thought of the idea. "Two championships." What Wall hasn't done is pick up the phone to lobby him, a tactic that he has said that he's not fond of because it's akin to begging. "No, I'm being focused on just trying to lead my team," said Wall. "I'm just trying to be the John Wall I've been from the beginning of the season, sticking to my roots of trying to lead this team, trying to get us to the Promised Land."
  • Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News: Cory Joseph had neither a point nor an assist in slightly more than 16 minutes of Sunday’s 101-95 Spurs victory over Milwaukee at the AT&T Center, but what he did at the defensive end in the second half had a dramatic effect. A starter in 14 games while Tony Parker and Patty Mills dealt with injuries, Joseph replaced struggling Danny Green just 52 seconds into the third period. His frenetic defensive work was a spark the Spurs needed, and they limited the Bucks to 12 points in the period to take a lead into the fourth quarter. ... Gregg Popovich, who has had to juggle the playing time behind Parker between Joseph and Mills, understood how Joseph changed the game. “He had a significant impact,” the Spurs coach said. “He comes in and makes it tough for the other team to score. He gets loose balls. He rebounds. He does everything that helps the team, all the blue-collar kinds of things. He got down and really made a contribution, but hardly anyone notices it.” Joseph’s teammates noticed. “For sure, he was big in our turnaround of the game,” Spurs guard Manu Ginobili said.
  • Candace Buckner of The Indianapolis Star: Inside a recreation center where the sounds of soulful R&B grooved in the weight room and laughter saturated the hallways, the Pacers closed the gym doors and opened their own play land. They substituted the normal order of an NBA practice for competitive shooting challenges. Trash talk replaced the drone of the scouting report for the Magic and knockout tournament style 1-on-1 games upstaged the pressure of snapping a seven-game losing streak. In other words, the players had fun. And it worked. By Sunday night inside Amway Center, the Pacers enjoyed a come-from-behind 106-99 win over the Orlando Magic. Though Indiana had fallen behind by nine points early in the fourth quarter, the pressure released from the previous day's practice carried over as the team ripped off 31 points. And remember, the Pacers, and their legs, were on the ninth and final day of their longest trip of the season. ... Instead of fading in the fourth, the Pacers flourished. Especially rookie Damjan Rudez, who burned through the quarter making 6-of-8 shots, including four 3-pointers, for 16 points. Rudez finished with a career-high 18, just ahead of George Hill (17 points) as the Pacers improved to 16-30. And a 16th win in late January never seemed so satisfying.

Hawks hit another high note in low-key style

January, 24, 2015
Jan 24
1:22
AM ET
Wallace By Michael Wallace
ESPN.com
Archive
video
ATLANTA -- Jeff Teague wants to let the basketball world in on a secret about his coach.

"He never smiles," the Atlanta Hawks point guard said of coach Mike Budenholzer. "I mean, never. He's really hard to impress. He’s never really satisfied. I think a lot of that has rubbed off on us."

That pretty much explains the Hawks' demeanor after they set a franchise record by extending their winning streak to 15 games with Friday's 103-93 overwhelming of Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder. As the impressive and dominant wins pile up for the Hawks, the reaction rarely changes.

First come the postgame showers, then the polite shoulder shrugs when asked to put the streak into perspective and, inevitably, there's a comment or two looking ahead to the next opponent on the schedule. That's typically been the low-key Atlanta way for the Hawks this amazing season.

But something was different Friday.

Teague sat in his corner locker a bit stunned by the latest developments.

"I've never seen anything like this here before," Teague whispered as he hurried to get dressed before the crowd came his way. "We must be winning. This is bigger than what we see in the playoffs."

As nearly two dozen reporters entered the locker room, at least one thing became clear: For all of the Hawks' accomplishments so far, flying under the national radar is no longer an option they can execute. Atlanta is no longer a fun little story in the NBA.

[+] EnlargeJeff Teague
Scott Cunningham/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe hot roll of Jeff Teague and the Hawks couldn't be slowed by Russell Westbrook and OKC.

This team -- and it is truly a team in every sense of the word -- is on an absolute tear. The Hawks have led by double figures in every game during their winning streak and improved to 31-1 overall this season when they've gone ahead by at least 10 at some point in a game. The recent list of victims features a who's who of playoff contenders, including the Cleveland Cavaliers, Portland Trail Blazers, Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies, Washington Wizards, Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls and now OKC.

Before Friday's game, Thunder coach Scott Brooks was asked which Hawks player is toughest to defend. His initial hesitation to answer not only spoke volumes but proved prophetic. The 19 turnovers committed by Atlanta insured Budenholzer wouldn't quite be in a smiling mood afterward, but the rest of his team's stat sheet was a thing of basketball balance and beauty.

The Hawks defense left OKC scrambling and settling for jump shots on the way to shooting just 41.4 percent from the field. Atlanta shook off a sluggish start and grew stronger as the game wore on, while Durant and Russell Westbrook seemed to wear down as the Thunder looked every bit like a team that was playing its third road game in four days.

Atlanta won the inside battle, with Paul Millsap and Al Horford both finishing with double-doubles and combining for 36 points and 22 rebounds. And Teague was never rattled by Westbrook on his way to collecting 17 points and nine assists against just two turnovers.

Teague capped his night by swiping the ball from Westbrook near midcourt and racing in for an uncontested dunk in the final minute of the game. It was a fitting end to a performance in which the Hawks scored 54 points in the paint, another 30 from 3-point range, accumulated 27 assists and made all 13 of their free throws. It culminated in a 10th straight win against a Western Conference team.

