Martin Luther King Day matchup plus NBA news & notes

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By Sam Smith | 1.19.2015 | 9:13 a.m. CT

Monday is one of the great days on the NBA calendar with a dozen games for the Martin Luther King holiday. Unfortunately, there aren’t too many can’t miss matchups. Dallas and the Grizzlies in the featured Memphis game is on NBA TV. But it’s the Bulls who draw the national attention with, of course, LeBron James in Cleveland. The last time they met was the Bulls home opener when James had 36 points and eight in overtime while Derrick Rose left in the fourth quarter with 20 points after spraining his ankle. Tristan Thompson’s 12 offensive rebounds forced everyone to learn how to spell his name.

That was when the Eastern Conference was a two-team race between the Cavs and Bulls for the NBA Finals.

Remember then?

The Bulls still do lead the Central Division, but they are six and a half games behind the Atlanta Hawks, have lost five of their last seven and only look like a defensive team to the Cavaliers. That’s because the Cavs are third in the Central, also behind Milwaukee (what an opener Bulls and Bucks would have been instead), and giving up more than 100 points per game and ahead of only Minnesota in 29th place in the NBA in opponent shooting.

Measuring stick?

“Every time you play a team it’s an opportunity to measure up against them,” said Pau Gasol after the Bulls Saturday loss to Atlanta. “We have an opportunity Monday.”

The Cavs because of James remain the story of the NBA. And it’s only gone into overdrive of late with bulletins on James bumping into his coach and apparently threatening to give him a wedgie, making goo goo eyes with assistant Tyronn Lue, missing eight games of which the Cavs lost seven and Kevin Love was benched the fourth quarter in two because his defense was so poor even for that team. So they traded for a bunch of guys, including J.R. Smith, apparently to tie opponents’ sneakers together to slow those fast breaks while they seek FAA approval for landing small aircraft on Iman Shumpert.

So you think the Bulls have problems?

But don’t be laughing too hard. LeBron is back. And coming back home for the first game there since returning from his recuperation. In the three he’s played, he’s averaging 33.7 points on 52.3 percent shooting, 7.7 rebounds and 5.7 assists. He’s 10 of 26 on threes, averaging 39 minutes, dunking again and saying it’s the best he’s felt all year. And Jimmy Butler had trouble with Kyle Korver.

“They’re winning games right now,” noticed Butler in comments Saturday night. “A lot of great players, great scorers on that team. So we’re definitely going to have to man up and play some defense on Monday."

It should be fun, and it’s great to be selected to play the most beautiful of games on the King holiday. As Dr. King said, “We may all have come on different ships, but we are in the same boat now.” It should be a celebration of the game Monday as well.

NBA news & notes

Lionel Hollins’ weekly words of wisdom: “We have established an identity: We don’t make shots. If you don’t make shots, that’s a part of who you are.”… Brandon Jennings has been the big surprise with the surging Pistons. And while he has taken the political approach on the release of Josh Smith, which freed him to have the ball more and not shoot so quickly, it didn’t help that Jennings was close with former coach Mo Cheeks, whom Smith supposedly persuaded management to fire. We’ll see if Jennings returns to his career of being the league’s poorest shooting point guard, but he does say his decision to skip college and play in Europe was correct. And, after all, he was a lottery pick even playing little there. Said Jennings to Detroit media: “If I had to do it again, I'd do it again. The things I've learned you can't see it in one year in college. I got to eat at the most famous places in the world. I got to live in Rome. Who wouldn't want to do that at 18?”… Greg Monroe is averaging 16.2 per game on 52 percent shooting in January compared with 13.8 and 49 percent in Smith’s prime in November … Oh no. Tyrus Thomas is back with 13 points and four rebounds in 19 minutes in the D-league showcase (for NBA scouts). He’ll be playing in Des Moines if you missed him ... Really, how long before Mo Williams, averaging 25.3 points and 6.3 assists since returning from injury, ends up as someone very good’s sixth man? And how about Gerald Green? He can really shoot and score and often is one of the last off the bench for the guard heavy Suns, who are also said to be talking about trading Miles Plumlee. Guys, it’s not a 6-5 and under league ... Adding Jameer Nelson for some reason with another year on his deal raises questions if Ty Lawson will join Arron Afflalo and Wilson Chandler as Nuggets rumored trade possibilities. Heck, make it everybody.

