Five early season NBA trends to be thankful for

10 Comments

We are 10 games or so into the NBA season and one thing is clear — this is fun. Not everything is fitting neatly into the preseason prediction boxes and that is the best part of being a sports fan.

We at PBT are thankful for a lot of things. All of you who read us, for one. That Rasheed Wallace is back in the NBA and yelling things at free throw shooters again. That some key players — Wednesday night it was Kevin Love and Nene — are getting healthy.

Here are five NBA early-season trends we are really pumped about:

1) The Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers are legitimate. While we may yet see a Lakers vs. Heat finals, but if that happens you want those teams to have to really earn it. Before the season started we thought a Lakers vs. Thunder Western Conference Finals was inevitable — Now the Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers stand there as legitimate threats. Memphis is a physical, scrappy team built for the playoffs but they have reinvented their offense with Mike Conley and Marc Gasol more as playmakers for others. Also, lesson here for NBA fans and GMs is that continuity matters.

We knew the Clippers could put up points and entertain — Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are always a threat, and now Jamal Crawford has stepped up as a shooter and playmaker — but the question was defense. And could DeAndre Jordan step up his game? So far the Clippers have the second best defense in the NBA (if you go by points by possession) and Jordan is having a career year so far. If those hold, the Clippers are contenders.

2) The Knicks and Nets have brought quality basketball back to New York. There was a time when if you wanted to see entertaining basketball in New York you were better off heading to Rucker Park than Madison Square Garden. Not anymore. The Knicks are sporting the NBA’s best offense (111.7 points per 100 possessions) and they are top 10 in defense. Carmelo Anthony has been more than a scorer as the four, he has been a leader on both ends of the floor. Raymond Felton has been a star, a legitimate star. Plus, Rasheed Wallace.

Then there are the Nets — they are 6-4 so far and have been entertaining with Brook Lopez and Deron Williams leading the way. Plus Gerald Wallace is becoming a cult hero for doing things like trying to goad Kobe Bryant into taking free throws with his eyes closed. The Nets are not contenders, they are not the best team in New York, but they are respectable and playoff bound.

3) The Charlotte Bobcats don’t suck this year. The Bobcats — who won 7 games last season total — are 6-4 to start the season. Kemba Walker has taken a huge step forward with his game, Michael Kidd-Gillchrist brings nightly energy on both ends and Ramon Sessions is the sage, savvy veteran leader. There will be some regression, but this team is fun to watch, pushing the tempo with their athletic guards, and they have real hope now.

4) Small ball lineups are finding their way. A lot of has been made of small-ball lineups, but they work. Well, except in Boston but that’s not about size. The Knicks move Carmelo Anthony from the three to the four and they are 8-2. I think we all pretty much knew the Heat would be a force going small. Philadelphia is 7-5 without Andrew Bynum. Milwaukee is leading (and well could win) the Central Division with an undersized backcourt of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis.

All of this is more entertaining than watching the Sixers throw the ball into Bynum in the post and see if he can back down his man and take a little jump hook.

5) That the Lakers are providing plenty of entertainment if not great basketball. Admit it, you like seeing the Lakers struggle.

Outside of some delusional Lakers fans — and there are more than enough of them in the world — nobody thought this would be easy for the Lakers. But man it has been a soap opera beyond imagination — a 1-4 start, Mike Brown fired as coach, his disaster of a Princeton offense out and Mike D’Antoni’s more instinctual offense is in. The Lakers defense is inconsistent. At best. Bernie Bickerstaff now has a higher winning percentage as Lakers coach than Pat Riley. And even when you think they are playing well and maybe starting to figure it out they can go out and give you 20 turnovers and lay an egg in Sacramento.

Through it all we’ve seen an efficient Kobe Bryant and Metta World Peace knocking down threes while other teams have leaned on hack-a-Howard. It’s been fun to watch.

The Lakers are 6-6 and it feels like the 2010 Heat. A team that did eventually figure it out. But we’ll see if the Lakers can withstand the storm, get Dwight Howard fully healthy, and then we’ll see if they play good enough defense to really contend. Because if you look at the first thing we are thankful for, the Lakers road to contention has some big mountains in the way.

Pacers head to Cleveland looking to put pressure back on Cavaliers

Getty Images
Leave a comment

CLEVELAND, Ohio (AP) — The Indiana Pacers are in no better position to pull off a historic upset in this first-round playoff series with the Cleveland Cavaliers than when they awoke Sunday morning.

