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David Aldridge

Using a defensive style that gets stops -- but doesn't foul foes -- has the Bulls soaring in the playoffs.
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Rx for playoff success: Tough, hard D ... but not too hard

Posted Apr 25 2011 6:42AM

Paul Pierce is OK with defending without fouling. But only to a point.

"We don't foul a lot?," Pierce asked Saturday.

Well, more than some, less than others.

"We need to," he continued. "We need to. A little bit more, for my taste. You gotta send somebody a message sometimes. I think we are lacking that. Nah, I'm for real on that. I was mad when 'Melo had 42 (against Boston in Game 2 of the series) and he kept going to the hole, and he didn't go to the ground. That's playoffs, though. That ain't trying to hurt nobody. It's an unspoken rule."

Pierce and his Celtics walk the fine line between old-school and new-age NBA defense, a line constantly crossed back and forth by teams, players and coaches today who want to be physical, but also want to stay in the game.

Today's game requires teams that want to compete for championships be able to defend without fouling -- a seemingly simple concept that is actually difficult to master. The playoffs are the ultimate test of defensive discipline and structure, and the teams that can adjust while still not sending opponents into the penalty early are the ones that have the best chance to win late.

"The natural reaction is to not allow guys to score. You try to foul," says Knicks guard Roger Mason, Jr., who spent two years with the Spurs, one of the best teams ever at not fouling.

It doesn't mean that those defend-without-fouling teams are the best at field-goal percentage or points allowed -- stats that have been devalued by some in the era of adjusted win shares and pace and PER. But there usually is a correlation between those stats, fouls committed and defensive rebounds. A team that has been able to defend without fouling, one that is consistently in the top five in fewest fouls committed, like the Spurs -- nine times in the last 10 seasons, and top two in fewest fouls in four of the last five seasons -- is always going to have a chance in the postseason.

The line is pretty consistent. The Pistons' run to six straight Eastern Conference finals from 2002-08 dovetails with their standing on the fouls list -- four times in six years they've been among teams with the fewest fouls. As they began to age, the line slipped -- 14th in 2007 and out of the top 15 altogether in 2008. The same rings true for Sacramento, whose championship window at the beginning of last decade is exactly when the Kings began showing up in the top five in fewest fouls (second in 2001, fourth in 2002, second in 2003, third in 2004, second in 2005). It's not a coincidence that Minnesota's last season in the top half of the league in fewest fouls was Kevin Garnett's last season with the Timberwolves.

There are outliers. The threepeat Lakers of 1999-2002 were not especially good at not fouling, with a top showing of 10th in the league in 1999-2000. And the current Celtics aren't that good, either, maxing out at 15th this season. In Boston's case, though, the Celtics have a one-two combination of pace (eighth-best in the league in ESPN sabermetrician John Hollinger's team statistics) and defensive efficiency -- the number of points a team allows per 100 possessions. Boston finished second only to Chicago in that stat, allowing just 97.8 points per 100 possessions.

"We're in an actual defensive system," Pierce said. "With other coaches I've been with, there was no actual defensive system. One night we'd play one way and the next night we'd play another way. There was no consistency. With our club, we have that consistency each and every night. I've actually been on good defensive teams where it was, basically, Rucker Park (the celebrated New York playground). You know, you've got your man, whatever happens. But you notice, that's with all the bad teams."

A lot has conspired to make playing good defense without fouling difficult. The speed of today's players, for one. Rules changes that began in 1994, when hand checking was eliminated from the end line in the backcourt to the opposite foul line. More rules changes, through 2004, that further limited hand and body contact. More players coming to the pro game without strong defensive fundamentals. It's hard.

The teams that spend hours on sliding drills, and hand placement drills, and communicating instructions to each other day after day, practice after tedious practice, are those that play in May and June. It's no coincidence that Boston breezed by the Knicks, and the Heat are up on the Sixers and the Bulls lead the Pacers. Yes, they're more talented. But they're also superior defensively.

"Obviously, if you could play the old way, we would," Boston's Doc Rivers said Friday, after the Celtics dismantled the Knicks in Game 3. "What's difficult now is the small guards are back in. Before the changes, you could take them out of the lane. But you think about the guards now, they're amazing to guard. Taking away the touching above the free throw line has just changed the game."

Not fouling is a priority for first-year Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, who brought the same system that had been so successful in Boston in recent years to Chicago. (He did not, of course, bring Garnett). The Bulls finished ninth in the league in fewest fouls this season as they amassed the top record in the East. Derrick Rose's MVP-caliber season had a lot to do with it, but so did Thibodeau's amazing, relentless attention to detail; in the Bulls' next-to-last game of the regular season, against New York, having already clinched the top spot in the conference, they spent 90 minutes at their pregame shootaround going over 18 Knicks plays. One of the Knicks told Bulls guard Kyle Korver it was the longest shootaround he'd seen at the Garden all season.

"We do a lot," Korver said. "His whole thing is it's drilled into your mind, and by the time you get to the playoffs, you're no longer thinking about those things. You're able to think about more, because you're already naturally doing certain things, and you can focus on the details and adjustments in the game. Which, you know, it works. We're in first place. I can't say anything."

Today's NBA coaches may come from different places, but with a few exceptions -- notably, Phil Jackson and Scott Skiles -- most of the game's best defensive minds and defensive teams arise from two dominant coaching wings.

