At this time of year playoff teams are cautious with injuries — as much as you might need a player for key games now, you need him more for playoff games.
Which accounts for these two bigs of news:
Dwight Howard will be out for the Rockets for at least 10 days to rest a sore ankle.
Danny Granger of the Los Angeles Clippers will miss the next three games due to a hamstring injury.
That means both will be out Saturday night when Houston and Los Angeles have a big showdown game — the four seed Rockets are one game back of the three seed Clippers (it’s 3.5 games back to five seed Portland).
Earlier this month Howard had a cyst removed from his ankle and missed three games, apparently that did not solve all his problems with that joint. Howard’s ankle was bothering him enough that on Saturday he went to see a doctor, the recommendation was more rest, so Howard is out for Saturday, reports Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.
Then the Clippers broadcaster Ralph Lawler added this:
Omer Asik will start at center for the Rockets. However, not having Patrick Beverley (torn meniscus) or Howard hurts the Rockets depth and more importantly defense against an offensive juggernaut.
Part of that Clippers offense in recent games has been Danny Granger leading the way for the second unit. As he has gotten healthy and gotten his legs under him he has started to show how he could lead the Clippers bench — with Glen Davis — in the postseason. But he needs to be healthy and he is not, so he is getting rest, reports Madelyn Burke, host of Clippers TV.
If the Clippers can win on Saturday night, something more likely now, they will pretty much lock themselves into the three seed and the Rockets into the four spot.
The Lakers’ clear top priority for this season should be simple: develop their young stars.
Julius Randle is a beast with the ball in his hands, but a one-handed beast who needs to work on his right hand. D'Angelo Russell has shown flashes but is trying to adapt to the speed and style of the NBA game. Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. can be pieces on a good team, eventually. The Lakers need to build that foundation.
Which is why coach Byron Scott sitting Russell in the fourth quarter of games, even blowouts, is perplexing. As were his responses when asked about it after the Lakers’ lastest blowout loss, Tuesday night to the Golden state Warriors. So Scott, is there value in playing Russell in blowouts to get him more time on the court? Mark Medina of the LA Daily News had the answer.
“Nah. There’s really no reason to. At that particular time we’re down 30 [points],” Scott said. “I wanted to get Ryan [Kelly] some time and Marcelo [Huertas] as well and some other guys that haven’t played a lot.”
That would be 32-year-old Marcelo Huertas, who played the fourth quarter Tuesday while Russell sat.
This is not Gregg Popovich resting his stars to keep them fresh for the playoffs here. We are talking about a 19-year-old rookie point guard whose game is based on court vision, anticipation, and angles, a guy who has to learn how to apply those in a league where everybody is long and fast. He needs time on the court to adapt. Is he going to make mistakes? Yes. A lot of them. That’s what rookies do. If you coach them up, they learn from those mistakes and make fewer each time out. It’s a sometimes painful process, but it’s how rookies learn.
Except in Byron Scott’s world where they get benched. Because that will teach them. Meanwhile Kobe can do whatever he wants, because he was once great and that gives him carte blanche.
Nuggets’ coach Mike Malone was willing to get into it with just about anyone Tuesday night. He had a few words with Blake Griffin.
And he had a few words with his rookie point guard Emmanuel Mudiay — and Mudiay gave it right back. Then got benched. Later the rookie realized he should be a little more deferential to the guy who controls his minutes, and apologized. Malone played it down. Everything is fine in Denver (well, except for the four straight losses). Here are the quotes, via Chris Dempsey of the Denver Post.
Said Mudiay: “It’s just both of us being competitors. It probably was my fault, I could have been doing a lot more. So I kind of put the blame on myself. I’ve got nothing against Coach, I respect him. He’s a great person, and I have all the respect in the world for him.
“Me and him are both competitive. We want to win. We hate losing. We’re on a four-game losing streak, something like that. It’s just us trying to win. At the same time, it’s over with. It’s on to the next game. It’s been like that my whole life. He’s just trying to challenge me, which I accept.”
“There is frustration on our end, having lost four games in a row now,” Malone said. “Just trying to find way to get a win. Winning is a great cure-all for anybody, like it was for (the Clippers) tonight, coming in having lost three in a row. So this is a very competitive game, guys are out there working hard trying to do their best, and sometimes emotions get involved. By no means is there an issue with Emmanuel or anybody else on this team. We are together, we are unified and we’re going to continue to fight to stay together to get this thing turned around.”
