TRADE WINDS: Knicks, Nets Fire Shots in Battle for N.Y.

February 23, 2011 by  
Filed under Features, NBA, Rumours

The Trade:
DENVER sends Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Anthony Carter, Sheldon Williams and Renaldo Balkman to New York. They also land and send Minnesota Timberwolves guard Corey Brewer to New York. NEW YORK sends Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Timofey Mozgov, Raymond Felton and cash to Denver along with two second-round draft picks as well as a 2014 first-rounder. They also send Anthony Randolph, Eddy Curry and cash to Minnesota. MINNESOTA sends Brewer (who is moved on to New York) and Kosta Koufos to Denver for a future second-rounder.

The long-awaited pairing of Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony in New York came at a hefty price for the Knicks but they will be fine. They are better even without Felton, Chandler, Gallinari and Mozgov who now end up in Denver as part of the big question mark hanging only a little less brightly over that franchise. The Knicks will have cash to make another superstar free agent run in 2012 if required (when Billups is off the books), likely for New Orleans Hornets free agent to-be Chris Paul. Hanging on to rookie Landry Fields was nice and Brewer is a serviceable reserve that can do well in head coach Mike D’Antoni’s system. The Knicks are the winners here because they got the best player in the deal with Anthony.

So the Melodrama is over but has claimed its share of victims. How could it not? Felton was hurt if not surprised by the trade. His own resurgence coincided with the Knicks’ and with Ty Lawson billed as the future in Denver Felton has once again been left to fight for his respect. Knicks owner James Dolan was so bent on completing this pact he reportedly consulted heavily with friend, ex-Knicks GM and current NCAA coach Isiah Thomas during negotiations. Thomas has refused to confirm this but given the surly nature behind team president Donnie Walsh’s response when he was asked about Thomas’ influence.
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“I could care less,” Walsh told the press during his presser on Tuesday. He added that he had not considered his own future though there is a team option that must be activated by April 30 if the team wishes to retain his services, a self-described consulting gig. Denver should recover from the circus it became during the Melodrama but that has always been the vibe in media mafia New York and though it has been churning at an eclipsing pace during the drawn out negotiations that is nothing compared to what’s to come. Seven months of premature hype has elevated this pairing to Miami Heat-like proportions, which it is not.

If Thomas has indeed been allowed a voice in this process then it will serve as minor justification for Dolan bringing him back, probably around the time the Knicks get very good. Make no mistake, Thomas is only brought back in some capacity – as he almost was last summer when the Knicks began their superstar searches – if the deal is working out extremely well. Then he will be reintroduced as one of the architects of the modern Knicks’ success, which even in the present has got to irk Walsh, who once hired and fired Thomas as head coach of his Indiana Pacers, a team he ran for over 20 years.

Alas, the nature of the beast in N.Y. is to build and destroy and the media and fans will ride the fence that divides them until the championship or bust identity once again prevails with the club. Acquiring Anthony and Stoudemire in the same year has made that a certainty, just as it has Walsh’s impending exit.

The Trades:
1. NEW JERSEY sends Derrick Favors, Devin Harris to Utah along with two first-round draft picks and cash. UTAH sends Deron Williams to New Jersey Nets.

2. NEW JERSEY sends Troy Murphy to the Golden State Warriors. WARRIORS send Dan Gadzuric and Brandon Wright to Nets.

After a year of gearing up, pitching, bowing out and teasing then ultimately abandoning his pursuit for the tunnel-visioned Carmelo Anthony New Jersey Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov shocked and awed the basketball world by working out a deal that landed him arguably the best point guard in the NBA. Deron Williams, who was virtually a lock to leave the Utah Jazz after this season, has been traded to the Nets just a week after taking the brunt of the blame for the exit of legendary head coach Jerry Sloan. Having lost his running mate Carlos Boozer to the Chicago Bulls last summer Williams would have been hard to sell on the future of the Jazz who will undergo their first change of culture since the late 1980’s.

Sloan loomed that high over basketball in Utah. Williams was supposed to take his place. The organization essentially chose Williams over Sloan even after giving the coach an extension a week before he walked out and more than a year before they could offer Williams an extension. The Nets will take on that headache now, a headache the Jazz did not want after seeing how the Carmelo Anthony situation unfolded, which still paled in comparison to the LeBron James/Chris Bosh drama of last summer. Many fans who believed that Williams was mostly responsible for Sloan’s retirement have tuned on him and there was never going to be a smooth transition between eras. It appears as though the conservative Jazz shied away from that task too.

By landing Williams on the day Anthony was to hold a press conference in New York celebrating his arrival Prokhorov, who last summer rented a massive Manhattan advertising spot across from Madison Square Gardens that featured his face along with New York rapper and minority owner Jay-Z, continues to declare war on the Knicks. From the day he took over the Nets franchise last May Prokhorov has worn no disguise in challenging the Knicks’ supremacy over basketball in the region. The Nets are scheduled to move to Brooklyn inside of two years and his lead up battle will turn into a quick rivalry once his on-court product improves. The addition of Williams has jump-started that effort.

It also means that Prokhorov has delivered on his promise of securing a superstar talent to build around. With his both his interest and hopes waned in the Anthony situation, credit Prokhorov and GM Billy King – whose friendship with Jazz GM Kevin O’Connor was critical to the deal – for moving on quickly and securing a player just as good as the one that got away. Nets fans both present and future should rejoice in the fact that they appear to have the richest single owner in the NBA willing to spend and deliver on promises. They can only hope he promises and delivers to ink Williams to an extension after next season. His other promise, the one that has the Nets winning an NBA title in the next four years, depends on it.

Forget that the entire Eastern Conference got a competitive boost this February with trades the brought Carmelo Anthony and Deron Williams to New York State. More specifically the Atlantic Division has powered up. With Anthony finally traded from the Denver Nuggets – signed and sealed to pair with last summer’s biggest Western Conference defect Amar’e Stoudemire – and the Williams’ trade from the Utah Jazz to couple with Brook Lopez and owner Mikhail Prokhorov’s deep pockets in New Jersey now official, the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers (whose window reopened slightly with a surprise 27-29 record) are forced to play more urgent basketball. The only team in the division truly treading water today is the Toronto Raptors who are banking huge on reluctant team leader Andrea Bargnani and improved sophomore DeMar DeRozan to right the ship. The Raptors are one of only four teams in the east without a maximum contract guy on board or a bonafide future ace in the hole (you’re not counting max-ish guys Rip Hamilton and Antawn Jamison still are you?). The others? The Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons and Charlotte Bobcats. Only the Bobcats are playing out of the bottom five in the east and they escaped only after firing head coach Larry Brown as their major move.

