Los Angeles Lakers coming up on crucial stretch

Despite an embarrassing loss Monday night to the Indiana Pacers in which the team was down 60-27 at the half, the Los Angeles Lakers come off of a 3-game road stint that pitted them up against the likes of the Spurs, Timberwolves and the Pacers with a 2-1 record. In the most impressive win of the trip, the team battled back in overtime and got some late game luck from Nick Young after pretty much throwing the game away in the fourth with moronic turnovers against the San Antonio Spurs last Friday night. The Lakers then cruised to an easy win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Sunday in a game that saw Kobe Bryant pass the great Michael Jordan for 3rd all time in career points before the loss in Indiana. Overall, the trip was a strong showing for the team and indicates that they are taking a step in the right direction.
The Lakers prepare to embark on a stretch of games that has them taking on some of the league’s best, including the Chicago Bulls. (Jesse D. Garrabrant NBAE Getty Images)
However, the team

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As Deadline Approaches, Chicago Bulls Must Make Crucial Decision on Jimmy Butler

CHICAGO — In just a few short weeks, Jimmy Butler could be a very rich man. There isn‘t much room for outside distractions in the Chicago Bulls‘ training camp. Tom Thibodeau makes sure of that. But whether the team lets it show or not, Butler’s uncertain contract status looms large over the start of the Bulls’ most important season in years.

Butler and the Bulls have until October 31 to agree to an extension. Otherwise, the fourth-year shooting guard will become a restricted free agent next summer. The sides have been talking, but neither camp is eager to let the negotiations play out in public.

Taj Gibson was in Butler’s shoes two years ago. His negotiations came down to the wire, with his agent and Bulls brass hammering out the details of a four-year, $33 million extension from the locker room during the Bulls’ season opener. Gibson gave the deal a final go-ahead before he even had the chance to shower after the game.

Gibson admitted at the time that he could have probably attracted bigger offers had he waited for restricted free agency, but he valued the long-term security and ultimately signed the extension with the Bulls.

“I don’t wish that on anyone,” the sixth-year power forward said after practice on Wednesday, reminiscing on his talks. “It’s a blessing, though, at the same time. You’ve got to think about all the players that wish they were in that situation.”

Whether or not Butler’s own talks cut it that close (the Bulls play their home opener against the Cleveland Cavaliers on October 31), he’ll have a similar decision to make. Young, athletic perimeter players are highly valued in today’s speedy NBA. The Utah Jazz and Gordon Hayward inked a maximum offer sheet this summer, and the Golden State Warriors are expected to sign Klay Thompson to a similar deal in the near future. Butler doesn’t have nearly the offensive ceiling of Thompson, but elite shooting guards are scarce in the current NBA landscape. If Butler waits it out, he could be in line for a big payday of his own.

Still, the long-term security is a real concern, especially given Butler’s workload. He led the Bulls with 38.7 minutes per game but missed 13 games in November and December nursing a turf-toe injury that continued to nag at him throughout the season. Since Luol Deng’s departure, he’s taken up the mantle of the Bulls’ iron man, and even though he’s only 25, there’s enough injury risk that comes with that role that he can’t afford to take next summer for granted.

On the flip side, if the Bulls don’t lock Butler up now and he has a career year, it becomes much more difficult to keep him next summer when other teams can throw big offers at him. If Butler and the Bulls can agree on a fair number now, it would be in the interest of both sides to do it.

But what constitutes a fair price? Entering his fourth year, Butler’s value is still a question mark. His defense has always been his meal ticket. The title of perimeter stopper is one he stepped into in the 2013 playoffs when Deng was sidelined with a spinal injury, and it’s one he continued to perform excellently last season after Deng was traded in January. He’s the guy Thibodeau regularly sticks on the LeBron Jameses, Kevin Durants and Kobe Bryants of the league.

Offensively, Butler is much less of a known quantity. He didn’t play much his rookie year but took on a larger offensive responsibility over the last two years while Derrick Rose battled consecutive season-ending knee surgeries. After putting together a solid shooting season in 2012-13 (46.7 percent from the field and 38.1 percent from three-point range), Butler struggled last year. His overall shooting percentage dropped to 39.7, while his three-point clip plummeted to 28.3 percent.

