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Lillard grows as leader to disprove Blazers' doubters

He wasn't an All-Star this season, but Damian Lillard is both scoring and directing Portland into a new age

POSTED: Mar 28, 2016 12:45 PM ET

By David Aldridge

BY David Aldridge

TNT Analyst

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It was like hearing, once again, that you have jury duty. What are you gonna do?

"This year, I wasn't even pissed off," Damian Lillard said Thursday. "I was like, wow. "

That is unlike Lillard -- known to many as "Dame" -- who takes perceived and real slights and rolls them into that blast furnace of a competitive gene deep in his marrow. Surely, he was livid that, despite averaging better than 24 points a game, he was again passed over for an All-Star selection by both fan and coach votes, just as he was last year -- before being named as an injury replacement for Blake Griffin in 2015.

It's why the Charlotte Hornets' Kemba Walker -- who also wasn't named as an All-Star this year -- didn't hesitate when I asked him if he or Lilard was angrier at getting snubbed.

"Kemba knows I get hot about it," Lillard said. "This year, just because it happened last year, this year I was kind of expecting it. I was disappointed, but I wasn't surprised. I know everyone's saying 'he's mad he didn't make all star.' I'm just trying to win. I let it go. It is what it is."

He speaks calmly. His play shouts.

Lillard has been ridiculous since the All-Star break, averaging 31.2 points a game and shooting 42 percent on 3-pointers for the Blazers, who have been the league's biggest overachievers this season. After losing LaMarcus Aldridge to the San Antonio Spurs in free agency -- despite a fevered campaign to keep him in town -- and starting this year without three other starters from last year's team (as well as last season's trade deadline addition, sixth man Arron Afflalo), Portland looked to the world like a Lottery squad.

Instead, behind Lillard and third-year guard C.J. McCollum, the Blazers have become one of the league's biggest surprises, are sixth in the Western Conference and have a future that months ago didn't look possible. And Lillard has assumed the leadership mantle that was shared by Aldridge and Wesley Matthews the last few seasons without a hitch.

Lillard is shattering the Blazers' offensive record books this season. He's the first Portland player since Geoff Petrie (December, 1970-January, 1971) to score 30 or more points in five straight games. He's poised to break the franchise record for 30-point games in a season as his next 30-point game will break the franchise record (21) that he shares with Clyde Drexler, who did it in the 1991-92 season. He's averaging a career-best 7.0 assists per game.

And Lillard is 39 threes away from the franchise's all-time record of 826 makes, currently held by Matthews.

Everyone has known Lillard can score since the Blazers took him sixth overall out of Weber State in 2012. Many have seen the different facets of his personality over the years -- the burgeoning rap career (there are a lot worse beats than "Bigger Than Us," which Lillard -- as "Dame D.O.L.L.A" -- released earlier this year), the Adidas collection that features his homages to his native Oakland.

But the leadership piece has surprised a lot of people outside of the organization.

"The leadership doesn't surprise me, because you know his personality and you know where he comes from and you know what he did in college," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said Sunday. "You knew he was biding his time."

Lillard took ownership of the team's collective psyche immediately. In August, he invited the entire team to come down to San Diego for a week of pickup games, nights out and bonding.

"It was summertime," he said. "I just wanted to, we had so many new guys. Me and C.J. had been trying to work out, go hang out somewhere. We had so many new teammates, I thought we should get together and kick it somewhere, go somewhere where everybody would want to come out. We worked out every morning. We played some pickup after we worked out. We had lunch after we worked together. We went to a Padres game. We just started to build those relationships way back then."

Lillard had organized similar club bonding events like skating parties when he was at Weber State; "it made up for us not being the most talented team," he said. "I've always liked doing stuff with my teams."

It was not something he would have done for last year's team, which had older vets with wives and kids, and different interests than their younger teammates. It was much easier to get players on the new roster, with 11 players with three years or less of NBA experience, to drop what they were doing and go to the 619.

"We would make it happen on the court," Lillard said. "But with a young group, I thought it was important for us to be friends, to like each other, so we could grow together. If I was going to be the leader of a franchise, I always wanted it to be like that, where we all were friends."

All but two or three guys came down for the week. And for the first time since he's been a head coach, Stotts says, every player on his roster was in town for the entire month of September -- before training camp began in October.

"That just doesn't happen," Stotts said. "That really helped us, obviously from a chemistry standpoint, but it helped us from a coaching standpoint. We were able to get the guys more familiar with what we wanted to do, so when training camp started the transition was a lot easier. We had a lot of guys who were hungry and knew the opportunity was there for them this season."

Portland was competitive in the preseason. And when the Blazers beat New Orleans in their home opener, whom many had predicted would be a playoff team this season, their confidence soared.

"We didn't know where we could go, but we knew we could be competitive," Stotts said.

I started believing in our team before the season. On media day, I said we could make the playoffs, and people looked at me like I was crazy. But I believed if we had our growing pains early we could compete, and we've done that.

– Blazers star Damian Lillard

It was their secret. The Blazers had dropped off the national radar about four seconds after Aldridge decided to go to San Antonio, having already dealt Nicolas Batum to Charlotte for Gerald Henderson and Noah Vonleh, and with free agents Matthews and Robin Lopez heading out the door. (Matthews signed a max deal with the Dallas Mavericks; Lopez went to the New York Knicks.) With four of their five starters gone, no one viewed the Blazers as anything but a lottery team in waiting.

Portland went all-in to try and keep Aldridge, but knew it would come with a price -- literally. The uncertainty about whether or not he was actually happy in Oregon was never really answered fully. One day he was, the next, he wasn't. Re-signing him would have meant putting more money into Lopez and other vets, too, and the Blazers' worry was that Aldridge would agree to a new deal, then come back within a year and ask to be traded.