The Raptors seem like the biggest losers today or it might just be the city of Toronto itself. The NHL’s Maple Leafs suck and the Blue Jays of Major League baseball have been stuck in a no-win situation for years trying to keep up with the free-spending New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox in the AL’s East Division. Without an NFL football team to ride that league’s “any given Sunday” mantra the Raptors were the real competitive hope. Teams will flock to Jersey and Boston as long as young All-Star point guards Williams and Rajon Rondo reside and the Big Apple is enough of an attraction itself, never mind the presence of an all-star combo. Philadelphia’s winning history plays a part and their young supporting cast is ahead of the Raptors rebuild.

A lot of pressure will be on general manager/team president Bryan Colangelo to figure out a new winning formula in the T-dot. When speaking with the media Wednesday night he said the Raptors would continue to “grow organically” meaning in-house development and draft prowess must improve. He did swing a deal with the Chicago Bulls Wednesday for small forward James Johnson who will get an honest look with the squad. Still, with the team still reeling from the departure of Chris Bosh and a 16-year history of striking out big on the free agent market the philosophy will be a tall, tall order to fill and execute in time to be competitive in the near future. Word around Raptorland last week was that extension talk was hanging in the air for Colangelo, who called the topic “unresolved”. If the offer materializes and he signs it patience won’t be as readily available as it was last season when he allowed Bosh to slip through his fingers, teaching the Nuggets and Jazz a lesson they clearly learned quite well from.

HEAT: Overrated Bosh Returns as Underrated Star

February 16, 2011 by  
Filed under Miami Heat, NBA

If you are looking at statistics to determine power forward Chris Bosh’s value to the Miami Heat this season you’d be asking to be misled. If you are still stuck with the image of Bosh trying desperately to find his groove among his new elite level teammates Dwyane Wade and LeBron James early in the season you’d be advised to look again. If you think everything isn’t going according to plan in Miami – Bosh included – you’d be wrong.

Bosh has become what any all-star big man should be for his team; an anchor, though to the casual eye his 18.4 points and 8.1 rebounds per game (lowest in six years) may seem like a step back. His shooting percentages, assists and blocks have essentially remained the same. So have his minutes per game, which tells you that while his burn isn’t producing his career numbers – and shouldn’t be rolling with Wade and James – his worth on the court remains high.

Miami’s big three has the best plus/minus rating of any other trio in the league at +20 with Bosh holding a team-best +10.8. The plus/minus rating in basketball is a formula used to determine how a team performs while a player is on (and off) the floor and the team’s comfort zone coincided exactly with Bosh’s own ability to finally settle in.sbiancamento denti It also has to do with a higher calibre of teammate. Early in the season the six-time all-star admitted he was still finding his way, still looking to his numbers as a measure of contribution. It was when he stopped caring about statistics that the team finally started to gel. His transition from franchise player to supporting role wasn’t easy, but it was a challenge conquered fairly quickly considering the hype, expectation and pressure surrounding the controversial assembly.

After the Heat’s 9-8 record to start the campaign it was Bosh’s slow start out of the gate that took the brunt of the blame. He disappeared for important stretches in those early games and visibly struggled to manage his moments next to ball hogs Wade and James. He had his minutes cut in November as he angled to mark his territory. The rumour mill was spinning trade talk and scenarios about an experiment that was only a few weeks old. FOX Sports went so far as to call Bosh’s Toronto Raptors numbers inflated because NBA players were more interested in sleeping with white women in Toronto than schooling Bosh and his squad. The team struggled to rebound and throw around muscle and beef in the paint. Bosh was the easy blame there too, a laughable spin and the safe scapegoat with a non-combative personality that often stands in contrast to those of Wade and James. His list of accomplishments is short by comparison and his brand name lower on the totem pole. Everything that made him a superstar in Toronto was tempered and pared down in Miami. The mental fight in transition was the real obstacle for Bosh.

Eventually though, Bosh forgot about the numbers and focussed on impact, which the point of his plus/minus rating. So what if it took a LeBron James return to Cleveland and drubbing of the Cavaliers to jumpstart it?

Since that slow November rollercoaster the Heat are 31-7 and have become one of the top defensive teams in the NBA. Their +7.82 point differential leads all 30 clubs and holding opponents to a league low 42.6% shooting has been impressive. Offensively they are ranked second in the NBA in field goal shooting with a 47.4% mark and tenth in points per game with 101.9. That particular difference displays an efficiency and confidence in execution.

To watch Bosh play now is to watch an unselfish player and a low-post facilitator. With a three-man committee approach to the centre position and in the absence of the injured forward Udonis Haslem Bosh is the go-to on most nights for everything frontcourt. The off-court business of being a member of the new Miami Heat are no longer a distraction for Bosh but the haters and doubters lurk. The entire city of Toronto awaits him at the Air Canada when he returns on February 16 as a member of the unholy trinity, ready to jeer their departed son. More recently NBA legend Scottie Pippen had words for Bosh calling him half the player his star teammates are and voicing doubts that Bosh could ever help elevate the Heat to the heights of his former Michael Jordan-led Hall of Fame Chicago Bulls teams.

Next week Bosh will play in his sixth All-Star game, an accomplishment everybody threw into doubt when he joined a star-studded cast. His rants about northern obscurity didn’t help his image, nor did the reality that he had mentally checked out at times during his final season with the Raptors. Still, for all his public-relations missteps and reputation as a soft player (Shaquille O’Neal once called him the ”RuPaul” of big men, Kevin Durant called him a fake tough guy) Bosh finds himself exactly where he wants to be; an all-star piece on what is arguably the NBA’s best team on a collision course with some kind of twisted NBA history. The first leg of that journey will end with his return to Toronto. Closure.

Then it’s back to being wide open.

