Miami Heat v Los Angeles Lakers

NBA Christmas Day: Naughty and Nice

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With five games on the slate yesterday, we ran down what happened in Baseline To Baseline and broke down Heat-Lakers.  Here’s who left candy in your stocking and who left coal.

 

Who’s was nice:

Monta Ellis: When Ellis is on, he’s an inferno. And the Blazers yesterday were powerless to stop him. With 39 points, he was en fuego, and for a Blazers team that plays pretty good defense but struggles on offense, that’s th equivalent of a death sentence. If Ellis can take the next step and not only be a leader in points per game but in terms of getting his team to play consistently, the Warriors have the talent to make a second-half run. But for a night at least, they’ll be happy with Ellis’ ability to create his own shot, which is nearly second to none in this league.

Kevin Durant: Well, say hey, KD. Durant had been good this season. He really had. But yesterday may have been the game that gets him back on track to being considered one of the true greats in this league. 44 points, with a barrage of those lift-up jumpers, as well as moves to get him to the line where he was 12-15. 21 points in the 3rd, and it was a whole different ballgame for both teams.

The Knicks Defense: I know. We were shocked, too.  The Knicks held the Bulls without a field goal for over eight minutes in the fourth quarter and ran away with a huge win, their second win over the Bulls this season. The Knicks rotated well, cajoled the Bulls into playing their tempo, and stayed consistent with their double-teams, moving Derrick Rose further and further baseline which made his drives harder. Cutting off Carlos Boozer on the pick and roll, and suddenly the Bulls’ offense was a fish out of water. That’s a formula the Knicks could use in the playoffs. Geez, it looks like the Knicks may make the playoffs. How things can change in a year.

LeBron James: Wow. It was one of those games where you remember the total and complete impact James can have on the game. He got away from the drive-and-jump-pass nonsense he’s done all season, and went back to slinging perimeter passes, working out of the pick and roll, and most importantly, pushing the ball in transition. The Heat ran the Lakers out of the building, and James was a huge part of that, making defensive stops, snaring the rebound, and then pushing the fast break. His touch passing with Wade in transition is simply as electrifying as we thought it could be. James had his most MVP-like performance against LA, and was the biggest reason they walked out with a big win.

Who was naughty:

Al Harrington: The Thunder are a good defensive team, and have some length and athleticism to challenge stretch fours. But Harrington was off all day. He finished with 9 points and 6 turnovers, and it was his disappearing act that left the Nuggets without a final chamber left to fire.

Paul Pierce’s 4th Quarter: Pierce was brilliant for three quarters of basketball in Orlando, and looked like the rottweiler clamping its jaws down on the poodle and shaking for all its worth. But then the fourth quarter came, and Orlando started to send doubles at him consistently, including a very active one from Hedo Turkoglu, and Pierce vanished. That fourth quarter is his time, and the Celtics depend on him to produce then, especially when Ray Allen is having a bad day like he was yesterday. Pierce wasn’t having a bad day, he was having a great day, and the Magic just took him out of it. Not a great holiday for the Truth.

Pau Gasol: Someone apparently forgot to tell Gasol that the Heat are weak inside and can’t guard him. Gasol finished with 17 points on 17 shots and was outworked at both ends of the floor by fellow yogurt specialist Chris Bosh. Gasol is the best big man in the game today and simply didn’t effect enough force on either end. He allowed buckets and didn’t create them. with Bryant trying to shoulder the load again, Gasol needed to come through. Instead he faltered, and LA walks out with their second straight blasting on Christmas Day. Bah humbug.

Harden focused on helping Rockets improve after tough season

HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 24:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets warms up before playing the Golden State Warriors in game four of the first round playoffs at Toyota Center on April 24, 2016 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by dowloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
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HOUSTON (AP) James Harden was second in the NBA with 29 points per game last season and his 7.5 rebounds were a career high.

Still, it was a disappointing year for Harden and the Houston Rockets, who were ousted in the first round of the playoffs by Golden State, and the star knew he had to adjust things to take the team farther this year.

