Jeff Teague’s Helping Hawks Take Flight

jeff-teague

Jeff Teague’s first two seasons in the NBA were an unequivocal bust.

The Atlanta Hawks selected Teague with the 19th overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft and he repaid them by averaging 4.2 points and 1.8 dimes in 11.9 minutes of burn his first two seasons in the NBA.

Yuck.

Teague showed flashes of living up to his promise last season when he averaged 12.6 and 4.9 assists in 33 minutes of burn. He finally earned the trust of head coach Larry Drew and looked poised to play big minutes again this season.

Last summer new Atlanta Hawks general manager Danny Ferry took less than a month to nuke the team when he dealt Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams for cap space and expiring deals. Critics claimed those moves would cost Atlanta in the short term as they lost two starters and the face of the franchise.  The main reason why people weren’t fans of the moves is because it created questions about how effective Josh Smith and Al Horford would be if they were relying on an injury-prone point guard in Devin Harris or a relatively inexperience point guard in Teague.

In a nice twist, those trades were just what Teague needed to make him feel more comfortable as a leader and start asserting himself more on the court.

“I’m just getting the opportunity to play more,” Teague told me. “I’m getting used to Larry Drew’s system. Last year I was thrown in the fire because I didn’t play much my first two years so last year was really like my first year for me. This year has been just me trying to get better.”

It’s more than just getting an opportunity to play more. With Johnson, Mike Bibby and other guys who dominated the ball out of the picture, it has allowed Teague to create more with the ball in his hands. Instead of running running a ton of isolation plays for Johnson, Smith and Horford, the team is now running a lot of pick-and-roll plays which means the ball is in the hands of Teague more now that it ever has before.

On top of that, Teague no longer has to worry about being too vocal and trying to lead guys who have been around the league a lot longer than he has.

“It was very tough,” Teague admitted when asked what it was like being a rookie point guard on a team filled with veterans. “You want to prove to them that you can play. As a point guard you need to be a leader but as a young guy trying to lead 30-year-old guys and telling them what to do was difficult at first but I’m slowing getting better at it.”

The result is Teague currently tied for 11th in the NBA in assists (7.1) and Atlanta as a team ranks second. Instead of the ball getting stuck in the hands of one player, Atlanta is now sharing the basketball in a way they haven’t for years.

Being able to play through mistakes and being on the court more the result is Teague finally has the confidence that he’s a starting point guard in the NBA.

“He lets me play through mistakes,” Teague explained when asked how Larry Drew has helped him grow.

However, it’s not always pats on the back or pep talks. Drew isn’t afraid to give his young point guard some tough love when it’s needed.

“I’m constantly in his ear about different things,” Drew said. “I may yell at him a few times, but he knows what I’m trying to do and that is to make him a better basketball player. He is a big part of what we are trying to do.”

His coach and teammates may put a lot of pressure on him, but Teague has clearly risen to the challenge and is now poised for a long and successful career in the NBA.

Sure, posting career-highs across the board looks good when he’s about to be a free agent agent, but the true test of any point guard is how well his team is doing. The key proof to his growth as a point guard is the fact Atlanta is yet again a playoff team this season. Critics had Atlanta pegged as a lottery team last summer but they clinched a playoff spot for the sixth consecutive season last week.

With Atlanta fighting for home court advantage during a rebuilding season that has been marred by injuries, it’s clear that Teague has had a big impact this season. He’s made the jump from being an athlete who was overwhelmed to a floor general that has the poise to make big plays when his team needs while averaging career-highs in scoring and assists.

Teague is going to be a free agent this summer so his play this season has him poised to cash in, whether or not it’s Atlanta that is paying him.

Not bad for a player who was consider a bust just over a year ago.

Preseason Promise And Questions For Utah

We’ve all heard it over and over: The preseason doesn’t mean anything. But is that really true? With the 2012-13 NBA regular season set to start, is there anything that we’ve learned about the Utah Jazz from their preseason performance? I think there’s plenty.

For starters, the offseason move the Jazz made to acquire Mo Williams, Marvin Williams and Randy Foye will pay dividends.

