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Two players shine bright in season of bumps and bruises

James Harden, Stephen Curry made 2014-15 one to remember

POSTED: Apr 13, 2015 10:50 AM ET

By David Aldridge

BY David Aldridge

TNT Analyst

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Stephen Curry and James Harden have made this one of the most exciting MVP chases in league history.

In This Week's Morning Tip

  • David Aldridge's award picks for 2014-15
  • Noel gives Sixers someone to build on
  • Q&A with Hawks guard Kyle Korver
  • Spurs, Clippers making noise in DA's Weekly Rankings

This has been as bad a season for injuries in the NBA as I can recall in three decades.

The attrition has robbed us of most of the season from Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony, and has reduced stars like Derrick Rose, Dwight Howard and Al Jefferson to shells of themselves.

It has at the heart of the resting healthy players scourge that has infected the league: coaches will do anything to ensure that their best players are ready for the playoffs.

But there have been two players that have risen above the bodies to put up MVP caliber seasons: the Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry and the Houston Rocket's James Harden. They are clearly the front-runners for the MVP Award -- a battle that may be one of the closest in recent years.

But, you have to choose. I have chosen Harden.

And here is where I make what should be obvious: this is my awards ballot, not yours. When and if you get to vote for NBA honors, you can vote any way you want. My ballot only has to make sense to me, not to you. So, again: it's pointless to send me some kind of advanced metrics after the fact that "proves" Ryan Kelly is better than Anthony Davis.

DA's award picks: MVP | Rookie of the Year | Sixth Man of the Year | Most Improved Player | Defensive Player of the Year | Coach of the Year

All-NBA team picks: First team | Second team | Third team

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER

The Winner: James Harden, Houston Rockets

The Runner-Up: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

The Others: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers; Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder; Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans

It is impossible to have a discussion in the Twitter age.

MVP -- The Starters

It's finally time to pick -- The Starters select the MVP of the 2014-15 season.

If you like one person, you must "hate" another; if you compliment someone, someone else will denigrate them within seconds; if you wish someone a happy birthday, someone else will say they're old. It's mean out there.

And things will be no different when I say that Harden should be the Kia MVP, by an eyelash-thin margin over Curry. I must "hate" Curry. I must be a Rockets fan. I must hate Warriors coach Steve Kerr so much I can't vote for any of his players. And on and on and on.

People work overtime to be unhappy.

But you can't live with that kind of cirrhosis. Mine will thus be an affirmative, happy vote for Harden, who trails Westbrook for the scoring lead by .4 ppg. He also leads the NBA in free throws made and attempted -- just as voters for Curry will cast their ballots, happily.

GameTime: MVP Voting

Rick Kamla, Dennis Scott and Vinny Del Negro discuss the voting process for the current MVP candidates.

No one with working synapses would say it's wrong to vote Curry for MVP.

The Warriors' superstar was already one of the game's most lethal offensive players coming into this season, and he's been even better this year. He's third in the league in ESPN's PER, a career high. He's third in offensive win shares, and third in overall win shares. He's shooting an insane 44 percent on 3-pointers. He's cut back on the bad turnovers that drove Kerr crazy this season, and did the same to former coach Mark Jackson last season. He may be the best ballhandler in the game, and there's no one who needs less airspace to shoot better from deeper.

He's been outstanding.

But Harden has been more outstanding.

If the argument is going to be "best player on the best team," then Curry is going to be the winner. Clearly, Golden State has been the top team in the league this season, and Curry its best player. But, by that logic, Tim Duncan or Kawhi Leonard should have been regular season league MVP last season, when the Spurs had the league's best regular season record.

There are a few reasons why Harden gets my vote:

• Harden's nightly burden is much greater.Consider this stat: the Warriors have won games by an average of 10.21 points per game, by far the largest average margin of victory in the league. The Rockets won by an average of 3.03 points per game -- still very good (ninth in the league), but much smaller. Golden State has won 16 games this season -- 16! -- by 20 points or more. Houston has three 20+ point wins this season. Many more of Houston's games this season have been close, meaning the Rockets have needed every Harden point.

Through Friday, Harden had 33 games this season when he's scored 30 or more points. The Rockets were 29-4 in those games. That means they're 24-22 this season when Harden doesn't score 30 or more. Which means he has had to score 30 or more for them almost every night in order for them to make the playoffs. That is an enormous weight for one guy to have to carry.

One on One: Stephen Curry

With the race for the NBA's MVP wide open this season, Ahmad Rashad sits down with three of the top candidates for the award.

Consider this, too: Curry leads the Warriors in scoring, at 24.0 per game. Golden State's second-leading scorer is, of course, Klay Thompson, at 21.3. Harden is the Rockets' leading scorer with 27.5 ppg. Houston's second-leading scorer? Trevor Ariza, at 12.9 ppg. (Editor's note: Howard is technically No. 2 with 15.8 ppg, but he's played in 40 games to Ariza's 80). That is, by far, the biggest discrepancy between the top two scorers on a team in the league.

• The Warriors, plainly, are a better team than the Rockets. This isn't debatable. If you take Curry off the Warriors, they wouldn't be as good. But they'd still have Thompson, Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes -- and, maybe most importantly, Andrew Bogut, whose ability to get through most of the season healthy is key to Golden State's league-best defense. They wouldn't win 60 games. But they'd certainly be a playoff team.

And: look at games played by the Warriors' top players this season. Thompson has played in 75. Green has played in 77. Barnes has played in 80. Andre Iguodala has played in 75. Even the injury-prone Bogut has played in 65.

By contrast, look at the games played by Houston's core guys. Howard had only played in 40 games, and he's still on a minutes restriction. Patrick Beverley: 56 games, and he's out for the season. Terrence Jones: 31 games. Trevor Ariza had played in 80 games, and Donatas Motiejunas got in 71 before being lost for the season last week with a bad back. I would humbly submit that Ariza and Motiejunas are not quite as good as Thompson and Green.

What would Houston be without Harden? A healthy Howard would obviously make things different, but let's get real: this season, with all the injuries, the Rockets would be in the Lottery without Harden.

GameTime: Stephen Curry

Rick Fox and Dennis Scott a take a look at Stephen Curry's breaking of his record, becoming the all time leader in 3-pointers made in a single season record.

Golden State is a better defensive team (first in defensive rating in the league; Houston is ninth). Golden State is a better offensive team (second in the league in offensive rating; Houston is 12th).

• Harden has to pay a physical price for his points. We can debate ad nauseum whether Harden is the beneficiary of a kind whistle, but the reality is that he's the best in the league at drawing fouls, and it's a big part of his game. But those endless drives and launches at opposing defenders takes a toll. I'm not arguing that Curry isn't working hard; of course he is. But Harden gets more contact on a nightly basis. He is third the league, according to SportVU tracking, on drives to the basket, scoring 8.0 points per game that way -- and that doesn't include transition points.