Bosh has never shied way from the off-court criticism but hasn’t exactly answered it either. He can fence sit with the best of them and calling him a jerk for the way he tweeted his smart-ass commentary on his Toronto departure would be quite excusable. Not that any of it matters now with the Heat dominating most of the NBA landscape (Boston not included) and much of the team’s lore will be built on the backs of James and Wade. Alas, the truth is that Bosh left Toronto considered an overrated player by some and returns underrated by many. Squeezing a championship or two or five out of what has been built on South Beach is expected but what wasn’t is Bosh’s suddenly critical presence. Quietly he has started to answer the critics and if you think he hasn’t, you’d be wrong about that too.

Johnson Steals the Love

Playing his first game since his initial snub from the All-Star weekend Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love had money on his mind. Fitting then that his first shot against the reeling Toronto Raptors Friday night was a three-pointer that set the tone for what many expected to be his showcase night. Even without an All-Star snub most nights have been a bit of a freak show for Love, whose rebounding prowess has started to grown in legend and his ability to pass and score becoming just as valuable to the future in Minny. In the end it was a 111-100 loss earned on the back of Love’s counterpart on this night, Amir Johnson. The combination Love’s 20 points and 15 rebounds along with Darko Milicic’s 15 and seven wasn’t enough to extend Toronto’s 13-game losing streak,
iphone 5s refurbished a spell they busted out of thanks to Johnson’s help in containing Love.

In this battle of basement dwellers the Raptors were looking to end the slide while the Wolves were looking to pop one of the few teams they have a shot at dumping, just as they did the week previous in a 103-87 win in Minnesota over the Raptors. With an interior that has been picked apart during their losing streak the Raps were staring down one of the most feared rebounders in the game and were in tough to minimize the impact of the emotional Love.

Love didn’t burst out in a “look at me” game. Not his way. Instead he did what he always does and has done for most of this season in staying level. Even when ESPN cameras followed assistant coach Bill Laimbeer into the visitors locker room about 20 minutes before tip-off to inform Love that he would be replacing the injured Yao Ming in February’s All-Star festiviites in Los Angeles Love was cool.

Early on it looked as though Love was still in rejection mode. With three minutes left in the first quarter Love had five of a possible 13 rebound opportunities for his team and combined with Milicic to shoot 6 of 7 in the opening frame for a 16 point tag-team effort . With the Raptors bigs showing some streak-busting initiative and point guard Jose Calderon displaying solid ball distribution the homers held a 33-31 lead after the first 12 minutes led by an impressive 10 points on 5 for 5 shooting from emerging shooting guard DeMar DeRozan. Calderon chipped in with six first quarter assists to lead Toronto’s impressive 14 dimes on 15 made shots. On the other hand Love’s six rebounds matched the entire Raptors total in the stanza.

The second quarter started off with an extension of the T-Wolves’ first quarter ending run and a mid-quarter three-pointer put them in the lead. Alas, this affair was built to be a shoot ‘em up battle and as the quarter progressed the score remained tight as the Wolves dropped a chain of three-pointers on the Raptors while the home side attacked inside.

Then came an extended stretch of minutes where Love went carom-less while the red hot shooting from a suddenly peppy Sonny Weems and Andrea Bargnani paint game added to the Raptors’ assault. Despite being held off the boards Love still boosted his point total to 14 in the half. The two teams combined to put up 89 first half shots and Toronto entered the half time break with a 59-55 halftime lead.

Love’s second half started out slower than the first but his three-point shooting mark was the light in his rod.. His three of four shooting from the arc through six minutes of the third Q and a tidy 17 points and 10 rebounds by quarter’s end were key in keeping his squad in the mix. With all the hype Love has garnered this season the fourth quarter, when big plays and small mistakes make the difference, has been a struggle. How would Love’s unique brand of ball overcome the offensive show?

With the Raptors bigs finally finding some success after playing the beating stick for most of their season-sabotaging stretch the stage was set for a win. Through three frames Bargnani led all scorers with 24 points – finishing with 30 on the night – while front court mate Amir Johnson had clocked 19 points and 12 rebounds in 36 minutes in the contest while working admirably against Love.

In fact, Johnson stole the show and put another sock in the mouths of many who continue to question the lavish contract awarded to him last summer.

As Love’s low impact night continued Johnson’s hustle-man work complimented big shots from Bargnani and and a devilish 19-assist night for Calderon as ball movement and big plays from the front court feuled the Raptors’ drive. Efficiency was the word of the day and the bottom line in the eventual victory.

SONOFAGUN: Allen Making Mark with Grizzlies

January 26, 2011 by  
Filed under Columns, NBA, Son of a Gun

“DeMar who?” was the response Memphis Grizzlies guard Tony Allen gave at his visitor’s locker when asked about the defensive effort versus DeMar DeRozan’s low-impact 25 points in the Grizzlies 100-98 win over the Toronto Raptors on Monday.

“He got off, he did his thing,” Allen continued. “DeRozan did his thing for however many minutes I wasn’t in the game. Whenever Tony Allen wasn’t in that’s when DeRozan got off. I mean, all we wanted to do was make his shots tough anyway.”

The talk is part of the package with Allen. His antics – like tongue wagging the Raptors during an early game breakaway lay up or barking at Jerryd Bayless from the bench – are notorious. So is his ability to be a force off the bench, a two-way threat capable of locking guys down while adding spurt scoring. His contributions have helped create an odd but effective backcourt rotation that includes starter Mike Conley along with big minute sixth man O.J. Mayo and Allen backing their play. With young blood like Xavier Henry and Greivis Vasquez also battling for burn things can be cutthroat in Memphis and have only added to the belief that turmoil exists among some on the Grizzlies roster.

One of the early season sources of trouble was Mayo’s demotion to the bench, a move he did not take well by his own admission. With Conley signing a surprising five-year $45 contract over the summer and rumours of his being on the trading block sitting heavily in the air, the bench assignment caused Mayo to question his role with the team.

“I’m cool now,” said Mayo. “At first I was kind of upset and felt unappreciated and stuff. Now I think it was just better for our team. It definately gives us a chance to be more of a full team. It makes us more competitive out in the west.”

Allen doesn’t just use his mouth to taunt the opposition. His voice was in Mayo’s ear during the transition from potential franchise player to high-powered reserve.

“I always tell O.J. “the Juice” that (he’s) a scorer,” said Allen. “Come in the game and be a scorer. However the game goes, I’m pretty much going to come in as a defensive player anyway. I just told him don’t leave nothing in the chamber and make plays. All scorers can make plays because they be too worried about his shot going in. I just told him to make plays, he embraced that role and that just shows the professionalism in him.”