Once Aldridge was gone there here was no doubt the Blazers would fully commit to re-structure the team around Lillard, to whom they gave a $125 max extension last fall. The how was the question.

GameTime: Damian Lillard

The GameTime crew discusses how Damian Lillard is taking his game to the next level.

Portland could have signed two or three veterans that may have propped up its win total this season. (The Blazers would have likely pursued guys like Tyson Chandler or DeMarre Carroll had they gone with this approach.) But owner Paul Allen wasn't interested in a 50-win team that got bounced in the Western Conference semifinals. He had seen what his other team, the Seattle Seahawks, had done by giving the ball to a young quarterback in Russell Wilson and putting young and hungry players around him. Doing so helped net the Seahawks their first Super Bowl title in 2013 and a runner-up finish in 2014.

Blazers General Manager Neil Olshey had had success while running the Los Angeles Clippers, putting a contender around a budding superstar (Griffin). And unlike Griffin at the time, Lillard had already proven himself as an All-Star level player. You could sell a team built around Lillard -- at least the rebuild would be shorter than that of a team that went entirely down to the studs.

Once Lillard was on board with the idea, Portland went after younger (and, cheaper) players that it believes have been undervalued around the league.

We had so many new teammates, I thought we should get together and kick it somewhere, go somewhere where everybody would want to come out. ... We just started to build those relationships way back then.

– Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard, on offseason workouts

Olshey had drafted Al-Farouq Aminu with the Clippers, and with Batum gone, the starting three spot was available in Portland. Ed Davis had put up remarkably consistent rebounding numbers over the years with the Memphis Grizzlies, Toronto Raptors and Los Angeles Lakers. They had believed Meyers Leonard, their other 2012 first-rounder (taken 11th overall), was ready to handle more minutes and responsibilities, along with Mason Plumlee, in the middle.

And, the Blazers wanted McCollum on the floor.

McCollum came on rapidly for the Blazers last season after Matthews went down with his season-ending Achilles' tear in March. McCollum exploded in the last three games of Portland's first-round loss to Memphis, averaging 25.7 points and shooting 60.9 percent.

"It was consistent," Lillard said. "It was three games straight, four games straight. But even before that, everyone in our building knew he could play. I've known C.J. since college. I knew he could play. But he's really grown as a person."

The question on McCollum, as well as the rest of the team, was how much he could improve defensively and whether he'd take to the backup point guard role that had previously been Batum's.

"I think we viewed him as a combo guard," Stotts says. "We didn't want to pigeonhole him as strictly a two guard. The only way he was going to be able to do that was trial by fire. He was going to have to go out there and do it every night. When Dame got hurt (missing seven games around Christmas with plantar fasciitis in his left foot), he played six games as strictly the point guard. We went 4-2 (McCollum missed one game as well). He played well, we played well. That made the next jump easier."

Said Lillard: "He helps just giving me that balance on the floor. Defenses just can't gang up on me. They have to deal with somebody with a similar skill set. Being able to put the ball on the floor, making midrange jumpers, threes. He's a load. He takes a lot of pressure off of me. And he doesn't back down."

Portland is still evolving, though. Without Lopez to protect the rim and patrol the paint with Aldridge, Portland is a mediocre defensive team this season -- 20th in Defensive Rating (104.9 points allowed per 100 possessions) and 18th in points allowed (103 points per game). Two seasons ago, the Blazers were 11th in the league in guarding the 3-pointer, especially the corner three; this year, they're 21st at defending 3-pointers.

"Mid-season, mid-January, we said if we have any hopes of being a playoff team, we have to get better defensively," Stotts said. "And if you look at the numbers, since January, we've been a lot better defensively (eighth in defensive field goal percentage allowed, 13th in defensive rating). That was the commitment of the guys. I always think it's a more difficult transition for young guys at the defensive end than the offensive end. We tweaked some things X-and-O wise, but it's really been the attitude."

And in February, before and after All-Star, Lillard went insane. In 11 games, he averaged 29.8 points and 6.9 assists. He had seven games with 30 or more points, including a career-high 51 points in the first game after the All-Star break, a 137-105 demolition of the Warriors.

The Blazers, though, know they need to tread carefully going forward, regardless of whether or not they hold onto their current playoff spot.

The league is littered with teams that punched above their weight one season -- the 48-win Phoenix Suns of two seasons ago come to mind -- and then sagged under the weight of expectations that innocent climb (™ Patrick James Riley, Miami, Fla.) created.

Portland hasn't arrived. The February win over the Warriors aside, the Blazers aren't anywhere near that class of contending team just yet. They have played well, but no one thought the Suns and Pelicans would step in as big a hole as they did this season.

So: what do you pay Henderson, a rising free agent? How much do you offer Leonard on a potential extension? And who are your outside free agent targets? Chemistry is a fragile thing. Can the Blazers find a third scorer to go with Lillard and McCollum, or a rim protector to finally replace Lopez? And what do they do if the big names take a pass?

Giving the ball back to Lillard next season is not a bad consolation prize.

"I started believing in our team before the season," Lillard said. "On media day, I said we could make the playoffs, and people looked at me like I was crazy. But I believed if we had our growing pains early we could compete, and we've done that."

TOP O' THE WORLD, MA!

(previous rank in brackets; last week's record in parenthesis)

1) Golden State [1] (4-0): Unfortunately, Andre Iguodala's sprained ankle will be the biggest challenge both to the team's pursuit of the Chicago Bulls' record, and whether they even want to challenge it down the stretch.

Suns vs. Warriors

Stephen Curry scores 35 points and Marreese Speights add 25 as the Warriors best the Suns, 123-116.

2) San Antonio [2] (3-1): 14th season out of 17 non-lockout seasons in the Tim Duncan era with at least 55 victories. And in the three non-lockout seasons the Spurs didn't win 55 games, they won 50, 53 and 54 games. Since coming to the NBA in 1976, the Spurs have 19 seasons with 55 or more wins. Only the Lakers have more during that period (20).

