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David Aldridge

A voracious, sell-out crowd at Quicken Loans Arena is what made the Heat-Cavs atmosphere shine.
Jeyhoun Allebaugh/NBAE via Getty Images

As expected, Heat-Cavs was hardly a typical night in the NBA

Posted Dec 6 2010 10:20AM

It was a night to remember. Well, an hour, anyway.

The first quarter of the NBA season has been all about the Miami Heat, and it's silly to argue otherwise. That may or may not be good for the league, and I doubt Kobe and the Lakers are sweating much, but the saga of LeBron and Bosh and D-Wade has riveted everyone's attention, and that culminated Video last Thursday night in Cleveland, when James made his first return trip to face his former hometown team.

The Cavaliers had been humiliated by James, and it was something that their owner, Dan Gilbert, had not forgotten. He was mostly magnamious in public, but privately, he had been waiting for this day for a long while. The organization had bent over backward for seven years to give James everything he wanted -- jobs for his inner circle, parking spaces for his friends, and on and on -- and James left. Employees were told not to have any further contact with James. This was, obviously, personal, from the top down.

"I think a lot of us wish it was Dec. 3," one employee said last Thursday, Dec. 2.

Feelings were still raw. That's why the Sherwin Williams sign that rose across the street from Quicken Loans Arena carried so much emotional impact. Six months earlier, James had been the iconic, 10-story figure, a Nike ad that simply said "We Are All Witnesses." Now, the paint company that has called Cleveland home for more than 140 years stepped up, with a nighttime shot of the Cleveland skyline, and the tag line read, simply:

Our Home Since 1866
Our Pride Forever

So, no, last Thursday was not just another game. No other game inspired a rap tune from one D Flex, of Cleveland, who penned a tune called "Ain't No Love" about the last few months of pro basketball in Northeast Ohio:

You had us fooled, we admit it,
Can't hate on your decision, we just hate the way you did it,
Let me explain
The whole city sit here witnessing the (expletive),
And I'm puzzled just a bit,
Did this (expletive) quit?

(There's more, easily findable on YouTube and other places.)

That the Heat had stumbled out of the gate made the intrigue even greater. When last week began, Miami had just one fewer loss than Cleveland, and was reeling from losses to Memphis, Indiana, and Dallas -- the last particularly galling, as the Heat felt it gave the game away. James and Wade did not seem to be meshing on the court; the Heat had already had to hold a team meeting.

ESPN quoted sources almost everyone thinks emanated from the James camp that claimed players were not happy with coach Erik Spoelstra's game plans. And injuries to swingman Mike Miller (thumb) and power forward Udonis Haslem (foot) crippled Miami in places it could not easily replace. Miller was to provide perimeter shooting; Haslem has been the heart and soul of the Heat for years.

"Just looking at it on TV, like I saw the plus-minus thing with LeBron and D-Wade, that was a shock to me. I was shocked by that," said Orlando Magic guard Quentin Richardson. "I definitely want to see everything work out for the sake of D-Wade, 'cause that's my boy. And I don't want to see him struggle and the team not do good. That thing should be a fun team. It should be a fun time for him. To me, it doesn't seem like that's what they've got going on over there. I've been in a situation where the basketball part isn't fun."

Said a Western Conference executive: "I think they miss Mike Miller desperately, but that was my concern when they signed him, because he hasn't been able to stay healthy."

Into the maelstrom, fresh off an hour-long walkthrough in a nearby hotel ballroom, the Heat came into the Q late Thursday afternoon. Here's what it felt like:

5:30 p.m.
Main Level, Quicken Loans Arena

The Q's ushers and other service people are awaiting their final marching orders for the evening. Security is utmost in everyone's mind; while they know that fans will boo and push the limits of good taste with some of their signs, the main issue is making sure nothing violent or crazy happens to James or the Heat. "We need to watch our guests tonight," the head usher says to the others, "instead of watching the game."

The Heat, the Cavaliers and the league have met for weeks, trying to coordinate potential responses quickly. Several familiar faces from NBA Security are here.

The Cavs don't want to be viewed as totalitarian in how they handle the crowd, but they're also terrified: 20,560 people can behave perfectly well tonight, and if three idiots decide to storm the court or throw a beer bottle on the court, that's how the team and the city will be judged. That's not fair, but that's life; ask Philadelphia, which has tried to explain for 30 years that Santa Claus wasn't really booed one year at an Eagles game. No one listens, or cares.

But James is not universally loathed.

"I'm gonna be cheering," says one older, African-American male usher. "I love the brother."