In other words, the next team that exposes a weakness in the East-leading Hawks (36-8) will be the first team to do so. That Atlanta team that was 7-6 back in November has since won 29 of its past 31 games. While the players and coaches will insist their approach hasn't changed during the streak, the reaction to their success has over the past two months.

On Thursday, Budenholzer was named the Eastern Conference coach of next month's All-Star Game, and early Friday, the team announced the game against OKC was Atlanta's sixth sellout in the past eight home games. That followed the release of last week's numbers that showed crowds at Philips Arena have increased by 2,200 fans per game over last season and ratings are up 61 percent on local TV broadcasts.

Perhaps the biggest sign of progress is that, aside from a couple of loud cheers after ferocious dunks by Westbrook and Durant, the fan support was overwhelmingly in favor of the Hawks. That hasn't routinely been the case in this town, which for decades has supported star players from opposing teams.

"Their home crowd has gotten better," Durant said. "I guess they've jumped on the bandwagon."

A fifth-year veteran, Teague has been around long enough to appreciate the attention and support.

"It's a beautiful thing, man," Teague said. "I always said if you put a good product on the floor, they'd come out and support you. That's what we're doing right now, and they're coming out in full throttle."

There's been more of a homecoming atmosphere in the building lately. The corridors and hallways outside the locker rooms Friday seemed more like a scene from the Staples Center, TD Garden or AmericanAirlines Arena from big games during the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics and Miami Heat runs to championships.

Down one hallway, Dikembe Mutombo, Theo Ratliff and other former Hawks were laughing and sharing stories from their days in the league. In another hallway, local and national politicians mingled with performing artists and NFL stars who hung out near a room for team family members.

That was the type of crowd Budenholzer had to push through to get to the standing-room-only space where he held his postgame news conference. Facing the largest media contingent the Hawks have had all season, Budenholzer said he's confident his team won't get distracted by the additional spotlight.

"Our guys have a great focus every day," Budenholzer said. "They come to work and enjoy being with each other, enjoy competing. I just kind of think their minds and their priorities are on the right thing. So hopefully, I'm not naive, but that's what we'll just keep doing."

Those priorities have been in the right place since the Hawks began the season and tried to distance themselves from a controversial offseason that included racist comments and emails that left general manager Danny Ferry exiled and ownership putting the team up for sale.

Those dark moments have given way to the best start in franchise history, with the Hawks flooded with nothing but positive attention and energy these days. It's developed into a breakout season that has felt too much of a blessing to make maintaining this streak feel like any sort of burden.

"You can't have a burden winning," Horford said of handling the pressures of success. "We'll see. We've never been through this. It will be interesting to see. We have a tight group here, and as long as we stay together, we'll see where this goes."

One place the Hawks success obviously hasn't gone is to their heads.

#HateHard: Houston's 'not good' idea

January, 23, 2015
Jan 23
7:36
PM ET
Elhassan By Amin Elhassan
ESPN.com
Archive
The Rockets don't know how to handle not being able to handle the Warriors.

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Hope for the Philadelphia 76ers

January, 23, 2015
Jan 23
2:01
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
There are some signs that the Sixers' efforts at player development are paying off, says David Thorpe.

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TrueHoop TV Live

January, 23, 2015
Jan 23
11:12
AM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
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Join the chat at 2 p.m. ET.