3) Cleveland [3] (3-1): Throttled the Clippers for a second time this season on Sunday. Average margin in two wins: 18.5 points. Cleveland has swept Oklahoma City as well, and split two games with the Spurs.

4) Toronto [4] (3-0): With OT win over Miami Saturday, Raptors win season series against Heat, 3-1.

Heat vs. Raptors

DeMar DeRozan scores 38 points with 10 rebounds, Jonas Valanciunas adds 20 as Toronto wins it in overtime, 112-104.

5) Oklahoma City [5] (2-1): Kevin Durant says the Thunder's defense was pretty good against the Spurs Saturday, even though they lost. And he has a point; you can play well and still lose, and built on that.

6) L.A. Clippers [6] (2-2): Aw, those crazy kids!

7) Memphis [7] (2-2): Injury-strafed Grizz down to Briante Adams, who they signed out of Sioux Falls last week, to start at the point after losing Mike Conley for 3-4 more weeks with an Achilles' strain.

8) Boston [8] (1-1): Celtics' home win streak snapped at 14 with loss to Rockets on Friday, but Boston still poised to have its best record at TD Garden since going 33-8 there in 2010-11.

9) Miami [9] (1-2): Chris Bosh says he hasn't had a return of blood clots and that he's "positive" he'll be able to return this season, but there's no specificity about anything coming from anyone -- his people, or the Heat's.

10) Atlanta [10] (3-1): It's taken a while, but the offense is finally catching up with the defense.

Pacers vs. Hawks

Paul Millsap heats up for 18 points with 9 rebounds as the Hawks destroy the Pacers 104-75.

11) Charlotte [12] (4-0): Broke a 10-game losing streak to the Rockets Saturday night -- the Hornets' seventh straight win.

12) Indiana [13] (2-1): C.J. Miles gets back in the lineup for the Pacers over the weekend after missing the last couple of weeks with a calf injury. But his days of starting at the four are done.

13) Portland [14] (2-1): Blazers embark on tough road trip this week: Oklahoma City, San Antonio, New Orleans, Dallas.

14) Dallas [11] (0-3): Just wondering how it went over in the Mavs' locker room to hear Mark Cuban say how much better the team would be with Monta Ellis on the roster.

15) Detroit [NR] (2-1): Talk about a hole card: after the Pistons play in Washington tonight, the Pistons have a nine-game -- (ital)nine-game(endital) -- homestand. They'll be home 17 days in a row! If they don't make the playoffs after that, they have no one else to blame.

Dropped out: Chicago [15]

TEAM OF THE WEEK

Charlotte (4-0): Seven straight wins for the Bugs and 15 of their last 18 have them nine games over .500 for the first time since late in the 2000-01 season, when the Hornets finished 46-36.

TEAM OF THE WEAK

Washington (0-3): Season-defining road trip to Portland, Utah and Denver ended in three horrible losses, each worst than the last, leaving the Wizards five games under .500 and in big trouble with 17 games left in their season.

NOBODY ASKED ME, BUT ...

What is the Atlanta Hawks' Executive Director of Player Performance's cheat food?

"Oh, I'm a terrible eater," Keke Lyles said Sunday afternoon. "My nutrition's terrible. I have a terrible sweet tooth. And my staff lets me know, too. They're like, come on, man."

As Lyles looks like a buff tree trunk, this is hard to believe. But belief is at the heart of what Lyles and the Hawks' new athletic training staff do with the team's players. Belief is what has helped Kyle Korver's ankle and Tim Hardaway, Jr.'s wrist, and brought them back physically when each had their doubts.

The NBA's analytics revolution has clearly changed the way players are evaluated and judged. But an equally powerful shift in how teams are fixing and maintaining their players continues to dive deeper than ever behind the scenes.

One of the things I really stressed with Coach ... was we can't assume that we know what's best. ... What we think is best may not necessarily work for one guy, or another guy.

– Atlanta Hawks Executive Director of Player Performance Keke Lyles

iPads and Catapult GPS technology are now a regular part of many teams' player performance regimens, with small armies of personnel doing deeper and deeper dives into the physical capabilities and limitations on players, tailoring the workloads put on them at practice, and having them keep sleep diaries. It's a logical development in a sport where there are only 15 players, each of whose improvement is critical to help a team not only play well in one season, but over several seasons.

Teams now seek convergence between what coaches are teaching players on the practice court to help them improve, and what the athletic training staffs do to help them maintain top physical performance and recover faster from injuries. The flow of information, which is often slowed in an organization for any number of reasons, now must go back and forth, and be accessible by everyone.

It was a must for Hawks Coach Mike Budenholzer, who assumed the role of President of Basketball Operations this offseason as well.

The Hawks revamped their entire athletic training staff, not renewing the contracts of longtime Athletic Trainer Wally Blase and Director of Player Performance Pete Radulovic. (Their strength and conditioning coach last season, Jeff Watkinson, left to take an assistant coach position with the Jazz.)

Hawks vs. Clippers

Paul Millsap scores 20 points with 18 boards, Jeff Teague adds 22 as the Hawks win, 107-97.

They hired Lyles, the Warriors' former Director of Performance, and who'd helped Stephen Curry strengthen his legs and core to help overcome his the ankle problems that had plagued him earlier in his career. Lyles brought Mike Roncarati, Golden State's strength and conditioning coach the last two years, and his former Northeastern University classmate. New head athletic trainer Art Horne also came from Northeastern.

"We wanted to have all of the groups, everybody within the organization that had a great synergy and worked well together, and had a passion," Budenholzer said Sunday. "Keke and Art and Mike Roncarati and (Athletic Performance Coach) Chris Chase and (assistant athletic trainer) Scottie Parker have a passion for athletic performance, keeping our guys, pushing the envelope for them being the best they can be. You could feel that when we interviewed them and talked with them."