Indeed, the hatred for James in Cleveland has never been universal. Black fans, locally and nationwide, have been much slower to condemn his decision and pledge eternal emnity. Working folks tend to cut James a little more slack, viewing the issue more as one of having a simple opportunity to work in a better environment, for more money, like anybody else would do if they had the chance.

5:45 p.m.
Outside Harry Buffalo
East 4th Street

Two young ladies in clothing much too short to keep out the cold on this December evening ask me if I'd like to shred LeBron's jersey. "For charity," one adds.

Turns out she's the daughter of David DeLorge, the co-owner of the Shredding Network, who normally picks up the shredded, confidential documents and other papers of local businesses. Tonight, though, they're asking for donations in exchange for the chance to take a donated James jersey and shred it. (There is a monitor set up on the truck so that you can actually see the jersey ripped into shreds. Takes about a second.)

Cavs fans could give to charity and get a little catharsis by shredding their old LeBron gear.
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

"My partner, her name's Dana Mueller, when LeBron announced, she wanted to come downtown and do a shred for free, donate all the LeBron jerseys," DeLorge said. "We didn't do it at the time. Today, we were driving down, and she called me up and said 'Hey, let's do it.' So I put it together at noon. We do a lot of work with the Cleveland Food Bank, so we decided we were going to donate. We got all of our customers to come in. But right now, we've already raised $1,500. And when it's all done, we're going to ask the LeBron Foundation to match our offer to the Cleveland Food Bank."

The restaurant let DeLorge set up shop outside; the local police "donated" an officer for a couple of hours. But even DeLorge can't bring himself to pledge eternal hatred for James.

"It's nothing against LeBron," he says "Actually, I respect the guy."

6:22 p.m.
Outside Miami's locker room

Spoelstra is speaking calmly, like always.

"This is an extreme environment here tonight," he says. "There's no way around that. We want to stay in the moment as much as possible. In the walkthrough today (in the team's hotel ballroom), it wasn't, I didn't want to get ahead of ourselves. It was about our preparation. I didn't want anyone's mind wandering."

There is no backup in Spoelstra. He has worked his way up from video guy to head coach because he's always been able to outwork just about everyone and never seemed overwhelmed. This is the ultimate in player management, though. Spoelstra told his players in training camp not to be afraid of the expectations, but to speak openly and clearly about what the Heat hoped to accomplish. And in the midst of the speculation about his own future, he's challenged both James and Wade in recent practices to be more active defensively, to get on the glass more consistently.

He expects James to rise to the occasion.

"Look at his background," Spoelstra says. "Really. How extreme has his basketball history already been? He's been in a lot of extreme circumstances, going back all the way to junior high and high school. The most celebrated high school player, and everybody knew about him. He's had crowds like this his whole life. Yeah, this is a new experience for him, but if anybody can handle it, it's somebody who's been in an environment like this already before."

6:35 p.m.
Miami locker room

James has declined all pregame interview requests, including TNT's. So he sits at his locker in this odd juxtaposition -- the one man that everyone wants to hear from, alone, with no one around him, there but not accessible.

Meanwhile, Zydrunas Ilgauskas is accessible. Not that he likes it.

"I never like to be the focus," Big Z says, with two dozen or so reporters around him. It's his homecoming, too, after 13 years as a Cavalier.

He's the franchise's all-time leader in games played, rebounds and blocked shots. And he's uncomfortable with the idea, that some Cavs fans have floated, that they should cheer wildly for him when he is introduced, while remaining silent or turning their backs to James when he is introduced. Everything is strange for Ilgauskas.

"We've never been in this locker room before," he says. "We talked about this game a few times before. It is what it is. It's a basketball game. I think it's been blown a little out of proportion."

Well, yeah.

7:47 p.m.
Inside the Q

You wanted signs? You got signs.

Clevelanders didn't hide their feelings when LeBron James made his first return trip to Ohio.
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

I believe in Dan Gilbert


Where LeQuitting Happens

LeQuit and the Cheat

11-8? Looks Like You Left Your Talents in Cleveland

Akron Hates you, too, LeBron

Punk Move, 'Bron (quoting Charles Barkley)

Speaking of the Chuckster, who has been quite critical of some of James' decisions during the summer, here he comes, out onto the court to get ready to do the TNT show open. Standing O. The Cavs are introduced four minutes later, to thundering applause, like they're up 3-2 in the Finals and have a chance to clinch tonight. Miami enters at 7:52, to a wall of boos. After the anthem, a phalanx of Cleveland Browns come out to their choice seats: Shaun Rogers, Travis Hafner, Josh Cribbs, legendary quarterback Bernie Kosar ... and Drew Carey, Mr. Cleveland. All dressed in Browns gear. The decibel meter reads 104.6.

