Wednesday And-1 Links: Is Serge Ibaka the NBA’s most improved?

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Here is our regular look around the NBA — links to stories worth reading and notes to check out (stuff that did not get its own post here at PBT) — done in bullet point form. Because bloggers love bullet points.

• Kevin Durant for NBA Most Improved Player? Over at Sports Illustrated, Rob Mahoney looks at guys who made big strides this season and says the already impressive Durant should be on the list. A more likely MIP candidate is Serge Ibaka.

• J.R. Smith talks about how many tattoos he has… he lost count.

• Dwight Howard has tried to fix his free throw issues by stepping about six inches behind the line, notes Kelly Dwyer at Yahoo’s Ball Don’t Lie blog. Sure, that’s going to work.

• Russell Westbrook’s shot 45.7 percent last season, this season that has fallen off a cliff down to 40.4 percent. Why? Royce Young at Daily Thunder does a great job looking at why Westbrook’s jumper has gone askew.

• Speaking of shooting woes, here is a look at Deron Williams’ issues by Howard Beck of the New York Times.

• In what is a fitting and easy analogy, the Nets new home the Barclay’s Center had a number of bad bolts in it that could have led to serious structural issues.

Ranking teams on how well and often they shoot the corner three, which is one of the most important shots in basketball. Teams that are really good at it this season include the Heat, Spurs and Knicks, not so coincidentally.

• I’ve never believed that they do, but here is some statistical evidence that those players-only meetings do help teams.

• Gregg Popovich, praising what Tiago Splitter brings to the table.

• Pretty soon you’re going to start seeing more and more D-League call ups to the NBA. Here’s a fantastic primer from Mark Deeks on guys to watch for.

• Boston just called Fab Melo back up from the D-League but only did so to better treat a concussion he suffered.

• Denver’s Ty Lawson is questionable for Thursday.

• The Hawks’ Larry Drew and the Clippers’ Vinny Del Negro today were named the NBA Eastern and Western Conference Coaches of the Month for December. Del Negro was pretty much a no brainer as his team went 16-0 and didn’t lose a game all month (should Vinny have to share the award with Chris Paul?). The Hawks are playing well this season for Drew and were 10-5 in the month.

• Along those same lines, the Heat’s LeBron James and the Clippers’ Chris Paul have been named Players of the Month by the league. Again this is about as shocking as Democrats and Republicans fighting about anything and everything.

Celtics’ Kyrie Irving: “It was a nice streak. But it was time to come to an end.”

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The Celtics established themselves as one of the NBA’s elite teams, a contender for the Eastern Conference title, during their 16-game win streak.

However, that hot streak to start the season will matter as much as Thanksgiving leftovers in the back of the refrigerator in April by the time the playoffs roll around. This is a team that still has work to do.

Which is what Kyrie Irving was getting at in this post-loss quote from Friday night, via Israel Gutierrez of ESPN.

“There’s still a lot to accomplish going forward,” Irving said. “It was a nice streak. But it was time to come to an end.”

This team still needs to get better and more consistent. The Celtics had to come from behind in the fourth quarter in eight of the 16 wins, and while the team defense was impressive the offense still can be hit and miss. Al Horford and Kyrie Irving play well off each other, but this is still the 20th ranked offense in the NBA. They are taking more long midrange jumpers than most coaches want, but the bigger challenge is they have not been finishing around the basket.

Titles are not won in November. Irving gets that. Jayson Tatum will hit the rookie wall at some point (they all do) and he needs to prove he can break through. Al Horford is playing maybe the best ball of his career and needs to keep it up. The Celtics need to keep their defensive focus (the fundamentals are there to have a top five defense). I could go on but you get the point, and so does Irving — there is a lot of work for this team to do.

Boston is off to a fantastic start, but it’s just that.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich: I’ve never seen injury like Kawhi Leonard’s

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Gregg Popovich is a basketball lifer.

He’s the NBA’s most experienced active head coach. Before that, he was the Spurs’ general manager. Before that, he was an NBA assistant. Before that, he was a college head coach and assistant. Before that, he was a college player. Before that, he was a youth player.

The San Antonio coach has seen everything.

Except the right quadriceps tendinopathy suffered by Kawhi Leonard, whom Popovich said more than a week would return “sooner rather than later.” Yet, Leonard still hasn’t played this season.

Popovich, via Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

“Never, never,” Popovich said when asked whether he has seen such a condition hampering one of his players. “What’s really strange is that [point guard] Tony [Parker] has the same injury, but even worse. They had to go operate on his quad tendon and put it back together or whatever they did to it. So to have two guys, that’s pretty incredible. I had never seen it before those guys.”

“I keep saying sooner rather than later,” Popovich said jokingly. “It’s kind of like being a politician. It’s all baloney, doesn’t mean anything.”

The 26-year-old Leonard is one of the NBA’s biggest on-court stars. He might be the league’s best defender, and he has built himself into an offensive force. The Spurs (11-7) have fared fine without him so far, but they’ll need him to accomplish their main goals – this year and beyond.

Hopefully, Leonard’s health is better than it sounds here, because Popovich’s answer sure isn’t encouraging.

Tim Hardaway Jr. calls fallen ref safe rather than defend shot (video)

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The Knicks went on a 28-0 run.

They earned the right to showboat late in their win over the Raptors last night.

Tim Hardaway Jr. called a ref, who slipped on the baseline, safe rather than contest Serge Ibaka‘s 3-pointer. Perfection!

Luc Mbah a Moute sets modern record at +57 in Rockets’ win over Nuggets

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Luc Mbah a Moute is a quietly good player.

He’s an effective and versatile defender. Offensively, he shoots 3-pointers well enough to score efficiently and spread the floor. Most of all, the 31-year-old just understands how to play and plays within himself. His teams tend to perform better when he’s on the floor.

That’s an understatement for Wednesday night.

In a 125-95 win, the Rockets outscored the Nuggets by a whopping 57 points in Mbah a Moute’s 26 minutes. That’s the best single-game plus-minus in the Basketball-Reference database, which dates back to the 2000-01 season. It tops Joe Smith’s +52 in a 2001 Timberwolves win over the Bulls, a 53-point game that also produced a +50 for Wally Szczerbiak and +48 for Terrell Brandon.

Mbah a Moute’s traditional stat line was impressive, though not overly so: 13 points on 5-of-5 shooting with four rebounds, four steals and an assist. He played well, contributing to winning in all the small ways he often does, and the Rockets happened to play excellently around him.

Now, Mbah a Moute tops the leaderboard in single-game plus-minus since 2000-01:

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