The Pacers had a chance to put the Cavs, at the time reeling with playoff inexperience and the crushing weight of expectations with LeBron James, squarely behind the eight ball in this series by winning Game 4.

But Indiana fell behind by a huge deficit in the first half for the second consecutive game, erased it in the third and early fourth quarters again, but couldn’t sustain the momentum. Kyle Korver and James made enough plays down the stretch for the Cavs to win, 104-100, tying this series at 2-2 with Game 5 on Wednesday in Cleveland.

James has never lost a first-round series in 12 previous playoffs. Now, he has two of the next three games at home to try and keep his streak alive.

“I think just tying the series up and coming back home is something we feel good about,” said Kevin Love, who like every other Cav not named James has mostly struggled in this series. “We feel like it’s a best-of-three type series and at the end of the day, if it comes to it, we have two games at home. We like our advantage and we’re going to use that to our advantage (Wednesday) night.”

The Pacers trailed by 17 at halftime of Game 3 but steamrolled the Cavs in the second half and pulled out a 92-90 win behind 30 points from Bojan Bogdanovic, a playoff career high. They were down 10 through two quarters in Game 4 but fought back and were ahead 93-91 with 3:49 remaining before Korver connected on two deep 3s.

Indiana won Game 1 behind a playoff career-high 32 points from Victor Oladipo, who has struggled since (19-of-53 shooting in the last three games). Domantas Sabonis played a big role in the Pacers’ comeback Sunday, scoring a playoff career-best 19 off the bench.

The Pacers are getting the best night of someone’s playoff career almost each game of this series, and it’s been good enough for two wins. Then again, the Cavs’ two wins were by a combined seven points, and outside of James (32.5 ppg this series) almost no one is scoring.

Love is the next closest at 12.0 points in this series and JR Smith is third with 10.0 points.

“We’re not losing confidence,” point guard Darren Collison said, according to the Indianapolis Star. “This team is the defending Eastern Conference champions. Whatever you want to say about them, this is a very good team. They’ve been through a lot over the last few years. We’re fine. There’s no need to overreact or panic. We’re going to go into their building and we’re going to give the same effort.”

The Cavaliers say point guard George Hill (back spasms) is questionable to play in Game 5. He missed Game 4 with the same injury — four injections before the game were not enough to ease the pain to the point where he could play.

Jose Calderon started for Hill on Sunday and scored five points in 19 minutes. The Cavs are 24-9 this year (regular season and playoffs) when Calderon starts.

Hill is the only player on either team listed on the injury report. But Love suffered an injury to his left thumb in Game 1 and it’s affected him. He’s shooting 17-of-47 in the series with 11 turnovers. Catching and gripping the ball have been obvious problems.

“I’ve been able to get up a lot of shots,” Love said. “I think initially it was painful and in the few days that followed, but now it’s kind of subsided and I’m just getting my feel back in my left thumb.”

Report: Kawhi Leonard to return to San Antonio around exit interviews. Then…

Associated Press
6 Comments

Nobody is sure how the Kawhi Leonard situation is going to play out with the Spurs. As is the nature of the NBA, the GMs of other teams are starting to circle the Spurs like vultures, on the chance that this time Gregg Popovich cannot smooth out the relationship with his star player and needs to trade him. Leonard spent the playoffs away from the team, working out and talking to doctors in New York while “his group” shielded him from attempts from San Antonio to reach out.

Now has come the time for the sides to talk, and that will happen soon reports Jabari Young of the San Antonio Express-News.

What happens during and after that meeting is anyone’s guess.

The Spurs will only move Leonard as a last resort, and they have two things on their side. First, Gregg Popovich, who has maintained a healthy relationship with his star pupil through all of this. LaMarcus Aldridge told Popovich he wanted to be traded last summer, and over the course of some dinner meetings and self-reflection, Popovich was able to both keep Aldridge in the fold and put him in positions to be an All-NBA level player this season. The key is that both sides were willing to talk with an open mind, are Leonard and his advisors open to that?

Second, the Spurs have the ultimate hammer — the $219 million designated veteran extension (the contract James Harden and Russell Westbrook signed this year). Put that on the table and Leonard will sign it. The question is will the Spurs put it out there? Probably not if Leonard makes it clear he doesn’t want to be in San Antonio any longer. That’s when the trade talks start to gain traction.