First Cup: Friday

January, 23, 2015
Jan 23
4:42
AM ET
By Nick Borges
ESPN.com
Archive
  • Sean Meagher of The Oregonian: The Portland Trail Blazers will be without leading scorer LaMarcus Aldridge for the next 6-8 weeks as the three-time All-Star will have surgery on a torn ligament in his left hand. The Blazers, who have lost five of their last six games following Thursday's 90-89 loss to the Boston Celtics, refuse to feel sorry for themselves despite a rash of injuries (which included Nicolas Batum re-aggravating a sore wrist) over the last month. "I don't want to get into not having LaMarcus and I don't want to get into having Nic out there," head coach Terry Stotts said after the game. "Everybody knows what Nic can bring and what LA brings, so we have to figure out different ways of scoring and sometimes different ways of playing." "We've got to hold down the fort," added guard Wesley Matthews. "We've got to figure it out. We've got to find ways to win and continue to play basketball the right way."
  • Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald: Forward Brandon Bass replaced center Tyler Zeller in the Celts’ first five, because with LaMarcus Aldridge (left hand) and Robin Lopez (right hand fracture) out, Portland spreads the floor more, and, said Stevens before the 90-89 win, “We’ve got to be more mobile and a little more versatile defensively, I think.” The Celtics also have to be more prepared for change, which follows quite naturally considering all the trades the club has made recently. “I told our guys this, we can be pretty fluid on some of this stuff and not say anything is set in stone, because, you know, our team’s not in position to have things set in stone,” Stevens said. “We’re not accomplished enough to say we have to have one starting lineup right now.” The trading of Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green has taken two locks from the starting lineup. “I think it puts more on the guys that are in the locker room to become older than they are in some ways,” said Stevens. “It also puts a lot more onus on our older players."
  • Mark Strotman of CSN Chicago: Confidence was something Derrick Rose did not have just three days prior. With a stone-cold look on his face, Rose spoke of the Bulls needing to communicate better, needing to show effort and needing to produce the way they had during their winning streak in December. Rose's postgame interview in Cleveland sparked enough attention that the Bulls called a team meeting on Tuesday in place of practice. And though Rose admitted after Thursday's game that the meeting was positive, the Bulls still needed to show they could reclaim their spot among the East's elite on the floor. "You can say whatever you want to say until you step on the court. It’s all about action. What are you going to do when you’re on the court?" Rose said. "Tonight everyone was focused and everyone took everything serious that we said in that room." And what was said at Tuesday's meeting? "Do anything for the team. Give yourself up for the team," Rose recalled confidently. "It’s only one goal, and that’s to win a championship." Thursday night, led by Rose, the Bulls inched closer to that goal.
  • Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News: Spurs guard Danny Green on Thursday finally got to pay an on-court tribute to his friend Stuart Scott, the ESPN broadcaster who died Jan. 4 after a lengthy battle with cancer. Green’s tribute to Scott, a fellow alumnus of North Carolina, came in the form of a specially made pair of shoes emblazoned with “Stu” on one side and “Booyah,” Scott’s signature call as anchor on “SportsCenter,” on the other. Green had planned to wear the shoes in Tuesday’s game against the Nuggets, but required approval from the NBA did not come in time for that game.
  • Charles F. Gardner of the Journal Sentinel: Giannis Antetokounmpo smiled when asked if he is taking part in the All-Star Weekend Slam Dunk Contest in New York in mid-February. The Milwaukee Bucks second-year forward did not confirm or deny a published report that he has been invited to be part of the dunk contest, to be held at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Feb. 14. But his smile may have given him away. "I would take the challenge," Antetokounmpo said Thursday night after the Bucks fell to the Utah Jazz at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. "It would be a nice experience. I'm just going to go there and have fun. It's not the day to talk about it. We had a bad loss, so we've just got to focus on another game." ... Asked if he would go to the drawing board to find a creative dunk, Antetokounmpo said, "I will figure out something." An official announcement from the league on the dunk participants is expected in early February.
  • Tony Jones of The Salt Lake Tribune: Imagine this: Trey Burke crosses his man over at the top of the key. He gets into the lane and encounters Utah Jazz teammate Rudy Gobert in the paint, then tries to shoot a floater that Gobert sends into the stands. The scenario is not far-fetched. Recently, the NBA changed its format with the rookie-sophomore game on All-Star weekend. Now, the world team will play against the U.S. team, putting Burke and Gobert potentially on opposing teams. "It's a good idea," Gobert said. "Especially this year. The international team has a lot of talent, a lot of guys who can play. So it will be interesting." Between the rookies and sophomores, the Jazz have four guys who can potentially make the game: Gobert, Burke, Dante Exum and Joe Ingles. All have played significant roles this season. Gobert and Burke seem to be good bets to make it, as both have put up good numbers. Exum is one of the glamour draft picks of a ballyhooed rookie class, and his ascent into a starting role on Thursday could propel him into the mix over the next few weeks. Ingles seems like the one who could have the most difficult time making the team. "I think this is definitely a good idea," Exum said.
  • Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times: Doc Rivers said he has reached out to free agent Ray Allen to let the guard know the Clippers would like for him to play for Los Angeles. "Yeah, I'm very interested," Rivers said. "He's good." But Rivers also knows he has competition for Allen, who played for Rivers in Boston when the Celtics won the 2008 NBA championship. There was a report that when Cleveland forward LeBron James was in Miami recently rehabilitating his back and left knee, he met with Allen. "Yeah, that's going to be tough to beat," Rivers said.
  • Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News: The parallels between the Clippers and Nets, once deep, have dwindled to the long-standing obvious: They are the second-class citizens of their respective basketball markets, overwhelmed by the fans of their ingrained, historic neighbors. From there, the Clippers are the enviable contrast to Brooklyn and its mistakes, as illustrated by a 123-84 drubbing Thursday night so emphatic that both teams emptied their benches halfway through the third quarter. Jay Z, Beyonce and Floyd Mayweather Jr. (with his enormous bodyguards) had a front-row seat to Brooklyn’s embarrassment, by far the worst performance (or non-effort) of the season. Layup by layup, dunk by dunk, the Nets allowed the Clippers to run amok in the paint. Los Angeles built a 33-point lead in the first half, outscoring the Nets 36-14 in a second quarter that sealed Brooklyn’s defeat. The enormous deficit swelled to 45 in the third quarter, and 46 in the fourth, as bored fans turned their attention to Mayweather and chanted, “We want Pacquiao.” The Nets flirted with surpassing the worst loss in franchise history — a 52-point defeat to the Rockets in 1978. But Brooklyn’s reserves made sure the humiliation wasn’t record-breaking. “Our game plan was obliterated by their play,” Nets coach Lionel Hollins said. “Glad it’s over.”

Picking the West All-Stars

January, 22, 2015
Jan 22
7:29
PM ET

Henry Abbott and David Thorpe analyze the top choices to start for the West in the All-Star Game.


Henry Abbott and David Thorpe analyze the top choices to start for the East in the All-Star Game.

TrueHoop TV Live: After Dark

January, 22, 2015
Jan 22
6:06
PM ET
Elhassan By Amin Elhassan
ESPN.com
Archive
Join the party following Thursday's Spurs-Bulls matchup (8 p.m. ET, TNT).

