No. 1: Spurs in need of frontcourt helpers -- San Antonio Spurs fans had to be thrilled to see their best player, Kawhi Leonard, back in the lineup last night. He was up to his old tricks, too, scoring 31 points to fuel a 107-99 win against the visiting Atlanta Hawks that, for now, pushed the Spurs past the Golden State Warriors for the No. 1 spot in the West. Yet as the season marches on, San Antonio needs its remaining healthy big guys to help Leonard out, writes Michael C. Wright of ESPN.com:
But moving forward, it has to be more than that, as Leonard expects his workload to increase, with LaMarcus Aldridge out indefinitely due to minor heart arrhythmia. Same thing for bigs David Lee, Dewayne Dedmon and Pau Gasol, all of whom need to ramp up the production for the Spurs to maintain their hold on the top seed in the West, which they captured Monday by virtue of the win over the Hawks.
“It’s going to increase a lot,” Leonard said of his workload sans Aldridge. “We’re missing a rebounder and another scorer that causes a double-team. He helps me to get easy shots. We’ve got a ton of guys that can fill his place and know our offense. We’re already deep down in this season. We’ve just got to roll with it. We hope he gets better. We don’t want to rush him back [because] that’s something serious with his heart. We just want him to get better and feel comfortable with himself about stepping out here on the floor again.”
Aldridge visited with doctors on Monday for a series of tests, and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said the team will just “wait until he comes back and assess everything,” before the team devises a plan for a return to the court -- if that’s in the cards.
In the meantime, San Antonio’s big men continue to try their best to replace the five-time All-Star’s production.
Lee came closest to accomplishing the feat with a 14-point night against the Hawks that included six rebounds, four assists and a block. Dedmon contributed four points and eight rebounds, while Gasol scored 13 points to go with 10 rebounds and four blocks.
“It was great to have Kawhi back tonight, obviously leading the way,” Lee said. “The rest of us filled in and did the best we could. My job when I came here was to be ready for any circumstance. I’ve played, started for years and years in the league; a couple hundred games in a row I think I started. Then I’ve come off the bench a bunch and found a way to be successful. My job is when my number is called, no matter what that role is, it’s to play hard and play smart.
"Of course, all of us, including myself, wish LaMarcus the best and hope he’s back the next game or whatever it is. I’m gonna try to do my best to fill in if that’s not the case.”
As Aldridge’s replacement, Lee provides some energy on offense, and he’s a better defender in San Antonio’s system than he was at previous NBA stops throughout his career. Lee won’t open up the offense for other players by drawing teams. He doesn’t possess Aldridge’s uncanny ability on pick-and-pop opportunities, and he isn’t likely to rebound or defend as well as the regular starter on a consistent basis.
But the combination of Dedmon and Lee provides the Spurs plenty of athleticism. Gasol has been coming off the bench and providing a spark offensively with his sharpshooting. Gasol connected on 2-of-4 from 3-point range against the Hawks.
Lee learned firsthand the importance of team depth during his time at Golden State, and he said the Spurs bigs will “have to do it by committee” to fill Aldridge’s shoes during this time of uncertainty.
“I think it’s something that we’re gonna be capable of doing,” Lee said. “Having depth really does matter in this league, especially as you come down to playoff time. When we won our championship in Golden State, Kevin Love and Kyrie [Irving] go down for Cleveland, and it becomes a little bit of a different series. Part of this, as the playoffs come and moving on to the playoffs, [it’s] a matter of just staying healthy as a team, getting the proper rest and things like that. It takes a little bit of luck in that category.
"So we’ll just try to get as healthy as possible and, for right now, fill in as best as we can.”
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No. 2: Westbrook not doing it alone in OKC -- The easy way to quantify the success (or lack thereof) the Oklahoma City Thunder have this season is to look at Russell Westbrook's effort each game. More often than not, how he goes, so goes the Thunder. But as Erik Horne of The Oklahoman points out, that simplified look at OKC's offense neglects just how the Thunder have won in Westbrook's monster efforts this season:
Westbrook is actually great at carrying the load, as seen through his eye-popping numbers in the fourth quarter and his attack on triple-double history. But is it the best way for the Thunder to play?
Contrary to the narrative, Westbrook's not taking on the world alone. The MVP candidate's supporting cast isn't completely devoid of talent.
Thunder coach Billy Donovan believes Westbrook has good players around him, but also is cognizant that much of the offense has to be created by his point guard. At 42.2, Westbrook is on pace to smash the record for usage percentage in a season set by Kobe Bryant (38.74) in 2005-06.
Yet, in the past two games, when Westbrook has looked to facilitate first (albeit against short-handed San Antonio and Utah squads), other Thunder players have shot a combined 53 percent (68-of-127) from the field.
Often this season, Westbrook's dominance has been quantified through the triple-double. The Thunder is successful when he records them, but even more successful when they come with fewer Westbrook shots.
