Morning Shootaround

Jan. 29 Shootaround -- J.R. Smith confident Cavs will figure it out

NBA.com Staff

Smith: Cavs have been here before, will be fine | Motivated Morris rolling for Wizards | Trail Blazers find success with new lineup | Carmelo’s legacy vs. Phill Jackson’s in New York

No. 1: Smith: Cavs have been here before, will be fine — Leave it up to the wisdom of J.R. Smith to put the Cleveland Cavaliers’ recent issues in the proper perspective. Yes, that J.R. Smith. The injured sharpshooter insists the Cavaliers have nothing to worry about, not the words of LeBron James or the struggles they’ve had recently. They’ll be fine, Smith says as they prepare to host Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder today (3:30 ET, ABC). Joe Vardon of the Plain Dealer explains:

The Cleveland Cavaliers are in the midst of a typical January — at least for them.

Drama, finger-pointing, calls for change and trade rumblings have once again encircled the Cavaliers following LeBron James’ impromptu meeting with Cleveland-based reporters after Monday’s stunning loss to the short-handed New Orleans Pelicans, a get-together where James questioned management, called for another playmaker and wondered aloud if the Cavs had the proper personnel to repeat as NBA champs.

All of it, which James termed as a “good thing for our team,” put the Cavs back in the headlines.

On Saturday night, J.R. Smith, still sidelined with a fractured right thumb suffered on Dec. 20, wanted to shed some light on Cleveland’s most turbulent week of the season.

“We’ve been here before,” Smith said in a two-minute video for Uninterrupted.”We was in the same situation last year. We were losing games. I believe it was Brooklyn, we were in New York, and had a huge team meeting — a lot of team meetings last year about us losing and quote unquote stuff within the team and whatever. But it’s all good. It’s all love and we love each other. Just have to get back to what we’re used to — having fun, playing the game and playing each game like it’s your last.”

There won’t be a coaching change like last January. And a major roster overhaul is highly unlikely despite the Carmelo-Anthony-to-Cleveland rumors. It’s up to the Cavs to dig deep and quiet the nose with their play.

They took a positive step on Friday, snapping their three-game losing skid with a 124-116 win against the feeble Brooklyn Nets.

While the victory is exactly what the champs needed, stopping the bleeding temporarily, it hardly means things are back to normal.

“Just playing with that grit and determination to be the best every night,” Smith said. “We know we’re going to get people’s best shot and we know we’re the champs and as a competitor that’s what you want. We have to be more physical and everything else will take care of itself. As long as you play hard and play physical and adjust to your assignments and be ready for your assignments then we will be fine.”

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No. 2: Motivated Morris rolling for Wizards — All-Star point guard John Wall and his backcourt mate Bradley Beal have led the charge for the Washington Wizards since their sluggish 6-12 start to this season. Being counted out early always serves as a source of motivation. But they aren’t the only Wizards being fueled by a slight. Markieff Morris has his own motivation these days and he’s taking it out on the opposition. Today’s foe, the New Orleans Pelicans (6 p.m. ET, NBA TV), should beware, writes Candace Buckner of the Washington Post:

Markieff Morris tried to play it cool. His teammates and coaches know him to be low-key, inhibited even, so why now — after continuing to play some of the best basketball of his career while limiting a four-time all-star to his worst statistical night of the season — would Morris suddenly break character?

Initially, he tried to give the kind of stock answer that rolls so easily from an athlete’s lips.

“I don’t know. You just get those stretches sometimes where you play good basketball like I’ve been playing,” Morris said Friday night after the Washington Wizards battered the Atlanta Hawks. In the 112-86 win, Morris contributed 15 points and nine rebounds, including five on the offensive glass, and shut down Paul Millsap, his all-star counterpart at power forward.

Then Morris cleared his throat.

“I just a got a little bit of motivation,” he teased. “A little bit of extra motivation that made me realize I could do more and I can bring more to the team.”

Prodded about the mysterious motivation, Morris shared the story.

A couple weeks ago, his agent sent him a text. There was a note about a Bleacher Report story that listed the NBA’s top 30 power forwards at the halfway point of the season. Morris didn’t click the link or see the names; he only read Dan Brinkley’s message.

“They didn’t have me on there,” Morris recalled.

Let that sink in. There are 30 starting power forwards in the NBA. Morris fills that role for the 26-20 Wizards and wasn’t even considered to be better than 29th-ranked David Lee, who averages 7.1 points and 5.4 rebounds while coming off the bench for the San Antonio Spurs.

“Ever since I’ve seen that it’s been kill,” Morris said. “They think I’m a [expletive] joke and I don’t play like that. So every game I look at that. It gives me more motivation.”

The Wizards have reaped the benefits from Morris’s burning fire. During the team’s 10-4 January, Morris has collected four double-doubles, three more than he had through the first two full months of the season. He has also played an overlooked role in his dual role as a starter and the stabilizer of the second unit.