“Last year was frustrating, numbers individually was pretty solid, but just the love and excitement wasn’t there,” he said. “So I had to look in the mirror this summer and realize that I got to change and I got to get back to how I was.”

To that end, he refocused this offseason and put an emphasis on becoming a better leader. He organized players-only training and outings in both Miami and Las Vegas in an attempt to create cohesiveness within the group before camp.

“Just getting to know somebody and hanging out … it was really good,” he said. “That’s going to carry over onto the court.”

The way his embraced his role as the undisputed leader of this team has impressed everyone in the organization, starting with owner Leslie Alexander.

“It shows that James wants to win very badly,” Alexander said. “He’s a winning player … James is one of the top three or four players we’ve ever had here and he wants to win as much as (Hakeem) Olajuwon and (Clyde) Drexler and everybody else.”

Trevor Ariza is entering his 13th NBA season, but had the excitement of a rookie on Friday as he talked about how much better things feel entering this season than they did last year. It was a season that saw coach Kevin McHale fired after just 11 games and the Rockets take a step back after reaching the Western Conference finals in 2015.

“I think just last season was frustrating for everybody because we just couldn’t figure it out together,” Ariza said. “I don’t even know how to explain. It was just a weird, weird, weird year.”

So how have things changed now?

“The vibe has just been totally different,” Ariza said. “Everybody is excited to show what they’ve worked on and excited just to be around each other.”

These positive-attitude Rockets enter the season with new coach Mike D’Antoni and without eight-time All-Star center Dwight Howard, who signed with Atlanta in the offseason. A big question for this team will be who will step in to make up for Howard’s absence.

Their top options are Clint Capela, a third-year player who saw limited action the past two seasons as Howard’s backup, and Nene, who played 53 games for Washington last year before joining Houston in the offseason.

General manager Daryl Morey raved about Capela’s improvement in his first year, but knows he’ll have to do more this season if the Rockets hope to be a force in the Western Conference.

“Clint is going to have to take a big step forward and it’s not an easy step,” Morey said. “To go from playing 15-20 minutes against often not the starting center to playing 25-plus minutes against front-line guys, that’s a big step forward. It’s more physical. It takes a big toll on your body to do that night-in and night-out.”

Along with Nene, the Rockets also added outside shooters Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon this offseason. Houston expects the addition of those two to fill a void that this team has had in recent years.

“We were able to upgrade our shooting … for the style we want to play,” Morey said. “I don’t feel like we had enough shooting (before). We do have that.”

Everyone is saying the right things and Morey believes he made the upgrades necessary for the team to succeed in D’Antoni’s system. But with all the improvements other teams made in the West, it’s hard to know what to expect from this team.

Alexander was confident, yet tempered when asked about his expectations.

“I think we’ll win more games than people anticipate,” he said. “But when the season rolls on we’ll see how well we do.”

Front desk at new Sixers practice facility made out of court from Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 23:  Ben Simmons walks on stage after being drafted first overall by the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the 2016 NBA Draft at the Barclays Center on June 23, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. 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 Stobe/Getty Images)
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The Philadelphia 76ers have just opened a new, state-of-the-art practice facility, and maybe the coolest part is a unique touch that nods to one of the iconic moments in the history of Philadelphia basketball. The reception desk in the lobby of the building is made out of hardwood, but not just any hardwood — it’s a part of the court from Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game on March 2, 1962. Here’s a photo, via CSN Philly’s Jessica Camerato:

When Chamberlain scored 100 points, it was for the Philadelphia Warriors, not the 76ers, but it’s still a piece of the city’s sports history, and this is a cool, unique way to honor it.