“He’s a defender,” said Rose. “You think about all the defenders in the league, the ones who have made a long career out of it, like a Bruce Bowen, a guard who was mainly a defender but can make an open corner shot. It changes the game. That’s the kind of role Jimmy is going to have to find his way to.”

That role is a lot easier to play when you’re at best a fourth option on offense, as Butler will be on this deeper Bulls team. In 2012-13, his best offensive season, Butler took just 6.2 shots per game. Last year, that number jumped to 10.3, and his effectiveness took a hit. With a healthy Rose and the addition of Pau Gasol, the Bulls won’t need Butler to do much more on offense than knock down open threes when he gets them.

Hitting those shots consistently is the key. The Bulls know how good Butler is defensively, and they have every reason to lock him in now, while his value is relatively low. A contract similar to Gibson’s, paying just over $8 million per year, would be an ideal scenario for the team, but even a deal for $10-11 million annually could look like a steal in a couple years if Butler’s shooting improves.

Shooting guards go for much higher prices when they reach restricted free agency than if their teams are able to lock them up before they hit the market.

Player Team Contract Type
Eric Gordon New Orleans 4 years, $58 million Free agent (restricted, 2012)
DeMar DeRozan Toronto 4 years, $38 million Extension (2012)
Lance Stephenson Charlotte 3 years, $27 million Free agent (unrestricted, 2014)
Gordon Hayward Utah 4 years, $63 million Free agent (restricted, 2014)
Klay Thompson Golden State Seeking max contract TBD (2014-15)

It will be tough to judge any deal Butler signs for several years, and not just because of how he may develop as a player. The NBA’s television deal is up after the 2015-16 season, and its new agreement is expected to raise the salary cap by as much as $15-20 million. If Butler signs a contract that seems like a slight overpay now, it could wind up a bargain if the new agreement is as lucrative as it appears.

Whatever number the Bulls and Butler eventually settle on, it hasn’t weighed too heavily on Butler’s mind. In the first week of training camp, his teammates haven’t noticed a distraction. Rose didn’t even know Butler’s contract was up.

“It’s this year?” the 2011 MVP asked on Tuesday. “I didn’t know that. You can’t tell by the way he’s been practicing.”

“He’s handled it the right way,” Gibson added. “He’s been playing well in practice. He’s a good guy. He’s not a selfish guy. People understand in this situation, you’re not just worrying about yourself. You’re worrying about your future and your family. I think they’ll get something done.”

Butler isn’t sweating the prolonged talks, at least not yet.

“I grew up without money,” he said. “I think I’ll be alright for a couple more days.”

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How Crucial Will Triangle Be to Derek Fisher’s Success as New York Knicks Coach?

It wouldn’t be fair to Derek Fisher or the New York Knicks to suggest that the coach’s familiarity with the triangle offense was the sole reason he landed the gig.

But it certainly didn’t hurt.

If the 40-year-oldwho suited up at point guard for the Oklahoma City Thunder just last Mayfinds some success on the Madison Square Garden sideline, he’ll have his expertise with the system to thank for not only helping him land the position, but also excelling at it.

After suffering through 45 losses last season, the Knicks took a geometric approach toward turning the franchise around.

First, they filled their team president post with staunch triangle supporter Phil Jackson, who netted 11 world titles while running this offense during coaching stints with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers. Jackson, in turn, handed over the coaching reins to Fisher, the floor general on Jackson’s five banner-raising squads in L.A.

Like the system itself, these moves are interconnected. The Knicks aren’t gambling on Fisher’s ability to guide them down the road to relevance, they are betting on his chance to traverse that path by deploying an offense he knows like the back of his hand.

When fellow Jackson disciple Steve Kerr—the early favorite in the Knicks’ coaching race, per ESPN.com’s Marc Stein—signed on to lead the Golden State Warriors this offseason, the former sharpshooter said the offense he planned to implement would be “influenced by the triangle,” via San Jose Mercury News‘ Tim Kawakami.

Perhaps due to the proximity of Jackson, Fisher has more openly subscribed to the system.

Before Carmelo Anthony had even agreed to his new five-year, $124 million deal with the Knicks, Fisher was discussing how well the scoring forward fit the offense. If Fisher thought highly enough of the scheme to use it as a negotiating tool, it’s safe to say his attack will be more than just influenced by it.