From the Larry Brown Wing come coaches like Gregg Popovich (Brown plucked Popovich from Division III Pomona-Pizer to a volunteer assistant's job at Kansas in 1985, and then brought him to the Spurs as an assistant in 1988); Denver's George Karl -- like Larry Brown, a North Carolina grad and Dean Smith acolyte -- Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks, who started his coaching career under Karl in Denver as an assistant in 2003; Portland coach Nate McMillan, who played for Karl in Seattle; New Orleans coach Monty Williams, who started as an assistant for Popovich in 2003 and spent the last five seasons as McMillan's assistant in Portland; Nets coach Avery Johnson, who played for Popovich and sealed the Spurs' first NBA title in 1999, and former Cavs coach Mike Brown, who was on Popovich's bench in San Antonio from 2000-03.

From the Pat Riley Wing come coaches like Rivers (Rivers played for Riley in New York from 1993-94); ex-Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy and current Magic coach Stan Van Gundy (the sons of longtime college coach Bill Van Gundy, Jeff began his pro coaching career in New York under Stu Jackson and spent time under Riley there, while Stan became Riley's top lieutenant in Miami); Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, who started under Riley in the Heat's video room in 1995; Thibodeau, who assisted Jeff Van Gundy in New York and Houston and Rivers in Boston, and former Nets coach Lawrence Frank, whom Rivers hired this year to replace Thibodeau as his top defensive assistant.

Celtics president Danny Ainge gave Rivers all the accolades last week, telling the Boston Globe that his team's defense "isn't Tom Thibodeau's defense. It isn't Lawrence Frank's defense. It's Doc Rivers' defense." But Rivers, who knows what a copycat league this is, deflected the praise.

"I think it's everybody's defense," Rivers said. "Thibs was huge for me. He really was. It was what we discussed, but he still had a lot of input. I don't think it's anybody's. It's all of us. You can make a case it's Dick Harter's defense. (Harter, the longtime assistant coach generally regarded as one of the finest defensive minds in the game, was on Riley's staff when Rivers played in New York in 1992 and 1993.) You really can. We've changed since then, but we're all from the same tree."

Fifteen years after Popovich took over in San Antonio as coach, the Spurs are still among the league's best at defending without fouling. San Antonio finished the regular season tied with Miami for fewest disqualifications (0.02 per game) and committed the third-fewest fouls this season (18.98, behind only Atlanta and the Lakers). The Spurs gave up more points this season than normal, even adjusted for pace (102.6, 11th best in the league), but that was partly a result of Popovich's decision to let the Spurs run more this season.

"You couldn't play (in San Antonio) if you couldn't not foul," Mason said. "Pop stresses that at the start of training camp and continues it through the playoffs. It's a huge point of emphasis. Pop just tries to get heady players, guys that understand the game. They expect you to know not to foul and be sound defensively. That's a part of being a bad defender, if you're fouling. Obviously, in that system, they don't want bad defenders."

Playing under Gregg Popovich in San Antonio, Roger Mason Jr. learned a lot about NBA defense.
Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

Under Thibodeau, the Bulls have also become a shutdown defensive unit.

"You have to have a lot of concentration on body position," Thibodeau said. "We want to play the ball well, with technique, but we're not a passing lane, deny, steal, gamble-type team. So we play more body position-type defense. I think that helps. We try not to be reckless. I (believe in) pulling back your hands at the end, and when we challenge shots, we try to go straight up, straight down. I think your technique and your discipline (is important), and studying, knowing your opponent -- there's a lot of guys that are great at utilizing shot fakes, both before and after the dribble -- so knowing when you're guarding those guys, at the end, not to reach in."

Ironically, it was a San Antonio offensive technique that has forced teams to adjust how they coach defense. Tim Duncan became one of the best ever at squaring up against his defender and bringing the ball low -- and then, just as the defender brought his hands down to waist level, coming up and through with the ball to draw contact and force referees to call a shooting foul. It's used throughout the league now.

"The way the play is being called now, with the guys going up under the arms, they're getting that call," Thibodeau said. "So we've worked on our technique with keeping the (defender's) hand high. So it's not in there where they can draw that foul. So I think that helps us also."

The Celtics' defensive principles are like most good defensive teams: Do not allow teams to get into the paint. Force everything baseline. Contest shots and passes -- "We don't like direct line passes because you can't recover from those," Rivers said Sunday. Load up on one side of the floor and force the ball to be rotated to the weak side, but be able to rotate, recover and help so that there are no open shots on that side of the floor, either. No trapping or double-teaming unless it's absolutely necessary, as when the Knicks' Anthony was going wild against Boston in Game 2. It requires constant drilling in camp -- shell drills, sliding drills, over and over and over.

"If one guy makes a mistake and he's not in his right spot, then it breaks down the whole defense," Pierce said. "You can have four guys that did perfect, did what they were supposed to be doing, but if one guy messes up, it breaks everybody. We've been playing together for a while. We know each other's tendencies. Even when guys break the rules -- I think Rondo probably breaks the rules more than anybody -- but we give him that freedom because he's such a good (player) at roaming, and stealing the ball and causing havoc. But if we haven't played with him, it would be a problem. But since we've played with him, we know how to work that into the defensive system."