51 Q: Will Tom Thibodeau fast-track the Timberwolves’ ascension?

OAKLAND, CA - APRIL 05:  Karl-Anthony Towns #32 of the Minnesota Timberwolves is congratulated by Ricky Rubio #9 after he made a basket against the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on April 5, 2016 in Oakland, California. 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 Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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The Minnesota Timberwolves won just 29 games last season, but few teams have more crowded bandwagons right now, or brighter futures. In many ways, their position isn’t too dissimilar to the Oklahoma City Thunder circa 2009 — still a lottery team, but the talent of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook was obvious. The Wolves have a similarly promising young core with the last two Rookie of the Year winners, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, the latter of whom has all the makings of a once-in-a-generation, MVP-caliber big man and an unbelievable amount of poise and polish for his age.

Young teams take time to come together, but the Timberwolves set themselves up to make a leap with their biggest offseason move, parting ways with interim head coach Sam Mitchell (who filled in admirably following the passing of Flip Saunders before last season) and hiring Tom Thibodeau. Because of this alone, the Timberwolves will win more games than they did last year. That’s what Thibodeau does — he wins games, no matter what his roster looks like. He does this by treating every game like it’s Game 7 of the Finals, and unlike the injury-riddled Bulls teams he got to overachieve, this Wolves group is young, healthy and unproven.

But even though any group with Wiggins, Towns and Thibodeau projects long-term to be in the title race, it would be unfair and unreasonable to expect contention overnight. Even Thibodeau, who expects the absolute most out of any group he coaches, is fully aware of that. Here’s what he told the St. Paul Pioneer Press in July:

“We like our young core a lot,” Thibodeau said, “and I would say this: We’re also not fooling ourselves. We know we’re in a very competitive conference. We won 29 games last year.”

Short of the kind of offseason haul of superstars that transforms a roster (think the Celtics getting Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in 2007, or the Cavaliers getting LeBron James and Kevin Love in 2014), going from a bottom-tier lottery team to a contender overnight just doesn’t happen. A more realistic expectation of a best-case scenario for the Timberwolves under the first year of Thibodeau would be the 2009-10 Thunder. After winning just 23 games in 2009, Oklahoma City went 50-32 in 2009-10, grabbed the eighth seed in the Western Conference and lost to the eventual champion Lakers in the first round of the playoffs. A playoff berth and a competitive first-round loss to the Warriors or Spurs is only incremental progress, but considering what the starting point is, and the fact that the Timberwolves haven’t made the playoffs since 2004, a similar season would be a resounding success for the first year under Thibodeau.

The bottom of the Western Conference playoff race is going to be an uphill battle for the Wolves to break into. Beyond the top tier (Golden State, San Antonio and the Clippers), it seems to be a safe bet that the Jazz, Blazers, Thunder and Grizzlies will be in the playoffs. The Timberwolves will be one of the teams fighting for the final spot, but they’ll have stiff competition with the Rockets, Pelicans and Mavericks in the hunt. It’s not hard to picture the Wolves edging those teams out, but it’s far from a sure thing.

Long-term, it’s hard to think of a team with a higher ceiling than this Timberwolves group. In the here and now, though, it’s best to keep expectations in check.

Anthony Davis on New Orleans: “I never plan on leaving here”

NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 04:  Anthony Davis #23 of the New Orleans Pelicans takes a shot during the first half of a game against the Los Angeles Lakers at the Smoothie King Center on February 4, 2016 in New Orleans, Louisiana. 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 Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. On media day, Anthony Davis — who signed a five-year max extension with the Pelicans last summer and cannot hit the open market until 2020 at the earliest — told reporters that he wants to play in New Orleans his entire career.

Right now, I have no doubt that Davis means what he said and wants to stay in New Orleans forever. But it’s worth keeping in mind that virtually every superstar who signed a long-term extension with the team that drafted them said something similar. Matt Moore of CBSSports.com has a few examples from Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony, all of whom eventually left their teams.

For the Pelicans, it will depend on how the next four seasons go. If they can put a title contender around Davis and not waste the bulk of his prime (a la Kevin Garnett‘s first stint in Minnesota), they have a chance to convince him to stay. But it would be unwise to hold him at his word right now in four years, especially if the next several seasons don’t go the way they want.