Morning Shootaround

Shootaround (Feb. 6) -- Wizards ready for showdown with Cavs Staff

Wizards ready to take on Cavs | Is Cousins staying put? | Westbrook shines vs. Blazers | LaVine can lean on his team in recovery | Pistons’ problems go deeper than just Jackson

No. 1: Wizards eager for crack at Cavaliers — Two months ago, a Washington Wizards-Cleveland Cavaliers matchup wouldn’t have raised many eyebrows. The Wizards were trying to navigate rough early season waters and the Cavaliers were cruising, still riding high on the fumes of their championship season. But things have changed dramatically for both teams since then, more for the Wizards, owners of a 17-game home win streak at home and within striking distance of the conference-leading Cavaliers heading into tonight’s showdown at Verizon Center (7 ET, TNT). The Wizards, led by All-Star point guard John Wall, are eager for a crack at the champs, writes Candace Buckner of The Washington Post:

Since Washington, on a seven-game winning streak, desires to play meaningful games in the postseason, there should be no better test than competing against Cleveland on the Monday night featured game on TNT.

“I’ve been in some big (regular season) games before,” Wall said Saturday night after the 105-91 win over the New Orleans Pelicans, “but I don’t think one is bigger than this one.”

Seemingly, the Wizards are facing the champs at an ideal time. While Washington has ascended to third in the East, reversing an early-season slide and winning 14 of 18 games since Jan. 1, the Cavaliers, who hold a 9-8 record over the the same time, are surely pacing themselves for another title chase.

On Saturday night, James breezed to 32 points and 10 assists against the New York Knicks and Cleveland won its fourth in five games. But before this current stretch, the team stumbled during a three-game losing streak and James openly complained for more help. After a loss to the lowly Pelicans — the same team Washington has recently beaten twice over the previous week — James said the Cavaliers needed a playmaker. In response, the team recently held a mini-camp for available free agents that included Mario Chalmers, Jordan Farmar and Lance Stephenson.

The turmoil through January, however, matters little to Wall and the rest of the Wizards.

The Cavaliers are “a team that’s been playing okay, but they’re the defending champs,” Wall said. “We know which team we have to chase in the East. We’ve got a great home streak going on … It’s going to be a packed crowd. A lot of people here. It’s on TV. It’s going to be an important game for us.”

Bradley Beal backed up Wall’s assertion about the significance of Monday night while also viewing the Cavaliers more as the hunted than a wounded animal crawling into Washington.

“We’re climbing in the rankings and we’re going to keep climbing. They’re a great team. They’re a targeted team with a big red X on their back and we’re coming after them too,” said Beal, who missed the previous Nov. 11 matchup due to hamstring tightness. “We’re excited. We’re amped up about it. I’m definitely excited because I didn’t play the first game, so I’m looking forward to it.”

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No. 2: Is Cousins staying or going? — For the third time in as many seasons, DeMarcus Cousins will represent the Sacramento Kings in the NBA All-Star Game. And, for seemingly the umpteenth time in the the last few seasons, Cousins finds himself in trade talks. Ailene Voisin of The Sacramento Bee reports that there is some disagreement between the team’s front-office types on whether or not Cousins is on the trading block:

At a time when Kings principal owner Vivek Ranadive and general manager Vlade Divac should be linking arms and assuring their patrons that (a) there is a plan to fix the pathetic product and (b) they intend to execute said plan, they are hunkering down or hiding out.

Within the past several weeks, the following events have occurred, yet prompted nary a public peep from the powers that be: All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins was fined for berating a journalist in the locker room. Matt Barnes was charged with misdemeanor assault for an incident that took place in New York. Rudy Gay suffered a season-ending torn Achilles’. The team assembled to make a run for the eighth playoff spot entered Saturday’s game against Golden State with a worse record than last season, tied for 11th in the Western Conference with New Orleans and Minnesota, and in a race for the cellar.

Hello? Anybody home? When games in the sparkling Golden 1 Center end – or when any of the above occurs – Ranadive (and bodyguards) and Divac (alone) sprint for the parking lot like twin Usain Bolts. They repeatedly decline interview requests with local and national media, and though consistently portrayed as keepers of the NBA’s most dysfunctional franchise, continue turning the other cheek.

Well, this franchise needs to provide answers – soon.

