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Last Weekend of Hope: Western Conference

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On Tuesday the 2010-2011 NBA season begins. From that point on, the reality will be set for 30 teams in the NBA. One team will wind up in possession of the trophy which defines careers, while 29 others will find themselves deeply disappointed in themselves, their teammates, their organization, or all three. The fans, likewise, will go through a similar process of understanding exactly how good their respective teams are, and are not. For most, it is a bitter, sobering process, tinged with those moments of fleeting success wherein they take comfort in the overtime, come-from-behind win, or the outright smackdown of a top team. You’ll hear a lot of “They are what they are.” But right now? This weekend? These precious, painful few days? These teams could be anything. They could far surpass expectations, and bring outright exuberance to their fans, players, and the people that work behind the scenes to make them great. They could shock the world, even if that means a second round playoff exit in a sweep. This is the last weekend of hope before the journey begins. And while that journey is fun, and it’s why we watch, this moment should be documented, particularly because this may be the last hopeful weekend we have in a while, as the specter of imminent lockout looms over us like a raven, just waiting for the season to die.

In that uplifting, comforting spirit, here then, is the hope of the Western Conference.

(Note: Do not confuse the hope enlisted with the opinions of the author. We’re just conveying what appears to be the best-case outlook for the various squads.)

Dallas Mavericks: Dirk Nowitzki has aged about as well as any star of his ilk can. Jason Kidd actually shot better from the arc. Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood have a full training camp of work with the team to get adjusted. And Rodrigue Beaubois and Dominique Jones are legit. There’s no reason this team shouldn’t finally crack their way back into the Conference Finals. And once there, with the Mavericks size, speed, and talent, they’ll just need to get two games at Staples to have a shot. This can be done. It’s got to happen sometime, right?

Denver Nuggets: Sure Carmelo’s thinking about leaving. But when we bust out to a big start, he’ll change his mind. He has to. This is the team that drafted him. He’s not like LeBron. And we have a much better team, with Chauncey, KMart, Nene, and Lawson. We were in the Conference Finals two years ago! How could you leave a team like this for a lottery team? This team underwent a series of disasters it couldn’t have predicted last year, but it also played the Lakers tight. All it’s got to do is stay focused. And when Melo signs the extension, they can do just that.

Golden State Warriors: Cohan’s gone. Theyhave the best sophomore player in the league in Stephen Curry. Monta Ellis is ready to stop being a problem. They got David Lee and a new head coach that wants the team to actually play defense. There’s no way this team isn’t considerably better than last year’s. It’s nearly physically impossible. Better talent, better coaching, better ownership. Things finally look up in the Bay.

Houston Rockets: 24 minutes a game. There’s absolutely no reason this team can’t stay healthy with Yao only playing 24 minutes a game. They’re deep. They’re versatile. They’re extremely well coached and now have some offensive firepower. This team was painfully close to taking out the Lakers two years ago, but all of a sudden with a better team they’re also-rans? In Morey everyone should trust. All the team needs is for a series of things not to go wrong. That can’t be that hard to avoid. Sure, Yao’s injury-prone. But that’s why the minute limit exists. And it will get this team to the playoffs where there isn’t a team that matches up with them.

Los Angeles Clippers: Blake Griffin. Blake Griffin, Blake Griffin. Blake Griffin Blake Griffin Blake Griffin, Blake Griffin Blake Griffin Blake Griffin Blake Griffin. Eric Gordon, Blake Griffin. Blake Griffin.

Los Angeles Lakers: Count the rings, y’all. Count the rings.

Memphis Grizzlies: The team might have a bench! With Xavier Henry, Tony Allen, and an improved Sam Young, if the team can just hold leads on nights when all the starters aren’t on fire, it’s possible they could sneak into the playoffs. They overpaid for Rudy Gay, but he’s also the franchise star. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph make up one of the best frontcourt tandems in the league and Lionel Hollins is a decided advantage. With a fast-break team that got wins over a lot of playoff squads last year, why can’t they take a step forward and win a playoff series?

Minnesota Timberwolves: The media just hates us. And David Kahn. They’re just too simple to see the truth. This team is primed for a breakout. They say Kevin Love is such a terrific talent, but the Timberwolves won’t use him despite trading Jefferson to make room for him.They say Michael Beasley is such a waste, but he tore up the preseason. They say they overpaid for Darko but then talk about the lack of legitimate centers in the league. If the media would get over themselves, they’d see that Wes Johnson is  a star in the making, Kevin Love is already a star, the team has better depth, and all this before Rubio comes. But after this season, there’s no way he’ll stay away. Then the media will see how great Kahn’s plan is.

New Orleans Hornets: Chris Paul’s back, so the Hornets have Chris Paul, to go along with David West, Okafor, Thornton, and now Bayless. The Hornets almost made the playoffs without CP3 playing. How good will they be with him on board, and a better wing in Ariza. It’s time for everyone to remember how great CP3 is. Now if we could only get the team sold…

Oklahoma City Thunder: Sorry! Can’t talk right now! We’re having a party over how great our team and its future is for the next four years! PS Kevin Durant is the MVP!

