Shootaround (April 2): Utah Jazz eager to return to playoff action
Plus the Bulls rise to No. 7 in the East, Blake Griffin reaches a milestone, and much more
No. 1: ‘Playing well’ is Jazz priority — Considering the Utah Jazz’s sub-.500 finishes in recent years and the drought that stretches back to 2009-10 since the franchise managed 50 victories in a season, you might expect a few more victories to loom large for the team from Salt Lake City. At 47-39, even a split of the final half-dozen contests on their regular-season schedule would give the Jazz a fat, round number of which it could be proud.
But as Jody Genessy notes in the Deseret News, there is something Utah considers more important than its victory total, its seeding in the Western Conference or a Northwest Division title. Sure, the first 82 games matter. But the ones that come immediately after matter even more:
“We want to be playing our best basketball at the end of the regular season,” Hayward said. “The win count doesn’t necessarily matter for us.”
There is one thing that Jazz coach Quin Snyder has ranked higher on his priority list than wins right now. He’d love nothing more than for Derrick Favors (knee bruise), George Hill (groin strain) and Raul Neto (groin strain) to return healthy.
The Jazz will be without Favors, Hill and Neto when they take on San Antonio in Sunday’s game (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC).
“I’d like to win. More important than 50 wins, I’d like to go into the playoffs playing well,” Snyder said. “We’re without two of our starters right now. We play some good teams down the stretch. If we can’t get to 50 wins, I don’t think it needs to be a reflection on how we’re playing.”
Snyder added that he’d love to enter his first NBA postseason as a head coach with some confidence and momentum, but he’s not stressing out about whether the Jazz will hit 50 wins, win the Northwest Division title or even hold onto home-court advantage.
“I don’t want our team to be too conscious on seeding. I’d like us to be focused on the process of playing and improving and getting healthy,” Snyder said. “I’d rather be healthy than the fourth seed, to be honest with you, because if we’re the fourth seed and we’re not healthy, that’s doubly hard.”
By the way, Utah won’t be the only team missing some key participants Sunday. The Spurs will be without LaMarcus Aldridge (left thumb sprain), Manu Ginobili (rest), Danny Green (left quad contusion) and Dejounte Murray (left groin).
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No. 2: Kerr: Sixth men also defend — There is nothing in the rules or by-laws that requires the winner of the NBA’s annual Sixth Man of the Year award to be an “instant offense” type of player. That’s just how voters have approached it, year in and year out, when casting ballots for the highest honor available to a non-starter.
And that unwritten tradition had Golden State coach Steve Kerr effectively scratching his head, while considering the merits of a certain Warriors contributor this season. As reported by CSNBayArea.com, Kerr thinks Andre Iguodala is worthy of the distinction, even if he would win it with the lowest scoring average of any Sixth Man in history:
“I don’t know if I’ve ever really pushed any of our players for awards — Steph (Curry) for MVP, Draymond (Green) for Defensive Player of the Year,” Kerr said prior to tipoff against Houston at Oracle Arena. “Maybe I have. It’s not something I normally do. But I am sort of intrigued by the Sixth Man of the Year award. It seems like it should just say ‘highest scoring player off the bench’ award. Depends on how people look at it.
“But if you want to look at the best Sixth Man in the game, in terms of winning, there’s no way anyone is better than Andre.”
Insofar as Iguodala is a significant component of what the Warriors do on offense and defense, his value is not as tangible as such bench scorers as Rockets guards Eric Gordon and Lou Williams, or Clippers guard Jamal Crawford, who has won the award three times.
Scoring is why Williams, at 17.8 per game this season, is a leading contender. Gordon, at 16.3 is right behind him. Crawford is averaging 12.4 points, his lowest since 2002-03.
Iguodala’s point totals almost never jump off the page. He’s averaging 7.3 points and 4.0 assists. He leads all non-starters in Real Plus-Minus at 3.32, better than such All-Stars as Washington’s John Wall (3.12), Utah’s Gordon Hayward (3.02) and Indiana’s Paul George (2.16).
“He’s like a starter for us,” Kerr said. “He’s played backup point guard. He’s currently our backup power forward. He guards the best player every single night — Kawhi Leonard, James Harden. He comes in and automatically guards the best guy. I think he leads the league in assist to turnover ratio (he does, at 4.58, well ahead of Chris Paul’s 3.86). This guy, he’s phenomenal.
“But people are going to look at the stats and go, well, he’s averaging six, seven points, however many. Then they’re going to find someone who averages 17 and say: ‘I’m going to vote for that guy.’”
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No. 3: Bulls better late than never? — Can we all just agree at this late stage of the 2016-17 NBA season that the Chicago Bulls make absolutely no sense? Here they are, 76 games into a wholly underwhelming season, and they’re still making noise about “hating to lose” and “not being expected to win.” Considering Chicago has lost 39 times already and still is assured of nothing as far as a postseason berth, those sort of chesty pronouncements ring awfully hollow.
If the Bulls really hate to lose, they might have done something about it long before April. And if they wanted to prove critics wrong about the team’s ill-fitting roster and inattention to detail, they probably shouldn’t have spent five months proving those critics right. So take with a grain of salt some of the brash talk coming out of Chicago’s dressing room after its comeback home victory over Atlanta Saturday, whether coming from point guard Rajon Rondo or from Jimmy Butler:
After the Bulls maintained momentum in their playoff push by beating Atlanta on Saturday, Rajon Rondo offered a mix of insight and commentary about recent team practices.