Mayo (12.5 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 1.9 APG) is still settling into his reserve role but the signs are encouraging, as is his more attention to detail on both ends of the floor. The Grizzlies have ranked in the top half of the league in defence for most of the season and are first in steals per game. They also force the most turnovers per game in the NBA.

“O.J.’s done a great job sacrificing for the team and coming off the bench,” said Conley. “He’s played well especially the last couple of weeks and (he’s) starting to know the role a little bit better. It makes us that much more dynamic having him come off the bench.”

With the Grizzlies wins/losses hovering around .500 and just a few games out of the eighth playoff seed halfway through the season, any potential break-up seems to have been put off in favour of the make-up. With a 20 and 10 guy roaming the front court in Zach Randolph and a proven clutch scorer in flourishing forward Rudy Gay the franchise arguably has never had so many pieces in place at one time. Conley (13.1 PPG, 6.7 RPG) has proven his worth all season as the unsuspecting quarterback despite harsh widespread criticism directed at the Grizzlies brass for awarding him such a lucrative off-season pact. A smile grows across his face when asked about the worth of Allen to the development of the new-fangled backcourt.

“Our defensive intensity has really picked up,” said Conley. “Especially with Tony Allen coming into the game. He really helps change momentum because he’s getting steals, he’s getting into people, he’s talking and being loud and I think everybody kind of builds off of that. He’s done a great job and I really want to credit him with the way our defence is playing right now.”

Mayo agrees and like Conley, shows his teeth when talking about the veteran.

“He’s energy,” said Mayo when describing Allen. “Anytime you call his name he’s ready to play. Even when he’s not playing he’s like he’s in a game. He’s always standing up, can’t sit still and just ready to play. Just a a good player that you want to go to war with.”

“He’s the guy that gets everybody going,” Conley added. “When I’m tired and I feel like I can’t guard somebody because my legs hurt he’s like “C’mon, Mike!” I’m picked up and ready to go and I’m all in. That’s the kind of guy he is and he’s really helped us all the way around.

“He talks all day, man. You don’t get a rest.”

The personality that comes with the prowess is the battery for Allen’s efforts. Like most focussed defenders he understands the value of a good mind bend. A head ring. A mind game or two. How about just plain dismissive like he was with DeRozan and as Allen often is when asked about the enemy? His six seasons in Boston are a clear part of his make up and he inquires often about his old mates and checks on their progress. He cites lessons learned in Beantown when assessing his first season with the Grizzlies, despite his suggestion that he was somehow “overshadowed” by Boston’s big three.

Allen (6 PPG, 1.54 SPG, 14.7 MPG) also speaks glowingly of Mayo despite accusations that the two were involved in a mid-flight fight during their way back from Los Angeles earlier this month. Admittedly, it is hard to tell if egos have been soothed since or if the kind words strung back and forth from each other are simply “good soldier” quotes. Word on the street remains that while the Grizzlies will be given a chance to win as-is there isn’t a lot of faith in the current backcourt set up long-term. It is a belief that stands in contrast to what the Conley/Mayo/Allen combo has started to show on the court but and understandable one given the team’s historical perch on the fringe of the postseason picture. It isn’t written anywhere that everybody has to like each other to win and with Allen, there are times you may not have the luxury of having it any other way. Allen attracts the heat – even welcomes it – and then fights fire with fire for better or worse.

“That’s been me,” said Allen of his reputation as a trash-talking, grind-it-out specialist. “Shout out to Doc Rivers who instilled that in me. I just come in and approach every game with a defensive mindset.”

SONOFAGUN: Biedrins Finds New Hope in Golden State

December 13, 2010 by  
Filed under Columns, NBA, Son of a Gun

I first met Andris Biedrins six years ago as a teenager fresh off his 11th overall selection by the Golden State Warriors at the 2004 NBA draft. We were at Club Deep in New York City and the youngster was hanging out with one of his little Latvian buddies, scurrying around the hip hop venue like the discoverer of a new world. I remember thinking, as I watched him double-dutch his way into the culture, that the kid might not be long for the NBA.

That Biedrins had skills was evident but they were extremely raw and back then the transition from European and North American wasn’t as well-travelled, especially for a teenager. The Warriors themselves were a running NBA joke and I figured the seven-footer would bounce from that franchise after a season or two and Darko Milicic his way through the rest of his rookie contract, possibly journeyman his way through a short NBA career, then head back to Europe for bigger pay for play and a respectable Latvian legacy. Seven years later Biedrins is still in the NBA and still with the Warriors, standing as the only constant in the stop and go progress of a franchise that has slowly started to shed the image of being an unsalvagable loser.

“It’s been a long, long time and a lot of good times and a lot of bad times,” Biedrins recently told SWAY Sports. “I‘m just happy I’m still here. I love this team and the team loves me.”

Biedrins is referring to the young core that suddenly surrounds him in Oakland. With Monta Ellis and Stephon Curry making up one of the deadliest backcourts in the NBA and newly acquired power forward David Lee adding all-star potential to the front court the Warriors are on the come up. A 6-2 start to this season surprised many considering the amount of change the franchise has undergone since last season. The purchase of the team for an estimated $450M by new owners Joe Lacob and Mandalay Entertainment CEO Peter Guber promises a better building plan than that of the wildly unpredictable and drama-filled roller-coaster of the Chris Cohan regime and the sale also signalled the end of the Don Nelson era.

Nelson’s second go-round with the team (after being previously fired by Cohan in the mid 1990’s, whom he also sued) was pock-marked with inconsistencies, peaking with the team’s historical first round upset of the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks in 2007. That series victory was supposed to be the start of a successful run for the Warriors but the next year the team narrowly missed the playoffs and slid back into the dark and off the map. Nelson clashed with his charges at an alarming rate, eventually jettisoning most of the players that had toppled Dallas. Biedrins survived and continued to improve his game amid the chaos.

“I had to hang in there and like you said, good things happen,” said Biedrins. “After something bad, good things will come. I think this is it and so we are ready for this.”

Over the first five years of his career Biedrins’ numbers improved steadily in both points and rebounds, topping in 2008-09 with 11.9 points and 11.2 rebounds per game. He is also a career 60% shooter from the field, an impressive number thrown into doubt by many who consider it a safe statistic from a player who has been unable to develop an offence away from the paint.