8:12 p.m.

"Starting at forward for the Heat, a 6-8 forward from St. Vincent St. Mary's High School, LeBron James"...

And much of the NBA world sits, transfixed, for the next two and a half hours.

11:10 p.m.
Outside Miami locker room

"I saw a group that were playing for their brothers," Erik Spoelstra is saying, after the Heat poleaxed the Cavs, 118-90. James had 38 points, five rebounds and eight assists, and sat out the last quarter, so great was Miami's dominance.

"But as the game went on, you could see collectively we were playing as for others. And that's more powerful. But there was an absolute respect for those two, to bring your best focus, your best effort, to do this collectively. Because it would not have been enough just for LeBron, or just Big Z, or just Dwyane. It took a collective effort, particularly at the defensive end."

Miami has been stultifying on defense. James and Wade have controlled the game at the defensive end, and Chris Bosh has provided solid play inside. But, incomprehensibly, the Cavaliers were passive and soft for much of the second quarter and almost all of the second half. Mo Williams had talked about how the Cavs' players had a chip on their shoulder. Coach Byron Scott had made almost nightly mention of the terrible predicitions pundits had made about Cleveland's record. And then ... this.

It's just one game, but it feels familar to Juwan Howard. Twenty years ago, he was part of what was, then, basketball's big thing -- the Fab Five, at Michigan. They also set all of basketball on its collective ear, under similar circumstances -- five all-Americas who decided, against all conventional wisdom, to play together, just to see how good they could be. Predictions of multiple national championships came quickly, and often. Yet the Fab Five never realized that goal, reaching two NCAA championship games and falling short both times.

And a lot of people in college basketball came after them, for their arrogance, for their ... presumptuousness.

"I recall, I believe it was our first Big Ten road game (at Iowa)," Howard said. "That's when we started to realize that this thing, it's on a higher stage, and we have to be prepared mentally to have to deal with crowds, teams, plus being ready for teams to jump out and attack us. We have to be able to sustain that pressure. And it told us how to grow up quickly. And something like this, being with these three guys, is somewhat similar. We've had a lot of negativity surrounding us."

11:54 p.m.
News conference

James swears it wasn't personal.

"Cavs fans weren't on my list," he says, referring to his infamous "payback list" he says he compiled, naming everyone who'd been critical of him after The Decision.

"It's a basketball game," he said, "and I had to maintain my focus, no matter what's said or what's done throughout that game. It's nothing personal. At all. From me to the fans. I don't hold any grudges. They came out to support their team, to support the Cavaliers in any way possible, to try to get anybody -- myself or any of our guys -- unfocused on what the task was. They tried anything. I don't have any hurt feelings about this game at all, or these fans. I wish them the best."

12:02 a.m., Friday
Outside the Heat bus

"I can say tonight that that was our mentality -- it was us against everybody," Dwyane Wade is saying. "And we had to approach it that way. I think we've done a good job of just trying to focus on getting better of late, and not letting all of this new hype, good or bad, get into our way. That's what we're trying to do."

Wade is the one who's probably had to adjust more than anyone. This was his team for seven years. He was drafted after current Heat teammates Bosh and James in 2003, yet of that trio, he's the only one with a championship ring. He was the one who signed off on Pat Riley's plan to take the roster almost down to zero to have a chance to go after James and Bosh. None of this would have happened without Dwyane Wade's approval. So he has to deal with the consequences. He has to deal with Spoelstra's demands that he and the other guards stick their noses in the paint and come up with rebounds, because Miami can't win any other way.

"That's the way it's going to be be," Wade said. "Thats the way it's been in my eight years in Miami. You've got to find a way. It's going to take time. A lot of guys come into this system, and it takes time to learn it, and understand that you're going to be out of position at times. But at the end of the day, this is the system. And if we want to be great, we've got to do it. Twenty games in, I think we're starting to figure it out. We've got 62 games left. And I think we're going to have much more success in the next 20 han we had in the first 20."

And then, he and James are on the bus.

It is, finally, Dec. 3.


Rough times arrive for playoff teams

A season after making the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, the Bobcats are floundering with a 7-13 record. The Bucks, one of the surprise teams in the league last season, are currently out of the playoff race in the East. (Yes, it's early). The Hawks needed to hold a team meeting last month after week after losing three straight and falling apart defensively. Oklahoma City is holding its own, but the Thunder is getting everyone's best shot, no longer the darlings of the league.