With Mo Williams at the point, Utah was consistently able to push the ball up the floor quickly, allowing for more easy transition baskets. Also, his 3-point shooting should give the Jazz a potent option on offense in the halfcourt that they just didn’t have last season.

Marvin Williams gives Utah plenty of athleticism on the wing, and he’ll have the opportunity to do things with Utah he never had with Atlanta.

Foye’s shooting came on later in preseason, and Jazz coach Ty Corbin was able to use Foye and sophomore guard Alec Burks in a combo-guard backcourt in reserve that showed some interesting results and could prove quite handy while reserve point guard Earl Watson continues his rehab.

Also, the work Enes Kanter put in during the summer was for real. My concern with Kanter ever since he was drafted was whether or not he was worth a No. 3 overall pick over Toronto rookie center Jonas Valanciunas, and Kanter’s rookie season didn’t fill me with confidence. I also thought Kanter should’ve join Turkey’s national team for Eurobasket qualifying. But the workouts he did to get in shape for the season and the skills he picked up working with NBA legend Kiki Vandeweghe really showed during preseason. He averaged nearly a double-double in Utah’s eight preseason games, playing hard in all of them, and showed improvements in defense, rebounding and offense, particularly with his mid-range jumper. Now my biggest worry about Kanter is whether or not Corbin will play him 20 minutes per game in the regular season like he did in preseason.

Fellow big man Derrick Favors had a slower start to preseason than Kanter did, but he defended well throughout, and by the last few games of exhibition, his offense looked more ready for the start of the season as well. Again, with veterans Al Jefferson, Utah’s best and most consistent player last season, and Paul Millsap both looking to take a major share of minutes in the frontcourt, playing time for Favors may also be a challenge.

While the start of the regular season brings promise, it also brings questions. With regards to Jefferson and Millsap, both will be unrestricted free agents at the end of the season. With their contracts, among others, coming off the books, the Jazz will be looking at a lot of salary cap space next summer. But Jefferson and Millsap will also be among the top free agents available on the market, and Utah may not be able to retain both players.

A trade during the season for either player is a real possibility in order to ensure getting value in return, and it’s a situation that will bear watching between now and February.

Also, Utah is going to need to get more from third-year swingman Gordon Hayward this season. Hayward has shown incredible potential, and his defense is particularly underrated. But just as it was with C.J. Miles, now with the Cleveland Cavaliers, consistency will be Hayward’s challenge. He has the ability, but he needs to be assertive with his role on the court, and performing well consistently, particularly on offense, will help him define that role with this team.

On Wednesday, when Utah opens the regular season agains the Dallas Mavericks, we’ll see what carries over from preseason and what questions start to get answered — and what new questions might emerge.

Flopping Has Tainted The NBA’s Postseason

When the casual NBA viewer picks my brain about this lockout-shortened season, we have a lot to discuss: Lower scoring across the board, playoff teams with losing records, and a plethora of extensive injuries, just to name a few.

When that same viewer narrows the discussion to the post-season, one topic seems to rise above the others: The flop.

Last week, I talked about the issues surrounding the current applications of the foul call, and the consequences thereof. Essentially, it weakens the game as a whole when fouls are called too often. The same effect is found when players flop.

While it is difficult to escape this topic, even for the most casual enthusiast, I do want to start with a brief overview of what a flop is. To begin, please understand that not all contact is a foul. Essentially, a personal foul is a limitation or control of movement. If a defensive player makes contact, but it does not affect the offensive player, there’s no call.

In the case of a flop, the offending player exaggerates the effect of the contact in an attempt to persuade the officials to call a foul. Slimy, right? NBA commissioner David Stern even admitted in an interview that he should be handing out Oscars, not MVP awards.

The effect is much the same as drawing the foul, only without actually taking the hit. Drawing the foul is frustrating enough, but watching a supposed superstar sprawl on the ground for no reason, then stare down the official in anticipation of a call… Well, that’s almost unbearable.