Then last season he appeared in just 33 games due to a lower back injury and his contributions nose-dived. So did his confidence and assertion. His absence wasn’t the only reason the Warriors went 26-56 on the season but the dependability Biedrins has typically brought to the table is notable. He talked openly to the Latvian media about the possibility of moving on from the Warriors – frustrated by the team’s lack of chemistry and his insistence that they didn’t look out for his best interests after his back went out. He was also convinced that Nelson did not respect his game. With Nelson now gone and a new energy surrounding the team, Biedrins prefers to focus on the positives.

“I had a long summer as you know,” said Biedrins, whose rebounding and points per game have returned to more becoming numbers. “I was doing my rehab and preparing for the season and it went really well. We have new team, new coaches new owner… a lot of things changed but everything is looking really well. All the guys are happy to be here and play together and I think that’s a big part of why we had (that) big start so we just need to keep it up.”

They haven’t. At the time of this writing the Warriors were 8-15 on the season and in the midst of a conference worst six-game slide but unlike years past there isn’t the finger pointing and coach/player flare ups that derailed previous campaigns. New head coach Keith Smart points quickly to the reason why.

“They all came into town very early,” said Smart. “First time we had that many guys – 13 guys in town no later than the 12th when we got ready for September. Then you saw how they developed chemistry along the way.

“The good teams do that, they bond first before the coaches get a hold of them and that’s what we kind of established with our guys. As preseason moved on I kept the starting five together all the way through preseason. I wasn’t trying to look for a guy to plug into the rotation, I stayed with our starting lineup because I knew I needed to develop that chemistry fast, I had to get it going right away and then sort out who would be the guys coming off the bench. Surprising yes, but not uncommon when you look at all the good teams and what they try to do early on.”

One of those new players was Lee whose addition was unanimously approved by the Warriors’ returning core. For Biedrins it was a move long overdue.

“First couple of practices I realized that it’s real easy to play with him,” said Biedrins, the Warriors’ longest tenured player. “Now we’re playing together really well. it’s feeling like we’ve played many years together. It’s really easy to communicate, he’s always a willing helper like I am and it’s easy to help each other. He always has my back and I always have his back. It’s just great to have him here. I’ve been waiting for a guy like that for a long time.”

The Warriors guards love it too.

“When you have that frontline behind us we kind of rely on them to kind of protect the rim and everybody gang rebounds and we’re off to the races,” said second-year pro Curry. “That’s when we’re at our best. It is nice to have a tough lineup out there (that’s) tall and athletic. David controls the glass when he’s in there and so does Dre (Andris) when he’s healthy so it’s a good look.”

Lee is a veteran of losing teams having played with the previously sour New York Knicks. They traded him to the Warriors in the off season to pave the way for Amar’e Stoudemire as the new power forward, even though Lee played out of position at the centre spot during much of his Knicks tenure. With Biedrins entrenched in the middle he doesn’t have to do that for the Warriors and his arrival has helped further define roles for the roster. He hopes it will also help to define the future.

“We needed to get off to a good start for the confidence of this franchise because there has been a lot of losing here,” said Lee who was sideline for eight games in late November after a laceration in his left arm got infected and needed to be drained. The Warriors went just 1-7 while he was away and need him to regain their early season form, something that is still a work in progress. “From the start that’s what I tried to do, just try to bring a positive attitude and hopefully make us realize that we’ve got a lot of new faces and so the losing that’s happened in the past doesn’t have to happen again.”

With Lee barely into the first year of his new 6-year, $80M deal and Biedrins’ $62M contract not due to expire until the 2013-14 season there will be more time to fuse and at 27 and 24 years of age respectively, the prime years are clearly ahead of this duo. It’s early but so far Smart has liked what he has seen.

“One thing they have done with each other is both have gone to the glass to rebound so when one may have been a little light rebounding the other one has picked up slack,” noted Smart, co-signing on Curry’s observation. “Thats a luxury to have to guys that can still function offensively as well but also can help you defensively to get the glass.”

It’s been a long journey for Biedrins and he’s come a long way from that dark and crowded groupie-love disco that served as one of his first forays into North American life. He may not have become the out-of-nowhere all-star type the Warriors were hoping for when they picked him up all as a teenager but he is still young enough to make a run at a new era, old enough to appreciate the art of starting over and veteran enough to recognize the improved talent that now surrounds him. In any case, he’s far from the one and done NBAer I thought he might become when I sat in that New York city club all those years ago and couldn’t make heads or tails of the kid. He smiles with bemusement at the pessimistic recollections of a mistaken journalist.

“I still feel young but it’s my seventh season now and the time is running by so fast and young guys are coming in,” explains Biedrins. “It’s so weird that so many guys on the team are younger than me. It’s pretty cool. It’s good that I can give them so much advice like I had in my first three years like the veterans were to me so I’m willing to help. Just talk to them and help them out.”

Nuggets Using Karl’s 1000th to Bond

December 13, 2010 by  
Filed under Denver Nuggets, NBA, Team Reports

Anxious to take the spotlight off himself and put it back on his Denver Nuggets head coach George Karl was happy to finally grab his 1,000th career coaching victory last Friday with a 123-116 road win over the Toronto Raptors. The accomplishment put him into elite company with only six other coaches in the history of the game able to accomplish the feat. For Karl though, it’s more about what it can do for the team than for the man.

“A lot of times during an NBA season the coach and the players aren’t really connected, their fighting a lot,” said Karl. “This was a moment, not only on the court but in the locker room afterward. It was a great connection. It feels good and it’ll feel good for the next couple days and then we can get on to improving our NBA record and not worrying about George Karl.”

Karl talked on about the coach’s life and the sacrifices of others, not himself, that got him to this point. He acknowledged his North Carolina basketball roots too after missing a chance the get 1000 in Charlotte against the Bobcats and fellow NC alum Larry Brown (a member of the 1000 club himself) earlier in the week. Still, there was nothing less poetic, only a brief reflection.

“My intimate family is the one that takes the most hits for (me) being a coach,” said Karl. “Without their love and support and forgiveness I would have never gotten to this point.