And why wouldn’t it be? Not only do both Jackson and Fisher know how successful it can be, it also includes the elements needed to move the Knicks away from the ball-stopping isolation plays that have plagued their production in recent seasons.

Despite an individually brilliant year from Anthony (27.4 points, 24.4 player efficiency rating), the Knicks finished the 2013-14 campaign just 11th in offensive efficiency (105.4 points per 100 possessions). Movement, of both players and the ball, was almost nonexistent. New York’s 54.2 assist percentage was the fourth-lowest in the NBA.

If Anthony didn’t do something on his own, that something often went undone.

For the Knicks, the triangle represents more than a philosophical change. It symbolizes the freedom they’ll now be afforded in a system that emphasizes options over strictly controlled actions.

“It’s a system, and not a set of plays,” Bleacher Report’s Dylan Murphy wrote of the triangle. “… Instead of having to sprint to different spots and remember different actions…the triangle blossoms like a tree. One choice leads to two options, which leads to three more, and so on.”

When executed properly, the offense puts defenses in situations they can’t possibly win.

“If you just choose to run ‘plays’, you can choke those plays off,” Knicks assistant Jim Cleamons told NBA.com’s David Aldridge. “But if you run a system, if you take an option away, there’s another option. It’s perpetual.”

However, keeping every option available requires a complete commitment from every player. And therein lies the biggest challenge Fisher and Jackson will face during their first full season in their new roles.

The first—and certainly most important—step is getting Anthony on board. Not only is he the best player on this roster, he’s also the most equipped to reprise the go-to scoring roles that Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant mastered during their times under Jackson.

To his credit, Anthony sounds eager to play his part.

“This new system is going to enhance my game,” he told reporters at media day, via Chris Herring of The Wall Street Journal. “It’s going to enhance my teammates’ games. As a whole, we’re going to be successful.”

Granted, everyone is happy, in the best shape of their lives and fully supportive of their team’s plans at media day.

But Anthony’s comments carry more substance than the typical on-camera commitment. Actions speak louder than words, and his show someone legitimately interested in figuring things out, per Herring:

Interest alone won’t make Anthony’s transition easy, though. This is a significant step away from a style that has helped him: win a national championship, become a No. 3 pick, book all those All-Star trips, capture a scoring crown and claim gold medals at the past two Olympic Games.

Whatever Anthony has been doing, it’s been working. Any resistance to change would not be surprising, it would be expected.

“There’s a period of time in which it takes a scorer with mainly a scoring mentality to play with the idea that you can’t score every time you touch the ball,” Jackson said at media day. “A lot of the scorers, it’s a natural instinct: I get the ball, I look to score.”

In this offense, Anthony won’t need to look for his own shot. The ball will find him.

Under Jackson, Jordan averaged 23.4 field-goal attempts a night. For Bryant, the number was 21.4. Over his career, Anthony has averaged 19.7 shots per game. Only four times in his 11 NBA seasons has he taken more than 20 a night.

It’s probably safe to assume those figures have been shared with Anthony at some point, per MSG Network’s Alan Hahn:

This offense not only caters to potent individual scorers, it’s also designed to make their lives easier.

Because there is so much movement around them, these premier players wind up attacking a defense that cannot give them its full attention. And those moving pieces are not decoys, either. As Grantland’s Chuck Klosterman explained, this system helps make everyone on the floor a scoring threat:

The real advantage of the Triangle is what it does for players with less ability. Most NBA sets are static; they require perimeter players to create their own shot, usually off the dribble. The Triangle’s relentless off-the-ball movement allows standing jump shooters to contribute within their own preexisting skill set. … You don’t need four or five athletic scorers to make the Triangle work. Two is plenty, because it amplifies the value of role players.

That has to be music to Anthony’s ears. There have not been many players more in need of scoring help. His 32.4 usage percentage ranked fourth among all double-digit scorers last season.

The Knicks have scorers on the roster, and this offense should help clean up their production.

J.R. Smith (46.5) and Jose Calderon (45.9) ranked second and fourth, respectively, in catch-and-shoot three-point percentage out of the 72 players to average at least three such attempts per game last season, via NBA.com’s SportVU player tracking data. The triangle should give them a wealth of clean looks.