Surging Hawks

No one’s supposed to say it because of the inappropriate racial comments in the organization last summer, but Danny Ferry, the deposed Hawks general manager, did a heck of a job hiring (Mike Budenholzer) and putting together a Hawks team in the draft and the cheap part of free agency that has become a title contender. He got three of the starters, Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll and Paul Millsap, inexpensively; he added bench vets like Thabo Sefolosha and Elton Brand and drafted a tough point guard backup in Dennis Schroder and shooter Mike Scott with low picks. It’s been a heck of a building ... Elton Brand had one interesting observation for the Hawks success: “In the NBA, you’re taught one-on-one. You hear that a guy can’t create his own shot in the NBA, so he doesn’t get drafted high. But if he can shoot, he’d be a great system guy. But then he wants the ball. On our team a guy doesn’t have to get his own shot. We create shots for him.”… There’s been a lot of speculation about what it means for Austin Rivers playing for his dad with the Clippers. But Austin is the classic of what it might have meant playing for Mike Krzyzewski. He’d still be in college, be a top five lottery pick, pretty much guaranteed to be a key piece of a team’s rebuilding and probably assure a much longer NBA career.

Comeback story in Minnesota

Russell Westbrook is a heck of a talent, just like Rasheed Wallace. Too bad he’s headed Rasheed’s way. Westbrook, who always has been somewhat difficult with media, basically has turned loathsome this season with the sort of one word answers and repeat answers like Wallace or Bill Laimbeer would practice. David Stern would generally take care of that because it wasn’t about the media. What Stern understood best is it’s about the fans. The fans want to hear from their favorites (or non favorites); it’s another part of the NBA’s fan friendly attitude, the best in pro sports, and Stern stood up for fans as ardently as any commissioner. I doubt he’d sit by idly as so many star players take off without being injured. People are paying a lot of money for those tickets and stars are in some cities once a year. It would be nice if they felt some responsibility to the community and the league. No reporters, meanwhile, want to be friends with guys like Russell Westbrook. What often is misunderstood is the reporters are merely messengers to the fans. It’s the fans whom Westbrook is rejecting and making fun of, like he does the Oklahoma City media. They have good reporters there, but, geez, we’re not talking about media pressure. They love their Thunder. There are great models in the NBA to follow; Westbrook has chosen the worst. It stamps your passport to the churlish club … Might be tough to get Marc Gasol out of Memphis given their stability among the strongest in the NBA and good additions. Says Gasol, considered the premier 2015 free agent: “I like having success as a team. Everything makes more sense. It’s easier to go through the grind when you’re winning. Every time we go to a different city I get asked. It’s just part of it.” Sounds a bit like Pau leaving the Lakers for the Bulls … One of the great stories this season is Minnesota’s Robbie Hummel. Talk about a guy with injuries: ACL’s (plural), menisus, broken back. The good guy from Purdue has worked his way into the Timberwolves rotation playing every position off the bench as what coach Flip Saunders said with injuries has been the team’s most consistent player; he had 15 points and 13 rebounds in 43 minutes in a win over Denver Saturday and is averaging 9.2 points and 5.2 rebounds the last five games … Steve Kerr on resting players as he sat Andrew Bogut and Andre Iguodala last week: “We’re having a phenomenal season, but we have to be careful about what we’re trying to accomplish. We’re not chasing the ’96 Bulls here. We need to be wise about the whole season. So resting guys at the right time when we have this cushion is important.” Though rookie coach Kerr does prefer to rest guys with similar sounding names so he doesn’t make mistakes on substitutions.