Morning Shootaround

Jan. 30 Shootaround -- Cavs getting back on track a bit Staff

Storm clouds clearing in Cleveland? | Grizzlies find their rhythm in January | Unlikely backcourt buddies fueling Heat’s rise | Pistons’ Johnson gets game on track

No. 1: Troubles fading in Cleveland? — As quickly as things escalated in Cleveland between LeBron James and the front office/ownership, they appear to be de-escalating just as quickly. It certainly helps when you stop losing and get back on the winning track, which is exactly what the Cavaliers did over the weekend. Joe Vardon of the Plain Dealer writes about the healing process that has begun in Cleveland:

Are the storm clouds clearing for the Cavs?

They’re winning again, beating a sound Oklahoma City Thunder team 107-91 Sunday at The Q for their second straight victory after having lost three in a row and six of eight.

But Kevin Love hurt his back, again. And couldn’t return for the second half, again.

So, maybe check back later for a weather update.

Kyrie Irving was sensational with 29 points and 10 assists, arguably getting the better of his West All-Star counterpart Russell Westbrook.

Westbrook, who’s trying to become the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62 to average a triple-double for an entire season, finished with 20 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists. Yes, he recorded his league-leading 24th triple-double this season and first ever against the Cavs, but he shot 7-of-26 from the field with four turnovers.

Irving, who danced his way to nifty layups in a nine-point third quarter that had LeBron James dancing on the sidelines, was 12-of-22 with two giveaways.

James, yes, we almost forgot about him. He was the one who brought all the rain last week, what with his open feud with the front office over roster management and questioning the organization’s commitment to winning.

More wins like this will help those clouds dissipate, too.

James only chipped in 25 points with 14 rebounds and eight assists, on 9-of-18 shooting. He wasn’t that far off from his sixth triple-double this season.

James went over 20,000 points scored as a Cavalier and is the first player in franchise history to do so. He’s also the fourth active player with 20,000 points for a single team, according to ESPN’s stats shop.

Tristan Thompson scored a season-high 19 points to go with 12 boards for the Cavs. Iman Shumpert added 16 points and five 3-pointers.

This was the Thunder’s first game without Enes Kanter, who broke his forearm Thursday slamming it on a chair in a win over Dallas. Victor Oladipo scored 17 points.

The Cavs were much better in transition defense, limiting Oklahoma City to just 11 fast-break points and six 3-pointers. Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said they needed to pay extra attention to that particular facet, not only limiting layups but also 3-pointers off of the break.

Back to Love. This time the Cavs called Love’s lower back issue “spasms;” when it happened Jan. 16 against the Warriors it was “soreness.” Love finished with one point and eight rebounds in 12 minutes. James Jones started the second half in his place.

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No. 2: January has been good to Grizzlies — A tough finish to 2016 that saw Zach Randolph deal with the pain of losing his mother just months after he wasrelegated to a sixth-man role after years as a starter in Memphis, has given way to a fresh start to this new year. The month of January in particular has been good to both Randolph and the Grizzlies, who visit the Phoenix Sus tonight (10:30 ET, TNT), as Ron Tillery of The Commercial Appeal explains:

Vintage Zach Randolph.

That is whom the Grizzlies have enjoyed watching this month.

The veteran power forward’s presence on the low block, bullying his way to the rim to get forceful baskets and clutch rebounds, has given the Grizzlies’ a familiar look as they try to make a move in the Western Conference standings.

The only difference is Randolph delivers his ground-and-pound game off the bench given the Grizzlies’ shift toward a space-and-pace style of play. Still, Randolph’s season-high 28 points and nine rebounds during a road win Saturday against Utah Jazz came as no surprise.

Indeed, Randolph embracing his reserve role hasn’t affected his game and January proves the point. His minutes increased to 27.9 minutes per game this month. Randolph is averaging 15.9 points and 9.8 rebounds.

Grizzlies coach David Fizdale lauded Randolph’s improved conditioning and a strong commitment to improve his pick-and-roll defense and chase stretch fours off the three-point line.

“He’s worked his way to that,” Fizdale said. “I needed to get him on the court more.”

