Taj Gibson

The Extra Pass: Three players who are ready to start

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Let’s take a look at three players who were in action Tuesday night who deserve starting jobs sooner rather than later.

Jeremy Lamb, Oklahoma City Thunder

Reggie Jackson has understandably received plenty of praise in Russell Westbrook’s absence, but don’t sleep on Lamb’s emergence as a reliable scorer. With Thabo Sefolosha struggling to find his shot and Kevin Martin out of the picture, Lamb has stepped into a bigger role (22 minutes a night) and has provided OKC with a real spot-up shooting threat on the perimeter. Unlike Sefolosha, Lamb has the ability to score off the bounce and his much quicker release allows him to more effectively spread the floor.

Are the offensive upgrades enough reason to insert Lamb in the starting lineup over Sefolosha, who has familiarity and stronger defensive instincts on his side? Thunder head coach Scott Brooks catches a lot of flak, but he’s been more open to toying with different lineups and letting hot players stay on the floor. There’s still a lot of loyalty to guys like Kendrick Perkins, but not nearly as much as in years past. With that in mind, Lamb playing more than Sefolosha might not be so out of the question.

Sefolosha is on an expiring contract, so don’t be surprised if the Thunder start to work in Lamb as much as possible, even with Westbrook’s eventual return. He’s just a much more dynamic offensive player than Sefolosha is.

James Johnson, Memphis Grizzlies

It’s pretty incredible that a player who wasn’t on an NBA roster to start the season could swing the Memphis Grizzlies’ season, but here we are.

Johnson has been incredible in his 22 games with Memphis, averaging roughly 14 points, 7 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 2 steals and 2.5 blocks per 36 minutes. Andrei Kirilenko is the only wing player to ever actually average those numbers over a full season, so you know Johnson is in good company.

Those numbers alone should warrant more than 22 minutes a night, especially when you consider who is blocking Johnson’s path to more playing time. At age 33, Tayshaun Prince is a shell of his former self on the defensive end, and his true shooting percentage of 41.7 is unpalatable for a team already starved for space.

Prince has had a storied career and deserves a lot of respect, but rookie head coach Dave Joerger might have to make the tough call and cut his playing time considerably in order to get Johnson some more burn. If the Grizzlies sneak into the playoffs and go against the likes of Kevin Durant or Nicolas Batum in the first round, Johnson’s 6-foot-9 frame and playmaking ability on both ends will be desperately needed. Prince just isn’t going to cut it anymore.

Taj Gibson, Chicago Bulls

You can understand why Gibson comes off the bench for Tom Thibodeau. Protecting Carlos Boozer’s ego by keeping him as a starter makes sense, and Gibson’s defensive versatility allows him to play either the 4 or 5, which makes him perfectly suited to be a third big man.

Here’s the issue, though. Even if Gibson is the one finishing games in the fourth quarter, it’s still a shame to see him play less than 30 minutes a night on average. When you see Gibson’s chemistry with Joakim Noah and his vastly superior defense, you have to wonder if Chicago would be much better off playing Gibson as much as he can handle and giving whatever is left over to Boozer.

If the Bulls are going to amnesty Boozer this offseason anyway, it might be less of a priority to treat Boozer with kid gloves. Gibson is the superior player and he’s part of Chicago’s future where Boozer probably isn’t. Once he returns to the lineup, there’s no reason why Boozer should be playing more than Gibson going forward.

Hassan Whiteside gets triple-double as Heat hold off Hornets

Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside (21) reacts to his team scoring a basket during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Dallas Mavericks Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016, in Dallas. The Heat won 93-90. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside did his part to prevent the Charlotte Hornets from scoring inside.

Mix in a couple of key steals in the final seconds, and the Heat had a nice win on the road.

Whiteside had 10 points, 10 rebounds and 10 blocked shots, and Miami beat Charlotte 98-95 on Friday night.

Dwyane Wade scored 22 points and Chris Bosh added 20 points for the Heat, who have won six of seven. Goran Dragic had 12 points, nine assists and eight rebounds.

Whiteside, a native of nearby Gastonia, North Carolina, posted his third triple-double of the season and No. 4 for his career.

“I was at the YMCA around the corner two years ago; now I’m here,” Whiteside said. “When a ball is around my elbow area, I’m going to try and catch it.

“The last three minutes, they were so worried about pump-faking, pump-faking. I told the guys to just stay with the 3-point shooters.”

Marvin Williams scored 27 points for the Hornets, and Nicolas Batum added 21. Kemba Walker had 20 points.

“Whiteside just dominated every aspect of that game,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said. “Right now, he’s the premiere rim protector in the league. It changed the game when he came in; they were a totally different team when he was out there.”

The Heat were coming off a close 93-90 win at Dallas on Wednesday. The last time Miami played at Time Warner Cable Arena on Dec. 9, Charlotte won 99-81.

“It’s hard not to notice what they’ve done on this home court,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “It seems that every top team in the East that comes in here walks out of here with a double-digit loss.

“It was something that we wanted to collectively do – get a win to put us at .500 on the road, and in a building that we haven’t played well.”

The Hornets led 93-90 with 1:10 remaining, but Wade made a layup and Bosh added a three-point play to make it 95-93 with 23.5 seconds left.

Charlotte had a chance to tie it, but Justise Winslow‘s steal set up a free throw by Luol Deng for a 96-93 advantage with 13.2 seconds left.

Wade then stole the ball from Walker and passed to Deng for a fast-break dunk with 4.3 seconds remaining and the Heat’s biggest lead of the game.