As for James, look -- he's the best player in the league. No one is arguing otherwise. But Cleveland was much too loose the first half of the season, during which time James missed a couple of weeks to heal up from back and knee problems. I'm not blaming James for the dysfunction; there were a lot of issues troubling the Cavs in November and December. But you can't let two months of the season slide when assessing who's had the best year for his team.

All-Access: Houston Rockets

A look at Head Coach Kevin McHale, MVP candidate James Harden and the Houston Rockets at a recent team practice.

Westbrook made his bid after Kevin Durant went down, putting the Thunder on his back and showing the entire league how special he really is. His string of triple-doubles and endless energy in pursuing wins for his depleted team was as impressive as anything his more heralded teammate has done in Oklahoma City. But the Thunder hasn't been able to pull away from New Orleans for the last playoff spot in the west despite his excellence.

Davis, in whispers that may soon become shouts, is believed by many in the game to already be the best player in the league. He certainly is already the best big, possessing dominant skill sets at both ends of the floor -- leading the league in PER, total blocked shots and blocks per game, while currently fourth in total Win Shares. He's lethal in transition, learning at an accelerated, SkyNet-like pace in the halfcourt -- and if he can step out past the 3-point line? Game over, man.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

The Winner: Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves

The Runner-Up: Nikola Mirotic, Chicago Bulls

The Others: Nerlens Noel, Philadelphia 76ers; Elfrid Payton, Orlando Magic; Jordan Clarkson, Los Angeles Lakers

Kia Rookie of the Month: Nikola Mirotic

The Buls' Nikola Mirotic is the Eastern Conference Kia Rookie of the Month.

Mirotic has been outstanding for Chicago at the offensive end all season, really turning things up since the first of March (17.6 points per game in his last 21 games). He's been as good as advertised after coming from Real Madrid.

But the Kia Rookie of the Year hardware should go to Wiggins, who has emerged after getting the double whammy of going first overall, then never playing a second for the team that drafted him, going from Cleveland to Minnesota. The Wolves, in their annual rebuild, could offer Wiggins shots, minutes and time, and he's taken advantage, leading all rookies in scoring (16.9 per game) and minutes played (36.1 per game).

Among rookies who've played 60 or more games this season, Wiggins -- who's started every game for the Wolves this season -- is fifth in rebounding (4.5 per game), fourth in steals (1.1 per game), and is sixth in field goal percentage (43.8 percent). Wiggins is also covering a lot of ground; per NBA.com's Speed and Distance statistics, he's second in the league to Portland's Damian Lillard in Distance Travelled this season -- Wiggins had run 194.6 miles on the court.

He's been Western Conference Rookie of the Month four times, and has accepted the challenge of putting a little bigger burr under his saddle and coming ready to play every night. (A Wolves team with a young big man coming in the Draft, with Wiggins and Zach LaVine on the wings, and with a hopefully healthy Ricky Rubio at the point, would be fun to watch next season.)

Kia Nominee: Andrew Wiggins

The Timberwolves' Andrew Wiggins is a nominee for the Kia Western Conference Rookie of the Month.

Noel has given Philly fans some real hope for the first time in three years, leading all rookies in rebounds (8.1 rpg) and blocks (1.9), showing he's fully recovered from the ACL injury suffered in college that cost him a year in rehab.

Payton looks like a comer at the point for the Magic; the defense Orlando expected has been there, but Payton has had an impact offensively as well, dishing out 6.5 assists per game.

Clarkson, acquired from Washington on Draft night 2014, has beaten out Jeremy Lin for starter's minutes in L.A. at the point after Steve Nash's injuries forced his retirement. Clarkson's still got a million things to learn about running a team, and it's no coincidence Rondo's name comes up time and time again as a potential Lakers free agent target this summer. But Clarkson has had some really good moments running the show, including a 30-point, seven-assist night at Oklahoma City //stats.nba.com/game/#!/0021401056.

SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR

The Winner: Lou Williams, Toronto Raptors

The Runner-Up: Jamal Crawford, Los Angeles Clippers

The Others: Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics; Tristan Thompson, Cleveland Cavaliers; Nikola Mirotic, Chicago Bulls; Manu Ginobili, San Antonio Spurs; Anthony Morrow, Oklahoma City Thunder

While there are the occasional sixth men who come into games to provide defense (Michael Cooper, back in the day for the Lakers) and occasional shooting, or defense and rebounding (Dennis Rodman, in Detroit), the traditional NBA sixth man has come off the bench firing, and with a free hand from his coach to keep firing.

3DTV: Lou Williams

Raptors star Lou Williams joins Dennis Scott to talk about his long career and his role as the sixth man.

Williams has taken that to heart for the Raptors, and has regained the form that made him so explosive in Philly before going to the Hawks (in 2012), tearing his ACL (in 2013) and being deemed expendable by Atlanta and traded to Toronto (in 2014).

Nobody gets hotter faster than Williams, who is on the verge of his highest scoring average per game (15.3 ppg) in his seven NBA seasons. He's also posted the second-best offensive rating (114 points per 100 possessions) of his career. His 6.3 total Win Shares this season are the best of his career. He's almost never shot a high percentage in his career and he isn't this season, but that's not what you expect from Williams -- you expect high volume shooting nights that occasionally turn into ridiculous ones and win you a few games.

Lou Williams: Road to Recovery - Ep. 6

Watch as Atlanta Hawks star Lou Williams battles his way back to the practice court after suffering a torn right ACL eight months ago.

Crawford has scored in double figures in 51 of the 62 games in which he's played this season. No matter his shooting on a given night, opponents always have to account for him. He is still the best end-of-shot-clock, bad shot maker in the league, and is still among the best at the four-point play.

Thomas leads all bench players who've gotten regular run this season in scoring (16.4 per game) and assists (4.2), and remains a go-to guy in the clutch no matter where he's playing. Thompson's had a sneaky-good season for the Cavs, scoring 7.5 points and grabbing 7.7 rebounds in less than 25 minutes a game for Cleveland, and he's got the most double-doubles (eight, tied with J.J. Hickson) of any bench player in the league.

Mirotic, as noted above, has been terrific for the Bulls. Ginobili can't GINOBILI! as much as he used to, but he's still an injection of playmaking and guts for the Spurs, and they can't win without him in the playoffs. Morrow hasn't gotten the ink of some of the other big free agent signings, but he's shooting 43 percent on 3-pointers for the Thunder.

MOST IMPROVED PLAYER

The Winner: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

The Runner-Up: Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls

The Others: George Hill, Indiana Pacers; Tyreke Evans, New Orleans Pelicans; Hassan Whiteside, Miami Heat

Players that get Most Improved consideration often do so in a vacuum, putting up their numbers for teams that are singularly awful. But Gobert's rise has been right in line with Utah's; since the All-Star break (cynics would note that was also around the time Utah dealt defensive sieve Enes Kanter to Oklahoma City), the Jazz has been the NBA's best defensive team, allowing just 87.9 points per game, almost six points fewer than the second-stingiest team, Memphis. Utah has held opponents to 41.8 percent shooting since the break, tops in the league, and also has the league's best defensive rating during that stretch, 94.2.