Now think about how a guy like Celtics newcomer Jeff Green has to adjust on the fly, without the benefit of a training camp and all those drills.

Green came from Oklahoma City in the Kendrick Perkins trade, and has had to try to fit into the Rivers/Thibodeau system immediately. Undersized at power forward, Green, as mentioned in a Tip earlier this month, is in a vastly different defense now. The Thunder were relatively small before acquiring Perkins, so Oklahoma City would concede some corner 3-point attempts in order to keep its paint tight and not allow dribble penetration. That is the exact opposite of what Rivers demands. In Boston, Green has to be able to contest a "stretch four" in the corner, yet not allow him to compromise Boston's D off the dribble.

"When he comes out on the floor looking at the shooter (in OKC), staring him down, he might be a little bit more lackadaisical with the contest," Ray Allen said of his new teammate. "But here, you can ask him at any given time, Doc has been on his butt about closing out too short, making sure he runs that guy off of the three. What people don't see is just that adjustment period, changing over in your mind the signals, the defensive calls, offensively, just the whole philosophy of how we play. And now we're incorporating him and he's playing a lot of minutes. So getting him to understand, to apply it in a game situation on the spur of the moment, it's a tough adjustment for anybody."

Kyle Korver (left) has had to learn the intricacies of Tom Thibodeau's defensive gameplan in Chicago.
Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

When Chicago's training camp opened, Thibodeau had players that had been with him when he'd put in similar defenses for Jeff Van Gundy in New York and Houston and Doc Rivers in Boston.

"The big thing that probably helped us a lot from the start was having Kurt Thomas, (Brian) Scalabrine, Keith Bogans and John Lucas," Thibodeau said. "They were guys who had gone through it before. So they helped move the group along quickly. And these guys, their commitment to each other has been fantastic from the start. They got there early, they put a lot of work into it, and they play for each other."

But bringing in three other players who'd spent much of their last few years in Utah -- Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer -- and who had been schooled in the Jerry Sloan Way of defending meant a major adjustment for 25 percent of Thibodeau's roster.

Sloan believed in sticking with your man, showing quickly on screen and rolls, not rotating -- and pounding the hell out of the opposition for 48 minutes. Over time, he believed, the opponent would wear down from all of that beating and submit in the fourth quarter. It was Old School in the best possible sense of those words, and Sloan won 1,221 times coaching that way over 26 seasons.

"That was was just coach Sloan's style," Korver said. "He would say, at the end of the first quarter, 'You guys only have two fouls; you're not playing real hard.' He judged how hard we were playing by how physical we were playing. That was a big part of our philosophy. So here, obviously, it's a little bit different philosophy. It's not just 'don't foul;' it's a different scheme."

Could Doc Rivers -- the player, not the coach -- last in today's NBA game?
Brian Drake/NBAE via Getty Images

Not better. Different.

"In Utah, we were taught to force middle," Korver said. "Here, obviously, we force baseline. In Utah, it was like, if you let that ball get to the baseline, you're getting pulled out of the game. Here, it's like, if you let that ball get to the middle, you're getting pulled out of the game. It's a whole, as you're closing out, it's different mindset. It takes a little time. It's been drilled in you that hard, it takes a while (to adjust)."

Rivers has had to adjust, too. It was a battlefield conversion. "Riles' rule was to foul every time, and they'll stop calling them," he said. But the league has legislated that out of the game. It's probably a good thing, too. No one liked to watch 80-75 games with wrestling in the post, and two players isolated above the foul line and out of the play entirely to try and draw an illegal defense call. It was ugly basketball to watch and not much fun to play.

Which begs the question: Could guys like Glenn (Doc) Rivers and Derek Harper -- big, strong but not especially fast point guards in their day -- play defense today, without fouling?

"It would be hard," Rivers said. "We could play, because offensively we'd be, with our bodies, we would be the guys in the paint that you couldn't do anything about. Defensively, we'd be good defenders, because we were still good defenders. But we would have to make some adjustments."


My, my, my, what a ... mess.

Those words, uttered by Lt. Sam Gerard upon seeing a trainwreck in the movie remake of The Fugitive, are applicable this morning to describe the train wreck that has become the Maloof family's intention of moving the Kings from Sacramento to Anaheim next season.

What almost always is a rubber-stamp operation, with the league officially blessing what one of its owners desperately wants -- a new payday in a new city -- has become anything but with the Kings. And there are so many questions that have come up in the last week, with Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson working his city for what he says is more than $10 million in local commitments for season tickets and suites if the Kings return to town next season, it's hard to see a quick resolution in any direction by the May 2 deadline the league has given the Maloofs to apply for relocation.

Even though the team and the city of Anaheim have an agreement in place in which Anaheim Ducks owner Henry Samueli will loan the Kings $75 million in fees to handle relocation costs, the NBA was not overwhelmed with the city's plans to refurbish Honda Center to NBA specifications when the Maloofs made their pitch to the league's relocation committee during the Board of Governors meeting earlier this month. And the league extended its deadline for the Maloofs to officially file for relocation to May 2 -- the second extension the franchise has received.