Not only has Fizdale paired Randolph with center Marc Gasol for longer stretches in games, Randolph is increasingly on the floor in the final minutes of fourth quarters.

Randolph, still an effective clutch performer, always believed playing down the stretch was most important.

“I’m just in a rhythm,” Randolph said. “I had to get my legs under me and get a feel. Coach is playing me more minutes and longer stretches. I’m getting a chance to get my rhythm.”

In fairness, Randolph was thrown off in December following the unexpected passing of his mother on Thanksgiving Day. He returned after missing seven games and appeared dispirited on the court as he continued to grieve.

He’s returned to form basketball-wise as three of his five games of scoring 20-plus points this season have come this month. When Randolph finds an offensive rhythm, he’s difficult to guard because defenders are kept guessing.

Utah’s shot-blocking center Rudy Gobert found that out. Randolph took Gobert off the dribble and scored at the rim. That was made possible partly because Gobert stood on his heels while Randolph also sank mid-range shots.

Randolph scored 12 of the Grizzlies’ 22 points in the fourth quarter.

Memphis outscored the Jazz 48-32 in the paint.

And while Fizdale doesn’t believe Randolph is a starter anymore, he never downplays Randolph’s heart and competitive spirit.

“He really wanted that game in Portland (last Friday night),” Fizdale said. “I saw it on his face after the game and the things he said after the game. He was really upset. I expected him to come out and play really well.”

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No. 3: Unlikely backcourt buddies fueling Heat’s rise — Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters don’t get mentioned when the conversation turns to the best backcourts in the NBA. But with the way they are playing these days, in the midst of the Heat’s seven-game win streak, they are all anyone in Miami wants to talk about. Manny Navarro of the Miami Herald explores the stars of the Heat’s unlikely buddy flick smash:

Dion Waiters calls it “the cold shoulder.”

It’s the move Goran Dragic has been using for years to help create space around the basket and one Waiters has begun to adopt at the urging of his Heat backcourt mate over the last couple weeks.

“I think it’s lethal, man,” Waiters said of how Dragic digs his shoulder into the chest of opposing big men as he drives toward the rim. “I don’t think bigs be expecting that pop once they go down there.”

“Especially from a skinny white guy,” Dragic says as he overhears Waiters talking to reporters in the locker next to his.

“I think after they feel that, their chest feels a little sore and you keep going down there,” Waiters continued. “That’s what he do, man. Why not go to a guy who finishes with the best of them?”

They might not be every general manager’s dream backcourt combination, but what Waiters, a 25-year-old former fourth overall pick from Philly, and Dragic, a 30-year-old former second round pick from Slovenia, have accomplished together over the Heat’s last seven games cannot be ignored.

Together, they’ve averaged 45.4 points (fifth-most among all NBA starting backcourt duos), 10.5 assists (more than Toronto’s All-Star tandem of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry), shot 51.9 percent from the field (better than any other backcourt duo in the league) and 47.7 percent from three-point range (yes, even better than Golden State’s Klay Thompson and Steph Curry) during the stretch.

More importantly for the Heat (18-30), they’ve shared the ball and taken turns beating up on the opposing team. In Saturday night’s win over Detroit, Waiters, averaging 22.1 points per game and shooting 48.7 percent from three-point range over this strech, scored 13 first quarter points to pace the Heat. Dragic, averaging 23.3 points and shooting 54.2 percent from the field over the winning streak, then took over in the second half, scoring 17 of his game-high 23 points over the final two quarters to lead Miami to the finish.

In just 20 starts together (the Heat is 11-9 in those games), Dragic and Waiters already have developed the kind of chemistry it took Dragic and Dwyane Wade a lot longer to find last season.

“First off, me and Dion, our lockers are right next to each other,” Dragic said of why he and D-Wait have seemed to hit it off better than he and D-Wade did. “We’re in the same neighborhood. We talk all the time. [Secondly] Dion has a different game than D-Wade. He has a similar game [to me]. He likes to get into the paint. He likes to attack. When you have one guy on the left side and another guy on the right side, if they take first option away, you have the second option. His game makes it easier for me. It’s just a better fit.”