The Thunder is 14-2 overall when Westbrook takes 20 to 22 shots in a game this season, including wins against Memphis (twice), Houston and last week's victory over the Spurs. Of Westbrook's 32 triple-doubles this season, the Thunder is 26-6, but 15-1 in those he takes 22 or fewer shots.
Yet, the Thunder doesn't completely crater when Westbrook is taking a high volume of shots — OKC is 17-20 when he takes 23 or more. Westbrook's shot attempts lead to free throw attempts, and when he takes 10 or more in a game, the Thunder is 21-19. Many of the Thunder's close-game wins this season have been aided by Westbrook free throws in the final five minutes with the game within five points. He's made 56 of the Thunder's 89 free throws in “clutch” situations.
“It's hard to sit there and say we're the best version of ourselves when Russell is doing this or that,” Donovan said. “No, we're the best version of ourselves when we're playing collectively, cohesively together as a group.”
The group is in a unique time. Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott are still transitioning from the trade with Chicago. Norris Cole was playing in China four months ago. Victor Oladipo is playing his best ball of the season, but is just three games back from a 10-game absence. Even with 16 regular-season games left, this Thunder team is still figuring out how to play.
What the Thunder has is a player capable of both taking over a game himself and putting others in position to help carry the load.
What's the best way for the Thunder to play? It's a question that will continue into the final days of the regular season, throughout the playoffs and beyond, with Westbrook at the core.
“The totality of what you have to do to be the best version of yourselves is so much more complicated than just Russell creating offense for everyone,” said Donovan.
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No. 2: Wade helps right Bulls' ship -- Being the owner of three NBA titles and countless playoff runs makes Dwyane Wade something of an expert on what it takes to right team chemistry. That had been a problem for his Chicago Bulls of late with the team slowly slipping out of the East playoff chase. Then came last night's game in Charlotte, which ended in a much-needed 115-109 win against the Hornets. The groundwork for that victory, though, was laid hours before away from the court, writes Nick Friedell of ESPN.com:
With their season on the brink of complete disaster and morale low, Dwyane Wade felt like he had to say something to his struggling Chicago Bulls prior to Monday night's game against the Charlotte Hornets. The Bulls came into the game having lost five straight and trailed the Milwaukee Bucks by a game and a half for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Wade, who ripped his younger teammates earlier in the year and questioned how badly they wanted to win, brought a more unified message to the table before what became the Bulls' most important win to date, a 115-109 victory over the Hornets.
"Just to compete, man," Wade told ESPN.com. "Sometimes you go out there and you just play basketball. And you don't necessarily get into the fight. [Our] guys, we all like each other, when we practice against each other we're competing. We compete our ass off. And we talk s--- while we're doing it. And sometimes you got to do that to the other team. You got to get out there and compete. Somebody comes to the hole, foul him a little harder. Not nothing malicious, but you got to compete. We're fighting for a playoff spot. That kind of was the message."
The seeds for Wade's speech were planted on Sunday night after the Bulls' embarrassing defeat to the Boston Celtics, in which the Bulls started the game 1-for-17 from the field. Rajon Rondo, who started for the first time since Dec. 30, revealed after the win that some of the Bulls played the card game "Guts," on Sunday night to help clear their collective head.
"I think cards bring us together," Rondo said. "We played a little bit of cards last night. ... We lost five in a row and we still find a way to find time on the road and just gain camaraderie. Go out there and just have fun."
"Everybody don't play cards," Wade said with a laugh. "But [it was] a lot of guys in the rotation and I think it means a lot. Especially to Rondo, when myself and Jimmy [Butler] and all of us are just taking that time out to do little stuff. So it was big for us today to do without the shoot around. I don't do that kind of stuff, I normally go back and lay down and go to sleep but sometimes you feel like those moments of bonding are needed. And today it was needed. I don't think it won us the game, but we'll take it."
Can the Bulls continue moving the ball the same way? They don't know for sure. But there was a sense that the camaraderie that both the card game and Wade's speech provided helped the Bulls snap their losing skid.
"If you ask 'Do [Rondo], I think 'Do would say, yeah," Wade said with a smile, when asked if the card game made a difference. "You know what it is, is just togetherness. As little as that is and as small as it sounds, it does make a big difference. Especially with a young group of guys. That small moment of togetherness helps. I go with 'Do on this one. It helped tonight."
For all the bad nights the Bulls have had this year, they were enjoying themselves after Monday night's win. For Wade, Rondo and Butler, this win was even sweeter given the expectation they had for each other coming into the year.
"It felt good," Wade said of the Three Alphas reunion. "It felt like it did in the beginning of the year. We've been on the court together at times. Just the pace that Rondo has brought to our team it's just been good. So to have that start, for us it was big. That's what we're rolling with. We came in rolling like that, we're going to go out rolling like that. I like Coach making that move and it worked for us."