The biggest question, Budenholzer said, was whether the organization could marry the player development side to the performance and health side.

Lyles' work with Curry was impressive, but Budenholzer was equally impressed with what he'd done in previous stops at Minnesota and Indiana as strength and conditioning coach. "The more you did your homework, there were a lot of players that benefitted from Keke and his work, his understanding," Budenholzer said.

J.J. Barea, Keke Lyles
The Hawks' front office noticed Keke Lyles' past work at other NBA stops.

Lyles is tasked with coming up with an individual plan for every player. Gone are the days when everyone stretches together or lifts together. Each player, each day, is working on something individual, either with the Hawks' excellent assistant coaching staff -- Darvin Ham, Ken Atkinson, Neven Spahija, Ben Sullivan, Taylor Jenkins and Charles Lee -- or with Lyles and his group.

"I think the biggest thing is, (Budenholzer) has a certain vision about the court, and what the players are doing," Lyles said. "And he wanted that to carry over into what guys did as prep. Obviously, our field is not his area of expertise, but he knew the value of it, and how important it is. And so I think he saw the opportunity to bring a group in that was kind of on the same page, and thought the same way, and had very specific goals that we wanted to accomplish in treatment."

It's been a season-long project for Lyles and the coaches. The Hawks won a franchise-record 60 games last season and made the Eastern Conference finals, when they lost 4-0 to the Cleveland Cavaliers. But Atlanta started slow this season, as some of those key players were rehabbing injuries, and the Hawks looked for fits at both ends to try and replace DeMarre Carroll, who signed with the Raptors.

Now, everyone other than center Tiago Splitter (likely out for the season following hip surgery) is healthy, and the Hawks are peaking -- they went a season-best nine games over .500 Sunday after a 104-75 rout of Indiana, the Hawks' second win in less than 24 hours. The season-long adjustment to how Lyles and his team sought to improve performance looks like it's paying off at just the right time.

Korver From Range

Kirk Hinrich passes to Kyle Korver who buries the three.

"At first, I was a little suspect about it, because what they do is a little different," All-Star forward Paul Millsap said. "They do it different from other teams, and what you're used to. It took a while to get used to it. But now I feel like what they're doing has definitely helped me out throughout the course of the year."

Lyles and his group had some major projects to address upon their arrival.

Korver had had two offseason surgeries within a few weeks of each other -- on the ankle that was damaged early in the Eastern Conference finals in May when Cleveland's Matthew Dellavedova ran into it, and the loose bodies that had built up all year in Korver's elbow, in late June.

As a result, Korver wasn't able to do the offseason work that he swore by in California, at the P3 (Peak Performance Project) in Santa Barbara, where he's trained during the offseason since 2008. (He's not the only one swearing by it. Almost all of Korver's Hawks teammates, including Al Horford and Paul Millsap, have gotten in offseason work at P3 over the years. Dozens of NBA players have as well, too, including Carmelo Anthony, Derrick Rose, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Andre Drummond, Damian Lillard and Harrison Barnes.)

At first, I was a little suspect about it, because what they do is a little different. They do it different from other teams, and what you're used to. It took a while to get used to it.

– Atlanta Hawks star forward Paul Millsap

Korver is very close with Marcus Elliott, P3's founder and director. They're friends. And Elliott has years' worth of data on Korver's physical strengths and weaknesses. Yet many teams would duplicate all of that information by doing their own diagnostic tests and coming up with their own programs. By contrast, the Hawks embrace what Elliott and P3 have already done with Korver and incorporate it into their programs with him.

"One of the things I really stressed with Coach, but also the staff that we brought in, was we can't assume that we know what's best," Lyles said. "Obviously, we have our education, and we have our beliefs and everything. But what we think is best may not necessarily work for one guy, or another guy. We have to be really open-minded about what's out there. I've known Marcus, it's going on six years. I've always been impressed with his mindset, his philosophy. Having that data set (on Korver) is powerful."

Said Budenholzer: "We have a lot of respect for Marcus Elliott and P3, and how advanced they are with technology. The testing and the data. Not only do they have it, but their ability to analyze it, and put it to good use and help players prevent injuries, recover from injuries. At the end of the day, Kyle, he needed a consulting fee for everything we did."

Korver 3-Pointer And Foul

Kyle Korver drains the spot-up 3-pointer and gets fouled for the four point play opportunity.

Korver is turning 35 on Thursday. He doesn't have time to waste.

"You've got to feel the results," he said. "You can do the exercises and the nutrition or whatever you want, but if you're not feeling the results fairly quickly as a basketball player, you're going to find your own way. I think everyone here, a lot of guys here have bought in. I think everyone has found, and I think everyone's routine that everybody has, it's different. The staff has done a great job of understanding that we're all different people, and we have different makeups and body types. They've done a good job of tailoring stuff to fit us. And I think guys have felt a difference."

Korver has to watch what he calls "natural body patterns" in his hips that can cause him trouble if he doesn't monitor them constantly. Lyles and the staff concentrate on good technique for him in the weight room.

"I really need to work in the weight room," Korver said. "I really need to work on power, often, where a lot of guys probably don't feel that. They don't like that as much. We're getting to the point now where they really understand that about me."

The results are showing up on the court. After a slow start, Korver is coming on fast, and looking like his 2015-16 self. The trend line is due north: 38.7 percent on 3-pointers in January, 42.3 percent in February, and 52.8 percent so far in March (including a 4-for-9 showing against Indiana).

I think everyone here, a lot of guys here have bought in. I think everyone has found, and I think everyone's routine that everybody has, it's different. The staff has done a great job of understanding that we're all different people, and we have different makeups and body types.

