SUNS: Gortat Escapes Orlando in Search of Shine

February 28, 2011 by  
Filed under Phoenix Suns, Team Reports

Marcin Gortat was lost in Orlando. Even after signing his first major NBA contract last year he knew his opportunities would be limited in with the Magic, a team that features big time player and big minute eater Dwight Howard. He was destined to be stuck behind those big bowling ball shoulders, fated to be a low-minute back up to an unfadeable superstar.

“I always believed,” said Gortat at his locker after a 17 point, 11 rebound road performance versus the Toronto Raptors in late February. “ I always believed that I was a guy that was going to get some double-doubles. Obviously, I gotta still get better and work on my game but like I said before – I’m going to get boards, I’m going to get some points if I’m going to play consistent minutes. If you play 7-10 minutes a game you might end up with 2 and 2 or 4 and 4 (points and rebounds) and you never know. When you play 30 minutes and you have this feeling that you’re going to play 30 minutes you’re just getting a lot of confidence. You can prepare yourself for the game and just be patient and everything is going to roll fine.”

After a mid-December four-player deal delivered Gortat (2010-11 STATS: 7.7 PPG, 6.6 RPG) from the Magic to the Phoenix Suns along with guard Vince Carter the Suns didn’t exactly about-face their uneven campaign. In fact, there are still major bumps in the road and their current 11-game road trip will go far in determining their season. While the biggest hopes rest on the shoulders of franchise point guard Steve Nash as usual, much of the remainder will depend on the bench play now led by Gortat.

“We’ve been real happy with him,” said Gentry. “This is really the first time he’s ever been a rotation player. When you play behind Dwight Howard you’re either playing when your team is up 20 or when he’s in foul trouble and the foul trouble thing doesn’t happen a whole lot. Here I think he’s been real happy with the fact that he knows he’s going to play 20-32 minutes every night. He’s gotten progressively better as he’s done that and we’ve been really happy with the progress that he’s made.”

No doubt Gortat has slowly started to make his mark and not just in the box-score. A week and a half after his arrival in Phoenix he publicly criticized the team after what he deemed a soft defensive performance in a late December loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. It didn’t sit well with some in the organization – and it took some dust-settling before better understandings prevailed – but Gortat makes no apologies for his approach to team improvement.

“Well, I’m going to be vocal every time when we have to,” said Gortat, a native of Lodz, Poland. “A lot of people told me that I’m not supposed to do this right at the beginning. People told me I said too many things in the media. That’s how I am. Honestly, I don’t give a shit. (If) there is a reason I have to say we don’t play defense then that’s what I’m going to say. I ain’t gonna lie. I’m not going to come in and say ‘Listen, we gotta make more shots.” No, we’ve got to play defense. We’ve got to play better defense because that’s how we’re going to get better and that’s how we’re going to win games. There was a point where I had a dinner with a couple of guys and I just said that I’m going to try to be productive and show on the floor first then we’re going to talk about this. Right now I’m starting from the point where I’m going to show on the floor, try to be productive on the floor, help the team on the floor and then when I come to the bench or when I come back to the locker room I’m going to be vocal and try to help everybody else.”

It’s as much of a compromise from Gortat as you’re going to get. Luckily for the Suns his off-court grit exists on game nights too where the son of a former bronze medal-winning Olympic boxer bobs and weaves his way to the ball.

“It’s positioning,” said Gentry. “He’s a pretty good doggone athlete. For a guy his size he runs, jumps, has good hands so when he goes up for a rebound (and) he gets his hands on it he’s pretty good at clearing the ball.

“We’ve been really surprised with him in the double-double department. When you go back and look, we play him 30 minutes and he usually comes up with a double-double. I think he’s done it seven out of 10 times now where he’s played over 30 minutes and two of those games that he didn’t get a double-double I think he had eight rebounds one game and nine one game. He’s been really efficient for us.”

Gortat mentions his age, 27, a lot when he talks, preceded most often with the words “finally at”. It’s the show of confidence by Gentry and his staff that has him excited about his vision for himself as a member of the Suns. He is fully aware of the chance he has to finally show and prove.

“Huge, huge, huge, huge. Huge,” prefaced Gortat before outlining the difference between Orlando and Phoenix. “Big time, big time. I can’t even describe it. When you don’t have a green light on a team to do certain things it’s really hard to play. Especially when you get into the game and you’re playing these 5-6 minutes a game and after three minutes you have a couple rebounds, couple put-backs, blocks, good stops and all of a sudden you have to come out of the game. It’s frustrating as hell, I ain’t gonna lie. Now everything has changed. I’m mentally free. Nobody’s actually sitting over my head now so I’m just going out there and having fun. Steve is a guy who is always going to find you. It’s fun to play now.”

