Marvin Williams

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Hot Timberwolves ready for litmus test vs. champion Warriors

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The last time the Minnesota Timberwolves won five straight games, five head coaches and nearly nine long years ago, Al Jefferson was the centerpiece of the team. Kevin Love was a rookie, still coming off the bench. Fifteen different players started at least one game.

Karl-Anthony Towns had just turned 13. President George W. Bush was still in the White House.

The woebegone Wolves have waited a long time for this. They will play at Golden State on Wednesday night, just one-half game behind the defending NBA champion Warriors for the best record in the Western Conference. Forget for a moment that the regular season is merely 12 percent complete. For the first time in, well, 13 years or so the Wolves will be a legitimate participant in a marquee national game on ESPN rather than a token opponent.

“You want to see where you are and how you measure up,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “Everyone in the league is chasing them.”

These Wolves (7-3) have produced the franchise’s best 10-game start to the schedule since a 9-1 record in 2001 when Kevin Garnett was 25, Terrell Brandon was the point guard and Anthony Peeler was the first player the off the bench.

With only three players who’ve been on the roster longer than three years, there aren’t as many scars in the locker room as all that franchise futility would suggest. The last few seasons have been frustrating enough, though.

“It’s something that’s changing around here, and I’m glad to be a part of it,” said Shabazz Muhammad, who with fellow reserve Gorgui Dieng has the longest tenure in their fifth year.

The 2008-09 team finished 24-58, so the early January success was clearly not a harbinger.

The Wolves have lost 461 games between the end of that streak and now, so even three solid weeks to start a season is an accomplishment. Thibodeau was hired to take them much further than that, of course.

The hard-driving, no-nonsense coach sure won’t be satisfied with this team’s progress anytime soon, and neither will these players, from 17-year veteran Jamal Crawford to Towns, who’s still only 21.

“We just want to keep doing more of what we’re doing,” Crawford said after practice on Tuesday.

That’s continuing to better the defense, for one.

The Wolves have held three consecutive opponents under 100 points, with newcomers Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson and Crawford beginning to pick up the tendencies of their returning teammates and the young core of Towns and Andrew Wiggins starting to learn the principles of helping and switching under the defensive-minded Thibodeau. Chemistry is just as important when they’re guarding the basket as it is when they have the ball.

“It’s still a work in progress,’ Thibodeau said, “but I think we are moving in the right direction.”

The depth, and the versatility of that depth, is another area of vast improvement. The second team, which Thibodeau has played together as a unit for several stretches at a time, includes Tyus Jones, Crawford, Muhammad, Nemanja Bjelica and Dieng. When they are in, there has not been a drop-off at all from the star-studded starting lineup.

The Wolves are shooting 3-pointers more effectively and often, too, another long-running weakness of this team going back dozens of players and a handful of head coaches. With Towns in the paint and Wiggins on the wing, the Wolves already have two of the league’s best offensive players.

“They can definitely score. They have three or four guys out there that can get 20 on any given night,” said Charlotte Hornets power forward Marvin Williams, whose team lost at Minnesota on Sunday night. “They are definitely tough to stop.”

Then there’s Butler, the alpha wolf who Thibodeau wanted so badly as a tough, experienced two-way player who would not only challenge his teammates to excel but selflessly defer to them on the court as needed.

“When I feel like it’s my time to shoot, I’ll shoot it,” Butler said. “But as of right now, my teammates are rolling. Feed them. Let them get us going.”

Butler’s attitude and perspective might be the biggest upgrade the Wolves have made among so many.

“Often times you hear people say things, and they never do the things that they say. But when you watch what they’re doing, it tells you what’s important to them,” Thibodeau said. “Jimmy has always played that way.”

 

Hornets plan to start Dwight Howard over Cody Zeller

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In the last three seasons, the Hornets went 63-53 with Cody Zeller starting at center and 57-73 otherwise.

Charlotte plugged a major hole by acquiring a second center, Dwight Howard. But this team found a groove with Zeller starting at the position.

So, who will start this year?

Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer:

Coach Steve Clifford said Friday that his projected starters, going into training camp Sept. 26 at Spectrum Center, are Kemba Walker at point guard, Nic Batum at shooting guard, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist at small forward, Marvin Williams at power forward and Dwight Howard at center.

This is a tricky situation.

Howard is far more accomplished than Zeller and was probably better last season. But Zeller is seven years younger. If Howard is still better, he won’t be for long.

A five-time All-NBA first-teamer, Howard is also more likely to chafe at coming off the bench. But does Clifford want to implicitly reward that? Other Hornets might especially dislike a newcomer getting preferential treatment.