Inside Stuff: Rudy Gobert

Rudy Gobert of the Jazz talks about how he has become one of the premier rim protectors and also pays a visit to another big attraction in Salt Lake City, the Hogle Zoo.

Certainly, Utah's improvement defensively is not all Gobert's doing; his teammate, Derrick Favors, has also become a menace at that end of the floor. But he has literally been in the middle of that renaissance. Fourth in the league in blocks (2.3 per game), his defensive rating this season is better than defensive stalwarts like DeAndre Jordan and Marc Gasol. According to NBA.com, Gobert is first among centers in the league in lowest percentage of opponent field goals at the rim this season, holding opponents to 39.9 percent shooting on such shots.

His growth offensively is still a long ways from nightly functionality, but at least Gobert attacks the offensive glass with gusto -- he's fifth in offensive rebound percentage, sixth in total offensive boards.

Butler's ascension into an elite two-way player came from a Spartan summer in Houston, when he worked out every day, lost 12 pounds and developed a brutal mid-range game that may be the antithesis of the 3-point frenzy going on around the league, but is right at home in Chicago. He tailed off some after a torrid start, though, and has been in and out of the lineup down the stretch. And, while not taking away from the strides he's made, you have to factor in that Butler's also looking at a major payday this summer as a restricted free agent.

Like Butler, Hill also killed himself in the offseason and looks like a different person this season. Gone is the tentative point guard who rarely attacked; now, Hill charges at defenses and probes for their weak spots, and has finished more than one game this season going strong to the rim for the Pacers.

Evans is never going to be a great shooter, seemingly. But he's posted career highs in assists and rebounds this season for the Pelicans, and helped keep them in the playoff race despite any number of injuries to just about all of his fellow starters.

Whiteside's improbable journey from world-traveling basketball journeyman to potential lynchpin of a Miami renaissance has been documented by many (including yours truly) in the past few weeks. It remains remarkable how much of a rebounding force and more than reasonable target in the halfcourt for lobs and dunks he's become in such a short period of time.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR

The Winner: Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors

The Runner-Up: Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs

The Others: DeAndre Jordan, L.A. Clippers; Andrew Bogut, Golden State Warriors; Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

Game Analysis: Leonard's Defense

Mike Fratello breaks down Kawhi Leonard's outstanding defense in the Spurs big win over the Warriors.

Green has, almost single-handedly, challenged long-held ideas about a team's ability to play small and switch everything as a matter of course, not of strategy, and still be an elite-level defense. Obviously, having Bogut behind him to anchor the Warriors' defense is a huge plus, and that's why Bogut is on the list as well.

But Green is just as important -- more so, for he has to cover more ground, and more people, on a nightly basis. And his ability to do so all season gives him the nod here over Leonard, whose defensive impact for the Spurs is clear and obvious -- but who missed a large chunk of the season recovering from a hand injury.

It's close. According to NBA.com/Stats, Green is third in the league in defensive rating while Leonard is ninth. Only Jordan has more Defensive Win Shares this season than Green's 5.2. But Green leads both Jordan and Leonard in Wins Above Replacement Player. Like league MVP, there really isn't a wrong call here among the top guys.

Green's defensive versatility is amazing, considering he wasn't thought of that way coming out of college. Now, you can't play for Michigan State coach Tom Izzo if you don't play defense, but there's a difference between playing inside in college and out in space against ballhandlers you can't touch.

Yet Green has been able to do it all season without getting exposed, or exposing Golden State's halfcourt defense. As noted above, the Warriors lead the league in defense. And Green's 8.2 rebounds per game are even more impressive considering how many different places he's at on the floor on a given night.

Leonard also has a full dance card every night.

Google "Kawhi Leonard guarded," and you get a page of Leonard's exploits against LeBron James in the last two Finals. But you also get Leonard guarding Kevin Durant. And Steph Curry. And Russell Westbrook. And Chris Paul. And James Harden. He is the Swiss Army Knife of defenders, bringing different skills to bear against different opponents. No one in the league has to guard so many different positions on a nightly basis.

GameTime: Draymond Green

The Warriors' energy spark Draymond Green joins GameTime via Arena Link.

Generally, steals are among the most overrated of statistics, because too often, players who go for them often hunt them to their team's disadvantage. It's great when they reach and get the deflection, but when they miss, they leave their teammates exposed.

But Leonard is almost never out of position. His wingspan allows him to flick either hand into the passing lane while not compromising his feet or positioning. Even if he misses, he's usually still attached to his defender.

Since his return on Jan. 16, he leads the league in steals per game (2.5). More importantly, San Antonio is 30-10 during that stretch, rocketing to the top of the Western Conference standings.

To be fair: other Spurs have gotten healthy, too, and made major contributions at the defensive end, like center Tiago Splitter, who teams with Duncan and the vastly underrated Aron Baynes (Baynes is third in the league -- third!! -- in defensive rating among players who've appeared in 30 games or more since early January, when Leonard came back to the lineup) to shut down opponents at the rim and annoy the hell out of them in the process.

But it is Leonard who is tasked with strangling offenses before they develop.

In the roughly five weeks Leonard was out of the lineup, the Spurs not only fell to 18th in the league in defensive rating (allowing 103.3 points per 100 possessions), they were 22nd in pace (95.3 possessions per 48 minutes).

Since his return? San Antonio is third in the league in defensive rating (98.5 points per 100 possessions), fourth in offensive rating (107.4/100) and 14th in pace.

Jordan's all over leader boards in the terrestrial and advanced numbers this season: he leads the league in defensive win shares, total rebounds and defensive boards; he's fourth in blocked shots, seventh in defensive rating. (At the other end of the floor, he's ninth in the league in offensive win shares, ahead of teammate Blake Griffin and Russell Westbrook, while leading the league in defensive win shares. And, he's shooting an insane 70.9 percent from the floor.)

COACH OF THE YEAR

The Winner: Mike Budenholzer, Atlanta Hawks

The Runner-Up: Steve Kerr, Golden State Warriors

The Others: Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs; Jason Kidd, Milwaukee Bucks; Quin Snyder, Utah Jazz

You could flip a coin and vote for either Kerr or Budenholzer, Popovich disciples who have both done an outstanding job this season leading their respective teams to the top of their respective conferences.

But the vote here goes to Budenholzer, for overcoming a disastrous offseason -- the one-two punch of majority owner Bruce Levenson's e-mail decrying the lack of affluent white fans at Hawks games (which led to the Hawks being put up for sale), and general manager Danny Ferry's recorded comments during a staff meeting that soon-to-be free agent Luol Deng "had a little African in him," leading to Ferry's still-in-place leave of absence.

GameTime: Coach Bud

Brent Barry sits down with Hawks' coach Mike Budenholzer and gets his opinion on what has made his team gel putting them number one in the Eastern conference.

Budenholzer has created a true team in Atlanta, a whole greater than the sum of its parts unit that has mastered the art of giving up a good shot for a great one in just two seasons. The development in Atlanta of players like All-Stars Paul Millsap, Al Horford, Kyle Korver and Jeff Teague, role players like DeMarre Carroll, Mike Scott -- and, now, second-year center Mike Muscala -- is directly linked to the excellence of the Hawks' coaching staff.