First Cup: Thursday

January, 22, 2015
Jan 22
4:57
AM ET
By Nick Borges
ESPN.com
Archive
  • Chris Vivlamore of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: The Hawks have their first NBA All-Star representatives. Welcome to New York, Mike Budenholzer and Kyle Korver. Budenholzer and his staff will coach the Eastern Conference All-Star team next month at Madison Square Garden. With a 110-91 victory over the Pacers Wednesday, the Hawks (35-8, .814) clinched the best record in the conference through games played Sunday, Feb. 1. “It’s a credit to our players, our front office and our entire organization,” Budenholzer said of earning coaching duties. ... Budenholzer is the first Hawks to earn NBA All-Star Game coaching honors since Lenny Wilkens during the 1993-94 season. The Hawks assistant coaches are Kenny Atkinson, Darvin Ham, Taylor Jenkins, Charles Lee, Neven Spahija and Ben Sullivan. Korver will take part in the 3-point shooting contest as part of All-Star weekend. The event will be held Saturday, Feb. 14 at Barclays Center. Korver is the NBA leader in 3-point field goal percentage at 53.5 percent. He is shooting .620 (31 of 50) from long range in the past eight games
  • Geoff Calkins of The Commercial-Appeal: Welcome to the let’s-try-and-figure-something-out portion of this Grizzlies season. Welcome to the stretch of time during which Dave Joerger and the Grizzlies try to redefine what exactly goes where. Remember at the start of the season, when Joerger had to sort out how best to deploy Courtney Lee, Tony Allen, Quincy Pondexter and Tayshaun Prince? With the addition of Jeff Green and the subtraction of Pondexter and Prince, he’s right back there again. How best to play Green, Lee and Allen? Who starts? Who finishes? Who plays with whom in-between? Wednesday, Joerger inserted Green into the starting lineup for the first time, sending Lee to the bench. And the results were, OK, let’s just say it’s a continuing process. And that one game is a small sample size. ... For a team that has struggled all season long with outside shooting, it’s reasonable to ask whether the wisest solution is to ask the best shooter (Lee) to come off the bench. To Joerger’s credit, he doesn’t mind the questions. Indeed, he’s still pondering them himself. “We have to figure out how to play with each other,” he said. So Wednesday’s starting lineup isn’t permanent? “I’ll probably be changing it ongoing,” he said.
  • Eddie Sefko of The Dallas Morning News: News that former Maverick Shawn Marion will be retiring at the end of the season caught Tyson Chandler off guard. Marion and Chandler were teammates on the 2011 championship team and the center said he’ll always have a special bond with the man known as Matrix. ... Marion spent five years with the Mavericks. He became a father last season and said he wants to be able to spend as much time with his son as possible. He’s also building a waterfront house at Lake Ray Hubbard. “He’ll go down as one of the most underrated players in history,” Carlisle said. “If you look at his statistics and his success in terms of winning, he’s a great player. I know he’s beloved in Dallas and greatly appreciated there. We went through a lot of wars together. I know he’ll be welcomed back into the community with more than open arms. He’s a special guy, a great all-around player. I don’t if I’ve ever seen a guy who can defend virtually every position on the floor at any time.” The Mavericks likely will have some sort of tribute for Marion when he and the Cleveland Cavaliers visit on March 10.
  • Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon-Journal: The Cavs made history tonight with their balanced scoring, but they won the game with their defense. Mozgov has been a big part of that. Opponents are shooting 46 percent against the Cavs with Mozgov in the starting lineup. It’s down around 40 percent over the last two games. Now before anyone throws a parade and declares the defense fixed, it’s worth noting the Bulls are a mess right now at both ends and the Jazz were held to 69 points against the Spurs in their most recent game – their lowest scoring output in nearly a decade. So these aren’t offensive juggernauts the Cavs are slowing down. But it’s still improvement over watching opponents shoot 50 percent and score 60 by halftime. The Cavs have now held consecutive opponents to 42 percent shooting or less for the first time since a back-to-back on Dec. 4-5 against the Knicks and Raptors.
  • Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press: The Detroit Pistons' 11-3 stretch since the waiving of Josh Smith is the first sustained success of owner Tom Gores' tenure, who completed the purchase in April 2011. He was seated court side at the Palace tonight to witness one of the hottest teams in the NBA and it happened to be his team. He spoke briefly with reporters at halftime of the game against the Orlando Magic and said there wasn't any hesitation to basically pay Smith not to play for the Pistons. He described a month-long process where he and Pistons president and coach Stan Van Gundy discussed all options going forward as the team was mired in a 5-23 start. Since it was a collaborative effort, the decision was simple. ... The Pistons waived Smith, but still have to pay him the remainder of the $13.5 million he is due to make this season and the remaining $27 million he is owed the next two season.
  • Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman: On a night Washington rolled out the red carpet for Kevin Durant, wooing him with subtle and not-so subtle reminders of where he hails, Russell Westbrook again put on a performance that raised the question that no one in the nation’s capital — or anywhere else outside of Oklahoma — seems willing to ask themselves. Why would Durant ever leave? Westbrook scored the game-winning layup with 0.8 seconds remaining to lift the Thunder to a 105-103 overtime win over the Wizards on Wednesday night inside the Verizon Center. He caught an inbounds pass from Anthony Morrow with 3.6 seconds remaining, darted down the left of the lane and finished a pretty left-handed layup to lift Oklahoma City to its fourth straight win and third on this five-game road trip. “I tried to find a way to get a shot,” Westbrook said. “My job was to attack the basket and that’s what I tried to do.” The sellout crowd of 20,356, many of whom came to “recruit” Durant to his hometown team when he becomes a free agent in July 2016, left the arena marveling at the Thunder’s dynamic one-two punch, perhaps the best duo in all of basketball.
  • Diamond Leung of The Oakland Tribune: If someone says something ridiculous about the Warriors, Draymond Green will inevitably hear about it and be ready to return fire. And Green was in fine form Wednesday after a 126-113 win against Houston completed a four-game, regular-season sweep of the Rockets. Green knew all about the video the Rockets put out on their Instagram account of James Harden in a pregame huddle before Saturday’s game in Houston in which the NBA’s leading scorer told his team, “They beat us already twice. They ain’t that good.” So here is a transcript of a smiling Green, dripping with sarcasm after the game, in response to the video: Q: With the way you guys have been beating teams lately, do you think getting up by these big margins might have that effect on teams? A: I mean, I’m sure they were a little frustrated because we’re not that good. So to get up by 20 like that in the half and then come out in the third quarter I’m sure is a little frustrating. But hey, we’re not that good. Shouldn’t be up by 20 at half. Happens though, right?
  • Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer: Hornets coaching staff played a hunch late last season, trying Cody Zeller defensively on Heat big man Bosh. It works and is now a mainstay in this matchup. Bosh is more of a finesse player than a bruiser, so Zeller doesn’t get overpowered. And Zeller’s length seems to give Bosh some difficulty. ... Some fans were curious why rookie P.J. Hairston didn’t play against the Heat after a good game versus the Minnesota Timberwolves (11 points, 3of-5 from 3-point range). Clifford said that’s no negative reflection on Hairston, he just ran out of minutes Wednesday. He played 10 players and he’d prefer the rotation be no deeper than nine. Certainly he doesn’t see 11 as workable. ... Bismack Biyombo has played well enough through Al Jefferson’s injury that Clifford has to figure out how to still tap into his defense when Jefferson is ready for 35 minutes a night. The solution isn’t playing them together; Clifford thinks that with the preponderance of power forwards with shooting range in the NBA, that wouldn’t work defensively and would set back an already weak offense. So this probably is about playing Jefferson a little less than he did the second half of last season and that wouldn’t be awful, as far as keeping him fresh should the Hornets qualify for the playoffs.
  • Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic: The Suns pledge exciting basketball, but their fans could have done without the type that they provided Wednesday night. It was all good fun for a while when the Suns built a 25-point lead, but their fans or coaches will never feel comfortable again after seeing that turn into a five-point deficit with 2:21 to go against Portland. A dominant offensive start fortunately included a dominant offensive close with the Suns scoring 13 points in the final 2:02 to pull out a 118-113 win over the Trail Blazers at US Airways Center. Portland was missing star LaMarcus Aldridge due to a hand injury and had its other star, Damian Lillard, only make six of 22 shots. But the rest of the Blazers stepped up to challenge Phoenix. The Suns (26-18) wound up getting their sixth consecutive home victory and moving to 14-4 with the current starting lineup.
  • Richard Sandomir of The New York Times: Even after winning their second straight game Wednesday night, the Knicks (7-36) had the N.B.A.’s worst record. Their tickets cost an average of $129.38 apiece, the most expensive by far in the league, according to Team Marketing Report, an industry publication. Their roster is in the process of being dismantled. Yet game after game, Madison Square Garden improbably reports capacity crowds, even as the team earns comparisons to the woeful 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers, who finished 9-73. But as the team continues its seemingly inevitable march to a forgettable season’s merciful end, some are asking a new question: How should the Knicks reward fans who, more than ever, are proving their extreme devotion? In what looks to be the historic nadir for the franchise, is the Garden’s policy of holding the line on prices after bad seasons enough to acknowledge the angst of those whose season tickets cost them $49 to $3,700 a game? Michael Barasch, a Manhattan lawyer, does not think so. For 22 years, he was a season-ticket holder. Last season, he paid $45,100 for four seats at $275 each. Mostly, he took his clients, injured firefighters, to the seats in Section 115, in the corner opposite the home team’s bench. But early last spring, when he learned that he would also have to pay $1,100 for tickets to three meaningless preseason games in order to renew his seats, he balked.
  • Tim Bontemps of the New York Post: The Nets said Deron Williams would miss the rest of this Western trip — which continues Thursday in Los Angeles against the Clippers before ending Saturday against the Jazz. Williams — recovering from his broken rib, took some shots up before the Nets held their morning shootaround at Sleep Train Arena. He has begun doing non-contact work on the court but still is experiencing pain. The Nets said Williams would continue to increase his activity as he moves forward. They also said there wouldn’t be another update until his status changes — presumably when he returns to practice.