Slashers Iman Shumpert and Cleanthony Early should benefit from the emphasis on off-ball cuts. Amar’e Stoudemire should have the chance to showcase his skills in both the high and low post, while Samuel Dalembert, Jason Smith and Andrea Bargnani can fire at will from the elbows.

If Anthony buys into the offense, the rest of the roster should follow his lead. At least, they will if they ever want to see the floor.

Expect Fisher to embrace and implement all elements of the offense—and Jackson to prod him along should the coach’s commitment ever waver.

While Jackson did not publicly profess an allegiance to the triangle at his introductory press conference, he left little doubt about what he had in mind for the Knicks.

“I believe in system basketball,” he told reporters. “(Knicks general manager) Steve Mills came out of Princeton. I came out of a system that we ran here in New York in which team basketball was an important aspect of playing. We believe that is what we want to accomplish here.”

If something distracted you while reading those comments, it was probably the blaring sirens and flashing lights adorning Jackson’s not-so-subtle context clues: system basketball, team basketball. Outside of actually drawing a certain three-sided object, he could not have painted the picture any clearer.

Jackson wants the triangle, so an alternative for Fisher does not exist even if he wants one.

Considering Fisher has seen what this offense is capable of, he probably was not seeking out other options anyway. He knows that is the key to maximizing this team’s offensive execution, and given the mess he inherited at the opposite end, it’s his best shot at righting the ship.

The triangle offense will be the most vital ingredient in Fisher’s recipe for success. It might be his only one until New York has enough financial flexibility to greatly improve the roster.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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John Wall Accuses Kemba Walker of Screaming to Draw Crucial Foul

The Charlotte Bobcats continue to be one of the NBA‘s most pleasant surprises. Their 98-85 win over the Washington Wizards was Charlotte’s fourth in five games, and they appear set to take an Eastern Conference playoff berth that very few people saw coming.

But not everyone is elated with the Bobcats’ winning ways. In a battle of electric young guards, Charlotte’s Kemba Walker got the better of Washington’s John Wall. The loser, Wall, was in a foul mood after the game, and he was in the mood to blame both Walker and the officials, per TrueHoop’s Adam McGinnis and CSN Washington’s J. Michael:

The problem, according to Wall, was that refs were all too eager to buy Walker’s exaggerated screams and call a foul on the Wizards. Here is a clip of the interview:

You seen it on the screen: I didn’t touch him. All he did was scream. The refs gave him the call all night because he was screaming. Can’t do nothing about it; we keep playing basketball.

The play in question came at the 4:34 mark of the fourth quarter, with the Bobcats leading, 83-80. The refs called a foul on a three-point attempt from Walker. Wizards head coach Randy Wittman protested, earning a technical from the bench.

Walker made all three free throws from the personal foul, plus the extra one from the technical, and suddenly the Bobcats’ lead was stretched to seven.

Did the foul call unnerve Wall? He drew a foul on Bobcats center Al Jefferson one possession later, but missed both free throws, adding to Washington’s problems.

Walker sank a three-pointer the next time down the court, pushing Charlotte’s lead to double digits. The Wizards did not score again until the lead had grown to 14 and the game was essentially over.

John Wall may be an All-Star this season, but he is still only 23 years old. Whether or not the foul call was justified, he still has a responsibility, as his team’s best player, to rally his troops instead of falling apart. The kid still has a lot to learn.

 

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Ohio State Basketball: Why Upping the Tempo Will Be Crucial to Buckeyes’ Success

The term “Jekyll and Hyde” is a cliche that is used far too often in sports, but there’s really no other way to describe the effort put forth by Ohio State’s basketball team on Saturday against Minnesota.

The Buckeyes tried their best to give everyone in the Schottenstein Center a migraine in the first half when it scored 18 points. The offense was basically let the ball-handlers lower their head and run straight into the teeth of the zone.

Fortunately for the Scarlet and Gray, the Golden Gophers only scored 28 themselves and kept the game within striking distance.

Ohio State came out of the locker room and immediately pushed the tempo for the rest of the game.

Before Minnesota even knew what hit it, the Buckeyes scored 17 straight points in a decisive 27-5 run. After a 46-18 second-half outburst, Ohio State took the game 64-46 and possibly set a precedent for the offense as the season’s stretch run approaches.