Kerr had the benefit of inheriting an already good team, but he's put his own distinctive stamp on the Warriors, making them juggernauts on both sides of the ball and the team to beat going into the playoffs.

It's hard to coach great players, too, something Kerr saw first hand as a player in Chicago on those Bulls teams with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. But Kerr didn't try to reinvent the wheel with the Splash Brothers; he just took what they already did well and enhanced it. Getting more touches for Andrew Bogut made Golden State's offense much more dynamic and much less predictable, made things easier for Curry and Thompson and still demanded attention to the little things.

At some point, you would think human nature would take over in San Antonio and the players would grow weary of Pop's harangues and demands. But that's only if you think he's just what he seems on TV. The players know the full guy, and how much he cares about them, and takes care of them, and they continue to play for him. Add Aron Baynes this year to the list of players that have grown into great contributors on Popovich's watch.

Kidd has brought a lot of defense and a little glamour in his first season to Milwaukee, in that order, and gotten the Bucks back to the playoffs, with a chance to finish at .500 or better for the first time in six seasons.

In his first season, Snyder's done a hell of a job taking an incredibly young Jazz nucleus and turning it into the league's best defense the second half of season, and getting Utah near the .500 mark in the brutal West.

ALL-NBA FIRST TEAM

Guards: Stephen Curry; James Harden. (We've talked about them both extensively above.)

Forwards: LeBron James; Anthony Davis. (Ditto.)

Center: DeAndre Jordan, L.A. Clippers.

The Starters: All-NBA First Team Picks

It's that time of year! The Starters select their All-NBA First Team.

Was all set to give this to DeMarcus Cousins, whose numbers are terrific. But Jordan's won me over. His numbers, across the board, are just as good or better than Cousins', with one exception: scoring. Cousins averages better than 24 points a game; Jordan, just 11. But Jordan gets more rebounds per game, and more blocks.

ALL-NBA SECOND TEAM

Guards: Russell Westbrook; Chris Paul, L.A. Clippers.

Two of the most fearless competitiors in the game, who each put their teams on their backs when their fellow superstars went down with injuries.

Forwards: Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs; Blake Griffin, L.A. Clippers.

There's nothing left to be said about Duncan, the greatest big man of his generation and, surely, among the top three or four who've ever played. Griffin has become a three-dimensional force on offense, able to step out and pop jumpers at will, initiate the Clips' halfcourt sets from the elbows and still throw down after slipping picks and getting open for lobs.

Center: DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings.

The Starters: All-NBA Second Team Picks

Who made the cut? The Starters select their All-NBA Second Team.

"Boogie" is a stat-stuffing throwback -- a big man who bangs and pounds, and lives in the paint, to the tune of 24 and 12 for the Kings.

ALL-NBA THIRD TEAM

Guards: John Wall, Washington Wizards; Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors.

Wall has been sensational most of the season for the Wizards, pushing them with his defensive chops. Thompson has emerged as a star in his own right, superior at both ends of the floor.

Forwards: LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland Trail Blazers; Pau Gasol, Chicago Bulls.

"Cousin LaMarcus" has displayed excellence before, but he has won his team's hearts by gutting it out for the last couple of months with torn ligaments in his thumb -- an injury that was initially supposed to keep him out six to eight weeks. Pau Gasol was thought to be near his expiration date after a couple of subpar years in Los Angeles, but the smart guys (why, thank you!) believed he just needed a change of scenery and a chance to play for championships again. He's gotten both in Chicago and responded with a double-double average (18.5 points, 11.8 rebounds, along with 1.9 blocks) for the Bulls.

Center: Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies.

The Starters: All-NBA Third Team Picks

Who has the honor of being named to the final All-NBA Team? The Starters select their All-NBA Third Team.

He was an MVP candidate the first half of the season, and though he and his team haven't been quite as good since the break, Marc Gasol is still a first-rate presence for the Grizzlies, capable of controlling games at both ends of the floor.

TOP O' THE WORLD, MA!

(Last week's record in parentheses; previous ranking in brackets)

1) Golden State (2-1) [1]: Became just the 17th team in league history to win at least 65 games in a season. If the Warriors care about their last two regular season games and win them, they'd post the best record in the league since Dallas went 67-15 in 2006-07.

2) Atlanta (3-1) [2]: Hawks set franchise record with 60th win of the season last Friday against Hornets.

3) Cleveland (1-2) [3]: If I didn't know better, I'd say the Cavaliers were trying to ensure that they didn't face Brooklyn in the first round by basically giving the Celtics two straight walkover wins and keeping Boston in seventh place in the East, ahead of the eighth-place Nets. But I know better.

4) San Antonio (4-0) [8]: Spurs have been concerned about Patty Mills rounding into Finals '14 form, but he looked pretty ready Friday night in Houston.

5) L.A. Clippers (2-0) [6]: J.J. Redick playing some of the best basketball of his career.

6) Houston (1-2) [4]: Did anyone have Pablo Prigioni playing a major role for the Rockets at the start of the season?

7) Portland (1-3) [5]: Right now, Blazers do not look like a team that's ready for an extended postseason run -- and they'll probably start the playoffs without Arron Afflalo (right shoulder strain), who had replaced the injured Wesley Matthews in the starting lineup.

8) Memphis (2-1) [7]: Ominous words about Mike Conley, plantar fasciitis, and the playoffs.

9) Dallas (3-0) [9]: Locked into seventh in the west.

10) Chicago (2-1) [10]: Think we can dispense with that "the Bulls can win without Derrick Rose" meme.

11) Toronto (3-0) [12]: Still not clicking on all cylinders, but the Raptors have won six of eight down the stretch, and at least DeMar DeRozan looks like his old self.

12) Washington (2-1) [13]: Gave Nene and Paul Pierce several games off last week in hopes they'd be fresh for the playoffs.

13) Milwaukee (2-1) [14]: Bucks unveil $1 billion development plan that would include a 17,000-seat arena on a site near the team's current arena. But the issue of financing -- a plan advocated by Governor Scott Walker -- is still being debated.

14) Oklahoma City (1-2) [11]: Thunder hasn't missed the playoffs since its first season in Oklahoma, in 2008-09 -- when Scott Brooks took over as coach after P.J. Carlesimo started the season 1-12.

15) New Orleans (2-2) [15]: Pelicans finally get their whole roster back on the court last Friday with the return of Jrue Holiday, who hadn't played since mid-January (stress reaction in right leg).

Team of the Week

San Antonio (4-0): The Spurs have had at least one 10-game winning streak in each of the last five seasons -- including the 2011 lockout season. That is just incredible.

Team of the Weak

Minnesota (0-4): Kevin Garnett has played in just five games since coming back to the Wolves, but his value to the franchise going forward is not going to be about what he does with his remaining days on the court.

Nobody Asked Me, But ...

Are there enough beans in Beantown to fatten Nerlens Noel up?