Less than two years after winning 54 games, Portland is taking on water, losing six straight before getting America's JV team, the Clippers, at home on Sunday. The Grizzlies looked like they could become this season's Oklahoma City, but Memphis hasn't been able to recapture its magic at home, going just 6-5 out of the gate at FedEx Forum.

The hardest thing for a team to do, the conventional wisdom goes, is not getting to .500 after being bad. The hardest thing is going from OK/good to great. Those 10 wins between 40 and 50 are among the hardest to get -- and, once you get them, the hardest to retain.

Coach Scott Skiles and the Bucks have struggled to recapture the magic from last season.
Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

"When you start becoming good, those road games, more than anything else, at the beginning of games, the intensity level is up a notch," said Wizards coach Flip Saunders, who took the Timberwolves to their first postseason in 1997 with a 40-42 record, then went 45-37 the next season.

"As much as anything, it's just the overall intensity that (opposing) teams come with," Saunders said. "They just have more of a sense of urgency playing against you, when you team's good."

Injuries obviously factor in. The Bucks point out that they've lost Andrew Bogut (elbow, back), Drew Gooden (plantar fascitis), Corey Maggette (ankle) and Carlos Delfino (recurring effects of concussion) for various stretches already this season, and think they'll get back on track when and if everyone is healthy again. Atlanta just lost Joe Johnson for 4 to 6 weeks after right elbow surgery; the Blazers ... well, we know all about the Blazers and injuries, don't we?

But there's a mental component as well. A team just learning how good it is also has to learn that there are no more nights off. The cliche about the hunter becoming the hunted is a cliche, but cliches also have truth in their base. And the newly good teams also get the full attention of the league's elite, with scouting reports followed to the letter. Kobe's not going to let you make a name off of him, kid.

"I've always said that when you have a (good) team, you're always worried about playing poor teams," Saunders said. "'Cause when you play a poor team, what would happen is, players figure, oh, I can just go out and I can just play. But when you play against a good team, they say, 'Coach, we'll do whatever you say, because if it's not successful, it's your fault.' "

Top O' the World, Ma!

(Last week's rankings in brackets; this week's record in parentheses)

1) Dallas [5] (4-0): Nine-game win streak is impressive. Defensive stats are more impressive. But being 8-1 on the road, with wins at Utah, San Antonio, Denver and Oklahoma City before Christmas, is most impressive.

2) San Antonio [2] (3-1): Looks like Gregg Popovich can still motivate his players using the old chestnut of getting tossed from a game when his team is lethargic, as he did Friday against Minnesota.

3) Boston [4] (4-0): I'm guessing Doc Rivers really wishes it was the first week of April instead of the first week of December. He's got the Celtics playing great, but it's a long, long way to the playoffs -- especially for a team whose core group is as old as Boston's.

Doc Rivers' veteran crew has been playing as well as anyone of late.
Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images

4) Utah [1] (2-1): Some may be as good, but no one is playing better at the point than Deron Williams, averaging a double-double (21 and 10 dimes).

5) Orlando [3] (3-1): That was a great, gutsy effort by Orlando Friday, winning on the road in Detroit without Dwight Howard, Jameer Nelson, J.J. Redick and Mickael Pietrus, all out with this stomach flu that is going around. Almost pulled out the back-to-back road work in Milwaukee Saturday.

6) Denver [8] (3-0): Until misfiring on 1-of-8 shooting Sunday, J.R. Smith had had a resurgence of late, shooting 54 percent in his previous three games, giving the Nuggets the production off the bench they'd been missing earlier in the season.

7) New Orleans [6] (1-3): Hornets coming back to earth against West's elite, having been smacked down twice by the Spurs in the last week, and also dropping games to OKC and Utah.

8) L.A. Lakers [7] (1-2): Andrew Bynum takes part in scrimmage Friday as his rehab from knee surgery accelerates, and not a moment too soon, as Pau Gasol (hamstring), playing in the hole until Bynum's return, looks like he's wearing down from all of the pounding.

9) Oklahoma City [9] (3-1): Thunder got Kevin Durant back Sunday night, and have held the fort through all kinds of different injuries.

10) Miami [11] (4-0): Consecutive wins against East also-rans and Joe Johnson-less Hawks are not exactly beating the '96 Bulls, but they're a start. Games at Milwaukee and Utah this week should give a much better indication of whether the Heat are actually getting better.

11) Chicago [10] (1-2): Bulls didn't show they were ready for prime time after blowout losses to Eastern elites Orlando and Boston, but D-Rose bailed them out against Houston.

12) New York [15] (4-0): A pulse in Gotham! After beating Toronto on Sunday, the Knicks have won eight of their last nine, the first time they've had a streak like that since winning nine of 10 games in December of 2000 and January of 2001.

