Author: Kurt Helin

Houston Rockets v Brooklyn Nets

Kevin Garnett suspended one game, Dwight Howard fined $15,000 for altercation Monday


It was pretty obvious this was coming.

An incident that escalated fast enough to impress Ron Burgundy — which was capped by Kevin Garnett head butting Dwight Howard — has led to the league suspending Garnett one game and fining Howard, the league announced on Tuesday.

Garnett will serve his suspension Wednesday when the Nets face the Grizzlies.

Howard was fined $15,000 for what the league called “pushing Garnett in the neck area.”

Howard and Garnett have a history of little incidents going back to when Howard’s Magic and Garnett’s Celtics were two of the top teams in the East. With Monday night’s incident there were words where after the play when Howard pushed KG away and said “Get the —- off me” and KG responded by throwing the ball. Howard turned and said “What ya gonna do?” and that’s when the head butt comes.

This was the right call by the league in both cases. KG had to sit for that one.

Lillard, Aldridge are nice, but Portland’s improved defense makes them contender

Portland Trail Blazers v Los Angeles Lakers

LOS ANGELES — When people think of why Portland is a dangerous team in the Western Conference, some obvious reasons leap out at you.

“They’ve got a great point guard, a great power forward, great role players, they are very unselfish, they space the floor and make you work on defense,” Lakers coach Byron Scott said recently.

And he’s right — Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge are one of the better one-two punches in the league. The Blazers have a team of solid NBA veterans who buy into the system and with that they have the eighth-ranked offense in the NBA. On offense the Blazers are a sexy team to watch — especially when Lillard takes over a game late with his explosive drives and long-range threes.

But that’s not the end of the floor that makes them contenders.

Two seasons ago, the Portland Trail Blazers finished the season 26th in the NBA in defensive efficiency. Last season the Blazers made strides up the Western Conference ladder in large part because their defense improved, up to 16th in the NBA.

This season they are third in the NBA so far, allowing just 98.7 points per 100 possessions.

The Traill Blazers have become a good defensive team. And that makes them a serious contender in the loaded Western Conference.

“I think it’s been a two-year process,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said of the effort to remake the defense. “I thought what we did last year going from 26 to, whatever it was, 16, it was conservative (philosophy). It wasn’t anything revolutionary.

“Some of it was personnel, obviously, but some of it was we changed our focus, we didn’t extend. My first year we got out and showed on pick-and-rolls, we tried to be athletic. We are much more conservative in our approach to the pick-and-roll. I thought we made good progress last year and this year the focus was on not allowing as many shots at the rim while still taking away the three. Our weak side needed to be better, and I think our defensive rebounding has been better both years.”

Part of it was personnel. The Blazers have Wesley Matthews out on the perimeter as a physical and tough defender, plus they have the length of Nicolas Batum. Most important was the addition last season of the intelligent paint defense of Robin Lopez (who is currently out with broken hand until around the All-Star break). Then it became a culture — Lillard has a bad defensive reputation but he puts in the effort (Lillard’s size can hurt him defensively and he can get rubbed of his man on a screen a little too easily, but he’s game on that end).

The Blazers system isn’t rocket science — they want to take away the most efficient shots on the court, particularly threes, and force teams more into the midrange.

“Their system defensively is to make sure you don’t get threes,” the Lakers’ Scott said. “They do a hell of a job just running you off the threes, they want you to take twos. They’re one of the best in the league at doing that.”

This season teams average 17.5 three point attempts a game against Portland, second fewest in the league, and they shoot just 28.7 percent on those, the lowest percentage in the league. More specifically, teams shoot a league low 30.4 percent on corner threes against the Blazers — that’s the efficient spot that the Spurs and other teams target. Above the break teams are shooting just 28.4 percent from three against the Blazers, also a league low.

That’s a step forward, last season the Blazers were 11th in opponent three point percentage. Two seasons ago when the Blazers used Aldridge’s athleticism to show out on picks they did a good job at the arc but it left the paint exposed and they paid that price. Now, they have Lopez and a new defensive philosophy.

This season Blazers’ opponents are getting shots in close — Portland is allowing 28.6 shots in the restricted area a game on average, top 10 in the league — but they aren’t making them, hitting just 57.9 percent, sixth lowest percentage allowed in the league.

With the size of Aldridge and Lopez in the paint, the Blazers pick-and-roll defense has the big stay back and take away the penetration of the guard coming off the screen. Then, if said ball handler has three-point range, the Blazers’ guard usually tries to fight over the pick and take away the deep ball. Again the goal is simple — force the other team into the midrange for their shot. It’s something they are doing well this season.

“We played back last year too, but I think our weak side has gotten better,” Aldridge said. “I think just having a couple years in this system of guys just learning where to be has been great for us, too.”

Stotts likes what he sees so far, but he also knows it’s January — if the Blazers are playing in late April exactly the way they are playing now it will not be good enough. It’s about the process of improving.

“I send out quotes to our guys every day and the last two or three have been about the process,” Stotts said. “It’s not result oriented. I think that’s one thing we’ve done a good job at is staying in the moment and doing the things that are fundamental to us within the foundation of what we’ve created defensively, and trusting ourselves offensively. I think we all realize that we’re not even halfway through the season and it’s all those things that are going to pay dividends in May and June.”