He runs through the mud, day after day, without getting any of his Under Armour shoes dirty.

Luckily for Nerlens Noel, in this case, mud is a metaphor, not the latest conditioning exercise sprung from the mind of his fitness-obsessed coach, Brett Brown. "Mud" is a daily drill 76ers players do in practice, designed to determine how fast a player's first three steps are from a stopped position. (Running in mud -- get it?)

Covering such ground quickly, of course, is paramount for a player trying to get to an open shooter, or sprinting to fill a lane on a fast break. It should not surprise that the 76ers' just-turned 21-year-old rookie big man is one of the team's fastest players day in and out in Mud. What has surprised many around the league, though, is how fast Noel has been at picking up everything else.

Rookie of the Year: Who is it?

Does Andrew Wiggins have Rookie of the Year locked up? Or is Nikola Mirotic making a run? What about Nerlens Noel or Elfrid Payton?

The 76ers are still a long, long way from being relevant. But sometime this season -- maybe when Noel had nine blocked shots in a game against Indiana on Feb. 20, or when he went for 14 points and 13 rebounds against the Wizards' rugged frontcourt in a Philly win a week later, or when Noel grabbed 17 boards and had five steals in early March as the Sixers shocked the East-leading Hawks -- they stopped being a joke.

The Sixers have almost always played hard for Brown, in his second season as coach after coming from the Spurs' bench. But it almost never mattered, because they were so talent- and experience-depleted compared to their opponents, and because they kept shuffling players in and out of town like day laborers.

Management, from majority owner Josh Harris to general manager Sam Hinkie, has made no secret of its plan to do whatever it takes to have a chance to bring in difference-making young talent. So if that meant dealing last season's Rookie of the Year winner, point guard Michael Carter-Williams, at the trade deadline in order to get a juicy 2015 first-round pick from the Suns, Philly has done it without apology.

But, finally, the 76ers have a player of their own that they may -- may -- be willing to keep around for a while.

After missing all of last season rehabbing the ACL tear he suffered in 2013 during his one season of college basketball at Kentucky, Noel has proven to be effective and durable in his rookie NBA season -- both pleasant surprises in the City of Brotherly Love.

Noel is close to averaging a double-double (9.9 points, 8.1 rebounds) this season. He's tied, with Milwaukee's John Henson and Chicago's Pau Gasol, for sixth in the league in blocked shots (1.9) per game. Among centers who've played in 50 or more games this season, Noel's defensive rating of 100.4 is better than Al Horford's, Roy Hibbert's, Joakim Noah's or Marc Gasol's.

"I'm a long way from since the beginning of the season, not reaching as much and putting myself in bad situations," Noel said recently.

Most encouraging for the Sixers, Noel has been able to play in 75 of the team's 80 games this season, despite the still-skinny body that held only 206 pounds when he was acquired in a 2013 Draft night deal from New Orleans for Holiday.

"He worked hard every day," said former 76er K.J. McDaniels, who saw Noel's development through the first half of the season before being dealt (Hinkie!) to the Rockets at the trade deadline.

"Even some days when he didn't want to be there, he would still be working hard," McDaniels said. "Me and Nerlens had, we still have a good relationship, from summer league to now. He's definitely come a long way. People called him weak, he wouldn't be able to play. He just wasn't consistent, or couldn't score, had no offense. I knew Nerlens could score."

They are still a long, looooong way from the Moses Malone/Dr. J/Bobby Jones days in Philly.

But, Noel's arrow is pointing north. Joel Embiid, the Kansas freshman Hinkie took with the third pick in last year's Draft -- and who, like Noel, has missed all of what would have been his rookie season rehabbing from injuries suffered in college -- has great potential at center. And Dario Saric, the 21-year-old Croatian forward whose NBA rights Hinkie maneuvered to acquire in the '14 Draft, is plying his trade in Europe for another year or two (with Vine highlights a specialty) before coming to the 76ers in 2016 or 2017.

Inside Stuff: Nerlens Noel

Grant Hill checks in on Philadelphia rookie Nerlens Noel, who is making his NBA debut this season after sitting out all last year with an injury.

It's still a long time to wait for the payoff. But at least Noel is giving the Sixers' paying customers something to see now.

Noel's up to 220 pounds now, but you'd still take the under on future games played with that body mass. The NBA is neither for the weak-minded nor those who are, as my former NBA2Night colleague and former 76ers coach Fred Carter used to say, light in the cakes.

So the development of Noel's body will continue to be the biggest path to his getting to the next level as a player.

"I can easily go to his shot, I can easily go to playing harder, smarter, longer," Brown said. "I'm just amazed that he's only missed (five) games, so I can't talk much about durability. I just feel like as he puts on some more weight, and he can take hits, that those other things are going to shine."

Noel plans to spend most of the summer in the Boston area, near his hometown. He thinks he can add more weight as he matures physically.

"I think it's a combination of eating my mom's food and continuing to lift weights," he says. "Put gradual size on, where I'll continue to keep my quickness and speed. I'm 220 now, so I think going into this offseason, I want to be 230, 235. I think I can hold that pretty well. I've gotten up to 225, 227 already. I felt good at that point."

But Noel may not have to become a hulk to be a good player in today's NBA.

The league has obviously become 3-point obsessed, meaning fewer wrestling matches between bigs in the paint as teams call fewer post-ups for their seven-footers. Now, big men have to get to the corners to contest threes by their stretch four brethren. The game is becoming faster, not bigger.

Consider Tim Duncan. When he first came into the league, and had youth and durability on his side, the Spurs threw the ball into him in the lane game after game. He needed to be big enough to handle those nighty battles. But as he's gotten older, Duncan has lost weight, lots of it -- both to ease the pounding on his knees and to make him better able to run. He now scores a lot more on pick-and-pops and face-up jumpers on the perimeter than in the paint.

When Brown got to San Antonio in 1998, Duncan was 272 pounds. He's 248 now. "And he plays fluid, still, even with the pounding of the rim to rim guys," Brown said.

And it would be a lot easier for Noel to get to, say, 230 pounds than 270.

"I think that his body type isn't going to let him be as big -- and I'm okay with that -- as Anthony Davis," Brown said. "I'm close with Monty (Williams, New Orleans' coach) and I've known Dell (Demps, the Pelicans' general manager) for years. Anthony played at 216, 218 his rookie year. Nerlens is 218, 220. Anthony is now 246. Whether (Noel) can get up to that or not, I don't know. If you made me guess, I would guess that I'm not sure his body type can support that. So maybe he ends up more KG-ish, that slender build. And if that's what he is, I still think it's okay. It's like Joel. I think thin is in."

And, consider DeAndre Jordan, the Clippers' defensive anchor.

As a freshman at Texas A&M in 2007, Jordan weight about 215 pounds. He left school after one season, as Noel did, and was taken by the Clippers in the second round of the 2008 Draft.

"My rookie year, I did a lot of lifting, because I wasn't playing," Jordan said. "I was really lifting a lot, working on my body. And then I looked up and I was just big. Once I started to play and get a lot of cardio in, I just leaned out."

