No. 1: Cavaliers' Griffin restocks roster, again -- From Kyle Korver to potentially Deron Williams and Andrew Bogut, David Griffin has done it again. The Cleveland Cavaliers' general manager, under pressure since LeBron James first mentioned needing another "playmaker," among other things, has replenished a championship roster with pieces needed for a repeat run at the title. They might not all be in place or available in time for tonight's game against Milwaukee (7 ET, TNT), but there is no doubt that Griffin has answered LeBron's challenge. Joe Vardon of the Plain Dealer explains:
Korver was the first chip to fall into place, when Cleveland general manager David Griffin traded Mike Dunleavy, Mo Williams' contract, and the 2019 first-round pick to the Atlanta Hawks on Jan. 7.
But in each of the next two player acquisitions -- the Williamses -- the player's agent had to go to other teams to warn them against claiming their client off waivers with the intent of making sure they landed in Cleveland.
Even the casual fan knows that free agents haven't always wanted to come here. As late as last season, Joe Johnson chose the Miami Heat over the Cavs. It was his loss. He's ringless.
"I think we're really confident that we have the kind of players that people want to play with and the kind of coach that people want to play for," Griffin said. And frankly all the guys who've come here would tell you we have the kind of organization that sells itself as well.
"But, often times the things that sway the balance in those things are role and minutes. And we may not have a whole lot of that, depending on the player. We've lost players in the past, even during the championship run that we wanted because they needed more of a platform to get re-signed or what have you."
James criticized Griffin, Griffin's aides, and owner Dan Gilbert in January for failing to properly replace Dellavedova and Timofey Mozgov, or use available assets to shore up holes on the roster.
Griffin has now mostly done that, with the strong possibility of adding Bogut or another big man this week.
Philadelphia acquired Bogut Thursday in a trade with Dallas, and is engaged in buyout discussions with the 7-foot Australian over what's left of his $11 million salary this season.
So long as he's sent to waivers by the end of the day Wednesday (March 1), the 32-year-old Bogut would be eligible for the playoffs with another team.
So Griffin will wait until then before moving on from Bogut. Terrence Jones cleared waivers and Larry Sanders is still out there. The Cavs may be waiting for other big men to be released.
In the event Bogut becomes a free agent, he may be put in the spot of having to turn down millions more dollars from another contender like Houston to play for Cleveland because of the salary cap.
And here's where money enters the discussion -- not just for the Cavs and Bogut, but for Griffin's overall challenge to add to the roster despite already being well over the cap.
Cleveland's payroll all season has hovered around $130 million; that's the highest in the NBA and miles above both the salary cap ($94 million) and luxury-tax line ($113 million).
So when Mo Williams basically retired and Chris Andersen tore his ACL, the Cavs felt they couldn't simply waive them because of the enormous cost in tax penalties (millions of dollars between the two).
That Griffin was able to add to the roster as he has, with former All-Stars and a potentially late-blooming prospect, and find trade partners to save a little cash on Williams and Andersen (the Hornets took Andersen's contract this month) was quite a coup.
"I think you guys know, I've gone on record saying Griff has one of the hardest jobs, but he's unbelievable at it, exudes a lot of confidence in not only the guys he brings in, but the guys that are here," Irving said. "For us, we trust in the front office and I think he does a great job. We have a great relationship, very open in terms of communication and I think he's doing great."
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No. 2: Westbrook amazes new teammates with latest triple-double -- Welcome to the show, Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott. The newest members of the Oklahoma City Thunder are still getting used to the one-man storm that is Russell Westbrook, who collected his 29th triple-double of the season in a win over New Orleans Sunday. What looks impressive from afar looks downright amazing up close, writes Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman:
“Man, that was crazy,” McDermott said of Westbrook's signature play Sunday night, a hammer dunk shot over New Orleans' DeMarcus Cousins that gave the Thunder some breathing room and fouled out Cousins.
The Thunder beat the Pelicans 118-110, and Westbrook was his usually spectacular self: 41 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists, some wild play that resulted in nine turnovers but all of which were forgivable considering the guy scored 21 fourth-quarter points.