Karl’s road into the history books has been rocky in recent years with the bench boss battling and beating cancer twice. This season he has also had to deal with the distraction of the Carmelo Anthony saga with the All-Star forward looking for a way out of Denver for a more star-studded cast and brighter lights of a bigger city. Anthony wasn’t in uniform for the Nuggets versus the Raptors but he was in the Air Canada Centre and was appreciative of Karl’s journey.

“I am a part of it,” said Anthony who was sidelined with right knee tendinitis. “I wasn’t out there on the court actually in the game but I’m still a part of it.

“He got his 900th here too, man. 100 wins later and we’re still here together, he’s still here and I’m happy for him.”

It wasn’t the prettiest win of Karl’s storied coaching career with both teams shunning defence in favour of a good old fashioned shooting spree. The Nuggets won out behind an explosive third quarter that opened up a 19-point lead, providing enough of a cushion to withstand a fourth quarter Raptors comeback that fell short. Perhaps just as important the historical win was that it ended the Nuggets two-game losing blip, a nip-it-in-the-bud win oh-so important in the cutthroat western conference picture.

“You can’t have a long losing streak in this league,” said reserve guard Ty Lawson. “Especially in the west (where) teams are like 9 or 8 games over .500. You gotta get a win where you can get it. If you don’t you’ll find yourself at the bottom or out of the playoffs.”

With a blast of injuries to the front court stalking the team as well (both Kenyon Martin and Chris Anderson have been out all season) Karl directed the team to bond together under the occasion just as they did after the final buzzer sounded on his landmark win.

They players recognize the opportunity as well in this dangerous time. Unlike the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors who lost LeBron James and Chris Bosh this past offseason, the Nuggets have carried the drama of a brooding superstar into the season. It hangs as a major distraction though they have weathered through on the basketball court to remain as one of the western conference’s best threats. Still, if Anthony is dealt midseason as expected the team could go from contender to pretender in a heartbeat. That any-given-moment reality is a tough pill and the Karl accomplishment can serve as one of many things to keep the group tight knit and focussed on the long season. After all, they did get Karl his 1000th with Anthony sidelined.

“It brings you together,” said veteran Chauncey Billups. “I’m hoping that we can continue to have that togetherness. We’ll always be connected, we’ll always have that bond no matter what happens. I’m really just hoping we can continue to build on that.”

Karl won his 900th in Toronto two seasons ago and recalled the story of drinking a post game celebration beer following that stepping stone. Back then, he said, it tasted like champagne. After years of cancer treatments he wasn’t sure how much he’d enjoy one following his most recent triumph.

“I haven’t had a beer in a long time,” Karl said. “I’m a beer guy but it hasn’t tasted very good with my taste buds.

“It hasn’t since I’ve had my radiation.”

Hopefully for Karl it still tasted like the good stuff.

‘Melo-less Nuggets Triumphant in T.O.

December 11, 2010 by  
Filed under Denver Nuggets, NBA, Team Reports

No Carmelo Anthony. No Jose Calderon. No defence? That was the scene early at the Air Canada Centre as both the Denver Nuggets and Toronto Raptors got off to a furious offensive battle in their showdown at the Air Canada Centre on Friday night. The 123-116 Nuggets win snapped their two-game slump and sent the Raptors back to the drawing board to try to make sense – and make right – another coming out of the half. With all the talk surrounding Nuggets head coach George Karl’s chance for 1,000th win before the game the Nuggets used the third quarter to create enough of a cushion to deliver the feat after a spirited Raptors run late in the game.

“Never worry until it’s under four,” joked Karl following the triumph. “Thats my code, that’s my creed.”

“The NBA gives away leads way too much and why it happens I have no idea. We’re infamous for it.”

The Nuggets hit their first six shot attempts of the game and the Raptors allowed the tandem of starting centre Nene and point guard Chauncy Billups to combine for 25 points in the quarter contributing big to the team’s 75% shooting. Despite scoring eight points off of six early Nuggets turnovers in the frame the home side still trailed the visitors 39-33 at the first break.

“We needed more of a directive personality,” continued Karl. “Chauncey and Nene got that option and I thought they did a great job in the first quarter, (but) other guys had good games. Al (Harrington) of course had a great game for us. Gary Forbes had a great third quarter for us that was really important. Without ‘Melo, if you told me we were going to score 123 I would have taken that so that’s kind of shocking that we scored that many points.”

The hot offence for both teams continued into the second stanza with the Nuggets hitting 4 of 8 shots to the Raptors 8 of 12 shooting in the first half of the quarter to make it 51-51 at the 7:31 mark. The Nuggets were buoyed by deadly three-point shooting, going 10 for 25 from beyond the arc on the night led by Al Harrington’s 6 of 11 mark from long-range, which included 3 of 5 from there in the second quarter. Meanwhile the Raptors were spurred by the play of former Nuggets player Linas Kleiza, who rocked the second frame with 17 points of his own by hitting 3 of 3 three-point shots in the Q. Karl warned during his pre-game chat that Kleiza and fellow former Nugget Sonny Weems might look to make a statement against their former club and he was right. With Weems contributing 21 points, seven rebounds and four assists and Kleiza lighting it up from downtown the Raptors’ offence continued its potency against a normally defensively-charged Nuggets squad. Kleiza had 19 points and eight rebounds in the first half and finished the game with 26 points and 12 rebounds but the Raptors still trailed 74-65 at the break.

The second half started out at a decidedly slower pace for the Raptors who allowed the Nuggets to stretch their nine-point halftime lead to 15 behind 5 of 10 shooting from the floor in the first five minutes. After a quick timeout Toronto scored and followed it with two quick stops but couldn’t turn it into a run. Instead the Nuggets took it the other way with a 6-2 push that prompted Raptors head coach Jay Triano to punch another timeout out of the game clock as the Nuggets’ lead swelled to 19. Once again it was Billups leading the way for the Nuggets, orchestrating the attack with three assists to compliment rookie Gary Forbes’ 13-point contribution in the frame.
Weems chalked up the lapse to a rattled team defence.

“We were unable to keep their guys in front of us and it resulted in a loss,” said Weems following the game. “They are a very good team, very athletic tea and they have mismnatches at every position. They did a great job of executing tonight.”

The Raptors on the other hand, went cold from the field until reserve Leandro Barbosa (22 points) began to chip away with two straight buckets in the last three minutes of the quarter to bring back some life to his fading squad.