Jordan now weighs around 250, but has lost none of his explosiveness as he gobbles up alley-oops from Chris Paul and patrols the paint for Los Angeles defensively.

Noel went for 30 and 14 against Jordan and the Clippers last month. Don't go nuts; the Clippers won the game by 30. They are still learning to crawl before walking in Philly. But Jordan saw a lot of potential in Noel.

"I think there's a future for him, for Embiid, both of those guys," Jordan said. "They're going to have a great frontcourt for a long time."

Noel has gotten guidance from and listened to Jason Richardson, one of the few vets in the 76ers' locker room. But he says he's also learned from the example of contemporaries like forward Henry Sims, who's just four years older than Noel.

"He was playing 20, 25 minutes a game at the beginning of the season," Noel said, "and Coach wanted to give Furkan (Aldemir) a shot. Henry hasn't been playing at all lately. But he's still the number one guy on the bench, cheering for all of us. He never brings a negative attitude."

The Sixers have played Noel more on the wings defensively in recent weeks, and he's handled guarding perimeter players and stretch fours well. It's an auger for next season, when Embiid will hopefully be ready to patrol the paint. Again, his body type may not give the Sixers much choice but to try and keep him out of the paint. But a comfortable Noel defending the wings, with Embiid inside, could make for a devastating one-two defensive combo. (Ultimately, the belief is that Noel can guard 1 through 5 -- not for long stretches, but at least long enough to stay in front of most points on pick and roll switches.)

"I definitely want to push myself with that, especially when Joel comes back," Noel said. "I'm going to work on that this summer, just staying in front of them so I'll be able to switch off."

Brown doesn't want to use the phrase "science project" to describe his machinations, not only with Noel -- whom he calls the team's "compass" defensively -- but with everybody else on the roster this season.

"But I am not apologetic about experimenting a bunch," he says. "Plays, when I draw something, rotations, trying things. I look at this, kind of selfishly, as an opportunity for me, to try things, so you can set the table with real things as you get better."

(It's a coincidence that Brown is in Philadelphia. Down the street from Wells Fargo Arena, where the 76ers play, Eagles coach Chip Kelly is turning the NFL on its ear with his innovative practices and go-go offense. Brown is very familiar with Kelly from their college days in New England.

"He was at UNH when I was at Boston [University], and he lived with my roommate, my high school best friend," Brown said of Kelly. "So we would go out and we'd have several beers, many times, when we were 22. The stories he would tell about me are all ugly. It's quite amazing we've ended up in the same city. So from time to time we'll have dinner, share ideas.")

Beginning with Greg Foster, the 76ers former assistant coach now in Milwaukee, Philly's staff has also rebuilt Noel's shot during the past two years.

Knicks vs. Sixers

Nerlens Noel scores 23 points, grabs 14 rebounds, nabs five steals, and swats three shots in a Sixers rout of the Knicks 97-81.

Shooting coach Eugene Burroughs has worked extensively with Noel this season, taking his hand from on top of the ball to the side. He's now comfortable going out to the top of the key and the elbows. "My shot has come so far, being in a better position fundamentally," Noel said. "As much as I continue to rep it out, making sure I keep my elbow tucked in, it'll only get better and better."

Brown thinks Noel has gotten better as the figurative noise around him has eased.

"Everybody says 'look at the improvement in Nerlens,' and I think that's true," Brown said. "But I attribute it to him not paralyzing himself with thinking. He didn't play for so long. He had to understand the rules, and the offense, and me. And he's a caring kid. When you speak to him, you're going to look at somebody who's a good person. And so he wants to please. I think not playing paralyzed him in some ways. Now he's playing a little bit freer."

The 76ers have famously monitored every movement of their players during practice, insisted on massive hydration and attached sleep montiors to them to make sure they're getting enough sleep. Noel's got more juice as well because of the Sixers' postgame routine, where players immediately get put into compression pants or get massages after every game.

"I feel more refreshed," he said. "And it helps your mind as well, especially getting those treatments."

Asked what he thought was his best game this season, Noel points to his 23-point, 14-rebound, five-steal, three-block performance against the Knicks on March 20, a 97-81 Philadelphia win.

"Having like an all-around game like that, giving my team a chance to win from a stat sheet like that, I think I'll be able to do that many times throughout my career," he said.

Yet, as Noel does more and more on the court, the reality of the 76ers' plan makes developing chemistry with his teammates difficult. Brown will certainly be a part of the team's future. Noel will certainly be part of the team's future. (Well, probably; you never know with Hinkie.) But almost no one else currently wearing the home white will be. They know it. Noel knows it. It is very hard to ask people to sacrifice for a goal which they won't be a part of enjoying when it comes to fruition.

"It is a little different at times, but Coach Brown does such a great job," Noel said. "Nobody acts a certain way. Nobody acts like they're not (going to be there). Nobody has an attitude that they've got their shot to be on the team and build a niche for themselves in this league. Regardless of how things go, they're always able to be a part of us going forward."

... And Nobody Asked You, Either

A hacktackular fail. From Christian Quinonez:

I wanted to get your point of view on the "hack-a" method. It clearly works (as it did on the Rockets last night). However, do you ever think the NBA will ever consider getting rid of this to avoid slowing down the game?

I guess you didn't see the Twitter fight I got into with seemingly half of San Antonio Friday night //twitter.com/daldridgetnt/status/586715994413862912. It's fair to say that while I understand why Spurs coach Gregg Popovich or any other coach would use the strategy, it's awful in practice. It isn't basketball. It destroys the flow of a game. The rule needs to be changed, immediately. The simplest way is to implement the rule that is currently in place for just the last two minutes of play throughout the game: any foul off the ball by the defense results in a free throw plus possession for the offense. You can still foul bad free throw shooters, as long as they're actually taking part in the play. You want to grab Josh Smith when he catches the ball on the wing, go right ahead. You just wouldn't get as big an advantage doing it 70 feet from the basket any more.

It's a pick-em game. From Nathan Lehman:

Can you explain the Draft pick trading that still could occur in the last few days of the season, for example with teams like Atlanta & Brooklyn? I always try to understand the trading of picks, but they seem to be quite complex.

With Atlanta and Brooklyn, it's simple: Atlanta can swap its first-round pick for Brooklyn's (the last of the treasure from the Joe Johnson deal). So the Hawks obviously are rooting for the Nets to fall short in their playoff sprint and land in the Lottery, where the Hawks would swoop in and reap unexpected rewards after a 60-win season.

Another big pick in play is the Lakers' first-rounder. L.A. keeps the pick if it is one of the top five in the Draft; otherwise, the pick goes to Philadelphia (it was originally Phoenix's, as part of the Steve Nash deal, but the Suns sent it to Philly as part of the February three-team trade that brought guard Brandon Knight from Milwaukee to Phoenix). Right now, the Lakers have the fourth-worst record in the league, which would mean they'd keep the pick if everything held form in the Lottery in May. Of course, things rarely hold form in the Lottery. At present, two teams behind the Lakers record-wise would have to leapfrog them and get top-three picks in the Lottery for them to lose the pick, but the Lakers currently have an 83 percent chance of retaining the pick.