These kinds of little flare-ups are a common part of the NBA season — if the Nuggets were not frustrated after losing four straight, it would be a bigger concern. That Mudiay pushed back is some fire I want to see from a rookie.
Mudiay is learning, his turnovers are down of late (although they flared up against Golden State). His shooting is still an issue, and his decision making has a ways to go, but there is progress. Which is all you can ask of a rookie. And it helps to have a coach who will push him. (And play him in the fourth quarter — Byron Scott, we’re looking at you.)
One of the reasons Kevin McHale was fired and J.B. Bickerstaff hired last week was the Rockets’ schedule — it got softer, and there were a couple longish breaks (for the NBA) where he could schedule practices and install changes. It gave Bickerstaff a fighting chance for success.
One of those breaks was the past few days. Houston had three days between games after they lost to New York Sunday, Wednesday night against Memphis is the next time they take the court. Bickerstaff used the time to have a “mini training camp” and try to return the team to some basics, he told the Houston Chronicle.
“Our attitude has changed over the past week and a half,” Bickerstaff said. “We’ve taken a more serious approach in what we’re doing. Guys are more disciplined in what we’re doing and they were hungry for that. As a group, we brought them together. That was the first thing they were calling for, some more discipline, more structure and more rules.”
“It was a hard practice,” Jason Terry said. “It was attention to detail. There were consequences for not paying attention to detail. Just getting back to our roots, that’s defense first, executing on offense and making the extra pass. We got to put the work in if we want to get the results. Though we thought we were doing that before, we weren’t doing that enough, obviously. It was good to see. It felt great. Today was a day, mentally we got better.
“The next step is winning basketball games. I believe in this group. If we do the things we practiced the last two days, we were going to put ourselves in great position to win. We’ll have to get that results, but I think we’ll have that opportunity.”
We will see if that carries over Wednesday night. Memphis has been playing better of late as well; this will be a tough test.
The bigger question is can Houston’s leaders — Terry, James Harden, Dwight Howard — make sure this improved foundation carries over a week from now? Then a month from now? Bickerstaff can talk discipline all he wants, he can tweak the rotations — finally separating Harden and Ty Lawson more — and sit guys playing poorly, but if the leaders in the locker room are not the ones keeping everyone in line everything will fall apart. You think Tim Duncan would have allowed the Rockets’ mindless, sloppy start in San Antonio? (Or Tony Parker? Or David West? Or a lot of guys in that locker room?)
There is so much talent on the Houston roster it’s still hard to imagine they don’t get it together and become a playoff team in the West. But whether they are a playoff team to truly fear remains to be seen.
The moniker of the “best two-way player” sounds more like something an agent made up to gain a little leverage contract negotiations. It’s a nebulous concept. It’s an intentional dig at whomever is perceived as a better player, suggesting they don’t play enough defense.
But it’s part of the NBA lexicon now, and Pacers’ coach Frank Vogel thinks he has the best two-way player in the game in the resurgent Paul George. Tuesday night George dropped 40 points on Wizards and Vogel said this after the game, via the Washington Post.
“It’s tough to quantify in words,” Pacers Coach Frank Vogel said. “I mean, he just does so much. He’s capable of going for 40, carrying the offensive load and being the best defensive player on either team. He’s a special player, and the best two-way player in the game. We’re a different team with him out there.”
Paul George’s return to an elite level of play is one of the best stories of this young NBA season — for nine straight games now he has scored at least 25 points, he has pushed the Pacers to a 9-5 record with a top 10 NBA offense and defense. Tuesday night John Wall talked about how George’s improved jumper has made him a far more dangerous, more difficult to guard player. And he’s still a lock-down defender.
But George is not the best two-way player in the game — that’s Stephen Curry. George does not have the offensive impact that Curry brings to the Warriors, plus Curry has developed into a solid NBA defender. Curry gets steals, plays smart, and is a positive on defense, plus he’s the best offensive player in the league right now.
That doesn’t make the return of Paul George any less fun, any less good for the game. It’s great to see George back. Whatever you want to call him.