– Atlanta Hawks guard Kyle Korver

Hardaway was slowed by a wrist injury most of last season with the Knicks, and after the Hawks acquired him in a Draft night trade in June //www.nba.com/2015/news/06/26/hawks-knicks-trade.ap/index.html, he was still slow to respond. The injury kept him from being able to lift and train for a couple of months -- which, of course, affected his conditioning. And once the season begins, getting the work in becomes exponentially difficult.

But Lyles and his staff have made major strides with Hardaway since the start of the season. It wouldn't have happened if the coaching staff was more interested in getting Hardaway -- a big offseason piece -- on the floor rather than getting him healthy.

So Hardaway lived in the weight room -- "it was my second home," he said. He got on the resistance bike, ran three-minute runs every other week, and got to practice early.

"The decision is, well, how much do we want to focus on basketball, versus the performance or getting his body back," Lyles said. "And I think we all realized that, probably more the coaches, the coaches saw that, if we spend some time and let him get back physically, it's going to make him better on the court. And so we kind of made a shift of his performance being the priority. So he was in the gym four or five times a week, he's always doing extra conditioning. He's putting in a massive amount of work that we wouldn't normally in season, but because that was the goal, we could do it. It really paid off. Now, Tim's playing at a high level, and really contributing."

We Have Lift Off

Tim Hardaway Jr. barrels down the lane delivering a ferocious slam over Bojan Bogdanovic.

It was also vital that Hardaway saw the big picture, too.

"He made a commitment to getting real strong, and really well-conditioned, and getting back to being an elite athlete," Budenholzer said. "And he busted his butt with those guys, and they busted their butts with him. And he did everything -- he went to the D-League, and he's playing at a high level. And his body, it's very tangible, what Tim was able to do and what he accomplished."

Hardaway said it was tough to hear from Budenholzer that he wasn't going to play for a while. "But I knew what was at stake," he said. "I know what coach wanted me to do. When the coaches are able to talk to the players one on one, it makes life a lot easier, just to know what they want out of that player. It was great to have coach Bud just talk to me one on one, consistently, and not have me worry about it. He hears the positives I'm doing. And that helped me out tremendously."

Then there was Thabo Seflosha, trying to return to the floor after having his right leg broken by New York City police officers in a scuffle with dubious origins outside a nightclub last April -- which cost Seflosha the last five games of the regular season and all of the playoffs. (Sefolosha, who was acquitted of all charges filed by the police in a trial last October, said last fall he planned to file a civil lawsuit against the police department. New York's Civilian Complaint Review Board determined last November that two of the police officers involved in the arrest had committed misconduct during the arrest.)

Sefolosha needed to get back his range of motion in the leg. The Hawks "used things I had never seen before," he said. "They don't just, if you injured your knee or your ankle, they don't just go in and do a whole lot of treatment on that area. I think it's more about the whole body, the core, the breathing, all this, to make sure that everything is straight. Because when you injure something, you have a tendency to compensate."

The staff has concentrated on improving flexibility in Seflosha's core and hips. And he's wound up playing in 61 of Atlanta's 67 games this season, less than a year after suffering injuries that were considered career-threatening. Of all people, Seflosha was most in need of trusting the new training staff.

"I came in early in the summer and started working with them," he said. "Even during the summer, they sent me a program that I could follow. I was really impressed with them from the very start, everything that they were putting in place, and the way they were working with me."

Everyone didn't need such extensive rehab. For Millsap, who had incorporated yoga into his routine over the years, the staff put more emphasis on lunges and squats in his lifting routine, along with concentrating, again, on strengthening his core.

"For a person like me, I have strong hips, but I'm not that flexible with it," Millsap said. "And they understand that. So they incorporate a plan to help with that ... I take some of their techniques home and work with it for myself. That's how good it is and how much it works."

But Lyles and Roncarati are adamant that they not see the players when the season ends. One of their pieces of advice to players is to get away from them and everyone else associated with the team when the playoffs are over to do nothing "regimented," but to spend two to three weeks doing more normal physical activities like hiking, biking, swimming or wind surfing. They want them to get outside, after spending so many of the previous eight months indoors, and only after that break, should they resume their in-season programs.

Nobody has a monopoly on what works. But the new staff does seem to have the belief of the players, and that's more than half the battle.

"Players, they know," Budenholzer said. "They kind of have the (BS) antenna. They can cut through and they know those that know what they're doing coaching, and those that aren't as good. Well, it's the same thing in the training room. They know those that are sharp and can help them."

... AND NOBODY ASKED YOU, EITHER

This ain't business; it's personal. From Arnaud Wijbinga:

We always hear players talking about how it's a business when players get traded or waived. But I personally find the Mario Chalmers situation appalling and you can't just call it just business anymore. A torn Achilles is probably one of the worst injuries in any sport to recover from. Now Mario Chalmers has to recover from that by himself without any support an NBA team could give him and the Memphis Grizzlies knew exactly what the implication for Mario's are. His chances of ever playing in the NBA again have significantly dropped because of this. I understand the U.S. doesn't have a strong union culture but do you see his teammates taking action on this? Or the NBPA? And how do you see Mario's chances to get back to the NBA?

That's a fair observation, Arnaud. It does seem a little crass to cut ties with the guy after he gets hurt. But other than former Phoenix Suns GM Jerry Colangelo honoring the verbal agreement he had to give Danny Manning $40 million even after tearing up his knee before he became a free agent in 1995, it's hard to remember any team sticking with a player who suffered such a serious injury as Chalmers did. Portland, for example, had no interest in re-signing Wesley Matthews after his Achilles' injury last year. Now, they didn't cut him outright. But they didn't have any plan to keep him, either. At least now, Chalmers can talk to other teams that might be willing to bring him in and customize a rehab program for him.

