Kings players want Isaiah Thomas to start; don’t know what they’re running on offense

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If you’ve caught yourself watching a Sacramento Kings game lately and thought to yourself, ‘this can’t get any worse’ only to see it get much, much worse – you’re not the only one.

As it turns out, the Kings players themselves are having a real hard time understanding the train wreck they’re a part of on the court every night.

“They know that they’re playing terrible basketball right now,” said one source close to the players. “But they’ve thrown their hands up trying to figure out Keith Smart.”

Smart is in his fourth year as a head coach in the NBA. He had an interim stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2002-03, and then took a job as an assistant for Don Nelson in Golden State until he was elevated to head coach after Nellie’s retirement prior to the 2010-11 season. He took a roster primed for improvement to a 36-46 record, but the Warriors’ new ownership opted not to keep him.

The reason team insiders overwhelmingly pointed to for his departure was his handling of franchise player Stephen Curry, who Smart benched nightly for out-of-the-NBA guard Acie Law.

Smart could never clearly articulate to the press what Curry wasn’t doing to please him, and while Curry could have played more defense or taken better shots he was twice the player that Law was. Curry’s benching cost the team games and it cost Smart respect in the locker room and within the organization.

The same thing is happening in Sacramento all over again, but this time Smart has the backing of general manager Geoff Petrie – who appears to be more interested in promoting his free agent acquisitions and draft picks than he is in playing the right guys.

Namely, sources close to key Kings players have told ProBasketballTalk that they are frustrated with the fact that point guard Isaiah Thomas isn’t starting and acting as the team’s floor general. Thomas finished seventh in last season’s Rookie of the Year voting, but arguably could have finished as high as second place when one compares his numbers to that of Ricky Rubio, who held that spot.

Thomas boasted shooting lines of 47.7/40.6/84.1 while averaging 14.8 points, 3.1 rebounds, 5.4 assists, and 2.0 turnovers in 31.6 minutes per game in 37 starts, which compare favorably to Rubio’s shooting lines of 35.7/34.0/80.3 with averages of 10.6 points, 4.2 rebounds, 8.2 assists, and 3.2 turnovers in 34.2 minutes per game in 41 starts.

Independent of that comparison, Thomas played well against the league’s best guards, holding Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Goran Dragic, and Rajon Rondo to 26-of-76 (34.2%) combined shooting for a stretch while being considered by scouts to be an above average defender at his position. Despite standing 5’ 9” tall without shoes, his strength and leaping ability made him a surprising plus-defender in the post.

Being the team’s best player at times down the stretch of last season, Thomas was able to win the starting point guard position, but the Stephen Curry treatment continued. On a team that has lacked ball movement in recent years, one would think that a playmaking point guard with charisma on and off the court would be a high priority. But the window to develop Thomas last season was lost, and separate from the Kings’ off the court struggles, the window to create a cohesive team approach is rapidly closing this season and Kings players are frustrated with it.

Perhaps the team didn’t have faith that Jimmer Fredette could turn into a competent NBA player, or maybe it was Petrie’s well-documented quest to obtain Aaron Brooks, but the Kings took a big step toward destroying their continuity at the position when they signed Brooks over the summer. He was a cheap acquisition after playing and talking his way out of Houston and Phoenix, and with Fredette looking like he couldn’t dribble the ball up the court most Kings analysts were okay with adding depth at the position.

Unfortunately, nobody in Sacramento fully understood Smart’s history with point guards, nor did they fully appreciate the impact Thomas could have to rally the team and rally the city toward a product they could be proud of. Immediately Thomas’ role was questioned by team-friendly media sources, despite the fact that Brooks had lost backup duties to Zabian Dowdell in Phoenix before spending a season in China.

Meanwhile, Thomas spent an offseason organizing team workouts, building camaraderie, and eventually he and his teammates would be tasked with learning a tough new Triangle offense.

The Kings started off slow and the resulting confusion and losses gave Smart and Petrie the window they needed to get Brooks in a starting role, which was aided in part by Thomas pressing just like Curry did in Golden State, albeit in a much more dysfunctional situation.