Unlike Howard, Zeller can play some power forward. But Zeller is far more effective at center, to the point it might not be worth eating into Marvin Williams’ and Frank Kaminsky‘s minutes at power forward. (Don’t even start on Williams playing small forward.)

There’s no easy answer, but it probably makes sense to give Howard the first crack at starting. Given Howard’s free-throw issues, Zeller might finish games. That could be a workable compromise.

Russell Westbrook wins union’s Players Voice MVP

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The players union released its long-anticipated long-overdue awards, and there are some doozies. First of all, I still can’t figure out what Chris Bosh – who was announced as the “host” of the Twitter-released awards – has to do with this. But let’s get to the actual winners.

Here are the major awards, with the traditional award/Players Voice equivalent:

No surprise Westbrook won both MVPs. He deserved them. Still, James Harden could’ve hoped for a split result like in 2015, when Stephen Curry won actual MVP and Harden won the players’ version.

There’s obviously slight differences in the other categories. I think Green had the best defensive season and deservedly won Defensive Player of the Year, but I also think Leonard is the NBA’s best defender and therefore deserved this honor. I would’ve picked Andre Iguodala for Best off the Bench (and Sixth Man of the Year, for what it’s worth), though that’s a minor quibble. But how on earth did Joel Embiid not win Best Rookie? He was the best rookie in years, let alone this season. I picked Brogdon for Rookie of the Year based on his overall contributions in far more playing time, but there should have been no question about the best rookie.

The union also released several awards without a corresponding NBA honor:

  • Comeback Player of the Year: Joel Embiid
  • Hardest to Guard: Russell Westbrook
  • Clutch Performer: Isaiah Thomas
  • Global Impact: LeBron James
  • Player You Secretly Wish Was On Your Team: LeBron James
  • Most Influential Veteran: Vince Carter
  • Best Dressed: Russell Westbrook
  • Best Social Media Follow: Joel Embiid
  • Coach You’d Most Like to Play For: Gregg Popovich
  • Best Home Court Advantage: Warriors

LeBron winning Player You Secretly Wish Was On Your Team has to be an implicit slap in the face to Kyrie Irving. I’m glad to see Thomas and Carter deservedly recognized.

Lastly, the union awarded a Teammate of the Year on each team:

Dirk Nowitzki won the NBA’s Teammate of the Year – which is voted on by current players after a panel of former players selects nominees – then didn’t even win for his own team here? That’s just weird.

Eight-time All-Star Dwight Howard: “I have a lot left in the tank”

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — At 31 and entering his 14th NBA season, eight-time All-Star Dwight Howard says his best basketball is ahead of him.

Wearing a teal suit with black trim, a smiling Howard insisted Monday he can return to being a dominant center with the Charlotte Hornets, where he will be reunited with coach Steve Clifford and play for one of his childhood heroes, team owner Michael Jordan.

“A lot of people have written me off, which is great because it’s going to make me work even harder,” Howard said during his introductory news conference. “I’m just looking forward to this opportunity because I have a lot left in the tank.”

This will be Howard’s third team in three seasons.

The Atlanta Hawks, his hometown team, traded him to Charlotte one year into a three-year, $74 million contract. Howard said he has no hard feelings, adding that “sometimes things just don’t work out.”

But he’s confident Charlotte is the right fit.

“I think I’m a lot healthier than I have been in the past five years and I think this is going to be my best time,” Howard said. “I’m a lot wiser now, stronger mentally and physically, and I’m in the right place with a great coach, a great GM and the GOAT (greatest of all time). So I think this is the perfect opportunity.”

Much of Howard’s optimism stems from being reunited with Clifford.

They worked together for seven seasons in Orlando and Los Angeles, and the 6-foot-11 three-time Defensive Player of the Year loves Clifford’s defense-first mentality. He’s also confident Clifford will put him in the right situations to succeed on offense.

“He understands me,” Howard said. “… He was always there for me and not once did he turn his back on me or talk bad about me. He was very positive and he was somebody that I have always trusted in.”

The feeling is mutual.

Clifford said he’s never coached a player smarter than Howard when it comes to understanding defensive coverages. While Howard has incredible athletic ability, Clifford said, he’s never been given the credit he deserves for playing a “thinking man’s game.”

“Smart always wins in the NBA,” Clifford said.

Howard is expected to start in Charlotte alongside All-Star point guard Kemba Walker, guard Nic Batum and forwards Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marvin Williams. Cody Zeller, last year’s starting center, is expected to come off the bench for the Hornets but still see significant minutes.

