Three Stars: Paul George on the rise

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There’s nothing quite like the phenomenon of watching a young player ascend to stardom. When a young player bursts on to the scene and starts making extraordinary plays routine, he captures our imagination. How good could 22-year-old Paul George be? Who does he remind us of? Potential is enticing on its own, but when it’s paired with production our minds really start to race. We don’t know where George will end up in his career, but for right now, let’s settle for ranking him with two surprise performances from an entertaining Tuesday night in the association:

Three Stars: Jeremy Lin – (28 points, 9 assists, 5-for-8 from deep)

Speaking of taking the world by storm, let’s talk about Jeremy Lin. No one understands the rise to stardom quite like Lin, who has seen the highest of the highs in his Knicks days and some low valleys with the Rockets. Lin has suffered the fate most talented “fresh” players do — they become popular, everyone loves them, and then people start to pick at their weaknesses and bring them back down to earth. While Lin hasn’t been on the level he was last year, he hasn’t exactly been a bust either. He’s nifty off the dribble, good in the pick-and-roll, and has pretty quick hands defensively. Lin’s biggest problem is his shooting stroke, but tonight it was no problem at all. Lin connected on career-high five 3-pointers against the Warriors, leading the way in a record-tying night for the Rockets.

Second Star: Samuel Dalembert – (35 points, 12 rebounds, 17-for-21)

This has to be the most random scoring performance of the year, right? Milwaukee Bucks center Samuel Dalmbert has played in 26 games this season, averaging 15 minutes a game and 5.7 points. But tonight against the Nuggets, something got into ‘ol Sam and he went off. Dalembert rattled off a career-high 35 points in 27 minutes on an incredible 17-for-21 shooting night, regularly knocking down the little 15 footer he’s honed for years. Dalembert blew his previous career-high of 27 points out of the water, but the Bucks melted down in the fourth quarter and allowed the Nuggets to storm back. It’s a shame the game of Dalembert’s life was wasted by Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, who combined to go 11-for-36 for 24 points and 9 turnovers.


First Star: Paul George – (29 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists)

Anytime you have to tell people to stop with the comparisons to an all-time great, you’re doing pretty well:

George is playing with an unreal confidence offensively right now, and it’s reflected in his personal numbers and Indiana’s big nights recently. In the last 10 games, George is averaging nearly 20 points, 8 rebounds and 4.5 assists a contest. Indiana, meanwhile, has scored over 100 points in 6 of their last 10 games, which is almost unthinkable earlier in the season. George’s ability to get his shot off late in the clock is a huge factor for Indiana, and his ability to use those long limbs in transition and dunk everything doesn’t hurt either. With Danny Granger set to return soon, it will be interesting to see how the new George co-exists with such a high usage player like Granger. Will he defer, or will he continue on his scoring warpath? We’ll have to wait and see, but for now, just try and enjoy the overall display George is putting on.

Rudy Gobert re-energized ahead of Jazz at Thunder

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — Rudy Gobert didn’t hide his disappointment at not making the NBA All-Star Game for the first time despite averaging 15.2 points and 12.9 rebounds while leading the league in field-goal percentage.

But coming off the 10-day break, the Utah Jazz center says he’s re-energized heading into Friday’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

“Just recharge, completely — mentally, physically,” Gobert said. “For me, I was able to get a little bit of sun and feel a lot better when I get back.

“The next two months, I feel like, will be a lot better.”

The Jazz, who have won 13 of their last 16 games, come out of the break sixth in the Western Conference but with one of the NBA’s easiest schedules down the stretch.

Utah plays just eight of its final 25 games against teams that are above .500.

One of those, though, is Friday night’s game in Oklahoma City, which sits third in the West after winning 11 of 13 before the break.

The Thunder, on the other hand, have one of the league’s most challenging schedules moving forward. Oklahoma City plays 17 of its remaining 25 games against teams above .500 including each of the first five out of the break.

The Thunder have won the first two meetings between the teams, including a 122-113 win on Dec. 10 in Oklahoma City.

An Oklahoma City win would clinch the season series for the Thunder after Utah eliminated Oklahoma City in the first round of the playoffs last season.

The Thunder’s Russell Westbrook has a streak of 10 consecutive triple-doubles. During that stretch, he’s averaged 21.9 points, 13.3 rebounds and 13.5 assists.

