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To play or not to play is the historic question

The Spurs’ injury issues have enabled the Thunder to close in on the Spurs and could still pass the Spurs with an easier closing schedule and the tiebreaker and get the top seed in the Western Conference playoffs even with Sunday’s loss to the Knicks.

Now as the playoffs are just two weeks away, the Spurs face both Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker out perhaps into the playoffs and, of course, Tim Duncan always on managed minutes
(Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images)

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Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has done all he could. To the point of costing his organization $250,000 when the NBA reacted negatively to Popovich sending his top players home rather than play in a nationally televised game in their only visit to Miami. But now as the playoffs are just two weeks away, the Spurs face both Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker out perhaps into the playoffs and, of course, Tim Duncan always on managed minutes. Popovich said he was “very concerned” about a recurrence of Parker’s ankle problems. “To have those two guys in that situation now is really disappointing,” said Popovich. “But you move on. Life is tough.” But how tough is NBA life really?

The Spurs’ injury issues have enabled the Thunder to close in on the Spurs and could still pass the Spurs with an easier closing schedule and the tiebreaker and get the top seed in the Western Conference playoffs even with Sunday’s loss to the Knicks. Which isn’t good for the Lakers if they make the playoffs as the Lakers like the look of the slower Spurs than the athletic Thunder. Of course, that’s a big if as well as the Lakers lost to the Clippers Sunday and fell behind the Jazz and don’t have the tiebreaker. Though as for the Thunder, I’m sure they passed the ball once, though I never saw it. Once again, Russell Westbrook remains out of control with 10 more shots — 27 in 34 minutes — than Kevin Durant. And anytime Westbrook is shooting and not Durant, that’s good for the opposition. It’s why backup guard Reggie Jackson had to play the entire fourth quarter. No Thunder starter had an assist in the fourth quarter.

Meanwhile, the rest/play questions — and the Thunder guys do remarkably continue never to miss games and good for them on that — also raise the question of how best to navigate an NBA season: To play or not to play is the historic question. Not to suggest playing Parker and Ginobili would have kept them healthier, but there’s also the possibility, if not likelihood, rest may not prevent injury. Lately it’s been vacation time in the NBA with several playoff teams resting their top players, most notably the Miami Heat with LeBron James missing his most consecutive games since coming to Miami and Dwyane Wade also out perhaps the rest of the regular season.

The NBA can’t really say much. But it also raises the question of what the players owe the paying fans and the game by playing. The Heat was in Charlotte last week and the biggest cheer of the night was when James and Wade walked out in their suits. Do they owe the fans given they paid so much and they are there so rarely? Does the team transcend everything because of the need to have players the most rested for the playoffs? Or does rest even mean anything? And thus are we nurturing a generation of NBA wimps?

It didn’t used to be like this. Players played, including the greatest, because the regular season was a source of pride and the ethic was the end of the season was vital to prepare for the playoffs.

“You were doing a few things at the end of the season,” said NBA Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas, who missed a total of three regular season games combined in the team’s two championship seasons, 1989 and 1990. “You wanted to stop other teams from doing well (because you were playing mostly in your conference) and you were playing to get better. You didn’t play not to get injured.

“Maybe this generation was a little smarter than we were,” Thomas added with a laugh. “It also goes back to getting better, that when you are playing at such a high level you cannot turn it on and off. That’s what, I think, the old school guys understood and had a healthy feel for: If you lose that rhythm, that momentum is such a sacred thing when you have it and are playing well as an individual and as a team you don’t want to mess with that. It’s also another day for you to work on your game. There never seemed to be a question of taking time off. Coaches also liked to use it to work on some different rotations, plays at certain times in games, experiments under game conditions about things that could come up in a playoff game. But medical staffs also are much more conservative and cautious now than they were back then.”