A source with knowledge of the Maloof Family's thinking said Sunday that the Maloofs have not yet made a final decision on whether to officially apply, despite a story in the L.A. Times on Friday that quoted a source as saying the Kings were expected to remain in Sacramento for at least one more year. The source I spoke with Sunday said the Maloofs are willing to look at the details of Johnson's plans. But there is great skepticism within the family that Johnson has suddenly unearthed major financial commitments after the Maloofs have tried, unsuccessfully, to get a new arena deal in Sacramento for the last 13 years -- the last four coming with the league's own hand-picked man, John Moag, running point.

But there are still huge questions. Such as:

1) Who are the businesses that Johnson has lined up, and how much has each committed? Johnson won't answer either question. There is a big difference between one or two businesses writing big checks and 20 to 30 companies writing little ones. And even if the $10 million is a firm commitment -- and this is in no way belittling the effort Johnson and his administration have put into shaking the trees -- that's a drop in the bucket if the Kings are to stay in Sacramento past next season. That amount, the source said, is not going to sway the Maloofs from their contention that Sacramento is not a viable long-term solution. It's probably about $390 million short.

2) What does the NBA really think of Honda Center? Commissioner David Stern said in his press conferences after the league's Board of Governors meeting earlier this month that the league wanted to look more at the improvements that Samueli has promised he'll make to Honda Center to bring it up to NBA specifications. That includes major improvements to the locker rooms for both referees and teams, media facilities, restaurants and clubs and necessary escalators that have to be installed ("Things that we would want in a new building," Stern said, "and in this case, this is a building that's getting to be 20 years old.") and the construction of a practice facility. Some teams aren't sure that even if the greater Los Angeles market can support three teams, that the Honda Center can produce the kinds of revenues needed for the Kings to make it.

One team executive last week, who spoke on condition of anonymity, compared the Kings to the Nets, a team also playing in the shadow of a major market that began hemorraging money -- as much as $10 million in 2008-09, according to sources -- playing its last couple of seasons in an old building, the unlamented Izod Center. If New Jersey couldn't make a go of it under such circumstances, the official asked last week, why would anyone think the Kings will be successful in the Honda Center?

The Maloofs, though, remain convinced Honda Center will be good enough.

3) What is Clay Bennett doing here? The new chair of the league's Relocation Committee, Thunder owner Clay Bennett was met with ridicule by many fans -- especially those who remain in Seattle, who remember how Bennett bought, then moved, the Sonics to Oklahoma City. When Stern was asked about that in the presser, he said that Bennett's presence might be a positive. "Maybe Sacramento will think the same thing that you do, although I don't; that he favors movement," Stern said. Bennett went to Sacramento last week and is expected to return this week to look over Johnson's plans.

Is Bennett a honest broker, or is he, as the Maloofs suspect, looking to polish up his repuation, which took a severe hit after a lawsuit filed to keep the Sonics in Seattle unearthed a series of e-mails that suggested Bennett and his ownership group had no intention of ever trying to remain in Seattle, despite their claims that they would make an honest effort to get a new building there. Does Bennett want to be the "white knight" in Sacramento, coming in at the 11th hour to broker a deal to save Sacramento?

4) But do the Maloofs have any sway in this anymore? As's Sam Amick has ably reported over the past few days, Bennett's arrival on the scene from the league coincides with the company that was supposed to work with Bennett to build a new arena in Seattle -- the ICON Venue Group. The Sacramento City Council picked ICON in February over three other groups to create a financial feasibility study for a new arena to replace the Kings' current arena, Power Balance Pavilion (the former ARCO Arena). ICON just happened to renovate the Oklahoma City Arena, which houses the Thunder, and build Bennett a new practice facility for his new team.

ICON is also the arena builder for billionaire Phillip Anschutz, who owns Staples Center, and part of the Lakers, and most of Major League Soccer. ICON has helped build arenas around the world for Anschutz, including the O2 Arena in London as well as Invesco Field at Mile High Stadium and the Pepsi Center in Denver. Anschutz's reach, through his behemoth Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), knows no limits.

The Lakers vehemently oppose the relocation of the Kings to Anaheim, which will cut into their business. For one, sources estimate about 20 percent of the Lakers' season ticket holder base is in Orange County, where the Kings would play. For two, as Amick first reported, the Lakers' new 20-year, $5 billion television deal with Time Warner -- which, in full disclosure, owns the company for which I work, TNT -- would be reduced by 10 percent, $500 million, if the Kings move to the L.A. area.

This is where other owners come into play. With revenue sharing a hot-button item among owners, it is more than logical to believe that teams looking to dip into the Laker trough wouldn't much like a nine-figure reduction in the biggest local TV deal in league history. It's equally logical to believe that those owners wouldn't mind if the Kings never moved to Anaheim. Whether they stayed in Sacramento in a new ICON-built arena there (and who knows if the political climate is any better now in the state capitol than it was in 2006, when local voters rejected by 4-1 a referendum that would have imposed a sales tax increase that would have paid for a new building?) or moved somewhere else, they wouldn't be in L.A., and the other 28 owners would get their share of a bigger deal.

Is this a good time to mention that the NBA-ready Sprint Center, built in Kansas City in 2007, is, as mentioned on the arena's home page, "a unique public/private partnership between the city of Kansas City and AEG"?