TrueHoop TV Live

January, 21, 2015
Jan 21
1:03
PM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
Archive
Join our lively hoops discussion at 2 p.m. ET.

Jay Z's best basketball namedrops

January, 21, 2015
Jan 21
1:00
PM ET
By Matt Walks
ESPN.com
Archive
Jay-ZTaylor Hill/Getty Images; Illustration by Gabriel MorenoGoing all the way back to his early work, Jay Z has shown his love of sports in his lyrics.
Before he was a courtside staple, before he chose to throw his hat into the sports agency ring, and before anyone could conceive an NBA team would call Brooklyn home, Jay Z was just a former drug dealer with enough capital to self-finance a debut rap album.

Reasonable Doubt was released on June 25, 1996, full of ambition and verve and vows of greatness.

“High post like Hakeem / Got a lot of things to drop,” Jay Z promised on “Bring It On.”

The day after the album’s release, Allen Iverson was taken first overall in the second-most talent-rich NBA draft in history in nearby East Rutherford, N.J.

[+] EnlargeKobe Bryant
Andy Hayt/NBAE/Getty ImagesKobe Bryant was drafted by the Charlotte Hornets the day after Jay Z's first album debuted. Jay has name-dropped Kobe twice.
Kobe Bryant is the last draft pick of that class still playing, and it’s not unfair to say he and Jay Z came up together, reached the pinnacle of their respective industries and outlasted every contemporaneous rival. Different animal, same beast, right, Kobe?

So when I chronicled every athlete Jay Z has ever name-dropped on an album for ESPN The Mag's Music Issue (on shelves Friday, Jan. 23), the roundball references interested me most. Here are some highlights:

1. MJ comes first


No surprise here: Michael Jordan shows up 15 times throughout Hova’s discography, more than any other athlete, and it’s not close. (Mike Tyson’s four references come in second.) In all, more than half of Jay Z’s 80-plus references are basketball related.

“Mike Jordan of rap, outside Jay workin' / Now watch how quickly I drop 50” -- “Hova Song (Intro)"

2. It’s Not All NBA players


On “Pretty Girls,” Jay name-checks former Tar Heels head coach Dean Smith and WNBA legend Lisa Leslie. He also dished an assist to Lil Penny, the miniature star voiced by Chris Rock in Nike’s Anfernee Hardaway commercials.

3. Not All Of Them Are Nice

Latrell Sprewell got caught in the crosshairs on “It’s Alright” – “On the jewels I blew more money than Latrell, who else?” -- but Jay also piled on Sam Bowie on 2001’s "The Blueprint." Since Bowie was drafted before Michael Jordan in 1984, he’s become low-hanging fruit for just about every caustic hip-hop artist. For his part, Bowie laughed off the dis in a 2012 interview with ESPN.

4. Bo Outlaw!


For my money, the best references were the ones I never saw coming: Freddy Adu, Gale Sayers, Pete Sampras, etc. "Honey" combined my favorite reference with one of Hova's laziest rhymes ever.

"Take a lost rebound like Bo Outlaw / I'm so outlaw."

5. The One I Forgot


I had a real ripple of fear throughout this that I would overlook an obvious name-drop like a fool. Just when I thought I was in the clear, someone suggested I listen to these lines on “Nickels and Dimes” again:

“Watch me cook, throw no looks / Like Magic in his prime when Kareem skyhooked, yeah / Y’all not worthy."

And there it was. Capitalize the W on that last word, and you get Big Game James, the most egregious omission of this infographic.

So, Hova? You win again.

Note: Because it felt impossible to track down every mixtape, guest verse and stray single, I kept my references contained to songs that appeared on major LP releases under Jay Z's name. As a result, even some of his well-known stuff -- like his Nick Van Exel name-drop on Beyonce's "Crazy In Love" -- is not on the list.

Grown-ups too: Wiz mature into contenders

January, 21, 2015
Jan 21
10:00
AM ET
By Conor Dirks
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
John WallAP Photo/Jonathan BachmanThe first half has been pretty sweet for John Wall and the Wizards, who rank second in the East.
After an uneventful, blowout loss to the Wizards on Monday, Sixers coach Brett Brown took a deep breath and described Washington’s disciplined, imposing style of play: “It was times you look out at the floor, and you saw a bunch of men. You saw a physical, big, playoff-hardened team. They are strong at each position, and they’re physical at each position. And there are times sitting on the bench realizing just the difference in experience and maturity.”

It’s a far cry from the team John Wall inherited in 2010, when the Wizards were as disciplined as wildfire and as consistently disappointing as delivery pizza. Although Brown hoped aloud that his team’s growth could mirror that of Washington’s over the next few years, such a transformation does not happen without the timely intervention of both talent and culture.

According to coach Randy Wittman, in a recent interview with the Washington Post, when he took over for Flip Saunders one month into the 2011-12 season, he went straight to the top with a request. Calling a team that at that time featured mostly rookies and sophomores “career suicide,” Wittman told owner Ted Leonsis they needed fewer young players.

“We’ve got to get it to three or four, and then those other four spots we’ve got to get veteran guys in here that can teach these guys how to play,” Wittman said to his boss. “I said, 'That’s what my belief is,' and they believed it too, and that’s kind of what we’ve done.”

Now Wittman helms a veteran-laden team that has been consistently excellent defensively over the course of his employment and currently ranks sixth overall in that regard. With Wall and the wings acting as shepherds and bigs forming a barrier around the paint, the Wizards force teams to the outside, where the dice roll in Washington's favor. As of today, teams take the second-fewest shots within five feet against Wittman’s defense.

Despite improvement from the past season's scoring output, questions still surface with every poor outing -- and as recently as last week’s 80-point dud against the Brooklyn Nets. If teams such as the Atlanta Hawks and San Antonio Spurs perform basketball like jazz, Washington’s offense is more like a hummed hymn in the back of a church: unassuming, often out of tune, but still recognizable.

That the hum has at times been obscured against the league’s very best teams is a concern, especially given Washington’s unconvincing 0-3 record against Eastern Conference enemies Toronto and Atlanta. It might seem odd to criticize, given Washington’s ascendance and Wall’s MVP-caliber season, but this is an odd mix of a team, with veterans such as Paul Pierce eyeing the NBA Finals and recent draftees such as Bradley Beal still marking the trail. The future is bright, but the window has also, unexpectedly, cracked open.