My Cousin(s), Once Removed? From Kelly Iko:

Another day, another DeMarcus Cousins suspension. Sooner or later do you think the Kings would be better served cutting ties with him then continue in this unhappy marriage? It seems like every time we blink Boogie is yelling at a coach here or undermining the front office here. I know he has immense talent but that can only get you so far in this league. He needs to shape up and fast. And what head coach do you think could make it work? We think Mike Malone would have worked out but you can never be too sure.

GameTime: DeMarcus Cousins

DeMarcus Cousins speaks postgame after a tough loss to Utah.

I'm sure Sacramento will look seriously at moving Cousins this summer. But unless and until the Kings' owner gets serious about winning, and stops parading his friends through the locker room, and changing front office people at the drop of a hat, nothing is going to change there. And that is much more relevant to the team's future than the occasional Boogie Blast. Vlade Divac is going to have to do some hard thinking about what kind of team he can put around Cousins to get the most out of him. It can be done, but it's not going to be easy, and it's probably not going to involve more than one or two of the guys that are currently on the roster -- and certainly not the current coach.

If you're gonna dream, dream big. From Ayo Salami:

Hi David, I was thinking about a hypothetical situation of a Kevin Durant sign-and-trade for Blake Griffin with the Clippers. Chris Paul/KD/DeAndre Jordan combo on the court seems legit to me as well as Russ/Ibaka/Griffin. I need a breakdown of how this situation will work on the court on both ends and will it be a good fit? And is this feasible financially? Thank you for your time.

Well, it's not the worst idea I've heard, Ayo. Obviously the playoffs will determine what both of these teams do with their respective rosters, but if Durant were to decide he was leaving, and told OKC that, the only sign-and-trade that would make any sense for the Thunder in terms of talent return would obviously be for Griffin, the Oklahoma City native. Obviously it could work on the floor for both teams. The problem is making the math work. If Durant gets the expected raise from his current $20.1 million salary to a max deal starting at around $25 million, that would allow the Thunder and Clippers to do a sign-and-trade deal involving Durant and Griffin, who'll make $20 million next season. (I've been told by team executives that such a deal would not trigger Base Year Compensation rules. BYC, a hoary concept in former collective bargaining agreements, has been eliminated from the current CBA with one exception -- sign-and-trade deals. Basically, a player with a BYC contract is extremely hard to trade. But the projected raise for Durant would not be large enough to trigger the BYC limitations.) But, the team that would take Durant in a sign-and-trade -- in your scenario, the Clips -- cannot be more than $4 million above the luxury tax limit (known as the "apron") after taking him. Although, I do think the Clips would have other options as well.

Send your questions, comments, criticisms and the number to Progressive's Canine Division (Sparky's premiums are gonna go through the roof) to daldridgetnt@gmail.com. If your e-mail is sufficiently funny, thought-provoking, well-written or snarky, we just might publish it!

MVP WATCH

(last week's averages in parentheses)

1) Stephen Curry (30.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 5.8 apg, .518 FG, .857 FT): Has 30 3-pointers in six games so far this month. Entering play Sunday, the Bucks had 35 total threes in six games so far this month. (They made six more against Brooklyn Sunday night.)

2) Kawhi Leonard (23.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 2.3 apg, .473 FG, .895 FT): Now comes Pippen Approved!

The Starters: MVP Runner-Up?

Who will come second to Stephen Curry? Kawhi? Russell? Durant? Chris Paul? LeBron?

3) Kevin Durant (28.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 5.3 apg, .508 FG, .929 FT): Says of latest rumor that he will leave if the Thunder doesn't make The Finals this year: "never said that, never thought that." FWIW.

4) Russell Westbrook (23.3 ppg, 7 rpg, 11.7 apg, .440 FG, .880 FT): Becomes just the fourth player in league history to go 20-10-20 in a triple-double performance (25 points, 11 rebounds, 20 assists against the Clippers Wednesday), and the first since Magic Johnson in 1988.

5) LeBron James (26 pp, 7.8 rpg, 5.8 apg, .521 FG, .793 FT): Passed John Havlicek (26,395 career points) to go into 13th place on the league's all-time scoring list last Monday.

I'M FEELIN' ...

1) Godspeed in your retirement, Joey Crawford. You made the NBA a fun league to cover, and the games were always more interesting when you were reffing them.

GameTime: Joey Crawford Retires

The GameTime crew looks back on the legendary career of NBA referee Joey Crawford following his retirement announcement.

2) Don't know how it's going to turn out in the East, but right now, Boston and Atlanta and Miami and Charlotte are each looking like they could pose real challenges to Cleveland and Toronto in potential semifinal series -- if they can get out of their potential first-round series with one another.

3) I am a man. I am guilty of this more than I care to admit. When there are more women writing about and broadcasting games -- men's games, or women's games -- this will stop. Until then, I can only try to do better.

4) Terrific read by ESPN's Tom Haberstroh on the pains (no pun intended) the 76ers have taken during the past two years to build their new medical and player development staff, and the impact of that on 2013 first-rounder Joel Embiid and his rehab from his injuries.

NOT FEELIN' ...

1) It was stunning to hear last week that Peter Holt was stepping down as chair of the Spurs, no matter that the transition to his wife, Julianna, will probably be seamless. Holt has been such an integral part of what has been the most successful triumvirate in sports for two decades, along with GM/President of Sports Franchises R.C. Buford and Coach Gregg Popovich. There are, to be sure, dozens of others who've played major roles in the success of the franchise, starting with Tim Duncan. But Peter Holt has been the textbook owner -- involved but not meddling, fiscally prudent but willing to come out of pocket when necessary. Of course, his franchise, by giving Julianna Holt final say, again sets a standard; Julianna Holt will be the second woman in the league with owner powers, along with the Lakers' Jeanie Buss.

2) Russell Westbrook said it best after OKC's loss in San Antonio Saturday: "we should be" concerned about the Thunder's 4-8 record since the All-Star break. It's not the losses; it's how they're losing -- late, to quality teams, time after time.