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.

Bulls: Deng Gives Chicago Backbone

January 12, 2011 by  
Filed under Chicago Bulls, Team Reports

The Chicago Bulls just keep on rolling despite spending nearly the entire season dealing with significant injuries to their much-hyped front court. As if starting out the first 15 games of the season without prized free agent acquisition Carlos Boozer wasn’t enough, the long-awaited pairing of Boozer with incomparable centre Joakim Noah was short-lived after the latter fell out with a hand injury on December 15 not long after Boozer’s return to action. All the Bulls have done is continue to win despite the depletions by going 9-6 without Boozer and now 8-4 without Noah in the line up. Much of their ability to overcome is sourced from point guard Derrick Rose whose MVP campaign continues to fuel the Bulls with his near 25 points and eight assists per night. His star, combined with those of Boozer and Noah, is bright enough to blind the casual fan to the most seasoned Bull of them all and a man who is quietly having one of the best seasons of his career.

“You always try to have fun no matter what, you always work hard,” said seven-year veteran Luol Deng after a mid-December road win. Having spent his entire career in Chicago Deng has seen the good and the bad as the Bulls have stumbled their way back to respectability in the years since Michael Jordan left Chicago. “There’s times you work hard and it’s not fun ‘cause you go out there and you‘re playing so hard but you’re not on the same page as the group. Things like that can upset you. When you’re all on the same page you don’t want to be that guy that’s not working hard and letting everyone down. You don’t want to be that guy and that’s the group we have. We’re quick to get on each other and we’re holding each other accountable and it feels great. I have the last guy on the bench yelling at me and yelling at Derrick but it’s all good.”

Under former head coach Vinny Del Negro things were scattered for Deng and the Bulls last season. Management and coaching staff conflicts were real and had a trickle down affect on the team even as they squeezed into the playoffs on the last day of the season. Their first round playoff dumping was expected as was the firing of Del Negro shortly after. The hiring of Boston Celtics assistant Tom Thibodeau was a return to roots of sorts for Deng who flourished under another strict disciplinarian in Scott Skiles a couple of seasons before. With more structure, role definition and talent to par with Deng is finding basketball more enjoyable these days and has a better appreciation of the connection between fun and winning. Is it enough to get the Bulls over the playoff hump and put them into elite team status?

“I think we’re getting there,” said Deng. “We had a good team when we went to the second round of the playoffs with Skiles. Right now basketball is fun, it’s fun for all of us. Everybody knows when you’re winning its so much easier to get up and go to the gym tomorrow and that’s how it should be. We said it from the start – our practices are so hard, our training camp was hard and it’s paying off. You’re not going to get anything rewarded in this league unless you earn it and I think we’re putting in the work for it.”

Deng’s work has been on full display. His 17.8 points per game has been steady and he has reached double-digit scoring in all but four games this season. When the Bulls were without Boozer in November Deng registered three games with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds and had four total double-doubles on in the month. His team-leading and career-high 39 minutes of burn a night (third highest in the NBA) is ironman work that hasn’t messed with his efficiency and only four other players have logged more total minutes this season. Add Deng’s prowess as one of the best defenders on a team that allows the second lowest opponent field goal shooting in the NBA and his worth glows, sharing some of the sparkling shine coming off of the outfit’s more celebrated names. For someone whose name has been bandied about for years on the player market his ability to remain above the talk is remarkable in an age where off-court news is too often muddled in with on-court play to many a player’s demise. Still, he is already anxious to get Noah’s unique brand of basketball back in the mix even though the centre isn’t expected back until March. At the same time, with the defence of reserve Taj Gibson and the veteran fill-in work of Kurt Thomas, Deng is confident the Bulls can keep up their head-turning pace and snag a top four playoff seating by the end of the regular season.

“We all understand having Jo we’re a better team but like I said, when he gets back we’ll be even better,” Deng said without flinching. “We gotta do the best we can, we don’t have him. That’s what it is. Guys are going to have to step up and it’s not one guy that’s going to get his job done. It’s going to be all of us as a group. We did it when Boozer was out.”

Maybe it’s because he has been in the front seat of the rolling coaster ride of the franchise’s rebuild why Deng has such an even approach to the success the Bulls are enjoying now. Maybe all those years of being on the trading block has made him thick enough to not worry about the uncontrollable. Maybe the confidence of being able to start the season strong without Boozer is more of a boost than the critics gave them credit for. Third place in the eastern conference behind powerhouses like the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat is nothing to sneeze at, particularly when it has been accomplished with two of Chi-town’s heaviest hitters on the sideline in suits.