“I'm glad I'm on his side,” McDermott said. “He makes some crazy plays. Me and Taj were sitting on the bench kind of in awe a few plays. I'm sure it's just normal for you guys. Taj saw a little bit of it when he played with D(errick)-Rose in Chicago. It's fun to be part of.”
Fun and necessary.
The Pelicans had whittled a 10-point deficit to one, 107-106, with less than three minutes left in the game. But Westbrook went around his fellow UCLA Bruin, Jrue Holliday, and Steven Adams walled off Pelican shot-blocker Anthony Davis, and Westbrook soared toward the rim. Cousins, having scored 31 points but playing with five fouls, met Westbrook at the basket.
To no avail. Westbrook jammed the ball home, and Chesapeake Arena erupted so much you couldn't even hear the whistle that meant Cousins was gone.
Without Cousins, New Orleans' new Twin Towers was down to a solitary skyscraper, and the Pelicans' offense was kaput. New Orleans scored only four points the rest of the way. Westbrook scored eight more himself.
Adams also called the dunk “crazy,” though he was not a primary source. “I didn't even get to see it. Sucks. My back was to it. I heard the bang and was like, aw, missed it.”
Westbrook made the foul shot to give OKC a 110-106 lead. The points were huge. Fouling out Cousins was huger.
Cousins and Davis stayed in various forms of foul trouble, but they gave the Thunder fits all game long. Davis scored 24 points in the first quarter. Cousins scored 19 in the second quarter. Davis finished with 38 points and Cousins with 31. They combined to make 23 of 43 shots and all 21 of their foul shots.
Despite 0-3 since the trade that brought Cousins from Sacramento, the Pelicans are going to be a load for every team the rest of the season. The Thunder has to be happy that it has no more New Orleans games this season. And it got rid of Cousins 2:38 early Sunday night.
“Obviously it changed the game,” said New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry. “But Russ made all the plays at the end of the game. With him, it's never over til it's over. He's so explosive. We've got to do a better job of containing him. We let him out into the open space, and when you do that, that puts you in a real tough situation. We didn't control him enough. If you give him straight-line drives to the basket, he's going to always hurt you.”
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No. 3: Durant should be OK to go tonight -- The Golden State Warriors have plenty of offensive firepower and proved that on Saturday, beating the Brooklyn Nets without standout All-Star forward Kevin Durant. He missed the game because of a contusion on his left hand but is expected to be ready to go tonight against the Philadelphia 76ers (7 ET, NBA LEAGUE PASS), writes Connor Letourneau of the San Francisco Chronicle:
Durant, who sat out of Saturday’s win over the Nets with a left hand contusion, had no problems going through shooting drills Sunday without a wrap on his hand.
“He’s doing better,” Kerr said. “I just asked him how he feels, and he said really good. Swelling’s down. I would expect him to play tomorrow, but we’ll see how tomorrow goes.”
Durant is officially listed as questionable for Monday.
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No. 4: Gaudy stats aside, Rockets adhere to higher standard this season -- The rise of the Houston Rockets this season has been nothing short of amazing, and they have the advanced statistics to prove it. But they're about more than just numbers this season under Mike D'Antoni, who has always produced big offensive numbers in his coaching career. The Rockets, who host Indiana tonight (9:30 ET, TNT) have more going on this season. As Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle reports, they are adhering to a higher standard this season:
The Rockets looked past the most recent record – most games with at least 20 3-pointers – to see the playoffs looming. They expect to put up numbers then, too. They just don't want to have to set records to win games.
"We're just trying to develop good habits," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said. "Sometimes, we forget that. We're going to harp on that all the time. This is a stretch that we have to win so we sew up a good spot and make sure we get as high as we can. But the biggest thing is to make sure we develop habits that, once you get in the playoffs, you automatically do the things we need to do.
"We bounce around a little bit. Most of the time, it's pretty good. Last night, we didn't do some of the things we should have done."
The Rockets were outrebounded 58-31. They had not been outrebounded by that many boards in a win since the Spurs pulled down 33 more rebounds in a Rockets win in January, 1992. They don't expect to make that a habit or want to have to.
"A significant part of defense is playing good defense and rebounding the ball," guard Eric Gordon said. "We didn't rebound well. When we rebound at a high rate, that's a big game-changer for us."