13) Atlanta [12] (2-1): Who will be the Hawks' go-to guy for the next month while Joe Johnson recovers from surgery? My guess is Jamal Crawford, who also has the added incentive of being in a contract year and being ticked off that ATL hasn't given him an extension.

14) Phoenix [NR]: (3-0): Suns get a little -- a little -- better defensively with Earl Barron starting, and Hedo Turkoglu and Hakim Warrick coming off the bench.

15) Indiana [14] (1-2): Finished poorly on road trip after breakthrough win at Lakers.

Team of the Week

Dallas (4-0): Getting contributions from all across the roster, from J.J. Barea to DeShawn Stevenson to Caron Butler, with the defense rising up to get key stops when needed, the Mavs should extend their win streak into double-digits with home games this week against the Warriors and Nets. But remember, the Mavs won 13 straight after the big trade in February, and it didn't keep them from a first-round loss.

Team of the Weak

Portland (1-3): Blazers went winless on their four-game eastern swing, blowing big leads to the Nets, 76ers and Wizards. The overall loss streak reached six before the Blazers beat the Clippers back at home Sunday. Nate McMillan said after the Washington loss that he wasn't getting through to his players, and Brandon Roy said the players weren't on the same page. Even though they got Joel Przybilla back, the Blazers are reeling at the moment.

Nobody Asked Me, But ...

Is the league's takeover of the Hornets a positive for the franchise, or putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound that can't be sutured?

The deal, first reported by and over the weekend, will put the team in league receivership for an unspecified period of time while the NBA attempts to find a local buyer that will keep the team in New Orleans. While the Hornets' current management team will remain in place, the league will place Minnesota Wild executive and New Orleans native Jac Sperling in nominal control of the team in order to try and put a new ownership group together.

The decision for the NBA to take over came after the proposed sale of the team from George Shinn to minority owner Gary Chouest fell through. The issue was not the proposed sale price, according to a source with knowledge of the negotiations; Chouest was actually going to pay less for the team on a per share basis than he paid for his minority share a few years ago. But Chouest's business interests have been hurt badly by the BP oil spill in the Gulf, and he may have had trouble coming up with the financing for the deal in a way that was palatable for the league.

According to the source, the league's involvement accelerated once Chouest, after several times when it appeared he deal would be done, indicated once and for all that he could not buy the team. Shinn had two proposed buyers for the team, including one that wanted to move the team, according to the source, but decided not to make either deal after a discussion with NBA commissioner David Stern.

"George called David," the source said, "and said 'I have two offers to sell the team outside of Gary's offer, and one is to move the team. I don't want that to be my legacy. What can you do?' "

Shinn wanted to accelerate a sale so that he could avoid significant financial costs by next Jan. 1, believed to be estate tax payments he may have had to incur if he still owned the team by then.

The league has also had to get involved quickly because, once again, if the Hornets don't reach specific attendance numbers in the next month, the team will be able to break its existing lease with the state that currently runs through 2014, by merely paying a $10 million penalty fee and informing the state by March 1 of next year that it intends to move.

The team has to average 14,213 at New Orleans Arena over a 13-game period which began last week, according to The Times-Picayune, to keep the team from being able to move. In the first two home games, against Charlotte and New York last week, New Orleans averaged 12,443. The Hornets reached a similar attendance goal a couple of years ago, and averaged 15,072 last season.

There is also an urgency to get something done because, I'm told, Shinn has not been involved in the daily decision-making of the franchise for more than a year. Part of that was by design, as Shinn, who has battled prostate cancer in the last couple of years, hoped to groom his son, Chad, to take over the team.

But the Shinns also were reluctant to OK major transactions in the last few months because they knew they were selling the team, and Chouest didn't feel he could be the final say on decisions when he didn't yet control the team. So many of the key decisions of late, including the Hornets' trades of Darren Collison to Indiana and Peja Stojakovic to Toronto for Jarrett Jack, have been a partnership of GM Dell Demps and team president Hugh Weber.

At least for now, Sperling will have final say, though he's expected to defer to the basketball operations side. He will be the Hornets' representative at Board of Governors meetings. Sperling is more of a behind-the-scenes dealmaker than a kingpin himself; he's not believed to be the money guy in any proposed group that buys the team.

Sperling, currently the vice chairman of the Wild, brokered the sale of the Anaheim Ducks in 2005 to the Samueli Family -- Henry and wife Susan. But that deal wound up giving the NHL a black eye, as Henry Samueli was suspended by the league for almost 18 months after he plead guilty to one count of lying to the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2008. Samueli was trying to hide his involvement in an alleged scheme to backdate stock options at Broadcom Corporation, a technology company he founded. Henry Samueli was reinstated to the NHL last November.