“We’ve been having some great practices,” Rondo said. “We’ve been very competitive in practice, more than we’ve been all year. Almost a couple fights. Me personally, I love it. That’s intensity we need. We showed a little grit coming back (Saturday), we were down 10 with four minutes to go.”
Actually, the Bulls were down 9 with five minutes left, but it was still an impressive comeback. Jimmy Butler tied the score on a driving bank shot with 32.9 seconds left, then hit a pair of go-ahead free throws with 2.1 seconds on the clock to give the Bulls a tense 106-104 victory at the United Center.
Butler finished with 33 points and Rondo added a season-high 25. The victory moved the Bulls (37-39) into seventh place in the Eastern Conference with six games left to play, and snapped a seven-game losing streak to Atlanta.
Now about those near-fights in practice, who exactly is starting those?
“I start them. I’m the instigator,” Rondo said with his usual stone-faced expression. “So no punches were thrown. But we’re competing at a high level now. And we hate to lose.”
And then there was this from Butler:
Jimmy Butler loves being the man who both takes and makes the most important shots late in games. He proved that again Saturday, scoring the final nine points for the Bulls, including two free throws with 2.1 seconds left, to lead them to a 106-104 victory over the Atlanta Hawks.
The 27-year-old has thrived late in games in recent seasons and isn’t shy about discussing his love for the situation.
“I do,” Butler said. “Why? Because I’m not supposed to be here anyway. I’m supposed to miss shots and I’m supposed to fail. Everybody always picks me to do that, but it’s OK. I like all the so-called pressure. I just want to go out there and show that I belong.”
Butler has done that repeatedly over the past three seasons, three consecutive All-Star campaigns, but particularly since Dwyane Wade fractured his elbow in a March 15 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies and was ruled out for the season. Since that game, Butler is averaging 27.3 points, 8.5 assists and 6.0 rebounds and is shooting 54.4 percent from the field. The Bulls, who sit in the seventh spot in the Eastern Conference playoff chase, are 5-3 during that span.
“I always look at it as nobody picked us to be in the playoffs,” Butler said. “Nobody picked us to win anyways. I’m just out there playing basketball. I want to win, I think everybody knows that. I’m just doing what everybody asks of me, so to speak.”
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No. 4: Mr. Clippers, but for how long? – Blake Griffin, in Saturday’s victory over the Lakers, became the first player to score 10,000 points entirely as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers. That’s not meant to snub Randy Smith, who logged time with the franchise while it played in Buffalo and scored 12,735 points. Instead, it’s meant to show how important Griffin has been to the Clippers in recent years – and to put in perspective how meager the team’s claims of greatness are.
Consider that it takes 10,601 points (Jamaal Wilkes) – 567 more than Griffin’s total – just to crack the Top 10 for the Lakers. And yet Griffin, the player who has been so key to altering the franchise’s trajectory from its dreary past, is himself the subject of much uncertainty going forward. From the Orange County Register:
The five-time All-Star can opt out of his contract at the end of the season, as can Chris Paul, a fact adding to the possible long-term ramifications of another early playoff exit this spring.
After his 36 points carried the Clippers on Saturday, Griffin would not say whether he hopes to stay with the Clippers.
“I’ve loved my time here, absolutely,” Griffin said. “But my main focus right now is the season. I said this before the season, I’m not doing the whole free agency talk. I’m not talking about any decision I can’t make right now. Like I said my main focus is getting this team right and moving forward and being right heading into the playoffs.”
A former first overall pick, Griffin is the first Clippers player to deliver on the high expectations that greeted him when he arrived. He is the symbol of the franchise’s turnaround.
The Clippers have been one of the best teams in the Western Conference since 2011, although they are yet to advance beyond the second round.
“Obviously with free agency coming up,” [coach Doc] Rivers said, “I don’t know if the results matter more or not. I think that will be up to the individual players, to be honest.”
Although Randy Smith scored 12,735 points with the Buffalo Braves and Clippers from 1971-79, Griffin is the franchise’s leading scorer since the franchise left harsh winters behind and moved to San Diego and rebranded the franchise after a boat.
By comparison, Elton Brand scored 9,336 points in seven seasons with the Clippers.
“Man, that’s impressive,” Chris Paul said. “To think the games and the time he’s missed, it should be more. He’s got a lot more ahead of him.”
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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: While Tracy McGrady feels vindicated by his Hall of Fame selection, George McGinnis felt he was slipping off the radar entirely … Clippers guard Austin Rivers is trying to align his injury timeline to an uncertain postseason schedule … Some exclusive tutoring paid off for Milwaukee rookie Thon Maker Friday. … When you blow sizable leads (15 points or more) no fewer than 20 times in a season, it most likely means you’re going to miss the playoffs for the 13th consecutive year. Yeah, we’re looking at you, Timberwolves. … Kristaps Porzingis hasn’t yet sorted out how he’ll balance his duties for his New York and Latvia teams. … Scottie Pippen is all-in on Russell Westbrook. So much so that he might be dissing a close personal pal.