It really was mostly unheard of for players to routinely skip games with nothing wrong with them but the remnants of a season as it is today. Especially given teams until the 1990’s traveled commercial and none stayed in first class hotels like Ritz and Four Seasons like all teams do now. Nor did anyone have masseuses and strength coaches and nutritionists on the road with them as many do today.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played 80 games when he was 41 in a serious playoff run season and at least 80 games 11 times and 79 three others. Patrick Ewing, who came into the NBA needing knee surgery, played at least 79 games eight straight seasons after his early knee surgeries. Robert Parish played 81 games when he was 41. John Stockton played every game his last five years in the NBA, and before his final season with the Lakers Karl Malone never missed more than two games in a season, usually suspensions for assaulting Thomas. Reggie Miller played at least 80 games 11 times and Michael Jordan missed a total of six games in the Bulls six title seasons, including zero games in the last three championship seasons after he came back from 19 months away from basketball. In Jordan’s final season in the game in Washington, he played in all 82 games. He always understood his role as an NBA player and, after all, he liked to play.

“Back then there was such a responsibility that we all probably bought into about growing the game and making it a global game and winning over fans,” said Thomas. “There’s a certain responsibility you always brought as part of the NBA family to move the sport forward. You always felt you wanted to go out and give a good performance every night, that there also was a responsibility and obligation to the people who bought the tickets. You just wanted to play.”

Former champions reunite in New York

-- So maybe we got a hint of Phil Jackson’s favorite team as he wore his 1995-96 Bulls title ring to the Knicks’ 1973 championship team reunion Friday. Jackson said it was the only one that fit. But most interesting was to hear those Knicks, one of the great pure basketball teamwork teams in league history, talk about the game. Though he was one of the better long shooters, Bill Bradley said, “Thank God we didn’t have the three-point line. It would have messed up our game. Back then basketball was played with finesse, with your feet. Now it’s about three-pointers and upper body strength.” Laughed Walt Frazier, still a Knicks broadcaster: “Guys might have looked to veer behind the line on a three-on-one, like they do now.” I especially liked hearing Jackson talk about that Knicks’ team as the players went on Bradley’s Sirius radio show Friday afternoon and the secrets of the game, which used to be so obvious. Said Jackson: “Everybody could bring the ball up the court, versatility. So many guys could rebound and push the ball up the court and then in my talks about basketball I say that Red [Holzman, coach] had two things he taught: Hit the open man on the offensive end. Everything will work out if you hit the open man, which we believed in, and see the ball on defense, which was his other maxim. He always kept (the game) very simple and would say, ‘Hey, this isn’t rocket science.’ We were taught to support each other defensively, and I think that that aspect of it played a big role in how we played.” Lessons in life and business, as well, and usually good for $75,000 a speech, I’d guess.

Bulls set to host streaking Knicks

Meanwhile, the current Knicks continue to make an intriguing case they are the Eastern team who can give Miami a run. Said Jackson last week when asked about his old playing team: "I think they’ve come a long way in the last two and a half weeks, put together games, put together a run. It’s the right time of year to get healthy. They got some injuries but survived them. They’re going to be challenging. There’s hope in this town maybe they can surprise some people and win this year." The Bulls, 3-0 against the Knicks this season and 6-1 overall against New York City teams this season, host the Knicks Thursday on TNT national TV and have had success this season. The Bulls have outrebounded the Knicks 137-121 combined in those games and seen the Knicks lose their composure over physical play as Tyson Chandler recently set an NBA record for complaining on 97 percent of the plays he’s been involved in, surpassing the previous mark held by Dwyane Wade.