Thad Matta has the personnel to run an uptempo scheme like he did in the second half on Saturday. Whether he chooses to do so or not for the final three regular-season games and the tournaments will ultimately define the season.

Just a quick glance at the roster reveals players like Aaron Craft, Shannon Scott, Lenzelle Smith Jr., Sam Thompson, LaQuinton Ross, Amedeo Della Valle and Marc Loving. That is plenty of athleticism and depth to start consistently running, even if Amir Williams and Trey McDonald aren’t exactly built to be thoroughbreds.

Thompson in particular is built to play in an uptempo system, as was evidenced by his season-high 19 points against the Gophers, 16 of which came in the second half. He threw in some high-flying dunks for good measure, and there may not be a better finisher in the country when it comes to lob passes in transition.

Kyle Rowland of Eleven Warriors points out that Richard Pitino was particularly impressed from the opposite bench:

More important than Thompson’s individual contributions is the fact that an uptempo offense doesn’t allow the opposing defense to get set in the half court. The Buckeyes have faced zones for much of the season and struggled as a result.

Among the notable offensive clunkers this year were point totals of 52 at Marquette, 53 at Minnesota and 48 (in victory) at Illinois. They are shooting a disappointing 34 percent from behind the three-point line and only have one player (Ross) who is at 40 percent.

However, when Ohio State runs the floor, those three-pointers are suddenly open because the defense is busy trying to rush back and protect the rim. When the long-range shots are clean instead of forced as the shot clock runs down, they start to go in a lot more frequently.

Another benefit of implementing an uptempo offense is the fatigue that starts to become a factor for the other team. It’s tiring enough dealing with Ohio State’s No. 2-ranked defense, per Ken Pomeroy’s pace-adjusted defensive efficiency rankings as of Sunday, for 40 minutes as it is, and when the Buckeyes run it just compounds that fatigue.

That fatigue will lead to more turnovers created by the Buckeyes’ defense and more transition opportunities, creating something of a cycle. That is exactly what happened to the Gophers on Saturday.

Finally, there was more energy in the Schottenstein Center in the second half against Minnesota than there has been all season. The crowd may as well have been sleeping in the first half, but the uptempo pace and Thompson’s dunks brought the fans to life.

Considering the fact that the Buckeyes already have home losses to Michigan, Iowa (who they beat on the road) and Penn State this year, more energy in the crowd and an imposing home-court advantage is certainly not a bad thing.

Every advantage Ohio State can get in the loaded Big Ten will help, as Matta made clear in comments passed along by Rowland of Eleven Warriors:

In this league, you need to play like every game is the biggest game of your life. If you’re not ready to compete, fight or execute, you’re going to be embarrassed. It’s going to be exactly the same when we play Penn State on Wednesday. We have to get ourselves ready to go. 

The goals have been redefined from a Big Ten championship to a first-round bye in the conference tournament. Who knows what will come after that if the uptempo offense is as efficient as it was against the Gophers.

 

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Aaron Craft and Ohio State Making Final Stand After Crucial Road Win over Iowa

After picking up a huge 76-69 victory over Iowa on Tuesday night, it would appear we wrote off Aaron Craft and the Ohio State Buckeyes far too soon.

When the midseason Top 25 was announced for the Wooden Watch, it was just the latest time that Craft was given the benefit of the doubt. In the four games prior to the announcement, Craft had committed 19 turnovers while tallying just 19 assists. Ohio State lost all four games.

Yet there he was, allegedly one of the 25 players most deserving of eventually being crowned the best in the country.

Even his biggest fan knew people would argue he didn’t belong.

Bless his heart, Craft didn’t ask to become the most polarizing player in the game any more than Tim Tebow did. But people like Dan Dakich have been showering him with so much endless praise over the past three years that we simultaneously grew tired of hearing about him while expecting him to put up great statistics.

No, his numbers weren’t great prior to Tuesday night. But they were pretty much exactly what we’ve come to expect from him over the last two-plus seasons.

On Tuesday night, though, Craft was Mr. Wonderful.

Craft had six assists, six steals and three rebounds to go along with 17 points on 6-of-7 shootingpretty doggone efficient compared to Marshall Henderson’s night of 16 points on 6-of-18 shooting for Ole Miss against Kentucky.

Aside from the rebounds, he led the team in each of those categories. He had undeniably his best game of the season on a night when the team needed it most.