Sperling's presence does not guarantee that the Hornets will remain in New Orleans -- a buyer still needs to be found, one with signficant pockets. But it makes the league's position clear. The Commish has made the success of the Hornets in the Big Easy a major priority of his; he insisted that the team would go back to New Orleans after two very successful seasons in Oklahoma City.

There is no question that taking over and putting Sperling in charge means that the league is throwing all of its weight to keeping the Hornets in Louisiana. But the fans are going to have the final word. If they show up in the necessary numbers, the team will likely stay. If they don't, it just takes one billionaire's largesse to change the equation.

... And Nobody Asked You, Either

Does "The Q" now refer to "Quittin' Loans Arena?" From Joao Ribeiro:

First, I am not from Cleveland. I'm not even from the USA. I'm from Portugal and I see things from outside of your perspective. Second, despite loving the NBA I'm not a Cavalier fan or LeBron fan.

...I saw the game and what I can say that Mr Aldridge has't is: Cleveland is not a great team. It's full of flaws defensively but mainly offensively. And everybody forgets that now? In season predictions, along with Toronto and others, the Cavs were considered (a very) improbable playoff team.

So I don't understand why so (much) praise for this victory. I thnk LeBron had a great game; no turnovers and the Heat played well. But it's not the Lakers or Celtics with the thirst of championship in the playoffs. It's the Cavs, who are hungry but without powerhouse players. And again, don't you think Miami should play better in every game? Not just in these revenge foolishness?

Joao, you're right that the Cavaliers are not a contending team. But they were playing in front of 20,000 boisterous fans that were desperate to see the home team exact some revenge against James and the Heat. It was not a typical home crowd. So Miami should get some credit for smacking down both the Cavs and the fans in quick fashion, and never lettting up through four quarters.

Deep dish pizza, Da Bears and D-Rose. From Mack Biester:

I look forward to reading your Morning Tip article every monday, and after reading this weeks I just have to ask this question: what in the name of God does Derrick Rose have to do to get on the MVP watch? Dwight, Kobe, and Dirk are all playing really impressive ball and so was CP3 until this past week, but LeBron? The Bulls are outplaying the Heat, Rose is the only player in the league averaging over 25 points and eight assists, and to be honest the kid is just a monster. I mean, five 30-plus-point games on the Bulls' toughest road trip of the year. Doesn't that speak for itself?

Sooner or later, a high-flyer like Derrick Rose will crack the Morning Tip's MVP Watch.
Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Derrick is playing great, Mack. So are Howard, Bryant, Nowitzki -- and, yes, LeBron, especially after this week. It's a hard call every week to decide who should be in the top five, and I always consider Rose. I'm sure he'll be in the Watch at some point this season.

When 41+41 does not add up to 82. From Mike Bass:

I'm a bigtime Spurs fan and have lived in SA all my life. But regarding the Lakers I have noticed that they are in a three-way tie for 25th in strength of schedule. At least that was the report that I printed off of The Spurs had the 10th-hardest schedule and Dallas being the first. I was really wondering how this happens when they won the title last year? How is it that commissioner Stern gives them one of the easiest regular-season schedules. Obtaining home-court advantage for them will be a lot more managable than say for the Mavs or Spurs etc. Shouldn't they be tested against the league's best since they are the title holders the last two years? Really have not heard anyone bringing this important fact up on any talks about the Lakers?

Mike, everyone winds up playing the same number of home games and road games. There may be some distinction between one team's schedule and another when it comes to inter-conference, non-division opponents; that is, Team A in the Atlantic Division could play Team B in the Central Division four times in a given season, while Team C in the Atlantic may play Team B only three times. But the Lakers don't have an "easier" schedule than the Spurs. They may have an easier November for example, but a harder January.

MVP Watch

(weekly averages in parenthesis)

1) Dwight Howard (11 ppg, 13 rpg, 2 bpg, .450 FG, .667 FT): Stomach virus-shortened week for Superman.

2) Kobe Bryant (26 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 4.3 apg, .418 FG, .778 FT): Phil Jackson acknowledges there is both a "Kobe System" and a "Triangle System," and that both have to co-exist.

3) LeBron James (27 ppg, 6 rpg, 5 apg, .551 FG, .771 FT): Fair to say he had a strong response to all the posters and curses and booing, yes?

4) Dirk Nowitzki (20.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 4.3 apg, .617 FG, 1.000 FT): Diggler has gone for at least 20 points in a preposterous 14 of his last 17 games dating back to Nov. 1.