For the Kings, of course, it all begins and ends with Cousins. The franchise has a gut-wrenching decision to make. Setting aside the center’s mood swings, late-game turnovers and tussles with the referees, he is an immense talent who is playing the best basketball of his career. Long a stats machine – among the league leaders in scoring and rebounding – he is an improved rim protector and increasingly adept and willing passer. His career-best assists average (4.6) is largely attributable to quicker decisions, his recognition of double teams and a conscious decision to be more of a facilitator.

But here is the first part of the Kings’ dilemma: While Cousins, 26, continues elevating his game, the team’s record is stuck in place.

Care for Boogie? Don’t care for Boogie? Those are not the critical questions. The overriding issue, the wins-and-losses bottom line, is whether the Kings possess the assets to build a contender around their centerpiece. And the answer is … no.

The franchise is paying the price for the questionable personnel decisions of three successive general managers. With Gay out indefinitely, Cousins’ supporting cast is a collection of aging veterans who would fill complementary roles on playoff teams but lack the star power to impact the present or near-future Kings.

Speculation about a Cousins-Suns pairing generated such a buzz in Phoenix last week, the Arizona Central website polled its readers. Asked if the Suns should trade for Cousins, the 400 respondents replied accordingly: 43 percent voted yes, 32 percent said it depended upon the deal, 17 percent said no, and 8 percent said the Kings would not trade him.

If you are the Kings? Unless McDonough at least mentions Devin Booker’s name – and he didn’t – you table the chat for the next day and the day after that. A combination of T.J. Warren, Alex Len and at least one first-round pick is nothing more than an appetizer. But you keep calling. This is another grueling campaign. When they go low, the Kings need to go high.

And they have to stay on message. Within the past two weeks, three different team executives complained the Kings once again were sending mixed signals. Divac was receptive to moving Cousins, while Ranadive was still meddling and still leaning toward keeping Boogie.

Enough of the nonsense. Three weeks is a very short time, and no time for shrinkage. Figure out a plan, go with it, and get it right.

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No. 3: Westbrook shines on Super Bowl Sunday — Long before the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots lined up for the opening kick on Super Bowl Sunday, Russell Westbrook had already wrapped up yet another star turn of his own. The Thunder superstar was at his fourth-quarter best in a win over Portland, stealing a bit of the shine for himself before the big game. Erik Horne of The Oklahoman explains:

Russell Westbrook took a hop step and crossed back over with his left hand as Portland forward Al-Faroug Aminu was left helpless.

Aminu bit so hard on the move he was spun in the other direction. By the time he wheeled around, Westbrook had hoisted his 3-pointer.

Thunder guard Andre Roberson was under the basket jostling for position. He didn’t actually see Westbrook’s wicked crossover.

“But I saw the aftermath of it,” Roberson said.

When the shot dropped, the sequence was the pinnacle of Westbrook’s 42-point performance, the Thunder’s 105-99 win Sunday, and another power fourth quarter from the All-Star guard.

Chants of “MVP” followed every free throw to come, but if the Chesapeake Energy Arena crowd could have heard Westbrook’s words after his dagger 3-pointer, the chant may have switched to “where’s he going?”

After the shot put the Thunder ahead 100-93, rather than tap the top of his head three times — his traditional 3-point celebration — Westbrook barked the phrase at the Thunder bench again and again. He pointed back at the defender in his wake. Victor Oladipo ran by and boosted himself into the air off Westbrook’s shoulders.

Westbrook entered the fourth quarter 10-of-25, but shot 6-of-9 in the final period, including a personal 6-0 run with the game tied at 85-85 to put the Thunder ahead for good.

Westbrook had 19 points in the fourth quarter for the second consecutive game.

“I just go out and compete and try to close out the game the right way,” Westbrook said. “I hadn’t made a 3 all night. That was a big one.”

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No. 4: LaVine can lean on his team in recovery — Zach LaVine will have plenty of assistance as he recovers from the torn ACL that ended his season Friday night. In addition to the robust effort he’ll get from the Minnesota Timberwolves’ medical team, he’ll have a couple of teammates who’ve have been though this same ordeal and can help him navigate the recovery process. Kent Youngblood of The Star Tribune has more:

As Zach LaVine begins his comeback from the torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee he suffered Friday, he will have two Timberwolves teammates who will be able to help him through the process.

Brandon Rush — who figures to absorb most of LaVine’s minutes — and Ricky Rubio have both come back from ACL injuries.