The win was Ohio State’s second consecutive road victory over a ranked opponent. Not too shabby for a team that entered that pair of games with five losses in a span of six games, including most recently a loss at home against Penn State.

At the end of January, it looked as though the Buckeyes were trying to play their way right out of the NCAA tournament. We’re only four days into February, and we have to at least wonder if they’re returning to the team that spent five straight weeks ranked as the No. 3 team in the nation.

Despite the struggles in January, they’ve clawed their way back to a .500 record in Big Ten playwhich has been no easy task over the past decade. Better yet, they just won the two most difficult games that were left on the calendar. Home games against Michigan and Michigan State will certainly be challenging, but they’re also quite winnable.

In fact, according to KenPom‘s projections, Ohio State will be the favorite (maybe not in Vegas) in each of its remaining eight games. It’s not completely crazy to think that this team that struggled so mightily in January could actually finish the regular season with 10 consecutive wins to get back in contention for a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.

If I had written that last sentence right after the loss to the Nittany Lions, I probably would have been drug-tested.

On Monday, Craft told Eric Seger of The Lantern, “Our biggest focus right now is to find a way to be better than Iowa. Everything else will really take care of itself the more we go on.

Now that they have beaten Iowa, the Buckeyes are back in business.

On Tuesday night, the nation’s best three-point defense held a pretty good shooting Hawkeyes team to just nine points from behind the arc despite 20 three-point attempts. The team with the fourth-best adjusted defensive efficiency in the country held Iowa to just 69 points, even though Iowa has spent most of the season in the top 10 in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency.

And it all started with Craft.

Even Jay Z would have been impressed with how much of a hustler Craft was in this game. He officially only had six steals, but if half-steals existed, he would have tallied a couple of those for forcing bad passes that turned into steals for other Buckeyes.

Ohio State is still looking for a consistent source of points. Craft was the leading scorer, but that’s not his game. LaQuinton Ross has scored 13 points in each of the last two games, but the team is still adjusting to life after Deshaun Thomas.

But if the Buckeyes can keep getting these kinds of defensive efforts out of Craft (spoiler alert: they will), they won’t need too much offense to make a deep run in the tournament.

And, who knows, perhaps we’ll even come to agree that Craft really is one of the 25 best players in the nation.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics are courtesy of KenPom.com (subscription required).

Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.

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Trail Blazers Just Biding Time Until Crucial Road Trip Against West’s Best

For the Portland Trail Blazers, Saturday’s 112-104 win over the Boston Celtics was, to be honest, rather routine. Yes, the Celtics put up a decent fight—holding a two-point lead at halftime and playing tough until the final seconds of the fourth quarter—but they have now lost eight games in a row, and the outcome rarely seemed in doubt.

If you are what your record says you are, then the 28-9 Blazers are an elite team in the NBA. And elite teams do not bother too much with the likes of Boston or the Blazers’ next opponent, the Cleveland Cavaliers (Wednesday, Jan. 15). 

But the Blazers are less than one week away from a stretch of games that has the potential to either cement their status as true contenders or expose them as pretenders.

That might be the most brutal four-game road trip any team will face this season—four games in five nights, and each one a challenge. 

The Blazers have had success against those teams—2-0 versus the Thunder, 1-0 versus the Spurs, 1-1 versus the Rockets, 0-1 versus the Mavericks—but the problem with being an unproven team is that constant need for validation.

If the Blazers want to be taken seriously in the second half, if they want to contend for the Northwest Division crown and home-court advantage in the playoffs, they will need to hold their own against the best of the West. 

So what did the Blazers learn about themselves against Boston that they can use against better competition next week?

 

Maintain Defensive Intensity

The Celtics are not a particularly good offensive team. According to Basketball-Reference, they came into Saturday ranked 20th in effective field-goal percentage and 24th in offensive efficiency. 

But they looked like the Larry Bird Celtics in the first half against Portland, shooting 61.9 percent, with most of those looks coming from point-blank range. The only thing keeping Portland in the game at that point was its three-point shooting (6-of-13 at the half).

In the second half, the game turned as Boston’s shots stopped going in. The Celtics shot just 34.0 percent after halftime.

