Morning Shootaround

Shootaround (Jan. 14): Isaiah Thomas shares 'villain' role with Al Horford in Atlanta

Utah’s ‘Triple H’ shreds Pistons’ defense | Thomas shares ‘Hawks villain’ role | Grizzlies do it again in Houston | Lillard shaken by fallen friend

No. 1: Utah’s ‘Triple H’ Shreds Detroit D — Gordon Hayward is the Utah Jazz’s leading man. George Hill, when healthy, starts at the team’s most pivotal position. Rodney Hood is offensive potency personified. Combine all three and NBA fans in Salt Lake City get the benefit of a machine that dumped the Detroit Pistons by 33 points Friday night. One indicator of Utah’s chances on any given night has been its record this season when both Hayward and Hill are in the lineup: 10-1. Factor in Hood, and Stan Van Gundy and his Pistons were due for a rough night, per Tony Jones of the Salt Lake Tribune:

After a close first half — in which Detroit, who played at Golden State on Thursday night, trailed by only two points — the Jazz started the third quarter with a 22-6 run that blew the game open

“Those guys were hot,” Hayward said. “When they get hot like that, it’s hard to stop them. When [Hood] shoots the ball with confidence, he’s really good. It was good to see all of us get going.”

Hayward was his usual standout self, scoring 20 points, grabbing four rebounds and handing out three assists. He did so economically, shooting 8 of 12 from the field.

Last season, the Jazz lost at home to Detroit as Reggie Jackson scored 29 points. This season at home, Hill held Jackson to seven points and scored 22 himself, shooting 8 of 13 from the field.

As well as Hayward and Hill played, Hood was the catalyst, scoring a game-high 27 points on 10 of 14 shooting. He went 7 of 8 from beyond the arc. Those three going offensively at the same time created an explosive Jazz lineup.

“We didn’t shoot the ball well in the first quarter,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “But I think the guys still played offense the right way when the shots weren’t going down. That’s our challenge, to continue to play the right way. We have to do that when we’re not making shots.”

Aaron Falk of the Tribune focused on the matchup of Hill and Jackson, and the defensive job the former did on the latter:

The list of guards who have given the Utah Jazz trouble this year has been growing longer in recent weeks: Lou Williams, Ty Lawson, Devin Booker, Goran Dragic, Kyle Lowry.

“You look around the league and those same guys you’re talking about give everybody problems,” Jazz forward Gordon Hayward said Friday morning. “But it’s something that we’re working on getting better at. And we’ll have another one tonight.”

Yep, Pistons point guard Reggie Jackson would have been a prime candidate to join the club and give the Jazz defense fits at Vivint Smart Home Arena — but not with George Hill back in the starting lineup.

And the Jazz hope the return of Hill, who is back in the lineup but is still dealing with soreness in his left big toe as he works off the rust of a prolonged layoff, will help right the ship in the second half of the season when it comes to keeping opposing guards in check.

Jackson went scoreless in the first quarter, missing his first four shots of the game. With Hill on the bench for a stretch of the second, Jackson went to the rack twice for a pair of lay-ins en route to seven points by halftime.

The Pistons point guard went scoreless in the second half, with Hill once again shadowing him.

Hill said this week he still feels “super rusty” and has not been pleased with his recent efforts.

“I think I’m my worst critic,” Hill said. “I’m very critical of myself and really judge myself hard after games. The good part is a couple of them we’ve been winning. That’s what’s most important.”

Meanwhile, at the other end of the hall, Detroit coach Stan Van Gundy sounded exasperated, less so by a juggled lineup that was limited offensively than by how poorly the Pistons fares at the other end. From Rod Beard of the Detroit News:

Missing two of his starters — Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (shoulder strain) and Jon Leuer (knee bruise) — Van Gundy shook up the playing rotation to try to bring some energy and get out of the two-game losing streak.

It didn’t change the outcome.

With a shortened bench, Van Gundy moved Aron Baynes to the starting lineup and used Beno Udrih at point guard, ahead of Ish Smith. Reggie Bullock, who recovered from a meniscus tear, returned to the lineup for his first game since Nov. 23, and posted a season-high seven points in 26 minutes.

“We can’t stop anybody; we just can’t. For the first 21 games, we were the second-best defensive team in the league and now we’re the worst,” Van Gundy said in a terse postgame session. “I’m frustrated — not with our players; I’m frustrated with myself that I can’t figure this out.

