Kurt Helin

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Improved 3-point shooting has Hornets thinking playoffs

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Maybe the Charlotte Hornets are catching Curry fever.

The Hornets, who play about 20 miles from where sharpshooter Stephen Curry starred at Davidson College and who employ Stephen’s long-distance shooting father Dell as a broadcaster, are suddenly one of the NBA’s hottest shooting 3-point teams.

The seemingly playoff-bound Hornets (42-31) are averaging 10.6 made 3-pointers per game, second only to Curry’s Golden State Warriors. Behind the improved shooting of fifth-year point guard Kemba Walker and a revamped roster, the Hornets are hitting 36.3 percent from beyond the arc – sixth-best in the league.

That’s hard to fathom considering just last season the Hornets finished last in the NBA in 3-point shooting efficiency, making just 31 percent.

But an offseason spent revamping the roster by adding long-distance shooters and players with an ability to penetrate and open up the outside game has paid off.

“We have guys with chips on their shoulders; guys with a lot to prove,” Walker said. “For myself I know I had to get my percentages up.”

He’s done that.

Walker is shooting a career-best 37.9 percent from 3-point range, a marked increase from the 31.7 percent he made during his first four seasons.

Veteran power forward Marvin Williams has also elevated his long-distance game, shooting a career-best 40.2 percent on 3s. Walker, Williams and Nicolas Batum all rank in the top 25 in the league in 3-pointers made.

The Hornets are getting smaller, but still significant contributions from rookie 7-foot power forward Frank Kaminsky, and guards Jeremy Lin, Jeremy Lamb and Courtney Lee, all new to the team this season. Charlotte is assured of a winning season, and they had the sixth-best record in the Eastern Conference entering Monday night.

The additions of Lin and Lamb have helped open up more shots because of their ability to penetrate.

“They can make plays off the dribble and draw defenders and get an open guy the basketball and make an open shot,” Walker said. “And we have guys like Marvin (Williams) and Frank (Kaminsky) who can stretch the floor out. There’s a lot of spacing, so I feel like spacing attributes” to the improved shooting.

Third-year coach Steve Clifford is all for the Hornets letting it fly, although he preaches the importance of his team working inside-out and making sure the ball reaches the paint before any shots go up on most possessions.

When Clifford was an assistant coach under Stan Van Gundy in Orlando, the Magic were known for playing four-in, one-out basketball – and knocking down 3s.

So Clifford is comfortable playing that style.

“I think that worked for Mike D’Antoni, who gets a lot of credit for that, and also Stan,” Clifford said. “Stan is doing that same thing in Detroit. I think a lot of the things that we do are things I learned from them.”

The Hornets haven’t had small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist except for seven games this season.

While they miss his defense, hustle and ability to get to the basket, Kidd-Gilchrist has never been considered a dangerous long-distance shooter. In fact, he didn’t even attempt a 3-pointer in 55 games last season.

With Batum playing the 3-spot and Williams at the four, the Hornets are getting more offensive production from long range. Williams has made 135 3-pointers this season and Batum 133.

But Walker’s improvement is most noticeable.

He’s made 158 3-pointers, 14th-most in the league and by far the most of his budding career. He said he’s shooting the ball with a confidence he hasn’t had since his final year at Connecticut, when he led the Huskies to a national championship.

“Over the last couple of years, as far as consistency, it just hasn’t worked out for me. This year it has,” Walker said. “Just the guys that we have helped as well with spreading the floor out and me seeing the basketball go through the net early in the season has given me confidence. I’m trying to stay confident.”

Kobe Bryant isn’t passing torch to anyone, they are going to have to grab it

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Kobe Bryant is not going quietly into that good night.

Sure, he’s smiling more and seemingly enjoying this season — and the accolades of his farewell tour — more than even he expected. But don’t mistake that for the embers of his competitive fire dying out, those are still burning strong.

And if D'Angelo Russell of the Lakers or anyone else wants his torch, they are going to have to pry it from his hands he told Baxter Holmes of ESPN.

“He didn’t pass the torch,” the Los Angeles Lakers icon said of his idol (Michael Jordan) Sunday following the Lakers’ 101-88 loss to the Washington Wizards at Staples Center. “Torches never get passed. You’ve got to earn that.”

So, have any of the young Lakers earned that torch?

“No,” Bryant said. “If you have to ask that question, the answer is already there. Those are things you don’t have to ask. Those things just happen.”