Now, some of that was due to renewed intensity from the Portland defense, but the Celtics—an East Coast team playing the second night of a West Coast back-to-backalso looked like they simply ran out of gas.

After the game, Robin Lopez, Nicolas Batum and coach Terry Stotts seemed less than thrilled with the victory.

Per Sports Illustrated‘s Ben Golliver:

Playing down to the opponent. Taking off the first half. Not giving enough. All of these statements speak to a team going through the motions, particularly on defense.

Portland has never been a good defensive team this season. As of Saturday, it was ranked 21st in the NBA in defensive efficiency. Oftentimes, the Blazers have relied on their powerhouse offense to pull them out of the doldrums, as they did in the first half against Boston. But there is no guarantee they will continue to be successful against better teams on the road if they don’t raise their defensive intensity.

 

C.J. McCollum: The X-Factor

The story of Wednesday’s 110-94 win over the Orlando Magic was the NBA debut of Blazers rookie C.J. McCollum. The shooting guard out of Lehigh was chosen with the 10th pick in the 2013 draft but broke his foot during practice on Oct. 5. He scored four points on 2-of-5 shooting in his debut.

After the Magic game, McCollum told Mike Tokito of The Oregonian that he felt no lingering effects from the injury:

I just go out and play. I don’t think about it until the game’s over. I think, oh, that’s another game I got through, no stepping on any feet or anything like that. But once you recover from injury, you don’t think about it. You just go play and react.

McCollum certainly played like a man without a worry in the world on Saturday against Boston, scoring 10 points on 4-of-6 shooting. It was an impressive performance, to say the least.  

For a team like the Blazers, McCollum was a symbol of just how far they’ve come this year—from the 10th-worst 2012-13 squad to a legitimate conference contender—as well as a potentially valuable player to the team moving forward.

The Blazers bench is in desperate need of a player like McCollum—Portland’s reserves are an area of concern. According to HoopStats, the Blazers have the 25th-greatest difference in overall efficiency between starters and reserves. 

Portland has impressive scoring balance among its five starters—each of whom scored at least 15 points against Boston. But the reserves scored a paltry 26 points, and 10 of those points were scored by a kid playing in just his second pro game. Whether McCollum is ready or not, Portland needs him. So if he is ready to shine, then more the better.

The Blazers clearly have the talent to compete against the best of the West. But that talent is mostly untested. Portland will need those untested players—players like McCollum—to grow up fast. 

Portland has one more game—that Wednesday game against Cleveland—to fix the defense, pick up the intensity, and get McCollum a few more precious minutes of experience. The toughest test is yet to come.

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Clippers relying on Griffin, Jordan for crucial minutes

To steady rotation, Doc Rivers has played Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan more minutes.

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UNC Basketball: Leslie McDonald Crucial to Tar Heels’ Early-Season Success

Leslie McDonald has been given an opportunity, and now it’s time for the UNC senior to step up.

On a team stocked with three freshmen and four sophomore players, McDonald is the elder statesman on the Tar Heels squad, the oldest of four seniors on the team.

As a result, McDonald will be expected to provide leadership to Roy Williams’ squad.

Last Wednesday, McDonald took to his Twitter account, and made a statement that shows this leadership and maturity:

It’s exactly the kind of thing the Tar Heels need to be hearing from McDonald.

Now he needs to find his form on the court, which he displayed three years ago.

McDonald has proven to be one of the best defensive players on the Tar Heels, but he will have to re-gain his form of the 2010-11 season if he expects to flourish this season.

The Memphis native was expected to be a bigger factor in the Tar Heels offense, but an ACL tear during a North Carolina Pro-Am summer league game wiped out his entire 2011-12 season.

When he returned from injury last season, it was clear he was a shadow of his old self. A year later, there are big hopes for McDonald, whose opportunity comes by way of an indefinite suspension to P.J. Hairston. Coach Roy Williams suspended Hairston in July after the junior guard was charged with reckless driving and speeding.

McDonald has just one career start in 100 appearances for UNC, but as the Tar Heels head into the new season, McDonald has left fans with a level of hope for success.

McDonald, 22, has a career average of 7.2 points per game and 2.1 rebounds per game, but in his lone start last season against UAB, he scored a career-high 24 points.