NBA news & notes

-- The 76ers’ Jrue Holiday in the curiosity of the week after he shot two for 24 against Charlotte, “I guess I just didn't get into a rhythm.” You know, they all felt good leaving his hand ... Andrew Bynum’s agent told the Philadelphia Inquirer Bynum hasn’t ruled out resigning with the 76ers. Because even though the demand for him will be so high? ... It’s not looking great for the Raptors to pick up John Lucas’ option as Lucas has made three shots in the last month, three for 30 and one of 19 on threes ... The questions inevitably are raised by media late in the season with losing teams: Has the coach lost the team? Sometimes the coach probably hopes they do get lost on the way to the arena. But last week it was the Cavs Byron Scott after a few bad losses, though Anderson Varejao has been out all season and Kyrie Irving is proving to be among the more brittle young players. Scott probably got a reprieve as the Cavs won in Boston Friday as the Celtics without Kevin Garnett are one of the league’s poorest defensive teams. Nice future plan there. As for the coach-losing-his-team focus, it previously has been washing over Lawrence Frank in Detroit, Mike Dunlap in Charlotte, Keith Smart in Sacramento and lately Vinny Del Negro even though the Clippers won the Pacific title and had a strong win over the Lakers Sunday. DeAndre Jordan doesn’t deal with his frequent benching very well even though Benny the Bull backward from halfcourt is a better free throw shooter, Blake Griffin has been more cranky than usual even though he still hasn’t learned a post move in three years and Del Negro didn’t come off well saying all he could do was put them out there. The Clippers are currently lined up to open the playoffs against the Grizzlies, who’d be a tough matchup for them with their deliberate play as the Clippers in the halfcourt don’t often operate well. Del Negro, of course, has faced media coaching future questions daily more than anyone in the past five years. So as the Clippers head to an all time wins record for the franchise, the Cavs are 62-160 (.279) under Scott. When this season ends, the Cavs’ winning percentage will rank second in history behind the Chicago Bulls for the worst three-year stretch following a 50-win season, according to STATS. The Bulls from 1998-2001 won 21 percent of their games following Michael Jordan’s retirement. And I know I always felt Tim Floyd could have gotten 24 percent of the wins with some luck.

-- Feeling pressure to finally make some sort of major move, the Bobcats are expected to amnesty Tyrus Thomas this summer and with DeSagana Diop coming off the books could be $25 million below the salary cap. Will a free agent take Michael Jordan’s money? Given the generous profit sharing rules in the new labor deal, Jordan likely will make a profit no matter how much he spends up to the cap. But the Bobcats also are in line for two or three lottery picks in 2014, which many NBA executives see as one of the best drafts in recent years and a chance for the Bobcats to get whole in the next two years. Charlotte has a one game “lead” over Orlando for the league’s poorest record ... Jannero Pargo has been a good pickup for the Bobcats, averaging 9.6 points and shooting almost 40 percent on threes since March 15 ... The Pacers, though Central Division champions, aren’t scaring anyone but their fans with blowout losses to the Thunder and Wizards back to back as they limp into the division title ... Likewise in a pre playoff lull are the Hawks, who have a recent history of playoff collapses. Lamented coach Larry Drew to Atlanta media after a home loss to the 76ers: “I know the importance of momentum going into the postseason but us, as a team, we have not figured out who we are and who we have to remain. That is the disappointing part of the last couple weeks. Here we are 77 games into our season and we don’t know who we are. We had to be a team that would be gritty. We have to bring a blue collar mentality every night we step on the floor, particularly on the defensive end. Somewhere along the line we have forgotten who we have to be.” With the Hawks losing again Saturday to a decimated Spurs team and the Pacers’ back to back losses, the Eastern Conference playoffs is coming more into focus with the Pacers falling behind the Knicks into a more solid third and the Hawks now with two more losses than the Bulls. If the Bulls play .500 the rest of the way, the Hawks, who have lost four of their last six, would have to win out with four straight to get to fifth. That’s assuming Atlanta would want to as fourth/fifth means a likely second round series with Miami. The Hawks are 2-2 against both Brooklyn and Indiana, the likely third place finisher. So the first round still looks most likely like Heat/Bucks; Knicks/Celtics; Pacers/Hawks; Nets/Bulls.