Still despite the mounting Nuggets turnovers – they finished with 22 on the night – the Raptors could not take serious advantage though they did cut the lead to 12, putting them within striking distance fin time for the start of the fourth quarter.

In the fourth, while the Raptors continued to show energy, they could not close the gap. A ridiculous step back three-pointer from Harrington crushed a little more hope and Amir Johnson’s foul trouble interrupted the defence in key moments. When he returned at the 5:58 mark and his team down by 10 the damage was done. A telling sequence came later in the quarter when Weems hit a three to cut Denver’s lead to seven and glared at the Nuggets bench on his way back up the court. Too bad Nuggs reserve J.R. Smith was responding with a three -pointer of his own during the stare down, answering Weems before he even knew what happened.

Then came the crunch time where Bargnani, the emerging star of this Raptors team, hit a clutch three pointer to trim the Nuggets lead to four with 46.9 seconds to play. Later, a 20-second Raptors timeout with 19.5 left on the game clock failed to generate anything on the court and with Billups hitting 3 of 4 free throws down the stretch the game was sealed. The loss was the fourth in a row for the Raptors who were too spent to get over the hump. Karl got his 1,000th win in the same building he copped his 900th two seasons ago. The Raptors, as they did back then, were left to lick their wounds.

“Whenever I am shooting the ball well I think I am pretty tough to guard,” said Harrington, who finished with 31 points and 6 rebounds. “I hit two or three threes early and they had to try to get to me when i had the ball.

“All of us, everybody had to pull their weight a little bit more tonight. We were able to get the win and we needed it.”

Thunder Fall to Surging Raptors

December 4, 2010 by  
Filed under NBA, Oklahoma City Thunder

It was destined to be a game of maniacal running if not one of extended runs. Over the first two quarters at the Air Canada Centre on Friday night the Toronto Raptors and Oklahoma Thunder traded buckets and boards to a 59-52 visitors lead at the break. Aside from a 14-6 run early in the first quarter neither team allowed the other to escape early with production in the paint and hot shooting pacing both sides. In a turn of the tables the Thunder bench outscored the Raptors reserves 24-21 over the first 24 minutes and 8-4 on the glass. That advantage didn’t change much and while it spoiled Toronto’s streak of seven straight games outscoring the oppositions reserves, the 111-99 victory soothed all sores.

“Like coach says, we got to believe in ourselves,” said centre Andrea Bargnani following the win. “We’re good. We can win big games. We have to keep working and have more confidence in ourselves.”

Bargnani sustained the Raptors early with a commendable 11 points and seven rebounds before the break while reserve Leandro Barbosa added 10 points for the cause. OKC forward Jeff Green registered 13 first half points with his point guard Russell Westbrook adding 10 points and five assists in support. A 59-52 Thunder lead at intermission set the stage for an exciting third quarter.

The Raptors initiated the attack with a 12-4 run to start the third frame, which included six points from forward Sonny Weems, the last of which was a alley-oop pass on a Thunder turnover that prompted the visitors to call a timeout after just three minutes of play. Out of that timeout that Raptors executed another alley-oop play, this time from point guard Jose Calderon to a cutting Amir Johnson as they continued to push the pace. With Toronto’s defence forcing three turnovers in that span while giving up none the run grew to a 17-4 binge before OKC reserve James Harden sank a three-pointer to end the strike… but the Raptors attack continued.

In his best performance of the season Calderon finished with 15 assists and orchestrated the pace of the game, setting up a backcourt stretch drive showdown with a bubbling Westbrook. Without Kevin Durant on the floor (sidelined for the game with a knee injury) Westbrook was the go to guy after coming off a dominant crunch-time triple overtime win versus the New Jersey Nets two nights earlier.

Cue the final frame.

With Barbosa continuing his hot play from the pine early in the fourth quarter the Raptors managed to keep the Thunder at bay for most of last 12 minutes. Toronto also picked up its interior defence, minimizing points given up in the paint. Bargnani had an inspired put pack on a Barbosa miss that ignited the crowd and gave him his first double-double of the season.

“Today there was a lot of energy on the defensive end,” said Bargnani. “When we play good defence we always run our fast break and out up-tempo game is great.”

The expected Thunder run came with less than three minutes to play with what Raptors head coach Triano calls “desperate” tactics that led to a couple of inbound steals and buckets. It was a small eruption that had Triano calling for a 20-second time out to steady the troops, a move that paid off well.

“We were just giving them the ball,” said Calderon on the near lapse down the stretch. “We weren’t thinking. We thought we already won the game. They were trapping so somebody’s going to be open. That’s why after that timeout it was just ‘put the ball on the floor’ and we scored a couple of times.”

A Bargnani basket followed by a Johnson block on the other end led to yet another wet jumper from the Italian big man. Then a speedy steal in the lane by Sonny Weems ended in a lay up that finally killed all hope for the Thunder.

Six Raptors reached double-digit scoring in the affair after seven did the same on Wednesday versus the Washington Wizards. Not only does the team seemed to have grown comfortable with the idea of equal opportunity basketball but they are a squad playing well out of timeouts, breaks and intermissions. That usually means guys are working from the same page, from the starters to the bench. Each player in Triano’s nine-man rotation on Friday played at least 16 minutes but only Bargnani played over 31 minutes in the game (41 minutes).

It’s the kind of roster management Thunder head coach Scott Brooks has mastered with his own squad but like in so many ways on this night, his team was beat at their own game.

“Everything has changed,” said Barbosa who finished with 22 points. “Even the fans were really helping us with the energy we brought int he second half. I think we just decided to go out there and play the game and we took the lead and didn’t want to leave an opportunity for them to take the lead back. We were really smart and did a great job at the end.”

Cavs Bow to James in Return

December 3, 2010 by  
Filed under Cleveland Cavaliers, NBA, Team Reports

LeBron James strode right back into the heart of Cleveland on Thursday night and ripped a 118-90 victory out of the hometown Cavaliers. Returning to the city he represented for his first seven NBA seasons James scored a dizzying 38 points over just three quarters in a dominant performance that both dejected and thrilled the paying customers. The locals were in a frenzy leading up to “The Return of the King” and let their emotions erupt in a spectacular show of deafening jeers and inspired signage, both delivered venomously and unrelentingly whenever their target was on the court. James though, would not be swayed and grew his legend by leading the Miami Heat to an early first half advantage they would not surrender.