5) Rajon Rondo (15 ppg, 4 rpg, 13.7 apg, .600 FG, .333 FG): Rondo is simply magnficent, a leader in the truest sense on a team of Alpha males. But will the hammy be a season-long issue?

Dropped out: Chris Paul

By The Numbers

7 -- Consecutive road games won by the Knicks after Sunday's 116-99 victory in Toronto, the team's longest road win streak since it took seven straight from December 27, 1994 to January 22, 1995.

10 -- Consecutive road losses for the Wizards, one of two teams (Clippers, of course) that has yet to win a game away from home this season.

202 -- Regular season games played together as of Sunday by the Celtics' new Big Three -- Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. Boston is 152-50 (.760) in those games, and, according to the league, 42-22 (.656) when one of the BT hasn't played.

I'm Feelin' ...

1) Incredible atmosphere at the Q Thursday. Wish the game had been as good.

2) I can't say what Jamaal Mosely, the Cavs' assistant coach, said to LeBron James when LBJ was cutting up near the Cleveland bench during Miami's rout Thursday, because of the kiddies. But I'm glad he said it, because the guys wearing the uniforms certainly didn't put up any resistance.

The 'Hack-a-Drew' strategy is becoming a popular one around the league.
Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

3) The Bucks swear they just need to get healthy, and with Andrew Bogut going for 31 and 18 Saturday against the Superman-less Magic, they may have a point. But Bogut's bum elbow makes him susceptible to the "Hack-a-Drew" strategy late, as Orlando used to some good effect (Bogut is misfiring at just .421 from the line this season).

4) Either a lot of players have a newfound respect for the game, or the refs are backing off of calling all the Ts they were firing up in the preseason.

5) There are many deserving nominees among the Finalists for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, including my TNT colleague Reggie Miller, trailblazing forward Spencer Haywood, the dominant Russian center Arvydas Sabonis and longtime coach Don Nelson, the winningest coach in NBA history. But if Dennis Rodman isn't front and center next fall in Springfield, something rotten is going on that doesn't have anything to do with basketball.

6) Man, it's fun watching the Steelers and Ravens bang heads for 60 minutes.

Not Feelin' ...

1) The NBA world is a community. We lost one of our elders on Friday, when Phil Jasner, among the most decorated and revered of writers, died of cancer. If there's anyone out there who didn't like Phil, I don't know them; if they didn't honor his incredible work ethic, I haven't heard of them; if they didn't respect his encyclopedic knowledge and rolodex of everyone who mattered in the game, and in particular, Philadelphia basketball, they aren't worth hearing from. Phil was old school in the best possible sense; the work was what was important, not becoming famous or getting on television. And his work over almost four decades for the Philadelphia Daily News was impeccable. It won't be the same going to the City of Brotherly Love without seeing him in the press room, ready with a quip or a tip, and always with a smile.

2) I like Boobie Gibson, but saying he didn't like what LeBron was saying and doing Friday was about 24 hours too late, don't you think?

3) When I advocate giving a foul when up three in the final seconds of a game, I don't mean fouling a guy when he's clearly pulling up to shoot a three, Video like Jeff Green was Wednesday in New Jersey. And if you're going to foul him, you can't let him get the shot off, Stephen Graham.

4) You've got to feel for Doug Collins, watching the 76ers continue to lose close games down the stretch. He reveres basketball and playing the game the right way, and his guys just don't make good decisions in the guts of the game.

And you worry that he takes the losses much harder than the players do.

5) This is why I argued that George Gervin is still the Spurs' all-time leading scorer, not Tim Duncan: the league put out a press release last week noting that Larry Brown was 12 wins shy of passing Don Nelson on the all-time wins list for head coaches. Which is true. But Brown's win total cited by the NBA includes his 229 ABA coaching victories. Which, again, is fine by me. So why are ABA coaching wins counted, but ABA point totals aren't?

Tweet of the Week

Everything I'm not made me everything I am
-- Hornets swingman Quincy Pondexter (@QuincyPondexter), Saturday, 1:04 a.m. Hey, not bad self-awareness from a rookie.

Mr. Fifteen

So I've decided to renew this weekly look at a player who, for one reason or another, doesn't play very much for his team. (Though I haven't given up on the idea of doing a weekly comparison of like-skilled players, ultimately picking one over the other. Coming soon.)