Phoenix Suns: Okay, losing Amar’e is going to hurt. But hurt enough to lose a playoff spot? Did the Suns lose Steve Nash, too? Oh, no, they didn’t. They’ll be fine. The team won last year with slightly decent defense and a tougher brand of offense. Hakim Warrick and Josh Childress will help in their positions and the team is still deep enough to win as long as Nash is healthy. Never count out Steve Nash.

Portland Trailblazers: Pritchard’s gone, but Cho looks great so far. Freak injuries were the only things that delayed progress last season. And Greg Oden will be a franchise player. He just has bad luck. And bad luck passes. When he gets healthy, he’ll become the All-Star he was before the injury. Brandon Roy will bounce back, the back court depth has improved and been cleaned up. There’s been every indication that the team will only improve this season, and with Nate McMillan at the helm, they can survive until everyone gets healthy. The team isn’t a young squad anymore, but it’s deep and versatile. And all it needs is a few things to go its way, for once. That’s go to happen sometime.

Sacramento Kings: Looks like Thunder. Feels like Thunder. Loaded like Thunder. Why can’t the Kings make a huge leap with two superstars they drafted? Tyreke Evans is the best sophomore in the league, the team is coming together, DeMarcus Cousins will be a beast, and they have some depth to go along with the talent. There’s no reason this team can’t make a push for the playoffs.

San Antonio Spurs: Greatness doesn’t age. It endures. A healthy team and this is the Western Conference Finals. A few things go right and the Spurs are in the playoffs. Is there any question that this team can’t compete with the Lakers in a seven game series? One more ring for Timmy. Something to keep Parker home. The Blair Bear. Jefferson’s fitting in. James Anderson was another steal. Pop’s got one more ring in him. Duncan needs one to put him ahead of Shaq once and for all. The window hasn’t closed, and the youth on this team could prop it open just long enough to steal gold.

Utah Jazz: Lost Carlos Boozer. Added Al Jefferson. Lost Kyle Korver. Added Raja Bell. Lost Ronnie Brewer. Added Gordon Hayward. This is the definition of a reloaded team, and one that may be better than the one last season. The team has faced nothing but heartbreak in the playoffs. But anything can happen in sports. That has to be how it is. What’s the point, otherwise?

Video Breakdown: What is Hammer action? An explainer

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Hammer action — sometimes referred to as a Hammer play or a Hammer set — was made ubiquitous in the modern NBA by the San Antonio Spurs. It’s really not as complicated as it sounds to identify, and it’s got two main principles.

First, the Hammer part of any set is a back screen to setup a cut by a wing player around the arc to the corner (or sometimes on a flare to the wing).

Second, the Hammer always happens away from the ball side of a play. It’s a weak side action, and typically anything happening with the ball on the strong side at the beginning of the play is purposeful distraction.

You can learn all about the Hammer by watching this week’s NBA Glossary video above, or by reading the text version down below.

The Diagram

Here we have a set where the ball is on the right side of the floor, with one post high and one low. The Hammer action happens on the weak side of the court between the shooting guard and the center:

The small forward is going to start the pick and roll with the power forward going to the right side. Meanwhile, the center is going to set the back screen on the left left side of the floor. This is our Hammer action, and the shooting guard will run off that screen to the corner.

Once the play starts and the small forward gets to the baseline, he passes it out to the guard, who shoots the corner three.

Let’s take a look at it in action and how the Spurs mix it into different looking plays.

Here they have the ball at the arc on the right side of the floor. Kawhi Leonard is coming through the paint to receive a pass off the screen.

Meanwhile, Patty Mills is the player that’s going to run off a hammer screen here on the left elbow.

The ball is passed, and with Kawhi dribbling toward the arc, the trap is set, and the Hammer action commences.

The defender turns his head, and Mills runs toward the baseline unimpeded to take the jumper.

In this example, we have the pick and roll to the right side. The hammer action is going to happen between the guard and the post on the weak side.

As the pick and roll is run, the Hammer screen is set.

Notice San Antonio has cleverly positioned Tony Parker at the top of the arc, and when LaMarcus Aldridge pops out, it’s up to Parker’s defender to stunt over to help.

This makes Danny Green’s defender slide over to help cover Parker, basically leaving Green unguarded in the corner.

Aldridge sees this, and passes the ball to Parker for the quick rotation over to Green.

That’s the basics of the Hammer play. It’s nothing super complicated, but it shows you how spacing and exploitation of defensive tendencies can be programmed into an NBA offense.