“Just getting into the flow of shooting is key for me,” McDonald told ESPN on Monday, downplaying the situation. “Once you see your shot going in in pre-game and you move around get a little sweat you kind of feel for that game and you see what you’re going to do beforehand.”   

McDonald’s perimeter defence is his biggest contribution, and he’s also a steady free-throw shooter, but if he hopes to hang onto a starting role, he’ll have to improve his production from beyond the arc. He was hitting just 35.9 percent from three-point range last season, a drop from the 38.1 percent he was draining prior to the ACL injury.

The Tar Heels entered at No. 11 in the preseason USA Today Coaches’ Poll. With a healthy McDonald back in form, they’re hoping they can bolster that ranking and make a serious run this season.

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Heat vs. Spurs: Crucial Adjustments Each Team Must Make in Game 6

The Spurs need just one win in the next two games to claim their fifth title in the Duncan/Popovich era. But they will have to do it in Miami, where the Heat are 45-7 this season (including the playoffs). The Heat haven’t lost back-to-back games since January, while the Spurs haven’t lost back-to-back with Duncan, Parker and Ginobili healthy since mid-December. As the Jack Nicholson-Diane Keaton movie suggests, something’s gotta give.

This game will be decided by the adjustments made by both the Heat’s Erik Spoelstra and San Antonio’s Popovich as much as it will by the players on the court. Here’s what Miami needs to do to force a Game 7, and what San Antonio can do to win the O’Brien Trophy tonight.

Adjustments Miami needs to make:

1) Mike Miller can’t be in the starting lineup tonight. 

After the 109-93 shellacking the Spurs took in Game 4, Popovich took a chance. He started Manu Ginobili at shooting guard, and moved Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard to small and power forward, respectively. Ginobili hasn’t started all season, and promptly responded to the challenge by having one of his best games of the playoffs (24 points, eight assists). 

Miller couldn’t keep up with Manu defensively, allowing Ginobili to weave his way into the lane for his trademark off-balance layups, jumpers and floaters. Manu couldn’t keep up with the speedy Norris Cole off the bench, and expended a lot of energy chasing Ray Allen around those picks and screens. Now, Miami must counter by either going small (starting Ray Allen at shooting guard) or putting power forward Udonis Haslem back on the floor to start the game.

2) Don’t let the Spurs get into the open floor.

San Antonio was supposed to be the group of slow, boring old guys in this series. So how come we saw plays where, after a made basket by the Heat, Parker was able to run downcourt and get the ball to Duncan in the paint with just three seconds having gone by?

“[The Spurs have] an efficient attacking point guard in Parker,” says ESPN.com’s Michael Wallace, “who even on a gimpy hamstring is exposing the Heat’s position of greatest inconsistency.” While the Heat need LeBron, Bosh, Haslem and Chris Andersen to contend with the Spurs’ Duncan, Tiago Splitter and Boris Diaw down low, they also need Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole and Wade to avoid the Spurs’ ability to push the ball into transition at will, and take advantage instead of their own team’s superb half-court offense.

 

Adjustments San Antonio Must Make in Game 6:

1. More minutes for Splitter and Diaw.

The Spurs make their money off of their high-percentage shooting, and have given the Heat fits because of their ability to make three-pointers seemingly at will. However, “small ball” won’t work all game against the Heat. If the game is close in the second half, LeBron will try to drive to the paint and force the issue by drawing contact.

It would be beneficial for the Spurs to put big guys like Splitter and Diaw in the game for extended minutes to body LeBron and make sure he feels it when he does go to the free-throw line rather than being able to barrel through the lane for easy three-point plays against Gary Neal or Ginobili. By the way, Diaw’s ability to shoot the long ball on offense makes him a valuable asset on both sides (38.5% in the regular season). 

2. Pound the ball down low to Duncan and Splitter, as well as Kawhi Leonard.

The Heat will be looking to get high-percentage points in the paint and trips to the free throw line, so why shouldn’t the Spurs? We all know they can shoot threes by this point, so the Spurs should take advantage of the Heat’s undersized centers and forwards by getting off as many close shots as they can.

“We look forward to the challenge,” James said after Game 5. “We’ve been here before…We’ve got a chance to do something special.”

While that may very well be true, Miami needs to come out with efficiency and intensity right out of the gate during tonight’s game. Because now, in Game 6 of the Finals, there is no longer any room for mistakes.

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