From a coach’s perspective, I can’t imagine that a flopping player is gaining much respect from the bench. I appreciate good, solid, smart players more than players who fall to the ground at the drop of a hat. There’s more sportsmanship involved when a player truly earns their points, stops and steals, rather than relying on manipulating the referees to get ahead.

Honestly though, don’t these players look a little silly, reacting the way they do to what is obviously minimal contact? Do we not expect more from them, athletically? You’d think that, given the feats they pull off on the offensive end, they’d be too proud to play this type of game.

And let’s look at the trickle down effects of flopping: Each player can only commit five fouls a game. On the sixth, they’re ejected. So at the worst, it would lead to inflating a player’s number of fouls, which could lead to them being ejected from the game. In Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, LeBron James fouled out in overtime, and Miami lost. Easy enough to see the correlation.

A more extended fallout is if the flopping starts early in a game, leading a player to have four fouls by the end of the first half, which in turn results in them being benched for an extended period of time, which could affect the final score of the game.

And what about the flopping player? It’s understandable that they would become “the boy who cried wolf,” and would then be less likely to actually get a legitimate call later on. And when they don’t get a call on a flop? If they’re on defence, imagine what would happen while they’re swimming around on the floor, whining for an unnecessary call. There goes their player, off to the races for an easy layup.

And with all of the (entirely justified) fuss over injuries in professional sports, why do players willingly risk their bodies unnecessarily? Doc Rivers recently admitted that he wouldn’t be half as sore now if he hadn’t flopped so much as a player. Please note how few Boston Celtics are accused of flopping. Kobe Bryant won’t even take a legitimate charge, much less start throwing himself to the ground for no reason, and look at how effective and impressive he still is.

What about the effect flopping has on the game as a whole?

Back to last week’s topic, it all comes down to accountability. Players who flop are perceived as being unreliable, cowardly, and overall less impressive than their non-flopping counterparts. In one of the early games of the Western Conference Finals, Manu Ginobili and James Harden, both fantastic and entertaining players, bumped into each other. Both flopped. Ginobili got the call, and both were criticized pretty thoroughly.

In the last game of the Spurs/Thunder series, in the dying minutes of the fourth quarter, with San Antonio on the brink of elimination, Ginobili hits a three point shot. Harden flops. The three is waved off, and the Spurs lose. While the series was a testament to just how great basketball is, how unfortunate is it that it’s as a result of a flop that the winner was decided? Granted, we can’t tell exactly what would have happened if Ginobili’s shot had counted, but many point to that call as the moment when the tide turned definitively in Oklahoma City’s favour.

So, much the same as with the problem of over-fouling, flopping weakens the game. Of course, a huge part of any sport is mental: There’s strategy, psychological warfare, knowing your opponents weaknesses and taking advantage. We would be remiss if we asked to remove any planning at all from the game. But it seems that more and more coaches and players are relying too much on loopholes, flaws in the system, and manipulation to get ahead, rather than trusting the team to do what they’re meant to do: Put the ball in the basket.

Stern has already made it clear that this topic will be up for discussion in the off-season, but what could possibly be done about it? It really is a subjective call made by whichever officials are on the floor at any given moment, officials who really are trying to do their best to keep the game controlled and safe for players.

Are we calling their judgement into question? No. The blame should definitely be placed squarely at the feet of the offending players.

But how? For the moment, they only have to withstand mockery and criticism from the people inside or outside the league.

Calling an offensive foul wouldn’t be the correct answer, as it truly doesn’t fit the criteria, (the player doesn’t gain any advantage due to illegal contact, rather, a lack thereof) but how about a technical foul? Giving the opposing team a free throw and possession of the ball might be enough of a deterrent for most players, granted that the rule were applied on a consistent basis.

And what of repeat offenders? For the moment, I can only imagine that the same situation would arise as with repeat foulers: Suspensions, fines, etc. We can only hope that the problem would resolve itself before it got to the point, as it seems a little extreme to remove players who aren’t actually hurting anyone, only disrupting the development of the sport and irritating spectators.