Rush, 31, did it twice. He tore his right ACL while at Kansas, returning in time to help lead the Jayhawks to the 2008 NCAA title. In November 2012, while playing for Golden State, he injured his left knee. That one was a more significant injury, and Rush said it took nearly two years to get back to 100 percent, even though he returned to action the following season.

Rubio tore the ACL in his left knee March 9, 2012. He returned to action in mid-December of the following season.

Both know what lies ahead for LaVine. Saturday, Rush was asked what he will say when he talks with LaVine.

“I’ll ask him where his head is at,” Rush said. “When that happened to me, my head was all over the place. When will I be back? Am I going to be the same? So I’ll ask him where he’s at right now, and offer the insight about what I had to do to get back right. Mine took a good two years. But he has a straight ACL. I tore up pretty much everything in my knee. Zach is a freak athlete. He’ll be back.”

Especially given the work ethic LaVine has shown.

“All you need to do is work hard and be patient,” Rubio said. “Brandon Rush and me have been through the same thing. We know it’s not easy. There will be ups and downs. But we’ll be there as a team to support him. I have no doubt Zach will come back stronger.”

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No. 5: Pistons’ problems go deeper than just Jackson — Reggie Jackson has been an easy scapegoat for whatever has ailed the Detroit Pistons this season. Since they got off to a solid start without him and have been on a roller coaster ride since he returned from injury, it only made sense to point in his direction. But Rod Beard of the Detroit News insists that the problems in Detroit run much deeper than just Jackson:

To Ish or not to Ish? That is the question.

It’s been the lingering question for much of the season, as the Pistons wallow in mediocrity — well, make that five games below .500 — through the first 51 games of the season.

The great debate has been whether Ish Smith or Reggie Jackson is the better point guard for the Pistons moving forward. It’s a critical question, because in the remaining 31 games, the Pistons will have some work to do just to get back to the playoffs and be the No. 8 seed again.

That’s where they sit today, with a 23-28 record, wondering where it all went wrong and how they seem to have taken a few steps back from last April when they ended their six-year playoff drought. They opened the season with an optimist’s glass half-full approach but after Jackson had a platelet-rich plasma injection that kept him out for the first 21 games of the regular season, things have gone south quickly.

And it’s not like the Pistons had set the NBA on its ear with their 11-10 start with Smith as the starting point guard, either. They had a three-game road win streak and were showing signs of making a run.

When Jackson returned, Van Gundy knew it was going to upset the applecart. In Jackson’s first game back, he was a step slower and showed the rust in a loss to the Magic and three days later, couldn’t kick-start the offense, which managed just 77 points at Charlotte. To finish the week, the Pistons had an embarrassing 18-point loss to the 76ers, who without their best player, Joel Embiid.

So Jackson’s the problem, right?

Wrong. And right. He’s not the problem, but clearly he’s not the Reggie Jackson from last season.

The Pistons have many more issues than just Jackson.

Many Pistons fans are fractured into factions of Reggie vs. Ish, Boban Marjanovic vs. Aron Baynes, or even Stanley Johnson vs. Stan Van Gundy.

It’s not that any one of those is more of an impediment than the others, but the fact there are so many question marks is a glimpse into the Pistons’ disappointing position. And it’s why the Pistons won’t make a foolhardy move ahead of the Feb. 23 deadline.

Van Gundy believes the issues are fixable and that with some luck in the second half of the season, they can turn things around and make a run past the eighth seed and what would likely be a rematch with the defending-champion Cavaliers. H said he won’t make a trade that doesn’t make them appreciably better.

And given that Pistons wouldn’t get close to value in a trade for Jackson, it’s not a likely scenario. So Smith likely won’t take over that starting role either. Van Gundy wouldn’t do that for an extension of the 11-10 start.

They’ll have to do something, but those fans won’t get their Ish.

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Paul Pierce got the send off you might expect a Celtics’ living legend to get in his last game at The Garden … Hawks rookie Bembry fears no defensive assignment … Sixers big man Joel Embiid (bone bruise, knee) will miss his sixth straight game tonight in Detroit with no real return date set … Former Chicago Bulls GM Jerry Krause says Michael Jordan never asked him to add specific players … Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek and the Knicks are trying to balance a playoff push and the long-term goals (see rebuild) of the franchise … The Nuggets search for a superstar could lead to an in-house candidate (Nikola Jokic anyone?) … The Kings’ bench produces, no matter the personnel … Derrick Favors and the Utah Jazz have no choice but to deal with the dip in production that has been impacted by his knee pain …