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The Extra Pass: Seven young players to watch in 2014

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One of the best parts of the NBA is watching the young talent emerge, some guys you expected to be good but others that came out of left field. Along those lines, here are seven players to watch as they start to break out and find their way in their first couple NBA seasons.

Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans

Yes, he is getting noticed — he’s seventh in the All-Star voting for the Western Conference frontcourt — but still he seems to fly under the national radar a little. The bottom line is Davis is the chance for us to watch a future franchise player, a superstar, come together and figure it out before our eyes. In just his second season he is averaging 19.2 points and 10.3 rebounds a game, he has a true shooting percentage of 57.6 percent, plus he leads the league with 3.2 blocks a game. He has the fifth highest PER in the league at 26.9 percent, he does it playing a smart game. And he’s still just figuring out how good he can be.

Trey Burke, Utah Jazz

He missed the start of the season due to injury but in the weeks since his return he has moved quickly to near the top of the Rookie of the Year candidates in the West. He has lifted up a weak Jazz team to some nice wins thanks to the smart way he can run a team. I love watching him off the pick-and-roll, where he shows a veteran’s savvy in being patient, reading the situation, then either moving the ball to the right spot or attacking when it’s time. Needs to improve his shooting (39.8 percent on the season so far) and some other areas, but Utah has a good one here.

Steven Adams, Oklahoma City Thunder

Midway through his rookie year, he is the best center on the Oklahoma City roster. Oh, Scott Brooks will continue to start and play a lot of Kendrick Perkins because… well, we don’t have a good idea why. But he will. Still, Adams is the guy much of America will see during the NBA playoffs and wonder why he wasn’t higher on draft boards. The reason was he was seen as raw and a project — he is those things, but on a good Oklahoma City team he can be given a simple role that plays to his strengths and be asked to fill it (put him on Orlando or Philadelphia where he was asked to do more and he wouldn’t far quite as well). He gives OKC defense, solid rebounding, a good touch on his limited shots (usually just finishing at the rim) and a real toughness. It’s a good fit for what they need.

John Henson, Milwaukee Bucks

Milwaukee is a terrible team this season, but there are a few reasons to watch their games — and two are on this list. One is Henson, who in the 10 games prior to his recent ankle injury had averaged 15.9 points a game on 56.3 percent shooting plus pulled down 10.7 rebounds a game. It seemed to take a while for coach Larry Drew to come around on Henson for some reason but he has warmed to the guy who finishes will inside and already is a quality shot blocker.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

The “Greek Freak” is just that, an athletic freak of nature, and one that is a lot of fun to watch. You’ll get some highlight dunks and some impressive athletic plays — and you’ll see a guy still just figuring out how to play the game. Still, where you can really see him start to shine is as a defender. He’s still figuring out how to play the team game there, too, but when you watch Antetokounmpo you are blown away with the potential of what could be.

Tim Hardaway, Jr., New York Knicks

He might be the best reason to watch Knicks basketball right now. Hardaway is not his father but what he can do is shoot the rock — 42.2 percent from three, something the Knicks need in their attack. Hardaway is also a good athlete who can finish in transition. In a Knicks attack filled with inefficient scorers (we’re looking at you, J.R. Smith) Hardaway is the kind of player this team can lean on more and more, rookie or no.

Miles Plumlee, Phoenix Suns

He is the biggest surprise of this class — he was supposed to sitting on the bench learning by watching Emeka Okafor and Alex Len. However, Plumlee has been pressed into duty and the results have been as impressive as his vertical. In his last 10 games he has averaged 10.6 points a game on 55.7 percent shooting, 11.1 rebounds a game and 1.9 blocks a contest to boot. We’ll see how Len turns out once he gets healthy, but the Suns already have a solid NBA starting center on the roster.