And the Pelicans, in a dogfight with Oklahoma City for the final playoff spot in the West, would send their 2015 first to Houston if they don't make the playoffs and the subsequent Lottery pick isn't one of the top three in the Draft.

The Sopranos. From Benjamin Studebaker:

Lately I've been noticing that a lot of NBA players are hitting each other in the groin. Shaun Livingston did it to Dirk Nowitzki on April 4, Chris Paul did it to Chris Kaman on April 1, Marcus Smart did it to Matt Bonner on March 20, James Harden did it to LeBron James on national TV on March 1. Is it just me, or are these incidents growing more common? A groin hit is quite literally below the belt. These are cheap shots. They don't belong in our game, and it's especially ugly when the league's biggest stars do it. If they get caught (which is not all the time), they seem to get off lightly with flagrant 1's and 1-game suspensions. This clearly isn't deterring anyone. Isn't it about time the league sent a stronger message? I say that players who hit other players in the groin with intent should get a flagrant 2 and a 10-game suspension, whether or not this is caught during the game or afterwards on tape. What do you think?

It's hard to say whether there's more, um, lower body contact of late, Benjamin, or if this is just a coincidence. I don't think players are intentionally going into games thinking about punching opponents south of the border. They are cheap shots, though, and should be punished appropriately. I think a 10 game-suspension would be a bit much, but one or two games would be fine with me.

Send your questions, comments, criticisms and more interspecies encounters that didn't go as planned 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) James Harden (22.7 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 3 apg, .404 FG, .913 FT): Good San Antonio encounters: compares beards with Pop on Wednesday. Bad San Antonio encounters: gets capped at the buzzer by San Antonio's Tim Duncan Friday.

2) Stephen Curry (34.7 ppg, 4 rpg, 8.7 apg, .597 FG, .923 FT): Broke his own league record for three-pointers in a season on Thursday; with two games left in the season he's at 281 treys and counting.

3) LeBron James (17.5 ppg, 6 rpg, 7.5 apg, .448 FG, .538 FT): The Cavs didn't exactly rest him until the last week of the season, but his average of 36.2 minutes per game played this year is the lowest of his career.

4) Russell Westbrook (32.7 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 6.7 apg, .500 FG, .684 FT): Career-high 54 points Sunday overshadowed by 16th technical foul issued this season, which would lead to an automatic one-game suspension tonight for OKC's game against Portland unless the T is rescinded by the league.

5) Anthony Davis (21.8 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 2 bpg, .552 FG, .657 FT): Brow Doll sent to perspective league awards voters does not do justice to his actual, svelte, athletic form. It looks like AD if he were a claims adjuster who swallows beignets by the carton.

By The Numbers

219 -- Consecutive games played by John Wall, a streak that ended last week when the Wizards' guard got a night off for rest. He hadn't missed a regular season or playoff game since January of 2013.

5 -- Consecutive seasons the Suns have missed the playoffs, the first time since the 1974-75 season that Phoenix has missed a fifth straight year of postseason play. Before this current stretch Phoenix had missed the playoffs a total of seven times between 1976 and 2009.

287 -- Combined points scored by the Mavericks and Nuggets in Friday's 144-143 double-overtime win by Dallas, the most scored in one game in the league since 2012. The game included Danilo Gallinari's career-high 47 points.

I'm Feelin' ...

1) Nothing last week made me happier than hearing Spencer Haywood made the Hall of Fame. Haywood's ultimately successful legal battle to enter the NBA Draft early because of financial hardship in 1971 changed the game, giving players the freedom to determine when they felt ready to become pros. And, on top of that, he was a heck of a player in high school, college, internationally (he helped lead the United States team to the 1968 Olympic gold medal) and in the NBA.

2) This is speaking truth to power, Jeff Van Gundy. (By the way: I am Spiethless. What a performance from Jordan Spieth in dominating the tournament.)

3) Canadian teenager Jamal Murray was very good at the Nike Hoop Summit last week in Portland, leading the World team to victory Saturday night over the United States team with 30 points. But let's give the young man some time to develop before we start anointing. "He did some things that were really spectacular," one veteran birddog said over the weekend, "and he did some things that were really dumb."

4) Best wishes to Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg, who will have to undergo open heart surgery to replace an aortic valve at the end of the week. Hoiberg, who'd had a similar procedure done while playing in the NBA 10 years ago, said this was a likely development given his history. I'm sure it's nonetheless taxing on him and his family.

5) Of course you have to have tiebreakers, and so, if the Thunder and Pelicans have equal regular season records after this Wednesday's games, New Orleans would advance to the playoffs by virtue of a 3-1 head-to-head record against Oklahoma City. But, come on: that third win came on that crazy Anthony Davis three at the buzzer to give the Pels a 116-113 win on Feb. 6. Wouldn't it be great to see New Orleans and OKC have a one-game playoff instead on Thursday? Winner goes to the playoffs; loser goes home.

Not Feelin' ...

1) One can argue that the Pacers' Chris Copeland, and the Hawks' Thabo Sefolosha and Pero Antic shouldn't have been out at 4 in the morning in New York last Wednesday. If they hadn't, Copeland wouldn't have been stabbed by an assailant, and Sefolosha and Antic wouldn't have been arrested by police outside the same club at which Copeland was stabbed -- and Sefolosha wouldn't have had his leg broken during his arrest by police. One can also argue that it would be preferable to wait until we all know all the details before reaching that or any conclusions.

2) RIP, Lauren Hill -- a person with incredible grace, courage and humility that others much older than her 19 years never displayed.

3) Your turn, Vlade. It will likely be someone else's turn soon, the way things are going in Sacramento.

4) I think we can all agree this is a travel.

5) I haven't covered football for a while, but I covered the NFL some while Darren Sharper was playing. And, like just about everyone else who covered the league at the time or that played with him, I thought he was a first-class guy. And in thinking so, I completely failed at my job. No, we do not know the people we cover, any more than many of us truly know the people we marry or the people we work with. But I was as complicit as anyone in helping shape the narrative of Darren Sharper as not just a good player, but a role model. I was not neutral. And as detail after lurid detail emerges about what he did to women, I feel sick for having contributed, even in a small way, to the persona that he clearly used for terrible, horrible purposes.

Q & A: Kyle Korver

He runs, like the guy who sees his bus pulling away from the bus stop. He runs, like the lady whose flight is in its final boarding, 20 gates down. He runs, like the kid playing machine pitch baseball who was 0 of 42 before, finally, making contact.

Kyle Korver runs and runs, and opponents go berserk trying to find him. He runs from one side of the court to the other, seemingly with no plan as to where or when he'll stop. But, of course, that's just how it looks. The 12-year vet knows exactly where he is at all times on the floor.(endital)You(ital.)don't know. That's the difference.