Before Miami’s flurry at the very end, neither team was able to grab much of an advantage. There were 26 lead changes and 12 ties, including 47-47 at halftime.

“We know we have to get stops,” Wade said. “We know we have enough offensive firepower down the stretch to get great looks. Tonight, Hassan was incredible down the stretch with protecting the basket.”

TIP-INS

Heat: Winslow had eight points and 10 rebounds. … Miami finished with 12 blocked shots. … The Heat outscored the Hornets 64-32 in the paint, and also enjoyed an 18-6 edge in second-chance points thanks to eight offensive rebounds.

Hornets: Shot 44.4 percent from the field (36 of 81), and made 10 of 26 3-pointers. … Also shot 13 of 15 from the free-throw line. … Charlotte’s reserves scored just 12 points, while Miami got 29 points from its backups.

 

HONORING `ZO’

Former Hornets star and 15-year NBA veteran Alonzo Mourning, now the vice president of player programs and development for the Heat, was honored by the home team during halftime of Friday’s game.

While he spent only three seasons in Charlotte (1992-1995), Mourning still holds franchise records for career blocks (684) and blocks per game (3.2), and is second in career scoring (21.3 points) and rebounds (10.1 per game).

 

Paul Millsap, Al Horford pace Hawks past Pacers 102-96

Atlanta Hawks center Al Horford dunks against the Indiana Pacers during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday Feb. 5, 2016, in Atlanta. Atlanta won 102-96. (AP Photo/John Amis)
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ATLANTA (AP) — Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer wasn’t terribly concerned that his team gave up 19 offensive rebounds.

Not when Atlanta held on for a third straight win.

“Obviously we’d like to be better, but I think just because you give up a rebound doesn’t mean automatically they’re going to score two points,” he said. “Overall, our defense is a lot of times what’s giving us a chance.”

Paul Millsap scored 24 points, Al Horford added 21 points and the Hawks beat the Indiana Pacers 102-96 on Friday night.

Paul George finished with 31 points for Indiana, which has lost 17 of its last 19 regular-season matchups in Atlanta. Lavoy Allen added 13 points and a game-high 14 rebounds.

The Pacers missed their first six shots of the fourth quarter before C.J. Miles‘ runner cut the lead to 78-74 with 8 minutes remaining.

George’s 3 with 4:49 left gave Indiana its last lead at 86-84. He hit another 3 with 1:02 left, falling back and heaving the ball over his right shoulder for a 35-footer that brought the Pacers within two.

But Jeff Teague‘s jumper and Kent Bazemore‘s two free throws pushed the lead to six with 22 seconds left. Teague had 16 points. Bazemore had 15 points and tied for a game-high eight assists.

Neither team led by more than six until the closing seconds. The lead changed hands 12 times.

It was a particularly frustrating night for Indiana, which out-rebounded the Hawks 53-32 and outscored them on second-chance points.

“Our bigs did a great job of rebounding,” George said. “It’s hard to make plays when they’re getting whacked all day at the rebounding, but it’s another game that we should have had – one that we didn’t do so late in the game and put it away.”

Horford had two consecutive dunks to push Atlanta back in front 73-72 in the last minute of the third. Dennis Schroder hit a 3 to make it a four-point lead early in the fourth.

“I think guys were pretty excited about the dunk(s),” Horford said. “I felt like that defensively fueled us going into the fourth.”

Millsap, at 6-foot-8, and the 6-10 Horford caused problems for Indiana’s big men all night on the perimeter with their passing skills and athleticism. They helped the Hawks outscore Indiana by four points in the paint.

“We did some good things but we didn’t handle their pressure well enough offensively,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “They got some very, very difficult coverages with Horford and Millsap out there spacing the floor we didn’t handle well enough either.”

The Hawks stayed in third place in the Eastern Conference with a 30-22 record. Indiana, at 26-24, fell to eighth place.

TIP-INS

Pacers: Indiana has dropped six of its last eight on the road. … George has scored at least 30 points in 15 of his 50 games. … G Monta Ellis, who averaged 20.5 points in the previous four games, scored 11.

Hawks: Atlanta has won nine of its last 11 at home. … The Hawks improved to 25-3 when scoring at least 100 points. … Led by Schroder’s nine points, the bench scored 20 – 60 less than the reserves combined for in Wednesday’s win at Philadelphia, the team’s highest total since 1987-88.

 

Bulls’ Jimmy Butler leaves game with sprained knee (VIDEO)

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This is not good.

With just more than a minute to go in the second quarter in Denver, Jimmy Butler drove the basket, absorbed some contact, and hit the ground hard. Butler — who seems to bounce back up from everything — stayed down. He hobbled out to take his free throws (the only way he could potentially return to the game) but then left it in a wheelchair. He did not return to the game.

The Bulls announced he has a left knee sprain. This is the same knee where he has been battling tendonitis.

Butler will have an MRI to assess the damage. As of now, there is no timetable for his return, but it seems he will miss at least a few games.

The up-and-down Bulls can’t afford to lose him for an extended stretch.

Celtics’ Avery Bradley’s three at buzzer beats Cavaliers (VIDEO)

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After two Kyrie Irving nailed free throws, the Cavaliers were up 103-99 on Boston with :07 left in the game. They had this.

Then J.R. Smith fouled Evan Turner on a driving lay-up with four seconds left, giving the Celtics the chance at an and-1. Turner missed the free throw, but the rebound bounced off LeBron James out-of-bounds, and Boston was going to get one last shot.

Avery Bradley nailed it from the corner. Celtics win.

Cleveland led this game by 22 at one point; they collapsed. This one is going to sting.