—Kurt Helin

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Warriors 123, Heat 114: This was an example of what can happen when the Warriors are completely healthy and their offense is clicking on all cylinders. Stephen Curry was amazing, hitting threes at a ridiculous clip, and finishing with 36 points, 12 assists and four steals on 8-of-15 shooting from beyond the arc. David Lee played like an All-Star offensively, and finished with 32 points (on 13-of-17 shooting) to go along with 14 rebounds. The Heat seemed to lack focus in this one, with Dwyane Wade blowing an uncontested layup in transition and LeBron James finishing with a season high of eight turnovers as the most glaring examples. Chris Bosh and Ray Allen both had substandard nights, but the biggest issue for Miami was the lack of team defense that allowed 123 points on its home floor, and allowed the Warriors to finish the game shooting 56.1 percent from the field. Golden State, meanwhile, is starting to put things together with its #fullsquad and won its seventh straight. —Brett Pollakoff

Nets 95, Thunder 93: Joe Johnson hit a shot at the buzzer to give the Nets this victory, one they earned behind an All-Star level performance from Deron Williams, and a serviceable one offensively from Paul Pierce. Williams hit six of his nine three-point attempts and finished with 29 points, while Pierce chipped in 18 on an inefficient 6-of-18 shooting. OKC’s problem was the lack of offense from Kevin Durant, who finished with 24 points but who took just 13 shots — the same number that Reggie Jackson put up off the Thunder bench. —BP

Knicks 105, Spurs 101: Iman Shumpert played his best game of the season and possibly his career for the Knicks in this one, finishing with 27 points on 10-of-13 shooting to go along with six rebounds and three steals. Shumpert’s efficient performance included a huge offensive rebound tip-in that put the Knicks up for good with 23 seconds remaining. Marco Belinelli had a career game for the Spurs, and finished with 32 points on 16 shots in under 33 minutes of action. —BP

Cavaliers 87, Magic 81 (OT): Kyrie Irving missed this game with a knee bruise, but Cleveland got a monster game from Anderson Varejao, who finished with 18 points and a career-high and franchise-high 25 rebounds — a feat that was made easier by the fact that Nik Vucevic missed this game for the Magic with an ankle injury. This was an ugly offensive game, with the teams tied at 79 points apiece at the end of regulation. —BP

Bulls 94, Celtics 82: Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah all played well for the Bulls in this one, and the Celtics couldn’t get enough consistent offense going to match Chicago’s effort. Noah finished one assist shy of a triple-double, and Boozer and Deng both turned in efficient performances. The Celtics, meanwhile barely saw three of their players reach double figures, and Jeff Green (5-of-18 shooting) and Jared Sullinger (5-of-12) struggled more than they were effective. Jordan Crawford had a nice game with 22 points and seven assists, but didn’t get much help. —BP

Grizzlies 99, Suns 91: Phoenix likes to play with pace (9th fastest in the league) while the Grizzlies like to slow it down and grind it out (slowest pace in the league) — Memphis won the battle battle of tempo, turned this game into a grind and that won them the game. Memphis also did it with their bench — Jerryd Bayless had 11 of his 17 points in the fourth quarter, when the Grizzlies went on 11-0 run to come back, take the lead and never let it go. Ed Davis and Jon Leuer played the entire fourth and it was key. Zach Randolph led Memphis with 20. Goran Dragic had 33 for the Suns, but with Eric Bledsoe out it wasn’t enough. —Kurt Helin

Jazz 96, Bucks 87: Utah took control in the second quarter when they put together an 18-4 run, led by Gordon Hayward who had 13 of his 22 in the second. Milwaukee couldn’t shoot their way back into it as they were 4-of-22 from three. Derrick Favors had 21 points and 11 rebounds for Utah, which had six players in double figures. —KH

Trail Blazers 134, Bobcats 104: Portland’s explosive offense simply overwhelmed Charlotte early and this one was never really in doubt. Portland shot 58 percent overall and hit 21-of-33 from three. Wes Mathews (25 points) and Damian Lillard (24) did a lot of the damage, but this was really a complete team effort. It was just one of those games where Portland couldn’t miss and Charlotte paid the price. —KH