“Man, I always try to take the positive out of everything,” said Deng. “Losing Jo is going to be tough, it’s going to be really tough. But you know, we missed Boozer, Derrick missed one game this year and we have guys in the locker room that are going to step up. They’ve done it for other teams and with the system we have we have guys playing together. We’re just going to have to collectively fill in his shoes.”

“I really feel like this is going to make us better. Jo’s going to come back hungrier than ever. We’re going to be fine.”

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.”

SONOFAGUN: Calderon Slipping in New NBA Landscape

November 5, 2010 by  
Filed under Son of a Gun, Toronto Raptors

After a summer of worrying about just how they were going to replace departed all-star power forward Chris Bosh the Toronto Raptors are struggling at the other end of the line up with their guard play, in particular at the point position. While they wait for DeMar DeRozan to answer their questions (and prayers) at the shooting guard spot neither Jose Calderon nor Jarrett Jack appear to be enough of an answer as a starting point guard.

The fault doesn’t lie squarely on one or the other but in most conversations the two are considered to be back up point guards in the NBA, capable of running a team but not in regular extended minutes throughout an 82-game NBA schedule. In some ways the blame lies at the feet of Calderon, whose spotty play and injuries after signing a 5-year, $45M deal in July of 2008 have served to help push Jack into a starter’s role. Not that Jack didn’t fight for it. He had previously beat out more highly favored players for starts while hooping for the Portland Trailblazers and more recently he displaced ex-Raptor T.J. Ford as the full-time starter while playing for the Indiana Pacers two seasons ago. Now it appears Jack has accomplished the same feat with Calderon in Toronto. That said he appeared to have done the same last year only to relinquish the starting duties to Calderon late in the season. Upon his return on January 6, 2010 after missing a month of action due to a hip injury the Raptors were 17-18 and winners of six of their previous seven games. Calderon was used as a reserve and played well to help them to a 14-6 record over the next 20 games but when the team chased that with a 1-9 slide he replaced Jack in the starting line up. At that point the team was sinking and could only manage an 8-11 record the rest of the way, just good enough to finish out of the playoffs. The point guards aren’t to blame for that collapse (Bosh’s late season injury all but sealed the Raptors’ fate) but they didn’t make a difference.

And that’s the thing.

The fact that both Jack and Calderon have been bounced from reserve to starter and back for their entire careers is proof that no regime of any franchise has been sold on either as a full-timer. There are those who dismiss the controversy of who starts as irrelevant but then talk about the importance of the good first quarters teams need to set tones and earn wins. Players have been known to talk in the same way but only the ones who either know their place or avoid ruffling feathers. Foolish talk. Remember that during their time together Calderon dismissed any starting controversy with Ford only to tell his the media in Spain something different. In today’s NBA that position needs to be solid and firm. The point guard as general is in many ways the extension of the coaching staff on the floor, making it the very worst position to attempt to run by platoon or committee. If it didn’t work with Calderon and Ford four seasons ago – a problem Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo was quick to clean up in 2008 – what makes anybody believe it will work now?

What makes the problem stand out even more is that 2010 might be the first year in what could turn out to be the decade of the point guard. Currently the NBA scoring lead is help by Monta Ellis of the Golden State Warriors with 30 points per game ( and 6 assists per game) followed by Chicago Bulls’ Derrick Rose with 26.8 (10 APG) and both are the clear-cut starting point guards for their teams. Further to that, eight guards (four point guards) or backcourt players register in the top 20 on the scoring list with four in the top 10. Five small forwards are included on that list with the remaining seven to be found in the frontcourt. In order to compete the Raptors must add some dynamicism to their backcourt and no, it isn’t all about scoring… but it helps.

It also wouldn’t be fair to compare Calderon and Jack statistically when it comes to assists because neither will impress numerically while splitting time at the position. Obviously numbers have much to do with minutes and the quality of teammates in the fold. Calderon was a dynamo during the Sam Mitchell era of robotic, paint-by-numbers game plans. With head coach Jay Triano’s desire to increase the frenetics Calderon has struggled to adapt. The exceptional way he takes care of the ball, makes free throws and drives the lane don’t seem as impressive without the punch it seems injury may have robbed him of. He had to pull out of the FIBA world championships in Turkey this past summer because of another serious leg injury while playing warm up games for Spain and took over a month to recover. Numbers never tell the whole story but good point guards can either make guys better or at least make it look that way. When you look at the last five years of Calderon has he ever flat out just made somebody better?