But we’re not there yet. Not even close. Let the meetings play out first.

Back home, Thunder try to avoid elimination against Jazz

Getty Images
4 Comments

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma City was built this offseason around three All-Stars with the hopes of contending for the Western Conference crown.

The Utah Jazz started the year 18-26 without center Rudy Gobert. However, Gobert returned and the Jazz rolled off 11 straight wins into Valentine’s Day with the help of a surprise rookie of the year contender.

One more win and the Jazz will reach the second round for the second straight year. They’ll send the Thunder home with a second straight first-round exit — despite Oklahoma City’s overhauled, star-studded roster.

After losing the first game on the road, Utah won decisively in each of the past three games, including a 17-point victory in Game 4 — a game the Thunder called a must-win in Salt Lake City.

“It’s the playoffs, it’s gonna be war,” Utah point guard Ricky Rubio, who had a triple-double in Game 3, told the Salt Lake Tribune after Utah’s 113-96 victory in Game 4. “We know that it’s gonna be another war next game. We just have to be tough but at the same time, mentally ready for that.”

Game 5 is set for 9:30 p.m. EST Wednesday at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell, who averaged 20 points per game during the regular season, has averaged 27.6 points during the past three games — taking his play to another level to lead a balanced Jazz attack that has five players averaging in double figures. Mitchell, who was the 13th overall pick in last year’s draft, has scored 110 points through the first four games, the most by a rookie in his first four games since Michael Jordan’s 117 in 1985, according to nba.com.

“To be honest, a lot of this is surreal. I’m just taking it game-by-game and not really getting caught up in the big picture,” Mitchell told the Salt Lake City Tribune. “Just focusing on game-by-game. My teammates have helped me out a lot as far as that goes. But we’re playing together.”

Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook picked up four fouls before halftime in Game 4 and was fined $10,000 for an altercation with Gobert late in the game. Luckily for the Thunder, he was not suspended following his altercation with the Utah center.

Westbrook’s foul trouble has hardly been the Thunder’s biggest issue.

Oklahoma City was inconsistent much of the year, but it has had to contend with shooting woes from offseason acquisition Carmelo Anthony, who has hit just 25 percent of his 3-pointers in the first four games of the playoffs.

“We gotta win, nothing to it,” Anthony said after the Game 4 loss. “We’ve just gotta win. We can sit here and say what we gotta do, or what we didn’t do or what we did do, but it comes down to having the will to win that game Wednesday and forcing a Game 6 back in Utah.”

Winning in Utah won’t to be easy, where the Jazz have won six straight. Oklahoma City has to get back to Salt Lake City first and stave off elimination. But Utah hasn’t lost three straight games since Gobert’s return to the lineup in mid-January.

“Every game’s been physical,” Gobert said to reporters. “We just got to watch the tape, see how much better we can get and get ready to play basketball.”

Any end to one-and-done rule remains a couple of years away

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Condoleezza Rice and the Commission on College Basketball released their much-anticipated report and…

Yawn.

We’ll see how much the NCAA wishes to police itself and ban coaches caught cheating from the sport, or to do anything that would stem the flow of money from shoe companies and boosters into college hoops. Will the NCAA make an organizational shift to focus less on enforcement and more on involvement with players before they get to college?

One thing the report wants is an end to the one-and-done rule with the NBA, and it issues some veiled threats about getting back together and coming up with new recommendations if the NBA and its players’ union does not act within a year. Yawn. The NBA will continue to work toward this at its own pace, as Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN notes.

Allowing guys to go back to college if not drafted — even if they had an agent — is a good step.

The NBA will move at its own pace with reforms to its draft rules, and we are still years away from that (if the owners can be herded into a consensus in the first place). This commission’s report changes none of that, and without the NBA and players’ union’s cooperation the commission can’t accomplish some of its goals anyway.

The NBA is moving toward ending one-and-done, NBA commissioner Adam Silver had said they were waiting on this report to take the next steps down that road. With the assistance of the NCAA, the league could move to something more akin to the baseball model (players can be drafted out of high school to the NBA, but if they go to college they have to stay two or three seasons). However, this remains years away. For now, players such as Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III will continue to be one-and-dones. Nobody likes it, but it is the rule for now.