Sixers 113, Kings 104: Philadelphia has now won three in a row on the road and they continue to do it with defense. Sacramento shot just 42.2 percent as a team and turned the ball over on 21.6 percent of their possessions, which just isn’t going to get it done. Meanwhile the Kings are struggling defensively which leads to Thaddeus Young scoring 28 and Evan Turner adding 24 (he and Tony Wroten got to the rim at will it seemed). DeMarcus Cousins did have 33 points and 14 rebounds, but it wasn’t enough. —KH

Report: Kings to interview Patrick Ewing for coaching job

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - APRIL 11: Assistant coach Patrick Ewing of the Charlotte Hornets looks on in the first half against the Boston Celtics at TD Garden on April 11, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. 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 Lawrie/Getty Images)
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The Kings’ coaching search is the definition of wide ranging. So far names that have come up in the search are Mark Jackson, Nate McMillan, Vinny Del Negro, Mike Woodson, Sam Mitchell, and Kevin McHale (although his level of interest is up for debate). Luke Walton and other big names were called but are now off the board.

You can add Patrick Ewing to that list.

The legendary Knicks big man and current Hornets assistant will get a shot, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

The Sacramento Kings will interview Charlotte Hornets associate head coach Patrick Ewing for their head coaching vacancy this week, league sources told The Vertical….

What makes Ewing an intriguing candidate for Sacramento officials is his potential ability to command the respect of mercurial All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins, league sources said. Ewing, a Hall of Fame center, has the unique blend of his own physical and playing stature to go with a strong coaching pedigree as part of staffs with Clifford, Stan Van Gundy and Jeff Van Gundy.

The big man connection is obvious, but the real question for Ewing — or whoever gets the Kings job — is how well they can help change the culture of the locker room. It’s going to take a strong coach and some other locker room leaders to give this team a new start as it moves into a new building.

It’s going to be a lot of work, look at what Marco Belinelli said in an interview with Sky Sport Italy, via Sportando.

“There wasn’t a group from the start of the season,” said Belinelli. ‘Karl didn’t want Cousins and Cousins didn’t want Karl as coach. It’s pretty hard to play well in a situation like that. At the beginning it looked like Ranadive was the man calling the shots but then Divac came in, trying to be the peacemaker between Cousins and Karl”.

“I saw some very bad stuff in the locker room,” Belinelli added. ‘Coming from a perfect organization like the Spurs, I was pretty surprised to see stuff like that”.

Heat, in first playoff series win without LeBron James in a decade, look complete, beat Hornets

Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside (21) dunks against the Charlotte Hornets in the first half of Game 7 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series, Sunday, May 1, 2016, in Miami. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
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As the national anthem played, a tear streaked down Dwyane Wade‘s cheek.

“I knew tonight would be a great moment for these guys,” Wade said. “I felt that we was going to win this game. I knew that our energy and our crowd was going to be enough, and we was going to be prepared. And I was just thinking about how these guys was going to feel after playing a Game 7.”

Pretty darn great.

The Heat beat the Hornets, 106-73, Sunday in the fifth-most lopsided Game 7 in NBA history. Miami – which will face winner of tonight’s Raptors-Pacers Game 7 – won its first playoff series win without LeBron James since 2006.

Pairing Wade with another superstar (Shaquille O’Neal for the 2006 championship) or two (LeBron and Chris Bosh for the 2012 and 2013 titles) has worked. But that option went out the window this season when blood clots sidelined Bosh at the All-Star break for the second straight year.

With Wade’s waning athleticism forcing him to pick his spots more often, he has needed more help than ever. His teammates have provided it.

Hassan Whiteside (10 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks) and Goran Dragic (25 points, six rebounds and four assists) led the way in Game 6.

Whiteside defended at an elite level. The Hornets shot just 2-for-11 in the restricted area with him on the court. I don’t know what’s more stunning – that they shot so poorly or attempted so few close-range shots in 28 minutes. Whiteside struck fear in the paint.

Dragic’s 25 points were his most in seven weeks and one shy of his playoff high. His aggressiveness fueled so much more. Miami’s offensive rating was 120.1 with him on the court.