That offense has since been scrapped according to player sources, and right now “they don’t know what they’re running.” The Kings turned to the old failed strategy of Tyreke Evans left and Tyreke right, with random excursions to the hoop by DeMarcus Cousins, high-post offense initiated by Chuck Hayes, and the occasional Jason Thompson post-up.

When on the court, Thomas has been sent to the corner to watch the carnage unfold, because like last season the team refuses to run a pick-and-roll based offense featuring him as the primary or even secondary decision-maker with the ball.

With Kings players in an utter state of confusion nightly, they have reverted to one-on-one ball and rank dead last in assists per game (18.2) and that number has dipped in the last three games to 15.3. This is a far cry from the days of when Thomas was piling up between 5-10 assists per game in 17-of-23 outings to finish last season despite being a second, third or fourth option handling the ball.

Since moving Brooks into the starting lineup, Smart and Petrie have also put a premium on playing their bad contracts, giving heavy minutes to Francisco Garcia, John Salmons, and Travis Outlaw while Thomas and an improving Fredette ride the pine. It’s crazy, because the only time the team looks coherent on the court is when the Mighty Mite lineup of Thomas and Fredette is on the court – even if Fredette can’t cover a rocking chair and shoots nearly every time he gets the rock.

The players already know, and Cousins even took to wearing an IT jersey for the press the other day, but even casual observers can see that the Kings need to get their high basketball IQ guys on the court. While Brooks’ scoring ability has never been in dispute, he knows only one way to impact a game, and too many times that’s with poorly conceived jump shots and flailing drives to the hoop. More importantly he can’t make it through screens and is responsible for more points on defense than he scores. Evans is the same type of player and is a physical freak, but his inconsistent jumper and bad shot selection in a standstill offense negate any gains he could possibly provide. Marcus Thornton has been dealing with very real off the court issues due to his mother’s health, but his deployment within the non-existent offensive structure has bordered on laughable for one of the league’s best big-time shot-makers. Cousins still takes bad shots, but it’s hard to fault any of these guys when there is no plan, their best playmaker has been sidelined, and the team is making playing time decisions from the Smart and Petrie handbook.

Then again, the Maloofs might just be making Major League 4: The Search for More Money, which makes any conversation about basketball a moot point.

Kevin Hart plays Shaq, Saturday Night Live takes on Inside The NBA

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Notoriously undersized actor — and NBA All-Star Weekend Celebrity Game MVP — Kevin Hart playing the notoriously oversized Shaquille O’Neal is brilliant.

That was at the heart of it when Saturday Night Live took on Inside the NBA on its Christmas show Saturday night. Hart was into it poking fun at Shaq’s penchant for going off with his own word salad during the show.

Charles Barkley and Shaq are rich satire targets, and SNL went right at them. Well done.

James Harden, Chris Paul lead Rockets to 13th straight victory

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HOUSTON (AP) — Nursing a sore knee, James Harden said he came close to not playing Saturday night.

When team doctors warned him that it would be painful, but he could play through it, he said, “Let’s go.”

Harden scored 31 points and Chris Paul had 25 and the Rockets beat the Milwaukee Bucks 115-111 for their 13th straight victory.

The winning streak is the Rockets’ longest since a franchise-best 22 straight in 2007-08.

Harden hit a step-back 3-pointer over Malcolm Brogdon and was fouled, giving Houston an 11-point lead with less than six minutes remaining. In the last two minutes, Paul hit back-to-back mid-range jumpers on consecutive possessions to put the game out of reach.

“Mentally, this was a big win for us,” Paul said. “We never let go of the rope. Every time they made a little push, we stayed right there down the stretch. James was out there, basically, on one leg. The mental toughness we showed as a team is what we take from this game.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo had 28 points, nine rebounds, five assists and four steals for Milwaukee. Khris Middleton had 23 points, and Brogdon added 20. Milwaukee has lost three in a row after winning six of seven.