The title "Mr. Fifteen" does not literally mean this is the 15th man on a given team; it's a metaphor. Some of last year's Mr. Fifteens have gone on to become significant rotation players (like Francicso Elson, though it's with Utah, not his team last year, Milwaukee). Others are still bouncing around, getting some PT here and there (Sean Marks in Portland; Leon Powe in Cleveland); others didn't get on NBA rosters this year and are working to get back in (Adam Morrison, Joe Alexander, Sean Williams).

This week's Mr. 15 is Orlando Magic rookie center Daniel Orton, the last of five first-round picks (29th overall) from the University of Kentucky's star-studded team. It marked the first time in NBA Draft history that five players from the same school were first-round picks.

But Orton's inclusion in the group was a surprise to many in college basketball -- not to mention NBA scouts -- who thought the 20-year-old would return for his sophomore season at Kentucky, where he almost certainly would have been the focal point of John Calipari's offense this year. Orton averaged just 13 minutes, 3.4 points and 3.3 rebounds in his lone season; playing behind DeMarcus Cousins, Orton didn't start a game last year for the Wildcats, and had missed much of his senior season in high school with a knee injury.

Daniel Orton -- shown during Summer League play -- was recently sent down to the NBA D-League.
Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

But Orton gambled that his potential would get him into the first round, and he was right. So far, though, he hasn't gotten any burn, which is hardly a surprise, given that Dwight Howard is playing MVP-caliber basketball and Orlando has the best big man depth in the league, with Brandon Bass and Marcin Gortat. And last week, Orlando assigned Orton to the NBA D-League's New Mexico Thunderbirds to get some work. (This Q&A took place just prior to Orton's D-League designation.)

DA: Since you aren't getting to play, where and when are your games?

Daniel Orton: My games are in practice, really. I mean, of course, there's a lot of watching. I sit back. During timeouts, I watch how he draws up plays, watch different things to educate myself, like that. Then during games you watch defensive rotations, stuff like that, to learn how to play defense in this league.

DA: During practices, are you going up against Dwight a lot?

DO: Here and there. Really and truly, we've been traveling so much, we haven't had true practices, it's just been light stuff, really.

DA: Are you working with Patrick Ewing or any particular coach?

DO: I'm working with Brendan Malone, coach Malone.

DA: What have you learned from him?

DO: Moreso just like, when I make my moves, just make my moves quick, and then slow down when I come into the shot. That's probably the main thing I learned from him.

DA: All fun or all work?

DO: It's a combination of both. You have your fun time, but then there's times when you have to buckle down and work.

DA: Your Kentucky classmates, John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, are both playing regularly. Eric Bledsoe was starting for the Clippers. Has it been hard watching them play a lot while you've been on the bench?

DO: I mean, it's hard just not playing in general. That's it.

DA: Do you think at all about whether you made the right call coming out of Kentucky early?

DO: Yeah, I mean, those thoughts occur. But I'm happy to be at where I am right now. I think I made the right decision.

DA: Who do you talk to? What do you talk about?

DO: Probably just my brother, moreso. He helps me get through a lot of things. So I look toward him. Just pretty much life, really. He and I, we've grown closer over the past couple of years. At the end of the day, I know I have him, though, to look to.

DA: Is it hard to feel part of this, even though they're winning?

DO: At times, I do feel like I'm not really with the team or something like that. Moreso, the development part, like you said, is going to be within myself, really. So I think they're looking towards me to develop myself, really. But I do get help and guidance from them, really.

DA: If these guys said 'Would you like to play in the D League?,' what would you do?

DO: I mean, I really don't even care right now. Whatever they think is best for me is probably what I'm going to do.

DA: What is your plan for the offseason?

DO: I mean, like you said, keep myself sharp, keep myself focused. I think I want to get better, a lot better, this offseason. And that's one thing I'm looking forward to, next offseason, because I know I probably won't get the chance to get many minutes this year. So that's one thing I'm definitely looking forward to. Moreso just developing my game than anything else.

They Said It

"I should come back more often."
-- Miami center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, on Thursday, noting the huge throng of reporters that wanted to speak with him before his first game back in Cleveland as a member of the Heat. Oh, and some other guy with the Heat made his return to Cleveland as well.

"I don't think we want to be like the Knicks. I'd think we'd more like to resemble the Lakers."
-- Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, responding to a radio advertisement in New York by the city's current team, claiming the Nets were trying to be the Knicks, but never will be.

"I'm a big part of this team, and coach Westphal has been saying it. I've been terrible. It's the truth."
-- Kings rookie center DeMarcus Cousins, acknowledging to the Sacramento Bee that his immaturity has been part of the problem in Sacramento. The first-round pick has clashed with coaches and complained about his role in the offense, to the point where he was thrown out of practice last week by Paul Westphal.

Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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