Howard said he’s learned a lot over the past 13 seasons.

“Over the years a lot of things have been said and I’ve not said anything back,” Howard said. “Somehow things that weren’t true kept getting stirred up, and that gave a lot of people wrong opinions about who I was as a person. I should be the one speaking up for myself instead of allowing other people to do that.”

In Charlotte, Howard becomes the second big-name athlete to be known as “Superman,” joining former NFL MVP quarterback Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers.

Both are from the Atlanta area and have met a couple of times but aren’t close friends. Howard said he’s eager to connect with Newton and get to know him better.

“We have the same attitude; we love to win, but we want to have fun,” Howard said.

 

Marquese Chriss has 17 points, hot-shooting Suns beat Hornets 120-103

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PHOENIX (AP) — The Phoenix Suns were 20th in the NBA in field goal percentage, making 45 percent of their shots on the season.

On Thursday night, they got hot.

Marquese Chriss scored 17 points and the Suns shot a season-best 59.7 percent in a 120-103 victory over the Charlotte Hornets.

Chriss made 6 of 9 shots and missed roughly a full quarter after straining a calf early in the first period.

T.J. Warren added 16 points and eight rebounds, and Alan Williams had 16 points and 12 rebounds, including a layup with 2:46 to play that made it 114-99.

The Suns held the Hornets to 12 points in the fourth quarter and got 53 points from their bench. Phoenix made 39 of 58 two-point shots (67 percent).

“Our second unit played phenomenal,” coach Earl Watson said.

“We’ve got to play consistent like that. Moving the ball, screening away,” Suns guard Eric Bledsoe said.

Leandro Barbosa also had 16 points, and Devin Booker had 15 points, nine assists and six rebounds. The Suns are 8-4 against Eastern Conference teams at home this season.

Kemba Walker led Charlotte with 26 points.

“We never got them under control. Penetration, transition, we let them play to their strengths,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said.

The Suns lost their halftime lead briefly early in the third quarter, but went on an 11-0 run that featured Chriss’ corner 3 to take an 80-70 lead with 7:15 to play.

Phoenix led by as many as 12 points in the third, but the Hornets whittled the deficit to 87-85 on Walker’s 3-pointer at the 2:53 mark.

The Suns led 94-91 entering the fourth after Marvin Williams was fouled by Booker with 0.4 seconds left and made three free throws.

Warren scored 12 points in the third quarter.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist‘s six steals were a career high for the Hornets forward.

The Suns trailed by as many as 10 points in the first quarter but cut the Hornets’ lead to four by the time it ended. Williams had 13 points in the quarter for Charlotte.

After being behind for much of the first half, Phoenix took a 52-50 lead with Barbosa’s short bank shot with 3:22 left in the second quarter. Barbosa scored 10 points in the quarter after not playing in the first.

Walker had 18 first-half points for the Hornets, who trailed 61-58 at halftime after Phoenix made 13 of 19 shots in the second quarter.

“We just play in spurts,” Walker said. “We’re not making those effort plays that need to be made out there, which is getting back in transition.”

TIP-INS

Hornets: It took 61 games, but the Hornets finally played the Suns this season and will host them later this month. “It’s extra film work, little bit extra preparation,” Clifford said. … C Miles Plumlee missed his sixth straight game with a right calf strain.

Suns: Radio broadcaster Al McCoy will be inducted into the team’s Ring of Honor during a halftime ceremony Friday night when the Suns host Oklahoma City. McCoy has called games for 44 seasons. … The Suns played at home for the first time since Feb. 15. The All-Star break and three road games filled the schedule since then.

KAMINSKY INJURED

Hornets center Frank Kaminsky took a blow to his upper left arm colliding with Alan Williams in the fourth quarter and was taken to the locker room. He did not return and finished with 16 points. No update was given on Kaminsky’s condition but he had a wrap over his left shoulder after the game.

TWO TAKEOFFS FOR `AIRPLANE MODE’

Derrick Jones Jr., the runner-up in the NBA dunk contest at All-Star Weekend, took flight early in the fourth quarter with a jam off an alley-oop pass from Tyler Ulis. A few minutes later, the pair connected again for another lob that Jones, nicknamed “Airplane Mode,” threw down with his left hand. It gave the Suns a 105-97 lead with 7:43 to play.

GAME CHANGER

Ulis had eight points and a career-high eight assists in 23 minutes, the rookie from Kentucky earning praise from his coach. “Tyler Ulis changed the game,” Watson said, noting his defensive pressure and hustle to tire out Charlotte’s guards.