Flopping truly has become a serious issue within the league, causing officials to call into question every perceived foul and creating negative effects on both individual games and the sport in general. I, for one, am excited to see what, if anything, is done about it next season, as nary a game goes by now when flopping isn’t pointed out and commented on, distracting everyone from the real athleticism shown.

And I don’t know about you, but I’d rather see a good, tough player over a whiny one, any day of the week.

How Miami Can Avoid Elimination

If you watched Game 5 and the utter meltdown by the Miami Heat on Tuesday night, you’re probably thinking the same thing that I was after the final buzzer: this series is over.

I mean, come on. Kevin Garnett is playing like he is 25 years old and Paul Pierce has found a way to make big shots despite barely being mobile due to injury. Ray Allen is shooting like Ray Allen again and Mickael Pietrus is doing his best Steve Kerr impression on the offensive end and looks like Metta World Peace defensively, back when he was Ron Artest. Oh, and the Celtics have that Rajon Rondo fella’.

Game 6 in Boston, a Heat team on the ropes, and arguably the best coach in all of basketball – Doc Rivers – has to be enough to knock off the hated Heat, right?

Here’s the thing though: if there is any team that can win these two games under the current set of circumstances, it’s Miami. The question is whether or not they figure it all out in time for tipoff on Thursday night and are able to sustain it for 92 minutes.

Slow Down, but not too much

The first problem the Heat have to eliminate is the turnovers. Miami turned the ball over 15 times in Game 6, which was good for 13 Celtics points. The Heat are in a funk offensively, especially in the half court. Cutting down on the turnovers and avoiding giving Boston any easy baskets will help Miami control the flow of the game. This will be extra important in the TD Bank Garden.

With all of this in mind, it’s imperative for the Heat to get out in transition in Boston. The earlier the better because if the Celtics are able to dictate the pace of the game early, Miami may not be able to muster a large enough counter attack with the way they’ve been playing.

Setting up to succeed

Miami head coach Eric Spoelstra has to find a fire extinguisher and quick, because the hot seat has never been so scorching for the young Heat headman. Spoelstra has to step up and take control of this team. Just take a look in the Miami huddle next time it’s on the screen. These guys could care less what ‘Spo’ is talking about and he may have already lost the team.

The end of Game 4 was one of the worst sequences imaginable for Spoelstra. I don’t know how you draw up a play for Udonis Haslem when you have two of the most lethal scorers in the world. What’s even more troubling is that Spoelstra did nothing to improve his stock in Game 5. If anything he’s made himself out to be even more of the scapegoat should the Heat do the unthinkable and blow this series after an early 2-0 lead.

Chris Bosh must play 25-30 minutes at a minimum if the Heat are to have any chance. Garnett is destroying Miami offensively and he has utilized the lack of inside scoring by the Heat to coast defensively this entire series. Bosh changes all of that and forces the future Hall of Famer to be active on the defensive end, which will open up more driving opportunities for LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.

If you watched closely on Tuesday night – especially in the second half – Boston had the paint sealed up tighter than an extra strength zip lock bag. Every shot inside was contested and Miami was forced to settle for jumpers. Wade was visibly tired down the stretch because Boston made everything he did on the offensive end difficult. Several times you could clearly see the Celtics were able to score in transition because Miami guys weren’t getting back. On several occasions James was just standing in the corner with his hands on his knees, looking exhausted.

One of the keys to an effective offensive attack is movement, especially for Wade and James. The biggest difference in the Heat offensive attack this season has been the two stars’ improved ability to move without the basketball.

Part of setting up the team to succeed is putting the right players in the game at the right time. Joel Anthony has to be utilized at least for a couple of minutes. He can give the Heat energy off the bench and bringing in fresh guys to battle KG may be the only way to contain the ‘Big Ticket.’

The James Jones experiment has failed. There were two or three plays in Game 5 that made me wonder if this guy has an ounce of athletic ability in his body. I counted at least three plays where Jones’ blunders led to Boston points. He’s in the game for instant offense and he hasn’t been producing enough to warrant any playing time.