“We literally can’t stop anyone, ever. We’re just not stopping anybody.”

The Pistons held the Jazz to 14 points in the first quarter but then relented 31, 33 and 32 points in the final three periods, respectively.

No. 2: Thomas shares ‘Hawks villain’ role – They came to boo Al Horford. By the end, though, the Atlanta Hawks fans at Philips Arena had to be shaking their heads and maybe their fists at Boston guard Isaiah Thomas. Determined to make Horford’s first game back in Atlanta a success, and taking personally the crowd’s zeal in booing the solid big man who gave the Hawks nine seasons before signing as a free agent with the Celtics, Thomas and his teammates countered with a victory and late heroics from the pocket-sized point guard. Here is a bit of Adam Himmelsbach’s account in the Boston Globe:

Atlanta had improbably charged back from a 20-point third-quarter deficit to tie the score at 101 on a Paul Millsap 3-pointer. The Celtics had a timeout, but Thomas looked to the bench and waved it off

“I told him, ‘All right, go win the game,’ ” coach Brad Stevens said.

Boston had been looking to use Thomas in pick-and-roll plays, but in this moment, he audibled from that plan, too. He was being defended by the long and rangy Kent Bazemore. He could have tried to get the slower Mike Dunleavy switched onto him with a screen, but Thomas had seen Bazemore slapping the floor, essentially as a show of force, and he did not like that.

“So he wanted to get a bucket on him,” Jae Crowder said. “So let him do what he do.” Thomas whirled into the lane and lofted a difficult 19-foot, step-back jumper from the right side. The ball splashed through the net with 2.4 seconds left. He had done it again.

“It was something I wanted to try to take advantage of,” Thomas said. “Bazemore had that look in his face like he was going to get a stop, and I had other plans.”

When Thomas went back to the bench afterward, Stevens told him it had been a hell of a shot. Boston still needed one more stop. The Hawks fired an inbounds pass to Millsap, but his baseline jumper never really had a chance.

Thomas finished with 28 points and nine assists. Kelly Olynyk provided a major boost off the bench, tallying 26 points and eight rebounds. Horford had 10 points and six rebounds, but was surely most pleased to just leave with a win.

He had made every effort to downplay his return. But his teammates made it clear they wanted to win this game for him. And they were irritated by the boos that rained down on a player who had been a model teammate and citizen in this community for nine years. And that made them want this game even more.

“A guy like that, with that type of character, you can’t boo,” Thomas said. “That’s disrespectful.”

“I’m just very proud of the group,” Horford said. “I think they made a bigger deal of it than I did. I was just ready to play, and they really wanted to win this game, and I just appreciate their effort and everything they did.”

No. 3: Grizzlies do it again in Houston – No one can say that Memphis coach David Fizdale is alone in overseeing a team that doesn’t bring its “A” game on a nightly basis. Inconsistency, often driven by the quality of an opponent, is a pretty common malady around The Association. But having company doesn’t make the effects of such up-and-down performances any less miserable to endure. Our man Fran Blinebury was on hand for the Grizzlies’ latest giant-slaying act – and self-examination for why Memphis otherwise often makes life harder for itself:

It’s getting to be a like clockwork. Once a week the Grizzlies wake up to chop one of the big dogs in the Western Conference down to size. But not until after they’ve rolled over and hit the snooze button.

Friday night the Grizzlies spotted the Rockets a 16-point lead and reeled them in 110-105. Just seven nights earlier, they came from 24 points down to stun the Warriors in overtime.

“It tells you we can compete with anybody,” said forward Zach Randolph.

But it also tells the Grizzlies they’ve still got plenty of work to do gluing all of the pieces in the right places as the second half of the regular season begins.

Memphis is now 4-0 against the Warriors and Rockets, the No. 1 and No. 3 teams in the West. But the Grizzlies have also lost to the bottom feeding Lakers, Kings, Heat, Timberwolves and Knicks. That’s why they’re stuck in the mix in the difficult middle of the conference standings rather than competing for home-court advantage in the playoffs.

“We just gotta start treating everybody like they’re those teams,” said point guard Mike Conley. “I think we get up for the good teams somehow and seem to lay eggs when we feel like we should win games. Just got to come with a better mindset for all the games we play. We know we can play with anybody. We’ve proven that. For us to get to that next level we’ve got to be consistent no matter who we’re playing.”