The Rockets allowed 68 points in the paint, giving up 29 second-chance points. Only the Lakers allow more points in the paint per possession than the Rockets, immediately pointing to the area in the Rockets' 15th ranked defense they want to improve.
That's not about defending post ups or even rim protection. As Saturday demonstrated, its often about transition defense and in the halfcourt, about breakdowns on the ball and rotations that lead to extra passes and layups.
"Getting back on defense, sometimes we 'buddy run,'" D'Antoni said. "You don't get the defense set quick enough and then you have to react.
"We're not great defenders, per se. But we can be good team defenders. They have to understand (the importance of) five guys effort all the time. When we don't, then something breaks down and we struggle."
Normally, if a team scores 142 points, it does not have to point out that "a win is a win." But the Rockets have scored at least 120 points 23 times, their most since the 1978-79 season. They have understandably become more difficult to please.
"A win is great," forward Trevor Ariza said. "Nobody is going to complain about a win. But ... doing the things we want to in the bigger scheme of things is the big thing. We feel defensively, we didn't give our best effort. We didn't do our schemes to perfection the way we like. Giving up 130 points is a lot of points to give up, no matter if you score 140 or 131 points. Giving up 130 is too many."
In November, the Rockets would have been thrilled. With March a few days away, Eric Gordon said "It's getting to the point of being a real dominant team and preparing for the playoffs."
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No. 5: Retooled Raptors roar back again for another win -- There's something to be said for changing a team's DNA before, during and at the trade deadline, as the Toronto Raptors did. Since adding the likes of Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker to a team that played in the Eastern Conference finals last season, the Raptors appear to be playing with a higher level of certainty, even when things go awry. Mike Ganter of the Toronto Sun highlights the latest exhibition of that newfound calm, which was evident in the Raptors' comeback win over Portland:
There’s a sense of calm about this new Raptors team since the trade deadline, even missing their starting point guard.
Granted, it’s only two games, but for the second time in a row the Raptors found themselves down double digits in a game and there was absolutely no panic.
Friday, it was the Boston Celtics up by 17 only to see the Raptors come roaring back for the win.
Sunday it was a visiting Portland Trail Blazers extending its lead to an even dozen before the Raptors methodical comeback began, culminating in a 112-106 win.
That it has happened without Kyle Lowry in uniform makes it that much more impressive.
Serge Ibaka has been a big part of that calm. When the team needs a big stop the big man with the quick feet is there to help guarantee one. When they need a big bucket he can do that too, normally from behind the arc.
But even when he’s not scoring or not actually in on the stop, he’s contributing either by simply providing the threat of offence from behind the arc and thereby opening space for teammates or defensively with his constant chatter keeping teammates alert to switches or just directing traffic.
With the game very much still in the balance with just over 4:30 to go, Ibaka had a driving hook shoot and then on the next trip down a three, his second of the game to extend the lead to five.
The Trail Blazers responded with a Damian Lillard three and another bucket to offset those scores before Ibaka went back to work with two more step-back two’s, all of that coming within about a 1:30 span.
It was all part of a 18-point, 10-rebound, one block and two steal evening for Ibaka who is quickly making his trade-deadline acquisition look even better than many could have hoped.
Without Lowry around, a big scoring load was again on the shoulders of DeMar DeRozan and he responded with a 33-point night to lead the team. It comes hot on the heels of a career high 43-point night against Boston on Friday.
Also big offensively was Jonas Valanciunas who had 15 points as he out-battled Josef Nurkic most of the evening.
With the Toronto win and a Washington loss, the Raptors are now .003 percentage points behind the Wizards for third in the Eastern Conference.
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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Don't let the dimensions fool you, Celtics All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas can still get up and dunk with the best of them ... All-Star Gordon Hayward rides to the rescue for the Jazz in win over Wizards ... The Grizzlies' Big Three fuel their back-on-track win over Denver ... An "extra mad" Karl-Anthony Towns hit the weights after a loss to Houston ... Myles Turner took his turn in the spotlight in Paul George's absence recently ... The Spurs made themselves at home in Los Angeles as they wrapped up yet another successful rodeo road trip ... The Clippers needed every drop of what Blake Griffin had to give in an overtime win over the Hornets ...