5) Why put Sacramento through all this? The city put up a brave front in the final days before the team's last home game. There were the Video sad tributes and montages and photo galleries of the team's 25-year run in town. But most people had made their peace with the idea that the team was leaving, and while it was sad, there wasn't a lot that could be done about it. Now, there is a glimmer of hope that something can be done. But would it be a real, soluble solution, or just a one-year stay of execution?

They're good people in Sacramento. They don't deserve to be toyed with. Either stay in Sacramento, with a new arena, or go to Anaheim. But don't keep making them believe a miracle is possible if it isn't.

Top O' the World, Ma!

(Final regular season rankings in brackets)

1) Oklahoma City [2] (2-0): Durantula and Westbrook have been unstoppable, and if I-Blocka is going to hoover the glass Video like he did in Game 3, the Thunder are hard to beat.

2) Chicago [1] (2-1): Bulls need to end this series on Tuesday and get Derrick Rose's ankle some rest before the start of the second round. Otherwise, they're going to have trouble. This has been a close series.

3) Boston [9] (3-0): Rondo's back, and there's gonna be trouble.

4) Miami [5] (2-1): Dwyane Wade says this team reminds him more of the 2005 Miami team that lost in the Eastern Conference finals than the team that won the championship the following season. Interesting.

5) Memphis [12] (1-1): A mere 1,294 games into the franchise's existence, the Video Grizzlies finally win a home playoff game. What was the big rush?

6) San Antonio [3] (1-1): The Spurs aren't playing bad; the Grizzlies are just playing a little better.

7) L.A. Lakers [6] (2-1): Same old problems -- an inability to stop dribble penetration -- coming up for the Lakers. But they seem to play better with their backs against the wall. Consider them backed.

8) Atlanta [15] (2-1): Jamal Crawford is ballin' again: 24 points per game against the Magic, including 57 percent from three-point range.

9) Dallas [4] (1-2): Bad combination: the Mavs couldn't get the ball out of Brandon Roy's hands down the stretch of Game 4, and didn't get the ball in Dirk Nowitzki's hands enough.

10) New Orleans [13] (1-2): Gotta give some love to my D.C. dude, Jarrett Jack, for making a huge bucket and two free throws in the final 10 seconds Video to hold off the Lakers Sunday.

11) Portland [10] (2-1): Huge Video come-from-behind win on Saturday, but Blazers still have to win a game in Dallas to win the series. Record in Dallas the last decade, including first two games of this series: 4-22.

12) Orlando [7] (1-2): Magic shoot 2-of-23 from 3-point range without Jason Richardson Video in Game 4 loss to Atlanta Sunday night. Season's on the line Tuesday at Amway Center.

13) Philadelphia [14] (1-2): Doug Collins said he wanted to make people respect the 76ers again when he took the job. Mission accomplished.

14) Denver [8] (0-2): Must admit my surprise that the Nuggets haven't been more competitive in this series.

15) New York [11] (0-3): That was Video an ugly way to go out, but at least the Knicks are relevant again. Now, will James Dolan extend Donnie Walsh's contract for next year?

Team of the Week

Memphis (1-1): The Grizzlies have been every bit San Antonio's equal through three games of their first-round series with the Spurs. And GM Chris Wallace can smile. For the last three years, he has been maligned from pillar to post around the league -- including by Gregg Popovich, the Spurs' coach -- for the Pau Gasol trade.

But Marc Gasol, Pau's little brother, has been the better Gasol so far in these playoffs. Darrell Arthur, acquired in 2008 with one of the Draft picks Wallace got from the Lakers in the deal, has totalled 22 points, 12 rebounds and six blocks in the first three games of the series. Zach Randolph, acquired from the Clippers for Quentin Richardson by Wallace in the summer of '09, has bludgeoned San Antonio just like he's bludgeoned the entire league the last two years, earning a $68 million extension. The Grizzlies are good. Wallace built them. He should get some credit, finally.

Team of the Weak

Orlando (1-2): These are dark, dark days in the Land of the Mouse. That was terrible end-game execution against Atlanta on Sunday.

Nobody Asked Me, But ...

Could Kurt Rambis possibly pull his job out of the fire in Minnesota?

Rambis was thought to be a Dead Coach Walking after the end of the regular season, which concluded with a 15-game losing streak and with Minnesota posting the worst record in the league. Two years into his four-year, $8 million deal, Rambis sports a 32-132 (.195) record.

Team president David Kahn has steadfastly declined to discuss the future of the guy he hired in 2009 and gave that four-year contract, though he did say the morning of the team's final game that he expected more wins and more improvement from his young players.

Much was then made of Rambis' absence from Video Kevin Love's Most Improved Player Award news conference last week, supposedly indicating that he was on the skids with the team, but a) Rambis was in Los Angeles working for Fox Sports in an already-arranged deal, and b) if Rambis had appeared at Love's news conference, he almost certainly would have been inundated with questions about his future, thus hijacking one of the few pleasant moments the franchise has had all year.

But Minnesota's season ended almost two weeks ago. Kahn is a meticulous worker; it took him weeks to offer Rambis the job in '09, and he'll take his time, along with owner Glen Taylor, in deciding Rambis' fate. But Rambis also has tried to convince Minnesota's management that he's the guy who can lead the Wolves out of the wilderness.