In today’s data-driven NBA, Washington’s attack is a rare aesthetic. Wittman, a proud champion of yesteryear’s game, preaches openness rather than faith in statistical efficiency. To the former Hoosier, a 15-foot shot is a good shot as long as it’s open. For certain players, such as midrange automaton Kris Humphries, the logic holds. For others, such as 3-point marksman (and midrange apprentice) Beal, you have to wonder if the coach could put his star guard in better position to succeed.

Because when the Wizards launch from behind the line, they do it well. Washington boasts the second-best 3-point shooting percentage yet takes the second-fewest 3-point attempts per game. It flies in the face of the spreadsheet, sure, but it also flies in the face of sense. Framed at times as a false choice between quality and quantity, there’s work to be done if Washington wants to keep up with high-powered offenses such as Mike Budenholzer’s Hawks.

[+] EnlargeWizaeds
AP Photo/Alex BrandonA blend of old and new has helped push the Wizards into the upper crust of the Eastern Conference.
If there’s a path to true contention, Wall will be the engine powering the pilgrimage. Asked about Wall’s progression, Brown listed “world-class, A-to-B speed” that, in traversing a baseline in two steps or fewer, surpasses even Tony Parker at his fastest; a newly developed ability to “[put] somebody in his hip pocket” with a post game; and, importantly, the unconditional trust of his teammates. An effusive Brown admired how Washington’s big men run hard for Wall. Why? Because they know their young point guard will find them on the other side of the court.

That trust was earned. Once viewed by the league as lightning untamed, Wall has gained incremental focus. If at first a song’s chords played all at the same time, his game now has a discernible tempo, bought with the knowledge of when to slow down, when to fire a pass into the corner and, fortunately for D.C., when to burn down the court, ball in hand, faster than anyone in the league.

Whether there’s room for more abandon, with Washington ranked just 22nd in pace and driving to the basket fewer times than any team besides cellar-dwellers Minnesota and New York, is up for debate. Still, Wittman’s imperfect machine chugs along, better maintained than it has ever been and oiled with defensive effort and preventative positioning.

Even for consistent winners, however, keeping leads against the NBA’s best is a complicated task, frustrated by the glut of factors that go into each individual play. After the convincing win against the Sixers, Wall recalled more dubious efforts:

“We just got to find ways to stick with it, and it might seem like it’s no fun or not exciting, but we got to make it a game where we try and get better for the future, especially when we play a team like Chicago, Cleveland or Atlanta, where when you get a lead against those teams, you have to learn how to keep it.”

On a more critical scale, keeping a lead in the Eastern Conference standings against those teams could prove just as difficult. With Cleveland finally rounding into form, Toronto unblinkingly successful against the Wizards and Atlanta tearing through the toughest teams in the West, the East is top-heavy with talented teams, with each believing the conference is open enough to make a run.

That’s all right. Even with newfound administrative aplomb, John Wall knows how to run.

Conor Dirks writes for the TrueHoop Network. Follow him @ConorDDirks.