Utah is hopeful backup point guard Dante Exum, who has missed the last 17 games with a left ankle sprain, will be able to return against the Thunder.

“I think when he’s playing well, he can have a big impact for us and having him back soon is going to help us a lot,” Gobert said.

The Thunder could have forward Markieff Morris available for the first time. Morris signed with Oklahoma City over the All-Star break after being waived by New Orleans following his trade from Washington on Feb. 7.

Morris was averaging 11.5 points and 5.1 rebounds for the Wizards this season before suffering a neck injury in late December that has kept him out since. Morris was cleared to play two weeks ago.

“We got a big piece in Markieff that we’re excited for, and we’re going to be ready for the second half after this break,” Oklahoma City’s Paul George said.

Thunder coach Billy Donovan said, “We’ll see,” when asked Thursday if Morris would play against the Jazz.

The Thunder also figure to have both starting forward Jerami Grant and backup point guard Dennis Schroder back after each missed the last two games before the break, Grant with an ankle injury and Schroder after the birth of his child.

Friday’s game is the start of a back-to-back for both teams, with the Jazz hosting Dallas on Saturday and Oklahoma City hosting Sacramento.

 

Raptors fans welcome DeMar DeRozan back with loud, standing ovation

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DeMar DeRozan was the greatest Raptor ever. He was an All-Star, he presided over the best seasons in franchise history, and he’s the one guy who re-signed and stood up for a city that has an inferiority complex around its basketball team.

Toronto fans understood the trade that brought Kawhi Leonard to the team — it’s an upgrade on the court — but their love for DeRozan is real.

They showed that on Friday night when DeRozan returned to Toronto for the first time as a member of the Spurs — he got a raucous ovation upon his introduction.

Early in the game he gave them a taste of what he did for them for years, getting the and-1 bucket on the drive.

Marcus Smart hits halfcourt shot at practice, celebrates with a back flip

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The celebration is more impressive than the shot.

After a tough loss to Milwaukee on Thursday, the Celtics traveled to Chicago to take on the Bulls on Saturday. Friday they had a practice in the Northwestern University facility.

It’s there Marcus Smart drains a halfcourt shot. Impressive. But not nearly as impressive as the backflip celebration.

I did not know Smart had that in him.

Clippers owner Steve Ballmer reportedly tells organization he still wants playoff push

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When the Clippers traded their best player — Tobias Harris — right before the trade deadline, it was a move generally seen as throwing in the towel on this season’s playoffs, but it was applauded around the league because of the haul it brought back to L.A. It set the Clippers up with one max cap slot this summer and a reasonable path to a second one, plus the Clippers landed rookie shooting guard Landry Shamet, Philadelphia’s 2020 first-round pick (lottery protected) and the Miami Heat’s 2021 first-round pick unprotected.

Except then the Clippers not long after traded for Garrett Temple and JaMychal Green — boosting the roster’s depth in needed spots. Not a move a team looking to fall out of the playoffs makes.

That’s because owner Steve Ballmer doesn’t want them to fall out of the playoffs, reports Sam Amick of The Athletic.

Sources say Clippers owner Steve Ballmer has let it be known throughout the organization that he wants to keep making this playoff push. Never mind that such an accomplishment would cost them their first-round pick this season.

The coach and players should never be told to lose games, they need to go all-out every time they are on the court. That goes to the culture of an organization. If a decision is made to focus on the future, then it’s about roster decisions at the GM level. That is what the Clippers did, and there is nothing wrong — or even strange — about the owner telling them to push and try to make the playoffs.

Either way, it works for Los Angeles.

Make the playoffs as the eight seed and the Clippers are likely just the first-round appetizer for the Warriors as they chase a three-peat, but it shows potential free agents the role players on the team have grit and just need a star and leader. Their young stars would gain a little playoff experience. While the Clippers would lose this year’s first-round pick, giving up a late teens pick in what is considered a down draft (especially after No. 1) is not that painful a loss. It’s one less asset to throw in a potential trade (Anthony Davis anyone?), but it’s not devastating.

Miss the playoffs and they get a late-lottery pick and things go as expected.

Make or miss the playoffs, the Clippers are focused on July 1 and landing a couple of free agents, with Kawhi Leonard at the top of the list (and a lot of sources around the league think that’s where they are headed).