“Harden made some tough shots and Chris Paul made some big shots down the stretch as well,” Bucks coach Jason Kidd said. “We gave ourselves a chance, but we just came up short.”

The Rockets grinded through frustrations, 15 turnovers and a below-average shooting night. Paul had a technical foul, Harden had a delay of game warning, and the Rockets faced serious adversity for the first time in weeks. Entering Saturday, Houston had dominated teams in its streak, winning all but two games by double figures with an average margin of victory of 16.9 points.

“We just didn’t have our best stuff tonight,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “But we found a way. It was one of those typical grind games where you’ve just got to find a way somehow.”

Paul scored 23 of his 25 points in the second half, overcoming a rocky first half where he missed all five shots he attempted and turned the ball over five times.

“I had never coached him in a back-to-back, but I’m thinking he’s kind of dead,” D’Antoni said. “Then, all of a sudden, he comes out in the third quarter and turns into Superman.”

Paul made 7 of 8 shots in the second half, including 3 of 4 from beyond the arc, also making all eight free throws in the game.

Harden scored 20 points or more for the 29th straight game, matching Houston’s franchise record set by Moses Malone.

Both Harden and Clint Capela (left heel contusion) were game-time decisions after suffering injuries on different collision plays in Friday night’s win over San Antonio. Capela sat out the game, and P.J. Tucker started in his place, getting 10 points and 10 rebounds in 38 minutes.

Behind Tucker, Nene scored a season-high 16 points, largely on thunderous one-handed dunks. The Rockets were outscored by the Bucks 44-40 in the paint and outrebounded 40-38.

Milwaukee and Houston traded blows in the first half, with the Rockets leading by three at the end of the first quarter. They were tied at 55 at the half. The Rockets haven’t trailed at the half since Nov. 25 in a 117-102 win over the Knicks.

The Rockets took an 84-79 lead into the fourth quarter.

At 24-4, the Rockets are tied for their best 28-game start in franchise history, matching the 1993-94 season when they won their first championship.

 

Knicks shut out Carmelo Anthony in 2nd half, beat Thunder 111-96

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NEW YORK (AP) — Carmelo Anthony‘s return to Madison Square Garden was much like the 6 1/2 years he spent playing for the Knicks.

A video played on the overhead scoreboard as part of a huge welcome from the fans and franchise, followed by a fast start that gave Anthony hope he could have everything he wanted.

Then things fell flat until the finish.

The Knicks shut out their former All-Star in the second half and beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 111-96 on Saturday night for their fourth straight victory.

“It’s a bittersweet feeling for me, coming back here knowing the goal that I had and what I wanted to accomplish here and falling short in that category,” Anthony said.

Michael Beasley tied his season high with 30 points in place of injured Kristaps Porzingis, and Doug McDermott, acquired with Enes Kanter for Anthony, added 11 of his 13 after halftime to help the Knicks break open the game.

“This game was kind (of) about him and I thought we did a really good job of not letting that distract us and just focus on winning the game,” McDermott said. “And it felt great, especially being a part of the trade (with) Enes.

Anthony scored 12 points in the first half but was 0 for 5 after, perhaps low on energy after the Thunder’s three-overtime victory at Philadelphia a night earlier.

He made a 3-pointer for the Thunder’s first basket of the game after refocusing following a video tribute that caught him off guard, but finished 5 of 18 from the field as the Knicks played with passion and precision they lacked in Anthony’s final years in New York.

“You got to beat the best to be the best,” Beasley said. “He’s one of the best of our era.”

Russell Westbrook had 25 points, seven rebounds and seven assists for the Thunder, who were trying to sweep a three-game trip that began with Paul George‘s winning return to Indiana on Wednesday.

But they couldn’t deliver a victory for Anthony back at Madison Square Garden, even with the Knicks playing without leading scorer Porzingis because of a knee injury.

“I think the guys just, they were ready for tonight’s game,” Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek said. “And we caught them after a triple-overtime game so that probably helped us too, but our guys played hard all night which probably wore them down.”