And shame on the Cavaliers for playing into his hands.

The Cavaliers team as a whole failed to match James’ ability to deal with the hype surrounding the game and melted quickly under the spotlight the Heat brought to town. Players greeted and joked with James pre-game and had no reaction to him taunting their bench as he scorched them with a ridiculous third quarter performance. James, who scored 24 points in the third stanza on 10 of 12 shooting from the floor, combined with guard Dwyane Wade and forward Chris Bosh to score 75 of the Heat’s points total on the night. Cleveland fans, if they care to admit it or not, were given as many reasons to respect James last night as to hate him.

Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert’s expertly timed presence in the news as an executive on the warpath to investigate the abuses of power (many allowed by his own franchise) James and others may have used to get to Miami, the hate of millions channeled through the 20, 000 or so fans at the Q, the early season struggles of his new team, Bumpgate… none of it big enough to sway a triumphant return but harrowing enough to shake the deer-in-headlight Cavaliers.

TNT analyst and former NBAer Chris Webber lashed out at the passivity of the Cavaliers players and fired a shot at their mental makeup.

“I think you are some of the softest guys in the NBA,” Webber commented during the Halftime Report of the Golden State Warriors versus Phoenix Suns match, which followed the Miami/Cavaliers broadcast. “They soft as wet toilet tissue paper, outside, in the puddle.”

Somewhere Antawn Jamison is squirming. “At least I know how to call a timeout,” he’ll say to himself, but Webber is right. The Cavaliers folded as a team and in doing so, helped rub in the salt James brought for the still fevered wounds in Ohio. James outscored the entire Cavaliers starting five by 10 and almost outscored their entire team in the third frame. Arguably this was Miami’s best performance of the season and could serve as a turning point to what has so far been a disappointing campaign for the star-studded roster.

Doing and saying all the right things in the lead up to the contest had many wondering why James hadn’t just used that same humble approach on his way out of town last summer instead of constructing an elaborate event and television special to stage a public dumping of the Cavaliers. His return felt more real than “The Decision”, a worthier chapter in the legend of LeBron as he quickly reminded Clevelanders exactly what they will be missing, down to the cloud of chalk he iconically threw up into their air for the first time in Quicken Loans Arena without a Cavaliers jersey on his back. That dust seemed to settle on the face of every fan in the building and on some of his old teammates as well. With the crowd it drew ire and raised the stakes. For the players it did the opposite and despite early activity the Cavs were soon overwhelmed by the moment. For a group of veterans that reality should be a major point of concern for new head coach Byron Scott.

A spell? Of some sort perhaps, but it wasn’t James that took the home side out of their game, at least no more than he usually does to an opponent. The Cavs did that themselves, allowing their former leader to do what they knew he would and using nothing unique or even remotely resembling a plan hatched by a team that might know more about him than any other squad on the planet. Worse, they seemed to wither in the same spotlight many of them enjoyed for years when James was a teammate.

Every thing is different now though, a fact the Cavaliers were far too willing to concede to Thursday night.

Raptors Break Wizards

December 2, 2010 by  
Filed under NBA, Washington Wizards

The Toronto Raptors were all business at the Air Canada Centre on Wednesday night, executing a first half that saw them score 72 points against the visiting Washington Wizards. The early swath of destruction was ultimately the killer blow but the intensity that the Raptors were able to keep up throughout the entire 48 minutes was just as impressive in the 127-108 victory.

‘We got a little sloppy with the basketball I thought,” said head coach Jay Triano following the game, nitpicking on what was a pretty consistent effort. “But that’s what a desperate team is going to do. They’re going to come from behind and they’re going to look for steals and they’re going to look like they’re running away and come back. We had addressed it during one of the timeouts but for the most part we took care of the basketball, especially against their press and against their scrappy play.”

Triano was also playing the humbled winner because the Wizards were far from scrappy until it was too late. The 5-12 squad came into the game giving up an average of 104.8 points a contest and allowing opponents to shoot 47.9% field, good for third last in the NBA. That number got worse as the night passed by with the Raptors shooting a scorching 66.7% during their first half onslaught and finishing with 58% shooting in the affair. Shooting guard DeMar DeRozan was top scorer for the Raptors for th efirst time this season, spitting out 20 points on a very efficient 7 for 11 shooting. The absence of suspended Wizards big man Hilton Armstrong allowed DeRozan and the rest of the Raps more room to operate in the opposing paint and the ensuing aggression helped seven different Raptors to score in double figures.

“We need everybody to contribute,” said DeRozan. “We do that it’s hard to stop us.”

Red was the predominant colour on this night with World AIDS day in effect and no doubt that is exactly what Wizards head coach Flip Saunders was seeing as he watched his team flail and flitter about the court as they scrambled uselessly on defence. His perimeter defence was spotty all night and his bigs didn’t do much to mask the lapses. The Raptors used the clock well too, registering 32 field goals over the first two frames while the Wizards could muster just 20 over the same span.

“Just an embarressing effort,” said Saunders following the game. “There are always ways you can make excuses – been on the road, long trip, playing every other day in different cities – but that’s what this league is about. Very disappointed.”

The second half started out much the same with the home side building on their first half lead, gaining a 25-point advantage with 5:14 remaining in the third stanza. They maintained that lead throughout the Q as well with rookie Ed Davis building up an impressive debut. After missing the first 17 games of the season the North Carolina product contributed 11 points on an efficient 5 of 7 shooting to go with 6 rebounds in his first NBA game.

“Like coach said before the game, he wanted me to just rebound and block shots and let everything else come to me,” said Davis. “That’s just what I stuck to the whole game. I was just trying to play hard and help the team any way I could.”

With the Raptors bench beating up on the Wizards reserves there was no let up and the intensity and Triano was able to keep his players charged over the entire 48 minutes with good bench management. As a result the team was able to maintain an insurmountable lead throughout most of the second half. In a sports where furious rallies are expected the Wiz never answered the call, thanks in part to Toronto’s energy.

“After this game everybody realizes that everybody has to bring a little bit,” said reserve guard Leandro Barbosa who finished with 16 points in support. He was also part of a pine crew that has outscored opposing benches in seven straight contests. “We have a good team. We’ve just got to believe that we definately can do it.

“This is what we need to do every game. It’s tough. It’s not easy.”

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