“That’s the Goran Dragic we all love,” said Wade, who scored 12 points and had lost his last three playoff games when scoring so little. “Just putting so much pressure on the defense, and it allows other guys to just chill out – especially me.”

Wade can’t always carry the Heat – though sometimes he still can – but he remains the face of the franchise. Whether or not his teammates provide enough support almost reflects more on him than it does them. Fortunately for him, they look up to the task of making him look good.

It’s far too early to look ahead to a juicy Heat-Cavaliers conference finals, but Miami should be favored against either Indiana or Toronto.

Yes, it took seven games to vanquish Charlotte, but the Heat outscored the Hornets by 62 points – the third-largest combined margin ever in a seven-game series. The last team to win a seven-game series or a Game 7 by such decisive margins was the 2008 Celtics, who beat the Hawks by 34 in Game 7 to cap a +84 first-round series. Boston went on to win a title that year.

Will Miami follow that path? Probably not, but there’s something to be said about so thoroughly outplaying a difficult-to-beat opponent.

The Hornets were no pushovers – at least until today, when the Heat dominated on the glass and got most loose balls. In this series, Charlotte earned its first three playoff wins since reemerging as the Bobcats in 2004. The Hornets’ first best-of-seven series victory remains elusive and a potentially turbulent offseason awaits, but this group came to play.

Miami was just too good on both ends of the floor.

In the second quarter, Whiteside cut off a Kemba Walker drive, forcing the point guard to give up the ball. Whiteside then rotated to cover Al Jefferson (the type of multiple-contest defense many doubted Whiteside could execute) and emphatically blocked Jefferson’s shot.

The ball went to Dragic, who immediately sped up court. Dragic, who entered the game shooting 37% from the field, spun around Courtney Lee before anyone else could catch up to provide help and made a layup.

Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson, the team’s energetic rookies who had big moments earlier in the series but provided less today, jumped up and down and spun around on the bench. The rest of the team wasn’t far behind in its cheering.

All the while, Wade barely took a few steps forward, remaining back on defense and watching it all unfold in front of him – a starless group of teammates he knew were capable of delivering.

Even without Stephen Curry, adjusting for playoff rotations still favors Warriors over Trail Blazers

Portland Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard, right, drives the ball against Golden State Warriors' Draymond Green (23) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, April 3, 2016, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
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When the Warriors put five players expected to be in the playoff rotation on the floor during the regular season, they outscored opponents by 20.9 points per 100 possessions.

No other team even neared that level with five of its own playoff-rotation players.

The second-place Spurs (+13.1 adjusted net rating) were closer to 10th place than first place.

But Golden State’s supremacy obviously took a hit when Stephen Curry got hurt. How do the Warriors rate without him in the rotation?

As I did before the first round, I’ve used nba wowy! to rank Western Conference playoff teams by net rating (offensive rating minus defensive rating), counting only lineups that include five players in the team’s postseason rotation. Both the regular season and first round factored.

I wrote more about the Thunder’s and Spurs’ adjusted ratings yesterday. The East will come after its second-round series are set.

For now, here’s each Western Conference team’s rating, from the regular season adjusted to only lineups that include five players projected to be in the second-round rotation:

Western Conference

2. San Antonio Spurs

  • Offensive rating: 110.5 to 110.0
  • Defensive rating: 99.4 to 96.1
  • Net rating: +11.1 to +13.9

3. Oklahoma City Thunder

  • Offensive rating: 113.6 to 117.3
  • Defensive rating: 106.0 to 104.6
  • Net rating: +7.6 to +12.7

1. Golden State Warriors

  • Offensive rating: 114.9 to 119.7 to 109.1
  • Defensive rating: 104.1 to 98.8 to 103.8
  • Net rating: +10.8 to +20.9 to +5.3

5. Portland Trail Blazers

  • Offensive rating: 108.9 to 111.0 to 110.3
  • Defensive rating: 108.2 to 107.9 to 107.5
  • Net rating: +0.7 to +3.1 to +2.8