First Cup: Wednesday

January, 21, 2015
Jan 21
4:50
AM ET
By Nick Borges
ESPN.com
Archive
  • Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman: Wanda Pratt, the mother of Durant, discussed her son’s upcoming free agency with a Washington television station. “One of the things that I know about Kevin is that he’s really focused on the season that he’s in,” Pratt told NBC4 Washington. “He hears the talk. And we all hear it. But he doesn’t allow himself to be overly concerned with that, because the time is not now for...him to make that decision. So right now he’s just focused on this year. He (and Russell Westbrook) have been out injured, and so they’re having a difficult season right now. I think they’re just at .500. And so they’re focusing on trying to get to the playoffs now, so he’s not focusing on (free agency) right now.” Asked if Durant would confide in her during his decision-making process, Pratt said she is hopeful that her son will. “Well in the past, I would probably encourage a discussion,” Pratt said. “But now I’ll just wait for it. Hopefully he will talk to me. I’m quite sure that he will...But I’ll just kind of sit back and wait."
  • Linda Robertson of The Miami Herald: The lack of togetherness on a team whose progress has been interrupted by injuries is evident in the Heat’s 1-20 record when it enters the fourth quarter trailing its opponent. The Heat is still a half-baked team on defense, and the Thunder defended better down the stretch, although Wade is optimistic. “We’re getting better defensively,” he said. “We’re finally getting into a comfortable rotation defensively.” Another troubling sign is the 7-13 home record. Miami is the only team in the league with a winning road record and a losing home record. The Heat plays Wednesday at Charlotte, which has won seven of its past eight — another example of the muddle in the awful Eastern Conference, which ought to consider the concept of relegation. Things aren’t so bad for the Heat considering that a playoff spot is there for the taking for the defending NBA finalists.
  • Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News: Shooting guard Danny Green, who participated in more wins than any player in University of North Carolina history, wanted to pay tribute to UNC alumnus and broadcaster Stuart Scott during Tuesday’s game against the Nuggets by wearing a specially made pair of shoes emblazoned with Scott’s name and his signature call. Scott, a longtime ESPN “SportsCenter” anchor, died Jan. 14 after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was 49. A pair of Green’s regular game shoes — a LeBron James model by Nike — were emblazoned with “Stu” on one side and “Booyah” on the other. Green’s plan was foiled when he was denied permission to wear the special shoes, though team officials weren’t certain of the source of the denial. Aware that the Tar Heels are playing with a “Stu” patch on their uniforms, Green said he wanted to find a way to recognize his friend as well. ... Green met Scott on many occasions while playing for the Tar Heels and considered him a valued acquaintance. “I’ve known him since I’ve been a freshman in college,” he said. “I didn’t know him that well, but we spoke many, many times. He touched so many people in the sports world and encountered so many people in the sports world, I can’t imagine.”
  • Nick Groke of The Denver Post: Looking back at an ugly three-game skid and ahead to a tough test Tuesday against the rested San Antonio Spurs, Nuggets coach Brian Shaw suggested some drastic changes. "I contemplated everything," Shaw said before the game. Those changes, he said, included yanking rookie center Jusuf Nurkic from the starting lineup or playing small ball with Ty Lawson and Jameer Nelson starting in the backcourt together. "At our big position, Nurkic has been struggling," Shaw said. Nurkic fouled out Monday in a 122-79 blowout loss at Golden State, scoring just two points in 23 minutes, 31 seconds. "I'd like to put him back on the second team to play against second-team bigs, which is where he was having most of his success anyway," said Shaw, whose options at center are limited with JaVale McGee still injured. "J.J. (Hickson) has had some good games. He's our only other option at center. And I don't feel, especially (Monday) night the way he performed, that I can do that," Shaw said.
  • Jenny Dial Creech of the Houston Chronicle: In a win over the Pacers on Monday, Rockets guard James Harden had 45 points – it was the fourth time this season that he scored more than 40 points. No other players in the league has accomplished that more than twice. It was also his 18th game scoring more than 30 points, which also leads the NBA. “He is playing really well,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. “He is playing at an elite level that very few players get to. I mean, he is playing well. And we put a lot of responsibility on him. Every night. He has to distribute the ball, handle the ball, make plays, make shots, score, get to the line, defend. But he has been up to the challenge and its been great.” McHale said Harden’s improvement has a lot to do with his maturity level. “As you get older, you get better,” McHale said.
  • Eddie Sefko of The Dallas Morning News: It was a throwaway line, something that could easily get dismissed as little more than a status update for a superstar. But with six quick words, Dirk Nowitzki may have fired off a warning shot to the rest of the NBA. “I’m starting to feel better again,” he said. The proof has come on the court. Nowitzki battled a stomach issue for much of late December and early January. Only recently has he felt like himself, and the results speak for themselves. Over his last four games, he’s averaging 21.3 points and shooting 30 for 63 (47.6 percent) from the field. He’s also 9-for-17 shooting from 3-point range in that span. During the last 17 games spanning just over a month, the face of the franchise averaged 17.2 points and shot just 43.8 percent — and a ghastly 27.5 percent from beyond the arc. Nowitzki acknowledged that he didn’t have the kind of December he would have liked. But it’s worth noting that Nowitzki still has scored in double figures in all 39 games in which he has appeared this season.
  • Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune: It’s hardly reinventing the wheel, but NBA coaches from Target Center to Denver and beyond once again are rethinking a tradition: the morning shootaround. The short workout intended to get players out of bed, moving about and informed about that night’s strategies has been the bedrock of NBA gameday life for more than 40 years. But Nuggets coach Brian Shaw has experimented with abolishing the shootaround this season after his team consulted with sleep specialists. Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders recently has done the same, based mostly on a veteran coach’s instincts. Saunders has done so the past three weeks because he believes his many young players remember gameplans better if they receive it during a late afternoon walkthrough rather than in the morning, and because it helps keep a veteran such as much-needed point guard Mo Williams fresher. “I’ve done that before,” Saunders said. “When I was in the CBA, we hardly ever had shootarounds. There were times here we haven’t had them. A lot depends on your team, the feel of your team.” So far, Saunders thinks his players — despite their 7-33 record — plays better if they eat a 3/p.m. team meal together and then walk through plays in a hotel meeting room when they are on the road. They do the walkthrough on their Target Center practice court in late afternoon when they’re home.
  • Scott Agness of VigilantSports.com: When some of his teammates may be watching movies, TV shows, or playing a video game console, C.J. Miles is writing. Not a journal, nor a book. Lyrics. Hip-hop lyrics. “I’ve been into music since I was kid, singing in choirs growing up,” the first-year Pacer explained. “I always wrote as a kid. I learned how to play the piano in middle school. I went through all of that and was about all of that.” Miles’ escape during the NBA season is music. In particular, writing music. (He saves the creation of beats and songs for the offseason.) The 27-year-old from Dallas has been making music long before he started to compile songs to create an album. One day, it dawned on him. “You know what,” he thought, “I’m going to try to put a project together.” And, a few years ago, he began that effort. “I’ll put it on the Internet, why not?” he continued. “I didn’t like pub it but if anyone wanted to listen to it, they could. Little did I know that people would actually like it.” Miles begins many of his songs with a quiet echo of “CJ’s beats” or “CJ the Great.”
  • Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel: Willie Green is 33 years old now, and he hasn't played much for the Magic since he fell out of the team's rotation in mid-December. But he'll still have plenty of fans inside The Palace on Wednesday night. Including his uncle. "He's just really a great dude," Willie says. "Even if he wasn't my uncle, I would say that about him. He was taking 10 or 15 kids home after we were in the gym all day. He was picking kids up and taking them to school. Even as I got older, he was driving high-school guys down to colleges to help them get into schools. The stuff that he was doing was just tremendous."

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