-- More pressure than usual on a 28-win team as the Timberwolves were working hard to get that 1,000th win for coach Rick Adelman with Adelman possibly retiring after this season due to his wife’s illness. The Timberwolves hung on to beat the Pistons Saturday, making Adelman, former Bull who backed up Jerry Sloan and Norm Van Lier, the eighth NBA coach to 1,000 wins, which is something of that magic number for the Hall of Fame as all are either in or will be. But the Basketball Hall of Fame should look harder at some NBA coaches like Bill Fitch and Cotton Fitzsimmons given the price of pro coaching is taking over bad teams, like Fitch did with the Cavs, Rockets and Nets. College coaches can virtually schedule themselves into 20 wins and successful season, and if they hang around long enough the mandatory career wins. But in the NBA you take on a lot of losses with bad and expansion teams, and turning those teams around is as significant, something college coaches rarely have to do ... It has been an impressive run, the last time the Mavs missed the playoffs being when novice owner Mark Cuban believed Dennis Rodman would help. Rodman’s addition kept the Mavs out of the playoffs, but they made in the next season and every season since and won a title with 11 straight seasons until the lockout with at least 50 wins. But it certainly ends this season. Yes, the Mavs have botched free agency so far after breaking up their 2011 title team and wasted two of the last seasons for Dirk Nowitzki. Sure, they could add someone like free agent Al Jefferson, but that doesn’t get you far. There’s talk of Dwight Howard, though the Rockets are more likely to come in and steal him if he doesn’t resign with the Lakers. But I’d keep an eye on the Clippers as with an early playoff loss Chris Paul could rethink things if the Mavs could clear enough room for a second free agent. Cuban doesn’t think small even if the Mavs could end up that way.

-- Another creepy act by Eric Gordon, the bizarre guard who got a $56 million contract from the Hornets despite serious knee problems and to show his gratitude said he wished he could have gone to the Suns. So Gordon, shooting just 32 percent on threes and a career equaling worst 40.2 percent overall, spends half the season not playing and Friday got benched after going after coach Monty Williams. The Hornets obviously will try to move Gordon. But how can a franchise in this high luxury tax era take on three years averaging about $15 million for a player with apparent physical and attitude issues and who obviously feels little guilt about not playing or ruining your team? ... With the Suns’ coaching purge, pushed out franchise legend Dan Majerle is taking the road of upstart Florida Gulf Coast with Grand Canyon College, which is moving to Division 1. But with the goofy NCAA rules like with Florida Gulf Coast, teams in transition cannot compete in conference tournaments or the NCAA for four years. But there’s an upside, Majerle told the Arizona Republic about Grand Canyon: “Jerry Colangelo is involved with it and everything Jerry is involved in is going to be first class.” Majerle could add former teammate and Bull Joe Kleine to his staff ... What the heck is with these ACL injuries as Danilo Gallinari was the latest and with Ty Lawson with a torn plantar fascia it certainly stems talk the Nuggets could be the darkhorse Western Conference upset. Though the Nuggets’ strength is their depth and rotations are shortened in the playoffs, anyway ... Though they haven’t had expected regulars Andrew Bogut much of the season and Brandon Rush at all, Klay Thompson never has missed an NBA game and among David Lee, Stephen Curry, Carl Landry, Harrison Barnes and Jarrett Jack the Warriors have lost only about a dozen games combined. Still, it’s a major change for a franchise that has been in the playoffs once since 1994 ... wishing a speedy recovery from heart issues to one of the enduring NBA figures, Pistons trainer Mike Abdenour, who has been a trainer for 35 years. He was that familiar face always rushing to talk with Chuck Daly on the sidelines during those heated Bulls/Pistons games ... The NBA’s true super scout, Marty Blake, who also was once general manager of the Hawks when they started in Milwaukee, died Sunday. After a long career as a league executive, Blake started a scouting service and eventually became the league’s official scout briefing media during the draft. Blake was the first to discover a former student manager who was playing NAIA ball and mentioned him to the Bulls. Jerry Krause eventually went on to draft Scottie Pippen.

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