Anthony received a pair of loud cheers during pregame introductions, before and at the end of a video tribute showing his highlights on the court and his charitable efforts off it that was played after the first four Thunder starters were announced. But the boos became more noticeable once play got underway, and soon they were coming every time he touched the ball.

“That was expected,” Anthony said. “They can’t cheer for me, I’m on another team.”

Later, the cheers were all for the Knicks, who after trading their leading scorer on the eve of training camp are a surprising 16-13 – better than Anthony’s new team (14-15). Anthony was booed one last time as he was removed with 1.4 seconds remaining.

Beasley had a hand in 12 of the Knicks’ final 15 points of the third quarter, scoring nine himself and assisting on Ron Baker‘s 3-pointer. That turned a two-point lead into an 80-73 advantage over the final 3 1/2 minutes of the period.

The Knicks pushed it into double digits in the fourth behind five straight points from McDermott – originally it was six by a 3-pointer was changed to a 2 after review – and he later made it 100-87 with a 3-pointer with 6:02 remaining.

The Thunder played without starting center Steven Adams because of a concussion.

 

Manu Ginobili game-winner caps 13-0 closing run to rally Spurs past Mavericks

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — At 40 years old, Manu Ginobili‘s refusal to slow down in his 16th season with the Spurs has been a source of inspiration to the team’s young core.

The man and the mantra helped propel San Antonio to an improbable victory over Dallas on Saturday night.

LaMarcus Aldridge had 22 points and 14 rebounds and the Spurs scored the final 13 points of the game, rallying for a 98-96 victory over the Mavericks.

Aldridge’s fall-away, 11-foot jumper tied the game at 96 with 23.4 seconds remaining and Ginobili’s driving layup with 3.1 seconds was the game-winning shot.

“He’s our grandpa,” 21-year-old Dejounte Murray said, chuckling afterwards. “He’s a beast, man. You’ve all seen what he’s done for this organization and he’s still around giving his wisdom to all the new guys. To see him coming in every day, I mean there’s not one day I’ve seen Manu not show up at the facility. Being a young guy, I’ve got to be there every day.”

Ginobili’s layup off the left side of the glass gave the Spurs their first lead of the game after trailing by as many as 16 points.

“We did a lot of good things, but the ending is unforgiveable,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said.

Maxi Kleber had 21 points and Dirk Nowitzki added 19 for Dallas in the final regular season matchup between the Southwest Division rivals.

Kleber’s 3-pointer gave Dallas a 96-85 lead with 4:11 remaining, but the Spurs held them scoreless the remainder of the game.

The Mavericks drought included a turnover when Wes Matthews was unable to inbound the ball with 23.4 seconds remaining. Mathews threw the ball at Ginobili’s legs to avoid a 5-second violation, but the Spurs gained possession when the ball ricocheted off Matthews just as he stepped inbounds.

“We did everything right to lose,” Nowitzki said. “We missed shots offensively, bad turnover, gave them some offensive rebounds. Letting Ginobili go left down the stretch to lay it in. We literally had to do everything perfect to lose this one and we did.”

Aldridge had his 12th double-double of the season to help offset the absences of starters Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker and Danny Green.

Coming off a 15-point blowout in Houston on Friday night, San Antonio was able to avoid its third straight loss.

“We played with everybody in Houston and hoped to play a good game in which we could grow and learn from our mistakes while playing against the best team in the NBA right now and I don’t think we got anything out of it,” Ginobili said. “So, if after that poor effort we came here and played badly again and lost, it would’ve been a tough one. We are proud of this win.”

The Spurs missed their first five shots, all short jumpers from Aldridge and Pau Gasol, on their way to shooting 30 percent in the opening quarter. The Mavericks took advantage, charging to a 31-18 lead after the first quarter.

San Antonio’s reserves reversed the team’s fortunes in the third quarter.

Davis Bertans finished with 13 points and Ginobili added 12 off the bench.