A league source says the two sides have had conversations in the last week -- including a meeting in L.A. -- in which Rambis acknowledged he has to be more positive with his young players and not beat them down mentally so much. Coming from the Lakers, Rambis brought a hard-nosed approach to Minnesota, trying to install the triangle offense and resisting much counterargument. That will have to change, for the Wolves aren't going to be a free-agent destination any time soon for prime-time players. The only way for Minnesota to get better is to get the most out of the Draft picks and young players already on the roster -- and players that are expected to be, like Ricky Rubio.

Rambis did seem to have a good relationship with Michael Beasley, who improved dramatically in Minnesota after struggling in Miami. Kevin Love, obviously, had a Most Improved Player season this year after clashing with Rambis last season. Injuries wiped out most of Jonny Flynn's season and curtailed last year's first-round pick, Wesley Johnson.

But the Wolves may want more than just Rambis' word that he'll improve his demeanor. Minnesota gave up an obscene 107.7 points per game last season (108.3 per 100 possessions), and the source indicated that Rambis may have to accept defensive help on his bench next season, replacing some -- maybe all -- of his assistant coaches, currently including Dave Wohl, Bill Laimbeer, Reggie Theus and J.B. Bickerstaff. It's not known if that would be a deal-breaker for Rambis.

By all accounts, Kahn is in no danger of losing his job and will be making the call on Rambis. (He didn't return a text seeking comment Sunday.) Kahn has been adamant in the past that he and Rambis were a matched set, and would take the losses as the team rebuilt its roster together. The idea, Kahn said, was development. There was not enough of that last season, and the roster isn't going to turn over again signficantly in the near future. Can Rambis be trusted with Rubio, and to keep things going smoothly with Love, who's already being recruited by other team's players, even though he's not a free agent for two more seasons?

It's Kahn's call. He has to get it right, because the next time, he may not be the one doing the calling.

... And Nobody Asked You, Either

A Rose by any other name still should not be MVP. From Robin Willems:

While you are correct that Derrick Rose has outscored Dwight Howard and LeBron James in the clutch, as defined by, your runners-up have actually been more efficient. Even when you boil the scope down to the last minute, or last 24s, LeBron has been more efficient than Rose. Both have been not entirely impressive percentage-wise, but considering the supposed superiority of Rose and LeBron's propensity of missing big shots, I find this significant still. On top of that, LeBron's FT percentage rises to the high 80s in the clutch.

Rose outscores these two players because he has taken a lot more shots in the clutch, especially when compared to Howard. You will probably see this as a tribute to his importance in Chicago's offense, and I completely agree. I don't completely agree with Rose for MVP but I think he's a more than worthy choice. To say he's a better clutch performer though is not at all true.

You have a different definition of clutch, Robin, and that's fine, but it doesn't mean it's more meaningful than mine or anyone else's. For example: StatsCube says that Kyle Korver is the most "clutch" player when it comes to 3-point percentage. I don't think anyone would then suggest that Kyle Korver is the MVP, including Kyle. Stats are just one tool to use, and this season, while LeBron had an excellent season, he also had the benefit of playing with great teammates in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, while Rose did a lot of work without Carlos Boozer or Joakim Noah in the lineup. Considering that, I felt the difference in game-tying or game-winning shots between Rose and James was a difference-maker. Doesn't mean I'm right. But I wanted to explain why I voted the way I did.

LeBron James more clutch than Derrick Rose? It depends on what stats you choose to use.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

He is quite Melo'. From Don Amejko:

I read your Morning Tip that showed your MVP picks and top teams and everything. i agree with almost everything u have to say except...

How could you NOT put 'Melo in the ALL-NBA THIRD TEAM?!?!

You have LaMarcus Aldridge and Zach Randolph as better forwards than him? I Don't see how you can say that. Is it because 'Melo had everyone wondering what was going to happen and where he was going to go for 3 months? I mean, c'mon!

Uh, Don, Carmelo caused all that ruckus by demanding a trade. He could have had a quiet, uneventful season in Denver, but instead insisted on New York or nothing. That affected the Nuggets for months, and it took the Knicks a few weeks to get used to his presence. Did he play great, considering the circumstances? Yes. But he created the circumstances! And I could not, in good conscience, ignore the performances of Aldridge or Randolph this season. They were too good and too consistent.

Funny, he doesn't look Flemish. From Phil Damon:

This isn't a big deal, but I just thought you should be aware that there's no such language as 'Belgian', as you suggested in your column on April 11. People from the northern part of the country ('Flemings' from the region called 'Flanders') speak 'Flemish' -- a Dutch dialect. Those from the southern part ('Walloons' from the region called 'Wallonia') speak French.

Like I said, not really a huge deal. But one criticism of Americans that you'll hear anywhere in the world is that they are typically not informed about, or even interested in, the world outside the United States. Given your international readership (and the fact that you always seem like such a likeable, intelligent gentleman) I thought you'd be interested to know if you'd made any mistakes.

I am, Phil, and thanks for the correction. When I came up with that I was thinking about one of my favorite lines from one of my favorite movies, A Fish Called Wanda, spoken by Jamie Lee Curtis to her lunkhead boyfriend, played by Kevin Kline -- "Aristotle was not Belgian!" Alas, I was wrong to assign a language.

MVP Watch

(Weekly averages in parenthesis, and note: I've already turned in my ballot. So this is more an academic exercise.)