Just like at Golden State, it took a halftime jolt from coach David Fizdale to get the Grizzlies’ motor running. They had spent the first half letting the Rockets shoot 58.3 percent from the field and James Harden score 16 points. But in the second half Houston made just 12 of 46 shots and Harden had only a single field on a dunk in the final seconds.

“Coach wasn’t too pleased with that (first half),” said Tony Allen, who along with James Ennis III harassed Harden all night. “He came in at halftime and he got on us. He told guys we need to stop lying to ourselves. We were not playing. We were not holding our hats on the defensive end like we should do.”

No. 4: Lillard shaken by fallen friend – More than any of the other major North American team sports, the NBA has an unfortunate tradition of athletes publicly mourning the loss of loved ones and friends. Besides all the usual sad stories from life’s unfortunate twists and turns, the urban roots of so many players – and the dangers inherent in those places – can claw back through others NBA stars who might have thought they escaped. Portland point guard Damian Lillard endured a hard lesson Thursday after he saw his friend Meshawn Beard’s portrait pop up on Instagram. Joe Freeman of The Oregonian talked with Lillard about it:

So Lillard called a friend in Oakland and his worst fears were confirmed. Beard, a childhood friend whom Lillard was trying to mentor and push away from trouble, had been shot and killed in Oakland 45 minutes earlier.

“It’s really sad,” Lillard said. “When I first heard it, I took a deep breath … just thought, ‘That’s crazy.’ As the day went on, I saw at least 50 people post it on Instagram and each time I saw a picture, it was hard. Plenty of people I knew growing up, stuff has happened to them. But this one was tough. This one was close.”

So close, Lillard honored his fallen friend Friday night, writing “R.I.P. Meshawn” in black marker on his shoes as the Blazers’ played the Orlando Magic at the Moda Center.

“I’m usually not one to be so out there with stuff like this,” Lillard said before tipoff Friday night. “But that was my little homie. I feel bad because he was a good kid. He just got caught up in some stuff.”

Lillard said Beard, who was five years younger than him, was the little kid who always followed around the older kids. During pick-up games at the neighborhood park, Beard would shoot hoops by himself on the side, just to be near Lillard. When Lillard reached high school and blossomed into a standout, Beard would tag along on bus rides to the games.

And when Lillard earned a college scholarship to Weber State, Beard used Lillard as a role model, a first-hand example of how to make it out of the inner-city.

Lillard grew up on 98th Street in the Brookfield Neighborhood of Oakland. Beard grew up on 85th. If Lillard could do it, so could he.

Lillard has lived miles away from that life for nine years now — four years of college and five more in the NBA — and that idea has consumed him since he learned about Beard’s death on Thursday.

“You look at it and think that you’re nine years removed from that,” Lillard said. “And you kind of forget how bad it really is and what my reality could have been. It’s tough, man, when it gets this close and it’s not a sickness or something like that. When it’s a murder.”

With All-Star balloting winding down, and the players and media reps also facing a Monday deadline for their selections, Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid used his typically playful Twitter account to have some fun with Miami’s Hassan Whiteside:

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: First the Celtics and the Washington Wizards needed Boston police to intervene after their post-buzzer scuffle. Now it’s Celtics-Hawks via some Isaiah Thomas-Dennis Schroder friction and claims. Do we detect a pattern yet? … Kyle Korver as Ray Allen? No, this isn’t a sequel to “He Got Game.” It’s Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue breaking out some Boston plays to spring Korver loose for lethal 3-point shots the way the Celtics did when Lue and Allen were employed there. Oh, and some details behind Iman Shumpert’s latest move into the Cavs’ starting lineup. … As Kemba Walker goes, so go the Charlotte Hornets. At least it’s looking that way lately. … A shared trainer and similar roots in Georgia have led Hawks center Dwight Howard to become a mentor to Boston rookie Jaylen Brown. … Derrick Rose never did share much about the reason for his unauthorized leave from the New York Knicks other than to mention his mother. Considering the turmoil it caused for the team, it’s a bit surprising the vast New York media – while respecting intimate details – didn’t press more to at least categorize the episode (health scare? Heartache? Family crisis?). Now that Brenda Rose has come to New York to see her youngest son play, maybe some additional info will come out that offers more context.