May and June are when teams that advance to the second round of the playoffs and beyond are still playing. That’s where Portland sees itself — to a man every player on this roster believes they can contend for a title.

With this defense, they are right.

How is Reggie Jackson handling trade rumors? “Probably better than you are”

Reggie Jackson

There has been concern in Oklahoma City for a while that they would lose Reggie Jackson next summer as a restricted free agent — he he has said repeatedly that he wants to start (something he does not do in OKC), he wants to run the offense for a team, and he’s likely to have other teams offering starter-level money to him. Yet Jackson played a key role as the Thunder’s sixth man this season (and he played big minutes when Russell Westbrook was out).

Then Oklahoma City went out and traded for Dion Waiters. In the Thunder’s last game Waiters entered the game before Jackson, plus played more minutes including the entire fourth quarter (with the other starters) while Jackson was benched. Thunder brass hope Waiters can be the sixth man they need.

So if the Thunder are going to lose Jackson this summer and have found a guy to take over his role, will they trade Jackson before the deadline? There are all kinds of rumors to that effect going around Oklahoma City.

Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman asked Jackson how he is handling the trade rumors and having a guy brought in to replace him (hat tip Eye on Basketball).

“Probably better than you are. Y’all are bringing it up,” Jackson told reporters. “I can’t control it. I just go play whenever I’m put on the court. That’s about all I can do, all the control I have. Just go from there. I’m happy (Waiters) did well. I’m happy he made a big shot. I’m just happy we got a win.”

Don’t be shocked if a trade goes down, although there is nothing imminent right now.

It will be interesting to see what kind of offers come Jackson’s way this summer. In the 13 games Jackson started this season for OKC, when Westbrook and Kevin Durant were largely out, he scored 20.2 points a game but shot just 41.6 percent and hit 27 percent from three, plus he had more than seven assists a game. He was not very efficient and his defense has never been strong, either starting or coming off the bench. OKC didn’t go out and get Waiters because they were thrilled with Jackson’s play and felt they would lose him, they felt they needed an upgrade. That said a lot of teams did like the potential of Jackson as a starter and with reason.

Kyle Lowry with half-court alley-oop pass to Terrence Ross (VIDEO)

Kyle Lowry

Kyle Lowry threw the pass and even he seemed a little surprised this play worked.

But Terrence Ross climbed the ladder on an impressive play that was part of Toronto’s strong play early. Their problem was that Brandon Jennings outplayed Lowry and the Pistons owned the second half on the way to a 114-111 Detroit win.

The Raptors have now dropped five of their last six.

Three Things We Learned in the NBA Monday: Start thinking of Detroit as a playoff team

Stan Van Gundy

Pay attention and every night in the NBA you can learn a little something. We know you are busy and can’t keep up with every game, so we’re here to help with those lessons from a light Monday night in the association. Here’s what you missed while booking your vacation to Philadelphia….

The Pistons could make the playoffs. Don’t laugh, we’re serious. With the Nets loss and the Pistons win over the Raptors on Monday Detroit is now just two games out of the eight seed in the East. They have gone 9-2 in their last 11 and in the East that gets you in the playoff mix. Monday’s win was an example of what the Pistons are doing right — in the first half they struggled and had no good answer for Jonas Valanciunas (he finished the night with 31 points and 12 rebounds). But in the second half the Pistons saw Brandon Jennings get hot when they moved the offense to more side pick-and-rolls, and the Raptors didn’t have an adjustment that worked. Jennings finished with 34 points. If the Pistons make the playoffs, as Zito Madu suggests at SB Nation, we should start calling giving up something bad for you “waiving the Josh Smith.” As in “I used to smoke a pack a day but then I waived Josh Smith and breathe much better now.”

Kevin Garnett is going to get be suspended for the Nets game Wednesday vs. Memphis. Boy, that escalated quickly. Kevin Garnett plays an emotional game, and through all the years of unending trash talk and success he has been known to let his emotions get the best of him now and again. Usually against guys about half his size, but tonight Dwight Howard got under his skin somehow. So KG head butted Howard. He’s going to get suspended for that. Howard may get a fine for that slap (not even a punch really) but KG will get the big penalty here. As he should.

Tom Thibodeau is fed up with how the Bulls are playing defense. The Bulls have been pretty good defensively this season — 10th in the NBA allowing 101.7 points per 100 possessions — but that is not exactly the lock down Bulls defense we know. However, in the last five games the Bulls are giving up 106.7 per 100, which is 25th in the NBA. You can imagine how well that sits with the Zen-like Tom Thibodeau. He ripped his team after the game Monday, saying this to

“We’ve got to decide what we’re going to be. If we’re just going to come in and try to outscore people we’re not going anywhere. I know that doesn’t work,” a displeased Thibodeau said after the game. “We’re going to have to bring a lot more intensity, and the only way you bring more intensity is by working a lot harder. It’s really that simple.”

We’ll see if Thibodeau’s message gets through.