And the chaos Korver causes as teams trail and flail and ultimately fail to keep him from squeezing off 3-pointers is part of the reason Atlanta's enjoyed an historic season in the 404. Korver is not a solo artist, though, but part of a beautiful symphony performing at Philips Arena, a team that is truly more than the sum of its parts, which didn't lose for more than a month, winning 19 straight games in December and January, and blew apart the East.

Coach Mike Budenholzer has created an equal-opportunity offense that attacks defenses from all over the floor, exquisitely spaced at all times -- floaters by Jeff Teague, blow-bys by Dennis Schroeder, pick-and-pops and duck-ins by Al Horford, threes from Paul Millsap and Mike Scott, and Korver, banging shots from all angles, needing but a fraction of a second and an inch or two of space to square and shoot.

And Korver, along with Horford, Millsap and Teague, made his first All-Star Game. He is shooting, this morning, 49.4 percent on three-pointers -- a better percentage than he shoots twos. Watch him score 11 points in 65 seconds last month against Milwaukee, in disbelief.

Korver may not quite reach "Club 190" this season -- that exclusive club for NBA players that shoot 50 percent from the floor and on threes, and 90 percent from the line. He's currently in "Club 187" -- 89.1 percent from the line, 49.4 percent on threes, 48.8 percent overall. And he has always been better on defense than he has ever been given credit; you don't play big minutes for former Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan or current Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau if you're going through the motions at that end. But the crucible of the playoffs is just ahead.

Defenses get better, more focused. That half-second Korver has enjoyed in the chaos he's created all season may be reduced to a quarter-second, maybe less. But at 34, in the middle of a $24 million deal, Korver has never been more centered. Off the floor, his Kyle Korver Foundation, teaming with People Builders Utah, is in the midst of realizing a long-term goal: creating and getting donations for 50 custom built Accessibility Ramp Kits -- ARKs -- that would go to people with disabilities, so they can get in and out of their homes or places of work more easily.

Me: You said a couple of years ago, when Budenholzer was first named coach, that if people checked back in a while you'd have something really great going on. Was this season -- not the results so much as the way you have played as a team -- what you had in mind?

Kyle Korver: I think this was kind of the vision I thought would I hoping would happen. I don't think anyone knew it would happen quite this quickly. But we've come together really well. We're just a bunch of pieces that fit together well and a bunch of people who work hard. Yeah, I guess it's happened faster than anyone felt it would.

Me: Sometimes, when teams or people are on runs like you all had in December, they think they're playing so well that they believe the opponent is the game itself and not who they have on the schedule. Did you have any of that kind of feeling during the streak?

KK: It was interesting. Up until that point, that kind of streak made us legitimate in some people's eyes. Like, 'they're actually a really good team.' As much as we believed we were a good team, during that winning streak we just kept growing with confidence. You're like, okay, we can do this, and we beat this team, and we went out west, and we beat this set of teams all in a row. I think it was during that stretch that I think we started to really believe in ourselves. Not that we didn't, but you've still got to do something to really believe. And I think it helped us get to where we are.

Me: What is the process like between you and Bud or the other coaches when it comes to making suggestions for sets, for tweaks, any types of changes? How receptive are they?

KK: Very. Bud, I mean, it's such an interactive exchange. Every coach says they have an open-door policy. Every coach says that. But there's also a lot of guys who Bud has a good amount of respect for, and how guys play. No one's out there to draw up plays that I can score on? It's how do we get this concept rolling so we can score on that team? So when you come at it with that point of view, when it's a discussion about the team, I think both sides, we obviously are going to respect whatever Bud says, and I think he thinks the same about us.

Me: What are you most looking forward to seeing about your team in the playoffs?

KK: Winning. We want to go out there and really, really play well. I don't know. I don't know how to answer that all the way. We don't, like we talked earlier about this team, just getting to this point, and your vision. We don't feel like we're there yet. We're still evolving. We haven't won a playoff series. I think we have too much respect for the game to say 'we're going to go and we're going to accomplish that.' We understand you've got to earn respect in the playoffs. You've got to go through some good times and some bad times, and hopefully you're able to recover from the bad times. I think we're excited to go out there and compete. We haven't played a meaningful game in quite a while, and we're going to go out there and play a whole bunch of them in a row and have some fun.

Me: What's the ultimate sign of respect you've gotten this year from opponents -- on the floor, after games, whenever?

KK: I think there's been a couple of times during a game, end of games, when we're gonna win, and the other team will come up and say 'man, I love how you guys play.' They just got, you can tell, they're like, I would love to play for your team. That's the ultimate sign of respect in the NBA. When you're on a team, and your team's supposedly good, but man, I'd rather be on your team. It feels good to hear that.

Me: How are the ARK kits coming?

KK: They're going really good, actually. We're shipping our first out, we're trying to send them out, ship them out. We'll send them anywhere in the United States. I think the first one is going out this spring. It's going to Washington state. That's a big first step for us, and we're looking to get that process better and better. There's some really cool things in the works.

Me: How are people finding out? Do they check the website, word of mouth, some combination?

KK: Word of mouth. Obviously People Builders //www.peoplebuildersutah.com has a website. We're in Utah, mostly, now. We'll probably target the different areas where the Foundation has been, and where I've played, just because you have connections and you have ways to get the word out there. But we're really trying to get our process down really well before we really spread out there. But we're getting pretty close, and there's a lot of really exciting things happening.

Tweet of the Week

-- Hornets forward Cody Zeller (@CodyZeller), Thursday, 8:36 p.m., after his mother Lorri told a story about his potty training days as a tyke in Indiana while on tour for her and her husband Steve's book about their three basketball- playing boys -- Luke, Cody and Tyler -- "Raising Boys the Zeller Way."

They Said It

"It's like me and Manu back in the day. You have to share and wait your turn. Sometimes I don't see the ball for a long time but Kawhi is playing unbelievable. And it's going to be Kawhi's team anyway. Like Timmy transitioned to Manu, Manu transitioned to me, now it's going to be transitioned to Kawhi."

-- Tony Parker, quietly noting last week the transition of the Spurs from looking to him for offense and production -- in short from being "his" team -- to Kawhi Leonard. That Parker did it without a trace of anger or disappointment speaks to how and why San Antonio rolls on, year after year.

"The reason people don't want to go to the Lakers is because of management. Kobe can be the scapegoat all they want but if you play hard, Kobe likes you. And if you (BS) around, he doesn't. It's plain and simple. He's not a vocal leader. He just expects you to play as hard as you can every minute on the court, like he does."

-- Clippers forward Matt Barnes, in an excellent piece about him by Sports Illustrated's Chris Ballard, on why he believes the Lakers struggle to attract free agents.

"Nah, I don't have any fear. Unless they move the stanchions closer."

-- Paul George, asked if he was afraid he might injure himself again after returning to action last week following a seven-month rehab from the broken leg he suffered in a USA Basketball exhibition game last August. George was referring to the belief among many that the basket stanchions at Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas, where he suffered the injury after running into a stanchion, were too close to the floor. USA Basketball President Jerry Colangelo has disputed that belief, saying the stanchions were in the same place as they were when the NBA had the All-Star Game at T&M in 2007.

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.