Get back to fundamentals

I know it sounds cliché and it is, but everything was rushed in Game 5. Miami’s passing has to be crisper, it has to get after loose balls, and it has to pick up the defensive intensity.

When this team is playing their best basketball they’re turning defense into offense. It’s easy to apply yourself on defense and it can galvanize the entire unit on the floor. It happened with Boston in Game 5. The way it hamstrung Miami throughout the game helped get them going offensively when most of the guys in green struggled throughout the game.

Miami has to start communicating out there and lose this whole lethargic body language that has been present throughout these playoffs. At times I’m wondering if a number of Heat players aren’t bored or something.

If that’s the case, Thursday night should provide the perfect wake up call.

The stars must shine

Everything – right or wrong – is on the line for LeBron James. If this team falls short of making the Finals in its second year the floodgates are really going to open up on James, and I wonder if he’ll be able to swim in those waters.

This is the time when the great players get the most out of their teammates and somehow find the collective will to win that’s been so obviously lacking for this Heat team.

The interesting storyline in all of this is how well James has played this postseason. It’s been one of the most staggering statistical onslaughts in memory and he has looked just straight unstoppable for most of these playoffs. He’s doing everything too. He’s setting up teammates, rebounding the ball, playing suffocating defense – but if the Heat lose before they’re able to win two in a row, it will all be for nothing.

That’s the world LeBron lives in and it’s one he helped create. He’s said that every decision and motivation throughout his career has been because of his desire to win. If that’s the case he can’t wait any longer to let his teammates know exactly where everything stands. He needs to remind them why they’re all there. Who they are and what they need to do in these next two games.

Many believe James isn’t capable of this sort of leadership, and maybe he isn’t. But one thing is for sure, Miami’s playoff hopes rest on his shoulders and if he can’t inspire 11 other men to help him pull off a miracle, it’ll be another summer full of questions, and I know one thing for sure: Pat Riley is going to want some answers.

Podcast: Conference Finals Rundown

Mark and McNeill chatted about Boston struggling to close out games against Miami, Chris Bosh’s impact on Miami, the adjustments Scott Brooks made in Game 3, and how the Spurs can regroup.

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Here’s the link to download the MP3.

Rondo Continues To Be An Enigma

Rajon Rondo is a fascinating enigma.

At times, he’s transcendently brilliant—a throwback to a bygone era, where on-court vision and basketball I.Q. triumphed over size and strength.

Other times, he can be painfully frustrating—missing easy layups, passing up open shots, and doing his best impersonation of a sulking, moody teenager.

But Rondo is captivating to watch, in whichever incarnation you find him. He fixes butts on seats, glues eyes to television sets. At times he displays a confident Iverson-esque swagger, giving the impression that he can make the impossible possible, with his unique abilities.

Simply put, it’s hard to ignore him when he’s on the floor.

And no one was ignoring him last night—except maybe the Miami Heat defenders.

Last night’s Game 2 against the Heat, reemphasized what we’re all starting to realize about Rondo—he absolutely thrives on the biggest stage. Just check out his triple-double numbers when playing in front of a national audience—they’re outstanding.

Against a Heat team that was absolutely rolling, and looking to stick another nail in Boston’s postseason coffin, Rondo had the greatest game of his career.

He scored 44 points, shooting 16 of 24 from the field, while racking up 10 assists, and 8 rebounds. Even more startling was the fact that Rondo played every minute of the game. 53 in total! Rondo had only 3 turnovers in that time.

Rondo’s display ranks up there as one of the all-time great Celtics’ playoff performances—and there are plenty of those to choose from.

Of course, Rondo’s efforts were largely in vain. The Heat received big-time displays from their stars too, and some timely scoring from their bench. The backbreaking loss may prove to be the defining moment of the series for the Celtics.

Coming back from 0-2 down, against this Miami team, will be nearly impossible.

Whatever the impact on the series, however, the night belonged to Rondo. The basketball public was given a glimpse into a world where Rondo could be the greatest point guard alive.

Chris Broussard put it best during ESPN’s halftime show, when he said: “It’s the NBA’s worst nightmare: Rondo with a jump shot.”.