Observations:

  • By this metric, there’s a clear main event and undercard here – at least if the Spurs and Thunder don’t keep playing like they did last night.
  • Golden State obviously takes a big tumble without Curry, but this measure shows the limit of saying the Warriors got outscored by 3.7 points per 100 possessions without Curry during the regular season. Golden State’s other top players – Draymond Green (88%), Klay Thompson (85%), Andrew Bogut (85%), Harrison Barnes (66%) and Andre Iguodala (60%) – played a majority of their minutes with Curry. Put them on the court more in these Curry-less games, and it’ll help.
  • With Curry in the rotation (and Ian Clark and Brandon Rush out), the Warriors’ adjusted offensive/defensing/net ratings shoot right back up into the stratosphere: 119.8/98.7/+21.1. Golden State must just holds its ground until Curry returns. This measure suggests the Warriors can against Portland, especially with home-court advantage also in their favor.

Playoff Preview: Four things to watch in Portland vs. Golden State series

at ORACLE Arena on April 3, 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.
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Portland has wildly exceeded expectations this season, making the playoffs as the five seed and getting past a banged-up Clippers team to the second round. But the NBA does not do Cinderellas well, this will be the end of the road. Here are the four questions we’re asking heading into this series.

1) When will Stephen Curry return? If Portland has a chance in this series, they need to do a lot of damage before the past-and-future MVP returns from his sprained knee. The question is when will that be? Curry is out for Game 1 and has yet to do any on court work, but Steve Kerr would not rule him out for Game 2 on Tuesday, although that may be gamesmanship as much as anything. But after Game 2 the teams are off for four days until the Saturday, May 7, and that may be enough time for him to return. Whenever he does come back, the dynamics change and the Warriors become a much more dangerous, much better team — one Portland can’t handle. The Blazers need to get all the wins early in this series they can.

Which isn’t very easy, Curry or no.

2) How will the Warriors defend Damian Lillard? When Lillard has gone up against his hometown team — he’s from Oakland — he averaged 36.5 points per game this season. Expect Klay Thompson to draw the assignment to cover him at the start of games, but also expect the Warriors to steal a page from the Clippers’ strategy and trap Lillard and C.J. McCollum each time they come off a pick. The idea is to force the ball out of the hands of the two best playmakers and make Al-Farouq Aminu or Maurice Harkless or anyone else beat you. Aminu and Harkless will find the Warriors defense works on a string better than the Clippers and their shots will get contested.

However, most of the time, the Warriors will switch the pick-and-roll, which they usually do (especially when they go small) and Lillard will find Draymond Green in his face. Blazers coach Terry Stotts has to find ways to get Lillard playing downhill off those picks to have a chance.

3) Can the Trail Blazers hit their threes? In Portland’s win over Golden State in the regular season (just after the All-Star break), they put up 137 points and made it rain threes — the Trail Blazers need to do that again. However, the Warriors were one of the better teams in the league at defending the arc this season, holding opponents to 33.2 percent from deep (second best in the league) and allowing the second fewest corner threes (although they are more willing to allow threes above the arc). Portland does not have a good enough defense to stop Golden State consistently even without Curry, they will just have to outscore the Warriors, and to do that it has to rain threes again.

4) How will Portland defend Klay Thompson and Draymond Green? Both of these key Warriors cogs had strong regular seasons against Portland — Green averaged 16 points, 12 rebounds, and 8.8 assists, while Thompson averaged 29.3 points shooting 59.4 percent from three. Obviously, that was with Curry on the floor drawing defenders, but Portland is not exactly known for their lock-down defense. Without Curry, expect Aminu to get a lot of time on Thompson, but that alone is not going to slow him. Also, expect the Warriors to post up Thompson, Shaun Livingston, or anyone else that Lillard and McCollum guard — the hardest part about defending Golden State is there is no place to hide weak defenders. The Warriors will expose the Portland defense.

Prediction: Warriors in 6. And that assumes Curry is out until Game 5, if he is back earlier than that the series likely ends in 5.