Look around the league and it isn’t hard to tell what the top teams all have in common and that is all-star caliber play in the backcourt. Leaving the champs and the best guard in the league Kobe Bryant out of it, the real contenders for the crown – the Denver Nuggets, San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, Dallas Mavericks and Orlando Magic – all possess it. The Raptors hover around the bottom third of the league when it comes to production at the point and when you consider the upside to Oklahoma’s Russell Westbrook, Philadelphia’s Jrue Holiday, Washington’s John Wall, Indiana’s Darren Collison, Milwaukee’s Brandon Jennings, Sacramento’s Tyreke Evans and Memphis’ Mike Conley the future just isn’t there yet in Toronto. All of the above-mentioned names have become or are becoming integral parts of the future core of their teams and some are already the center of attention. All with the exception of Conley have star power.

On the other end Boston’s Rajon Rondo, Utah’s Deron Williams, New Orleans’ Chris Paul, New Jersey’s Devin Harris and Orlando’s Jameer Nelson are class leaders, young all-stars with many more all-star years to give. Then there is the third corner with Dallas’ Jason Kidd, Phoenix’s Steve Nash and Denver’s Chauncey Billups as hard-to-kill veterans who still threaten to steal all-star selections from the mouths of babes. Calderon stands out here too, again, through no serious fault of his own. He isn’t young enough to posses the quickness to keep up with the next generation – or even his own – and not old enough to fool the competition with his smarts. His physicality doesn’t allow him to overpower opponents and defensively he has always been average at best. He isn’t a bit of all of it like San Antonio Spurs star Tony Parker. Even his contract sits in the middle ground of the NBA market; not quite an albatross but far from friendly as failed attempts to move him will support. In that sense the best-case scenario for the Raptors and Calderon is if he just plays better but it would mean reversing an alarming spiral.

Starting at the 2006-06 season Calderon enjoyed a steady climb statistically speaking, peaking at 12.8 PPG and 8.9 APG in 2008-09. In four games as a reserve this season he is averaging a career low 4.8 PPG after finishing with a 10.3 PPG average last tour. It should be noted that he has maintained a respectable 5.5 APG, ranking him fifth in the NBA per 48 minutes played. His 21 minutes a game ties a career low and his 28% field goal shooting and 25% mark from three-point range is eye-popping. Jack’s stats (not shooting) have followed a similar trajectory but his decline has not been as dramatic. He’s moving at a 9.4 PPG clip so far this season after recording 11.4 PPG last and 13.1 PPG in 2008-09 while with the Pacers.

Durability is an issue as well with Calderon dealing with severe hamstring and hip injuries that have limited him to 68 games played in each of the last two seasons. His only 82 games-played season came in 2007-08 and he made just 39 starts in 2009-10. By contrast Jack is coming off his third straight 82 games-played season following two 79 games-played efforts to start his career in Portland. He made the other 43 starts for the Raptors in 2009-10, which actually gives him 14 more career starts than Calderon and comparable lifetime numbers at half the price.

This isn’t a slam on Calderon as much as it is a reflection on the sudden shift and evolution of a game that seems to be awkwardly passing him by. One thing that is missing is the youthful, almost boyish glee he took in playing both for Spain’s national team and his early days as a Raptor. He is still a go to guy in the locker room but other voices have emerged and he seems more inward both on and off the court. Calderon has shown that he can be an impact player in the NBA but returning to form and catching up with the league’s best will be difficult. At 29 years of age Calderon should be entering his prime but speed and creativity are difficult add-ons and near impossible to develop significantly at this stage. In the same way both he and Jack have been demoted to reserves at various times throughout their careers both have clawed back, which is its own kind of testament. If that bark wasn’t there, if two equally talented point guards aren’t fighting and competing for burn, there would be even more concern. That would call into light their heart and spirit, which has never been in question with this duo. The hunger and the competition that ensues for that number one spot is healthy but isn’t meant to rage eternal. At some point somebody’s got to take the lead and be anointed as such.

New addition Leandro Barbosa is sure to steal some time at the point guard position because of his much-needed speed. Two-guard cornerstone candidate DeRozan is young and it is way too early to make the call on the USC product. The key with D-Ro will be patience and playing time and he has shown enough to warrant the consideration. He might even be good enough in a year or two to help mask some of the limitations currently facing his backcourt partners because with players like Calderon and Jack you get the feeling that you’ve got as much as you are ever going to get, and that’s not a bad thing. They are good and on most night’s they play like it, but in today’s NBA that just isn’t enough.

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