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No. 3: Jazz, Clippers get physical in potential playoff preview -- The last time Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and the LA Clippers lost in Salt Lake City, it was Feb. 1, 2012. Since then, the Clippers had won 16 of the last 17 games in Utah, but that changed last night in a 114-108 Jazz win that had all the markings of a playoff series. Aaron Falk of The Salt Lake Tribune details how Jazz-Clippers could be a series to watch a month from now:
While the dagger that would kill the Los Angeles Clippers' chances at a victory was still in the air, point guard Chris Paul put two hands into the back of 7-foot Rudy Gobert and shoved him.
In doing so, the All-Star point guard picked up a technical and gave Gobert and the Jazz a preview of how unfriendly the playoffs just might be.
Gobert didn't seem to mind the unwelcoming committee much, though, walking right up to Paul to share a few words.
"Man, I don't know. I ain't worried about him," Paul told reporters when asked about the dust-up during the Jazz's 114-108 win at Vivint Smart Home Arena. "He talks a lot. He can play, but he just talks a lot."
But after Utah's win, which moved the Jazz two games ahead of the Clippers for fourth place in the West, these two teams have a good chance of getting to know each other a lot more.
"We obviously know what's at stake with potentially playing them again," forward Joe Ingles said. "You don't think about it every day, but we know where we're standing. Everyone knows where we're standing. It was a big game."
And big games can get physical.
"It was a physical game," Ingles said. "Both bigs on each team were screening, and we were all getting cracked there for a little bit. That's what it's going to be like. We've got to get used to that."
Gobert picked up a technical foul earlier in the game, when he elbowed Clippers guard J.J. Redick, drawing the sharpshooter's ire.
"He got into me," Gobert said afterward. "I didn't even know I touched him. I set a screen. I probably elbowed him. I wasn't trying to."
The fans — all 19,911 of them — were as loud as they had been all season.
"You can tell it's getting down to playoff time here," Jazz forward Gordon Hayward said.
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No. 4: Waiters eager to stay with Heat long term -- When the Miami Heat added Dion Waiters as a somewhat late-summer addition in 2016, few wondered how long the union would last. But Waiters has been more than a model citizen with the Heat and is enjoying his best NBA season there. He will be a free agent again this summer, but doesn't want to look elsewhere when its time to sign a deal, writes Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald:
No, there are no illusions, at least not now, of being another Dwyane Wade. Even confidence-oozing Dion Waiters knows playing a 25-game stretch at D-Wade’s level certainly does not warrant comparisons with a future Hall of Famer.
But ask him about the idea of becoming Wade’s longterm successor here, not merely a one-year stopgap, and that elicits one of Waiters’ infectious smiles.
“If you don’t think like that, you’re crazy,” he said. “I am enjoying this thing. Whatever it takes [this summer], I just want to be here. What we’re building here, we have a chance to do something special.”
And get this: He hopes Wade can help him inch closer to being an All-Star player.
In a weak market for free agent shooting guards, Waiters – a bargain at $2.9 million this season - could cost a bundle: perhaps $14 million or more this summer, and the Heat doesn’t need to decide yet if it’s going to pay it until Miami sees the closing chapter of the most impressive run of Waiters’ five-year career.
But Waiters, 25, already knows how he wants this summer to play out.
“I want to get it done as quick as possible,” he said, hoping Heat longterm interest is mutual. “Let's keep this thing rolling by any means. I don't want to go into free agency with a couple days and make a decision. I don't want that. I know where I want to be. Let's just get it done. My mom loves it here. Would be mad at me [if I left]. My son loves it. My family loves it.”
Waiters has averaged just over 19 points and shot 47 percent since the Heat began this stretch of 21 wins in 25 games, held opponents he’s guarding well below their overall shooting percentage and created a bunch of open shots for others with his penetrations. But he knows there’s another level he would like to reach, and he will reach out to Wade to help get him there.
“Every day I'm in the locker room, I always look at the [Heat championship] pictures, always look at the champagne showers. I have visions about that every day. I ain't going to stop working until I get to that point.”
Erik Spoelstra speaks fondly of Waiters’ “irrational confidence” and Waiters says that’s from “the Philly in me, that toughness, that mentality, everything I've been through in my life. When I’m out here, I’m free.”
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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Memphis Grizzlies forward Chandler Parsons is likely done for the season with a knee injury ... Jimmy Butler says he'd like to stay with the Chicago Bulls as long as they'd have him ... John Henson is happy his former Milwaukee Bucks teammate, Larry Sanders, is getting a fresh start in Cleveland ... The Orlando Magic may have reached their lowest point of their season in last night's loss to Sacramento ... Veteran Dallas Mavericks swingman Wesley Matthews was in no mood to talk about the injury he suffered last night ...