Waiters, who missed 20 games earlier this season with a groin tear, was never really a great fit in Cleveland or Oklahoma City because he’s a player who needs to have the ball in his hands to probe and to create opportunities for himself and others off dribble penetration. In Cleveland, Kyrie Irving served that purpose. In OKC it was Russell Westbrook.

With Dragic, a former Third Team All-NBA guard in Phoenix, he’s found almost the perfect counterpart to share the load with because both “are capable of playing off the ball,” coach Erik Spoelstra said.

“They can space for each other, run offense and both guys can feel like they’re themselves,” he continued.

Said Waiters: “We’re similar guys. We like to attack, get in the paint and put pressure on the defense. When guys collapse, we know we got the sprays and we got open guys. And if they don’t [collapse], we know we can get to the basket and then we give them the cold shoulder. It’s tough. You just got to pick your poison. If G got it going, I get the hell out of his way.”

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No. 4: Pistons’ Johnson shapes up — Stanley Johnson’s rocky second season with the Detroit Pistons can be traced back to one thing, his diet. And the improvement he’s made in that department has led directly to an improvement on the court and in his standing with Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy. So if you see a leaner and a bit meaner Johnson on the floor tonight in Boston (8 ET, TNT), it’s by design. Rod Beard of the Detroit News provides the details:

Following the Pistons’ practice on Sunday afternoon, Stanley Johnson stood in the hallway of a local sports club with his shirt off while talking to media members.

He didn’t seem to be intentionally showing off his frame, but very well could have been, with his T-shirt on top of his head. But even if he were, he might have earned the right to.

Johnson has shed about 15 pounds and might be in the best playing shape of his career — and that new physique is leading to him playing some of the best basketball in years.

“I weighed in at 232 today — and that’s light,” Johnson admitted. “I’m on a different diet right now.”

It’s been an ongoing regimen for Johnson, who frequently has been doing extra work after games to try to improve his endurance and keep the pounds off. The difference is showing in his quickness on the court, both on the defensive end and on offense, where he’s been more like the two-way guard the Pistons thought they were getting with the No. 8 overall pick in the 2015 draft.

In the last seven games, he’s shooting 8-of-12 from 3-point range and 67 percent from the field (22-of-33 overall), posting 7.4 points. The bigger contribution is on the defensive end, where he’s steadily improving — and just growing from his work in the practice gym with assistant coach Bob Beyer.

“He’s starting to play better — there’s no question; I like what he is doing,” coach Stan Van Gundy said. “The two things to me are he’s gotten in shape — which he wasn’t to start the year — and he’s gotten much more coachable.

“He’s listening more to Bob and the other coaches and learning and trying to do things. That’s been the reason he’s been a lot better.”

Johnson, 20, has been through an up-and-down second year after opening some eyes with an impressive rookie season. He hasn’t had as many minutes and part of the issue is his weight, which has fluctuated.

That extra bulk made him slower and he plodded along on defense in trying to guard quicker defenders. But in the past couple of months, he’s lost the weight and has been committed to keeping it off.

Johnson plays many of the minutes at backup shooting guard, behind Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and there’s plenty he can emulate, both on and off the court.

But there are limits.

With his bigger, bulkier frame, Johnson has to watch what he eats and continue to exercise to keep his weight manageable, so he maintain his own quickness and speed.

“You just have to understand that and take care of it. He’s been much more professional about that and right now, we’re starting to see the type of basketball player he can become,” Van Gundy said. “The last few games, he’s played better than he did a year ago. He’s playing more solid basketball, but still a long way to go and he’s got to sustain it, but it’s a lot better.”

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: All-Star power forward Paul Millsap, the “marathon man,” would not let the Hawks lose (so what if it took four overtimes to finally defeat the Knicks?) … Speaking of the Knicks, does Boston make realistic sense as a trade destination for Carmelo Anthony? Could be … The hottest team in basketball resides in Washington, thanks to John Wall, Bradley Beal and the rejuvenated Wizards … ICYMI above, Kevin Love is having back troubles and did not travel with his team to Dallas … Al Jefferson is enjoying his role as a mentor in Indiana …