Blake Griffin is producing “White Men Can’t Jump” remake

MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 16:  Blake Griffin #32 of the LA Clippers brings the ball up during a game against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena on December 16, 2016 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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Do we need to remake “White Men Can’t Jump?” You remember the 1992 original, with Wesley Snipes (wearing era-appropriate clothes he’d now like to forget) and Woody Harrelson as a pair of playground ball hustlers. Rosie Perez knowing all the foods that begin with the letter “Q.” It’s no “He Got Game,” but White Men was clever and fun.

Whether it needs to be or not, White Men is about to get remade — with Blake Griffin as a producer.

Via the Hollywood Reporter:

Kenya Barris, the creator of ABC’s acclaimed comedy Black-ish, is teaming with Blake Griffin of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers and Ryan Kalil of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers to develop a remake of the 1992 sports comedy for 20th Century Fox.

Barris will write the script for the project, which falls under his overall film deal with Fox that he signed in September. Barris also will act as a producer. Griffin and Kalil are producing via their Mortal Media banner, along with their partner Noah Weinstein.

To be clear, Griffin is producing, not acting in it. Although he should get a cameo, maybe as one of the playground ballers that gets hustled. It’s a bigger role than he’s going to get in Space Jam II, apparently.

Timberwolves Zach LaVine knows how to finish alley-oop (VIDEO)

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The Dunk Contest is not going to be the same this year without Zach LaVine.

The man has the hops to get up and knows how to finish — Tuesday night he took a not-very-good alley-oop pass from Nemanja Bjelica and turned it into an awesome throwdown. LaVine finished the night with 18 points.

However, Kawhi Leonard dropped 34 and sparked the comeback as the Spurs won the game, 122-114.

Three Things We Learned: Chris Paul’s bad luck trouble for Clippers

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Here’s what you missed around the NBA Tuesday while trying to decide which animal in Australia is most likely to kill you….

1) Chris Paul is out six weeks, and the Clippers are about to slide into tough playoff spot. It’s not fair to call Chris Paul “injury prone” — trying to fight through a screen his thumb got caught in the shorts of Russell Westbrook, which led to a torn ligament in his thumb which will require surgery. That is the definition of “fluke injury.” So was the play where he broke his hand in the playoff series against Portland last year (trying to defend a layup by Gerald Henderson). CP3 is much more in a Lemony Snicket place: A series of unfortunate events.

However, the Clippers are going to pay the price for Paul’s latest injury — they are going to slide down the standings in the 6-8 weeks he is out (until early March). Especially with Blake Griffin still out for a week or two (knee surgery). The Clippers lose CP3 as they enter the toughest part of their schedule: After being home to the Timberwolves Thursday, the Clippers have 10-of-11 on the road, heavily against teams over .500, plus Paul will miss three games against the Warriors.

As you read this the Clippers are the four seed in the West, but they are just four games up on being the seven seed — which would mean a long road through San Antonio to get out of the first round of the playoffs (climb back up to the six seed and they could get Houston in the first round). It’s hard to imagine the Clippers holding on to home court in the first round even with Paul back for the last month of the season. Healthy and playing like they did the first month of the season (remember that?), the Clippers might beat the Spurs/Rockets in the first round, but it would be a brutal series. The good news for Los Angeles is the Clippers are not going to slide all the way out of the playoffs — they have an 11-game cushion over the nine seed. They will not fall that far.

2) It’s James Harden’s turn: his triple-double not enough to get Rockets win. The Rockets were one of the best teams in the NBA against teams below .500, starting the season 21-1 against them. Then, in the past week, they have come out flat and dropped two against lesser squads. The first was last week against Minnesota — at least that’s a team loaded with young talent that can put together a good game.

However, Tuesday’s loss to Miami was ugly. Granted, the Heat have not rolled over and have played hard through tough times (especially against good teams, they have seven wins against teams over .500 this season). And they do have Hassan Whiteside (14 points and 15 rebounds Tuesday). Still, this is a game the Rockets need to win. Especially since they got center Clint Capela back in the lineup (but they were missing Ryan Anderson and it showed, their spacing on offense was poor).

Instead, the Rockets wasted an impressive triple-double from James Harden. 40 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists in a loss to the Heat 109-103.



3) Kawhi Leonard is quietly having a not so quiet season.
Kawhi Leonard is having an MVP-level season… well, most seasons he’d be in the mix, this year Russell Westbrook and James Harden are running away from the pack. But Leonard is right in the middle of the next tier of that award race — with Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and everyone else vying for votes (MVP voters choose five, who gets those last three slots will be interesting). Leonard is averaging 24.8 points per game, shooting 41 percent from three, pulling down 5.7 rebounds a game, plus playing lock-down defense to lead a Spurs team that is 32-9 this season. It’s just that he’s not out there trumpeting his own case for the award. That’s not his style.

You could see it Tuesday night, when Leonard dropped 34 points to spark a come-from-behind Spurs win against the Timberwolves. Don’t sleep on Leonard and the Spurs, this is a dangerous team.