1) Derrick Rose (24.7 ppg, 5 rpg, 6 apg, .323 FG, .844 FT): Hasn't shot it so hot against the Pacers but has controlled most of the series' biggest moments.

Offensive struggles haven't kept Derrick Rose from putting his mark on the Bulls-Pacers series.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

2) LeBron James (28 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 6 apg, .537 FG, .774 FT): Not that I expect miracles, but it was a surprise to see LBJ capped by Elton Brand in the closing seconds on Sunday.

3) Kobe Bryant (19.3 ppg, 5 rpg, 3 apg, .375 FG, .667 FT): Oh, the Kobester gave the Eye of Disdain to Pau Gasol down the stretch Sunday.

4) Dwyane Wade (22.7 ppg, 8 rpg, 4.7 apg, .451 FG, .913 FT): He's got migraines and a bad shoulder, but it hasn't affected his play against Philly.

5) Dwight Howard (27.7 ppg, 17 rpg, 2 bpg, .650 FG, .705 FT): Lawyers throughout the 407 are leaving their cards at the Howard home, recommending he sue his teammates for abandonment and lack of support.

Dropped out: Dirk Nowitzki

By the Numbers

3 -- Number of teams that have rallied from an 18-point or greater fourth-quarter deficit to win an NBA playoff game, according to Elias Sports Bureau, after Portland climbed out of a 67-49 hole in the final 12 minutes Saturday Video to beat Dallas in Game 4 of its first-round playoff series. The previous two teams were New Jersey, which rallied from a 21-point deficit in 2002 to beat Boston, and Phoenix, which trailed Houston by 18 points in a 1994 playoff game.

202 -- Career playoff games for Kobe Bryant with the Lakers after Sunday's game in New Orleans. Per Elias, Bryant is the first player in league history to appear in 200 postseason games with one team. Magic Johnson (190 with the Lakers) is second, with Derek Fisher (187 and counting with L.A.) third and John Stockton (182 playoff games with Utah) fourth. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (180 postseason games with the Lakers) ranks fifth.

$6.75 million -- Amount of money remaining on former Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy's contract when the team fired him in March, 2010, leading to Dunleavy filing for arbitration against the team and owner Donald Sterling. The hearing on Dunleavy's claim began last Monday, but a decision isn't expected until June.

I'm Feelin' ...

1) It may well come to pass that Brandon Roy's knees never allow him to be more than a role player for the Blazers or some other team for the rest of his career. But watching him go nuts Saturday in bringing Portland back for an improbable playoff win over the Mavs, and seeing the Rose Garden crowd go wild, and seeing his teammates mob him when the game was over, was yet another reminder of how great NBA playoff basketball is, and the amazing stories that come out of them. For one day, Brandon Roy was himself again, and it was incredible to watch.

2) Can you make the case that Ray Allen is just the best shooter ever to play professional basketball? I'm starting to think you can.

3) Either the Hawks are climbing out of that primordial ooze speaking Flemish, or I'm a moron for thinking they couldn't play well in the playoffs. Guessing it's the latter.

4) The Pacers have competed hammer and tong with a superior Bulls team for four games. At some point, it's no longer luck or Chicago's indifference or pestilence or frogs. Interim coach Frank Vogel needs to start getting some credit for how he's shaped that team up in two months on the job. And he should start getting more consideration for keeping the job on a permanent basis.

5) You see Chris Paul's black eye on Sunday night? You seem him grabbing boards and attacking Kobe Bryant? You hear him tell Cheryl Miller, Video "I don't care if my mama was on the court; I'd hit her, too"? What a great effort, and what a great series between the Hornets and Lakers.

6) Thank you, young lady who told me the right subway train to get to my hotel on Sunday night outside of Madison Square Garden following Boston's sweep of the Knicks. I might still be standing in that cab line in the rain otherwise.

7) We may be doomed. Or already dead. It's very confusing. In the meantime, hope everyone had a Happy Easter. Had a great walk through Central Park Sunday morning, watching all the passerby (and runnerbys).

Not Feelin' ...

1) I would really, really not fire Mike D'Antoni if I were the Knicks. What exactly did people expect them to do without Chauncey Billups and with Amar'e Stoudemire gimping through three of the series' four games? D'Antoni was brought to New York to make the Knicks relevant again, and he delivered on that. Maybe he needs to think about adding a stronger defensive mind to his bench next season, but he also deserves a chance to coach Carmelo Anthony, Billups and Stoudemire for a full season. Then you can decide if he's the guy or not.

2) Rajon Rondo was great, but that was a pretty pathetic performance by a supposedly desperate Knicks team on Friday.

3) Gregg Popovich is a Hall of Fame coach, but he messed up not getting a timeout called Video in the final seconds of Game 3 against Memphis on Saturday. Even he said so.

4) This is not shaping up to be a great 2011 Draft. On the other hand, at least the NBA won't have its Draft in the middle of its lockout, as the NFL will do starting Thursday.

5) With millions of people still unemployed in the U.S., war raging throughout the Middle East and natural disasters piling up day after day, why anyone would expend any emotional capital caring about the wedding of a monarch precious few people can name to a woman no one outside her immediate family knows is a mystery.

Tweet of the Week

Went to the park to shoot jumpers this morning? What else am I going to do?
-- Steve Nash (@SteveNash), Tuesday, 1:46 p.m., as he faced spending the rest of April not in the playoffs for the second time in three years, but just the fourth time in his 15-year NBA career.