“Last couple weeks he has been playing as well as anybody on our team,” Coach Scott Brooks said of Morris. “I think the comfort level with me and the comfort level with his team are definitely showing. He has been a big part of our success on the road.”

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No. 3: Trail Blazers finding success with new lineup — After searching for weeks to figure out the best way forward, Portland coach Terry Stotts decided to tweak his starting lineup. Whether or not it works today with the Golden State Warriors in town (9 ET, NBA TV) remains to be seen. But it was change that was necessary, according to Mike Richman of the Oregonian:

Two days after watching his team get shellacked in Charlotte, Terry Stotts approached Evan Turner and Noah Vonleh at their Blazers’ morning shootaround in Philadelphia and let them know he was moving them into the starting forward spots.

This wasn’t an indictment of Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless, who had started every game of the season when healthy and anchored Portland’s most productive five-man unit. It was simply a necessary shakeup for a team that was struggling.

“The thinking was we needed to try something,” Stotts said.

Harkless and Aminu have been the Blazers best two-man pairing all season. The Blazers have outscored opponents by 7.4 points per 100 possessions with them on the court, easily the best mark of any Portland twosome that has played at least 200 minutes together. So Stotts kept that pairing together, shifting them to reserve roles where their athleticism and defensive versatility provides a welcome punch against opponents’ backups.

Perhaps more surprisingly the Blazers’ new starting group has been extremely effective since the change. The Damian Lillard-CJ McCollum-Mason Plumlee-Vonleh-Turner lineup has outscored opponents by 20.8 points per 100 possessions over the last four games. That group has an offensive rating of 106.7 and an eye-popping 85.9 defensive rating.

Over the past four games, only one regularly used lineup in the league is allowing fewer points per 100 possessions. And amazingly that also belongs to the Blazers. Sub in Aminu for Vonleh’s spot in the starting group and the Blazers have limited opponents to 81.5 points per 100 possessions in 26 minutes over the last four games. That five-man group has closed games over the past week and has helped Portland pull out close wins over Los Angeles, Boston and Memphis.

There’s an obvious small sample size caveat here, but clearly the Blazers have found something that works, meaning this isn’t a temporary experiment.

Stotts says the lineup shakeup was more about mixing up rotations than adjusting the starting group, but it’s hard to implement those new rotations without a full complement of healthy players.

Harkless has missed the past two games with a left calf injury and Ed Davis has missed the last three with a left wrist sprain, making a full evaluation of the lineup tweaks a little more difficult.

When Davis is cleared to return he’ll still be a situational play depending on whether Stotts feels Davis or Meyers Leonard is a better matchup against second unit bigs.

But Harkless is a huge part of the thinking behind the lineup change. Pat Connaughton has been passable in two games filling in for Harkless off the bench, but the Blazers need more game changers and Harkless is capable of being one of those even in a reserve role.

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No. 4: Carmelo’s legacy more positive than Phil’s in New York — With all the finger pointing that’s gone on in New York this season, it would be say to identify the root of all problems as Carmelo Anthony. The Knicks’ star is often the easiest target for the ire of fans and ridicule of observers from afar. But not everyone in the Big Apple shares that opinion. Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News believes Carmelo’s legacy in New York is much more positive than Phil Jackson’s:

Carmelo Anthony has to go now, that’s become clear, that’s a roar as loud as the new Second Ave. subway, nothing has changed in the past week. And because he seems to be on his way out of town, there is this sucker notion that Anthony is to blame for everything wrong with the current Knicks and not a roster and a coaching staff assembled by Phil Jackson. Right. Go with that.

If Anthony does go, if he can find a landing place with a real team like the Clippers, then he will better off. And Jackson must believe that somehow starting over — again — with the Knicks somehow saves him, keeps him around for the last two years of his contract and $24 million more of James Dolan’s money.

But it is worth remembering, as the chorus does rise up, and Carmelo Anthony does get blamed for everything except deals even Isiah Thomas made, that four years ago Anthony was first in the league in scoring and third in the MVP voting, on a Knicks team that won 54 games and beat LeBron and the Heat three times in the regular season and won the Atlantic Division. They also won the Knicks’ first playoff series since 2000.

And here is what that means: Anthony was the star of the one truly good thing that has happened to the Knicks since Jeff Van Gundy walked away from coaching the team in December of 2001. It means that Anthony, if he gets traded today, has done more for the Knicks as a player than Jackson will ever do for them as an executive.

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: James Harden is humbled by the wicked numbers he’s putting up this season … Jared Sullinger asked the Raptors to allow him to take a one-game detour to the D-League to work on his game … The roller coaster ride that is this season continues for the Indiana Pacers … Kyle Anderson is making the most of his opportunity right now for the Spurs … Not everyone is convinced this current joyride in Philadelphia sustainable … The Pistons have to lock down now in order to save their season … The Mavericks yearn for the winning culture of their Texas neighbors …

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