Thunder vs. Spurs

Kawhi Leonard scores 26 points and LaMarcus Aldridge adds 24 as the Spurs beat the Thunder, 93-85.

3) That is not what you do after being called up from the NBA D-League, Branden Dawson.

4) It's a shame that Ben Simmons and LSU couldn't do enough to get into the NCAA Tournament, but that's what the regular season and conference tournaments are for -- to weed out those who haven't earned their way in. It's not going to impact his Draft status at all.

5) RIP, Clyde Lovellette, one of the last links to the NBA's first dynasty, the Minneapolis Lakers.

BY THE NUMBERS

367 -- Days since the Spurs' last regular season loss at home -- March 12, 2015 -- by Cleveland, when Kyrie Irving scored 57 points at AT&T Center to help defeat San Antonio in overtime. The Spurs have won 41 in a row at home since, including Saturday's come-from-behind win over the Thunder.

19 -- Years, per the NBA, since a Charlotte Hornets player has scored 30 or more points in four straight games, a feat accomplished last week by Kemba Walker. Walker is the first Charlotte player since Glen Rice (1997) to reach that mark.

3 -- Years since the Mavericks lost five straight games, their current slide going into Monday's game at red-hot Charlotte. The last time Dallas lost this many in a row, the Mavs lost six in a row to end December, 2012, and finished 41-41. It was the only season since the 1999-2000 season that Dallas failed to make the playoffs.

Q & A: VINCE CARTER

He hates missing games.

"I hate it, I hate it, I hate it," Vince Carter said Saturday night. But his calf, while better, was not quite right after he played some point guard for his ailing Memphis Grizzlies team. Such is the tenuous state of the Grizzlies, who are trying to hold onto their current playoff spot in the west despite injuries that have knocked Marc Gasol out for the season (stress fracture in his foot), point guard Mike Conley out for the next three to four weeks (Achilles' tendinitis), backup Mario Chalmers for the year (ruptured Achilles') and Zach Randolph for the last week (sore knee).

Now 39, Carter is no longer Half Man, Half Amazing. It's been nine years since his last All-Star appearance. What he has become is a specialist, a player whose knowledge of the game and locker room chemistry has grown as his physical gifts have diminished. He hasn't started for years, but still gives Memphis 15 intelligent minutes every night, having learned the art of role playing from Grant Hill in Phoenix and Jason Kidd in Dallas.

The Interview: Best Dunker Ever?

Steve Smith sits down with Vince Carter and gets his thoughts on if he considers himself the best dunker ever?

Now, Carter believes part of his job is to make guys like Lance Stephenson and P.J. Hairston, new to Memphis, feel at home. Yet even as his career winds down, his impact on the game -- on the growth of basketball in Toronto, which hosted this year's All-Star Game, and on the Dunk Contest that's become such an iconic part of All-Star Weekend -- is profound. Now in the top 25 on the NBA's all-time scoring list, Carter is closer to the end of his playing career than the beginning. But he still feels he has a contribution to make. When he can get on the court.

Me: You're at the point of your career where you can basically play wherever you want. So how do you evaluate a coach, or players in a system, and whether you want to be a part of what they're doing?

Vince Carter: Like anything else, you just have to do your research. There's a lot of guys in the league that I've played with that are now either young coaches or whatever. So you just have to do your research. We played year to year now. You see what's going on. Now, I look for what fits right with my style. That's kind of how I approach it. I think everybody's approach is different, of course. For me, it's just who will allow me to be me. I like to help the young guys do that. So I bring that to the table, and that's what Coach has allowed me to do here, while still playing. One thing that I'll never do is overstep my boundaries. I'm not trying to be the coach, be the voice. I'm just trying to make the game easier. As a player, you hear what the coaches say, but sometimes, when another teammate delivers it, it's a little different. It makes sense, or hits home.

Me: Is it fair to say that at this point, a more deliberate team, a team that's going to value possessions and go through options, is more desirable than playing for someone who's just up and down, craziness?

The Interview: 2000 Slam Dunk Contest

Steve Smith sits down with Vince Carter, who relives the 2000 Slam Dunk Contest.

VC: Just wild style? I can play it. I'm willing to adapt to pretty much anything. I can do it. It's just, I just want to win. That's what it really boils down to. At the end of the day, I'll do whatever I can in any style. You just have to learn. It's always a learning process for us. If we all got to choose our ideal place, some teams would be out of luck with a lot of players. It's all about learning to adapt to your situation. And the coach has to be willing to adapt to what he has as well, you know what I'm saying? For me, I just, I'm willing to fit in anywhere. But at the end of the day, the common denominator is winning. That's what it's all about. I just want to win at this point. And I think I can bring the winning mentality to a team, help the locker room, set up the locker room, and make shots.

Me: Other than a decrease in playing time, what concessions have you had to make to age?

VC: Just learning how to adjust to the style of play of the game (today). Regardless of what they say about the game being faster, and some teams play slower, it's still faster than it used to be. For me, just learning to take care of my body -- how to make sure I'm ready to go each and every day. When you're younger, you come off the bus, you can go right out there and shoot. For me, now I get here early -- for years, that's been my thing -- now I get my shots up, I get my stretching in, I get all the little treatment, the old man treatment that you need to get ready. For me, that's just part of my routine now. That's been my routine, so I don't think about it anymore. It's just part of what needs to be done. You play a lot of four games in five nights, or five games in seven nights, sometimes a back to back. I know at my age what's important, what I need to do to be ready for the second game. Maybe my minutes will be cut down, or whatever. I understand that. But personally, I make sure I'm ready to go.

For me, I just, I'm willing to fit in anywhere. But at the end of the day, the common denominator is winning. That's what it's all about. I just want to win at this point.