Q & A: Jermaine O'Neal, Celtics

When the Celtics Video signed the 32-year-old O'Neal to a two-year deal in the offseason, he was viewed by many as an $8 million insurance policy.

Boston already had Shaquille O'Neal under contract, and was expecting Kendrick Perkins to return from knee surgery by the All-Star break. Jermaine O'Neal would just get in where he could fit in. But eight months later, with Perkins traded to Oklahoma City and Shaquille O'Neal hobbled with a calf injury, it's Jermaine O'Neal who's helping save Boston in the playoffs -- a year after his own subpar performance against the Celtics as a member of the Heat. That it's happening after a regular season in which Jermaine O'Neal missed 56 games with a knee injury -- one that he and the team waited weeks on before deciding on surgery in February -- is all the more remarkable.

A six-time All-Star with Indiana, a participant in the infamous Brawl at Auburn Hills, a max-contract guy and a solid role player at both ends of his career, O'Neal's seen it all.

Me: It's been an up-and-down season for you, but now, what do you contribute to this team for the playoffs?

Jermaine O'Neal: Well, originally when I signed up for this, I talked to Danny (Ainge) and Doc (Rivers) this summer, it was about my defensive ability. They told me right away offensively, it wasn't going to be like what I was used to, quite used to being involved in, and that was getting opportunities quite often. And I was okay with that. I understand that at this point in my career, it's all about winning. And you do some things that the team needs you to do, and defensively is just where I'm really comfortable hanging my hat.

Me: How did it feel being able to contribute Video like you did in Game 1 (12 points, four rebounds, four blocked shots in 23 minutes)?

JON: It felt good. It's been a rough year. I'm not going to sit here and lie to you. It's probably been one of the roughest years of my career. Not only physically, but mentally. You have such a great group of guys. You have such tradition here. You have a chance. Sometimes, at the end of your career, you don't really have that chance to win, to compete for a championship. And I really fought for this for so long. And to get this opportunity, and have it go away, it's been tough. But I prayed a lot, I put it in God's hands, and I just continued to work. Whatever came after that, once I gave it my best, my all, if it didn't work out, I tried my best. But so far, it's just been great.

Me: When they traded Perk, there was obviously a lot of anxiety. Was there a part of you that said, 'Wait a minute; I'm still here?'

JON: You know what? To be honest, I didn't feel any other weight. Because I'm very prideful. And it's about doing my job. You know the business, being around this thing for so long, you know the business tends to take care of itself. Danny's good. He's good at what he does. And Perk leaving, we miss him as a teammate, but it is a business. We all understood that. As far as my approach to the game, it was just to get back healthy. Whether Perk was here or he wasn't here, my job, I wanted to fulfill my job.

Me: What is your routine getting ready for games now? I understand it's a little different.

JON: I've always went out before games and shot a lot of shots. But just recently, especially (before) Game 1, I went out and I just went out hard, like it wasn't even a game. I've been used to, in my career, being able to get warmed up, get in rhythm, through the offensive end, the flow of the game. But I don't have that opportunity anymore. So I've really got to exhaust my options before the game, get a feel for it, get a rhythm, get a sweat, and when I get in the game, be ready. And that's what it's about. This league is about adjustments. I think sometimes players, when they get older, they don't adjust to the job that's given to them very well. And sometimes the media says, 'he didn't take a shot in a game.' People are used to me scoring. But that's not really my position anymore. My position is to hold down that defensive end of the court, be that safety back there, block shots, alter shots, take charges.

After years as a scorer elsewhere, Jermaine O'Neal is relishing his defensive role in Boston.
Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

Me: Is it hard to change your identity in midstream?

JON: To be honest, I've had a very up and down career when it comes to turbulence. I've responded every single time. Sometimes you're given a job to do. And you may or may not like it. Sometimes your pride kicks in and you say 'I know I can still do this.' Do I feel like I can still score? Yeah, I still feel I can still score. But being part of something special, I would rather take that than hang on to my pride. Being a part of this, we feel like we have a brotherhood here, and I felt it even beyond basketball. I felt it when I was out, and I've been out for a long time, basically missed all of this year. And those guys really called me, they texted me, every day. It's been special. So those type of situations make you want to respond to whatever the task is. And I know this city is very emotional about their sports, and the Celtics are one of those sports teams that they really want to win. To give back what they've been giving me when I stepped outside of my house, in those dog days -- and it's been a lot of dog days -- to get an opportunity to go and give them something to cheer about, that's what it's all about.

They Said It

"Three years, maximum. If not, I will play myself."
-- Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, asked in a Bloomberg News profile of him how long it would take the Nets to be in the Finals.

"I've never had abs, no abs. I am not gonna worry about that...sometimes people have to accept what they are. I might not look right with a six pack."
-- Celtics forward Glen (Big Baby) Davis, quoted in the New York Daily News about his physique, after New York's Amar'e Stoudemire poked fun at Davis' build, saying his core "wasn't as tight as it should be."

"Sorry, I have to go in and pray for rain because my governor told me to."
-- Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, ending a media availability on Friday with a poke at Texas Governor Rick Perry, who asked Texans to pray for rain to end the state's long drought.

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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