It’s a lot to ask of any rookie to grab the torch of Kobe, but in a couple of seasons that may change. Russell (or Julius Randle, or a future pick/player) may reach those heights, but nobody is there yet. It’s not fair to expect them to be.

But Los Angeles is a star-driven market, and the Laker fan base is one spoiled with success. The Lakers need to find that torch bearer sooner rather than later.

Could Dirk Nowitzki play beyond 2017? Maybe for a year.

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Mark Cuban will re-sign Dirk Nowitzki for as long as the future Hall of Famer and best European ever in the NBA wants to play. He has said as much, and Nowitzki is worth that much to the organization.

Nowitzki said he will pick up his player option and play next season, so long as the Mavs don’t enter full rebuild mode. But would a rejuvenated Nowitzki — who has stopped the decline in his game and had a bounce-back season — play another season, his 20th in the NBA.

Maybe.

From Marc Stein of ESPN.

Although he stressed that he wouldn’t make a firm decision until after completing the 2016-17 campaign, Nowitzki said on ESPN Radio’s “NBA Insiders” show that playing an even “20 years would sound really, really great.”

Currently in his 18th season, Nowitzki said, “My goal was when I signed this three-year deal to fulfill that contract. And so if I play next year through, by that point I’ll be 39. To be honest, 20 years [in the NBA] would sound really, really great. And next year would obviously be my 19th year, so maybe after this next year I could sign on one more. But I’ll just have to wait and see, I think, at this point.”

There are a lot of variables in that decision that we will not know until the end of next season — where are the Mavericks in terms of rebuilding, how is Nowitzki’s body holding up, and on down the line.

But he’s thinking about it, because 20 is a nice round number.

Dion Waiters remembers brother Demetrius Pinckney in emotional story

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I can’t imagine what is was like for Thunder guard Dion Waiters to get the call that his brother Demetrius Pinckney had been shot and killed in the streets of Philadelphia.

He took some time away from the team to go back home and be with family and friends, and to mourn the loss of one of the people Waiters was closest to on the earth. Upon his return, he wrote a fantastic piece for the Players’ Tribune to say this was not just “Dion Waiter’s brother” who was killed but a special individual who deserves to be remembered  by his own name.

You should know the name Demetrius Pinckney. This is what I want you to remember about his life: We called him Zique. He loved to dance. He was always smiling and making the best out of life. I watched Zique grow up from being a goofy-ass little kid, always crying. He was the biggest mama’s boy in the neighborhood….

That’s the thing that I keep replaying in my head over and over. If I was home, I know it would’ve never happened. He wouldn’t have been on that bike on that block. He would’ve been with me. We would’ve been chillin’, eating some food, watching some TV at the crib. Staying out the way.

It plays on my conscience every day.

If. If. If.

Waiters must know this is not his fault, not his brother’s fault, it’s the fault of the person who pulled the trigger. But I can only imagine if my younger brother, a guy I wanted to protect and guide, had this happen to him. I can’t imagine Waiters’ guilt and pain.

Demetrius Pinckney, RIP.

LeBron James to rest Tuesday when Cavaliers take on Rockets

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It’s that stretch of the season — coaches are looking especially hard at getting their star players some rest so they can be fresh for the second season of the playoffs. Well, it’s always that time of the season for Gregg Popovich, but now is when the rest of the coaches join his bandwagon.

But that can come with implications — and not just for the fans who paid good money hoping to see their favorite players.

Tuesday night, the Cleveland Cavaliers are going to rest LeBron James against the Houston Rockets, reports Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com.

It’s not likely to have an impact on the Cavaliers, who remain 2.5 games ahead of the second-seed Raptors for the top spot in the East with just nine games to play. Cleveland is going to finish with the best record in the East.

But this move could have an impact in the West. Houston is the current eight seed in the West, clinging to the final playoff spot in the conference, half a game back of seven-seed Utah and half a game ahead of nine-seed Dallas. LeBron not playing certainly doesn’t mean the Rockets will win — Cleveland still has Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, and a quality roster, plus Houston is the walking definition of inconsistent — but it makes it more likely. And if Houston can beat a shorthanded Cleveland team, that is a huge bump in their chances of making the playoffs.

That said, Houston likely gets in either way. Fivethirtyeight.com gives Utah a 96 percent chance of making the playoffs, Houston 86 percent, and Dallas just 18 percent. The Mavs schedule — and they fact they have lost 10-of-12 plus are without Chandler Parsons the rest of the way — stacks up against them. Dirk Nowitzki is doing his best Sisyphus impression, but we know how that story ends.