– Memphis Grizzlies veteran Vince Carter

Me: Do you like the way the game is played now, or do you miss the more physical play from back when you came into the league?

VC: It's hard to say. You used to take punishment. I get caught in the moment sometimes in games, when you drive to the basket and you get a foul. Now they're talking about Flagrant 2. I just remember, I can remember going through the paint, and that was just a common foul. I get caught up in that. And you get caught up in the way the game is played. Sometimes I'll be in the paint and barely get hit, and they're like, that's a foul. But if I had to choose, I mean, it's free-flowing now. That's a lot easier to play. And I understand why the NBA is doing it, for the excitement, for the points. But at the same time, the old way, the old style I played when I came in, that was free-flowing. Can you imagine some of the athletes now, with the illegal defense the way it was then? There would be a lot of scoring. Because you have to make that decision. You can't cross halfcourt unless you're willing to commit, and that paint is wide open. So, I don't know. That's just how I see it. Now, it's just free-flowing. I know you have the zone and a lot going on, but it's a different style now.

Me: Twenty-three year old Vince Carter, and nobody could touch him out front?

VC: Oooh. Oh, man. Every time I take off in the paint, every time you touch me, it's a foul. Or I feel like it would be a foul.

Me: Does it still blow your mind if some kid from Toronto, or Montreal, or Ottawa, comes up to you and says how much you mattered to basketball up there?

VC: Every time. Every time. To this day. I've heard so many guys from Canada say 'you are our hero.' I'm very appreciative of it to this day. It's like, I never take that for granted. I think about it, during that time, I was trying to establish myself, not thinking about what impact I may have had on a kid. But just enjoy the situation. I think I appreciate it even more now because of where I am now and how many years ago that was. I mean, all I was trying to do was have fun, play hard, establish myself and bring excitement to Toronto, not even realizing the impact for some young kid now.

Me: What's this about you coaching post-playing career? Is that real?

VC: I think I'd rather do some broadcasting, to be honest with you. I think that's where my passion lies. I enjoy coaching. I enjoying Coach allowing me to coach, or (offer) words of wisdom. I don't know if it's coaching. Just helping, being another coach on the floor, or just off the bench, or anything. Sometimes it's easy to translate and relay the message he's trying to portray, or make. So I think I enjoy that part of it. But I think I want to do some broadcasting.

I never take that for granted. I think about it, during that time, I was trying to establish myself, not thinking about what impact I may have had on a kid. But just enjoy the situation. I think I appreciate it even more now because of where I am now and how many years ago that was.

– Vince Carter, on being a Canadian basketball idol

Me: Okay, you're going to have to sit in a studio and say 'so-and-so sucked, and he blew this play at the end, and that's why they lost the game.' Are you ready to do that?

VC: I enjoy explaining the game. See, I look at it like this: while saying that, I'd love to explain the point, of why the decision was made. You can never, we can always speculate on what he was thinking. With my experiences, I can say, okay, in that situation, I've been there, and here is why he possibly made that bad play, or whatever. I understand the pros and cons of it. I think when it comes to being in that situation, I want to do it. When it comes to being in that situation, it is what it is. Just like coming here, playing in the game, and being the go-to guy, and missing the game-winning shot in Game 7. It comes with it. You have to live with it.

Me: Kobe said the reason he's retiring is because he can't do that stuff anymore to get ready to play. You feel him?

VC: I mean, and that's what I said about myself. When I don't want to prepare, when I don't want to come here early, when I don't want to go get in the lifting and the stretching and all the stuff that we have to do now that we're older, that's when it's time to walk away. And I've said the same thing for a long time. So I 100 percent agree with him. When it's that time, I won't disrespect the game. I will not. That's when you get hurt, when you're doing it for the money. At this point, we're not doing it for the money. We're doing it because we love it. The money's good, of course, and you want to get paid for what you bring to the table. But once you pass 15 years, you're doing it for love of the game. And when I don't love the game enough to do all of that, it's time to say goodbye.

TWEET OF THE WEEK

-- Nets guard Jarrett Jack (@Jarrettjack03), Wednesday, 1:27 a.m., responding to a fan who said he hadn't seen him on the floor in months. Jack injured his knee Jan. 2 against Boston and will miss the rest of the season.

THEY SAID IT

"When Gloria and I started dating, she and Matt had already been separated and living apart for more than a year. Same thing for me. My wife and I were long separated; she was in L.A., I was in New York. Matt and Gloria were not trying to work things out, and I certainly wasn't seeing her behind Matt's back or in secret. The relationship wasn't something I was trying to publicize, but it also wasn't something I was trying to hide, either. There was no reason to."

-- Former Knicks Coach Derek Fisher, in a first-person account of the last few months of his life -- including the incident with Matt Barnes in California, at the home of Barnes's ex-wife, Gloria Govan -- in The Cauldron last week.

"You guys wanted to harp in on the fact that he was a puppet, perhaps, and I wanted him to have the autonomy to make decisions on his own and not feel like I was an overlord."

-- Phil Jackson, to reporters last week in Los Angeles, on why he didn't communicate more with Fisher while he was head coach. Jackson said he was committed to completing the rebuilding of the team through his five-year contract.

"We are 30 partners right now. Thirty teams. Each of those teams own 1/30th of all the global opportunities of the NBA. So the issue becomes, if you expand, do you want to sell one of those interests off to a new group of partners? One reason to do it of course, is that if its additive. And no doubt, Seattle is a great market. At the moment, like for me as successful as the league is right now, we (are) not in the position, putting even aside profitability, where all 30 teams are must-see experiences. That's not a secret."

-- NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, at the SXSW (South by Southwest) Sports conference in Austin, Texas, last week, on why the league is currently reluctant and unwilling to expand further -- including to Seattle, which has been without a team since the Sonics left for Oklahoma City in 2008.

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.