And he’s right. If Rondo can consistently knock down that 15-18 footer, watch out, world! Teams have become accustomed to giving Rondo space to shot, begging him to take that mid-range jumper, and willing to live with the consequences.

If Rondo can shoot even half as well as he did last night, on a regular basis, then he may just become un-guardable. Add a jump shot to a player that already has elite level basketball I.Q., athleticism, solid defense, rebounding, and unreal playmaking abilities, and we’re talking about a top-five player in the NBA.

This is all a massive ‘if’, of course. We may never see another shooting display like that from Rondo again. Even without a jump shot, his other elite attributes still make him a genuine all-star and top-5 point guard in this league—as well as being one of the most entertaining players to watch.

But boy, he could be so much more. We saw it yesterday and lets hope we see it again.

The Meaning Of Fo’, Fo’, Fo’, (Fo’) To Duncan

Not since Michael Jordan’s sixth title has a superstar had so little to gain by winning an NBA championship. Dirk Nowitzki needed his ring to cement his place among the greats. Kobe Bryant wanted so desperately to tie MJ that he managed to shoot the Lakers out of this year’s playoffs. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook long to stake their ground as the new sheriffs in the wild, wild Western Conference. And LeBron James just needs to win, and win fast.

Tim Duncan’s legacy, though, seems complete. He is a four-time champion, the best player of his generation, a top-10 all-timer and a no-discussion, first-ballot Hall-of-Famer. Jerry Sloan, long-time coach of that Karl Malone guy, called Duncan “probably the best player to ever play the position.”

If the individual accolades weren’t enough, Duncan scored David Robinson a pair of rings and turned Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker into potential Hall-of-Famers. At this point, winning a fifth championship is almost superfluous for the Big Fundamental.

But a Fo’, Fo’, Fo’, (Fo’)? The actual realization of Moses Malone’s 1983 playoffs prediction for his dominant Sixers team (who managed just a Fo’, Fi’, Fo’)? The addition of an extra Fo’? It would be the greatest run in NBA Playoffs history. It would give small-time, dusty old San Antonio (quietly the second-highest scoring team in the league) and boring, staid Timothy Theodore Duncan something they have never had, nor asked for: sex appeal.

No one would mistake Duncan for the best player on the Spurs’ roster, not for the past few years. But he is inarguably the team’s leader, and he remains a steady force in the paint, as evidenced by the 17-10-3 he has put up in San Antonio’s 10 postseason games (all wins, of course). This is Duncan’s team and will remain so until he retires.

The Fo’, Fo’, Fo’, (Fo’) and the glory that comes with, is his for the taking.

That said, he doesn’t much seem to care about his legacy—no more so than he cares about winning his next game. Duncan, the honors psychology graduate, might even suggest that a player’s legacy is little more than an intangible, third-party construct of the media and fans, a tool used to compare legends and generations and organize them just so.

And he might say that the Fo’, Fo’, Fo’, (Fo’), whatever it’s worth, is really for us. Because even knowing what we know, maybe we still feel the need for a bright, shiny ribbon to find, compare and come back to what, on the outside, we’ve decided is the bland, bank-shot packaging of Tim Duncan’s wildly successful career.

The Spurs Are Ready To Get A Little Nasty

It was expected the Western Conference Finals would be a classic battle, so it was a surprise to see the San Antonio Spurs down nine heading into the fourth quarter of Game 1 at home.

During a TV timeout late in the game, sideline microphones picked up Gregg Popovich imploring his team to, “get a little nasty.”

After his veteran team had coughed the ball up 15 times in the first half – they were third in the NBA this season and only averaged 13.5 turnovers – something seemed to click for the San Antonio Spurs in the fourth quarter. They opened the quarter on a 33-18 run and finished with a 39-27 advantage.

If that’s not nasty, I don’t know what is.

But here’s the thing: the Spurs have been nasty all season. It’s not like they flipped the switch all of a sudden during the fourth quarter of the Conference Finals. They had the best record in the Western Conference, they are currently in the midst of a 19-game winning streak, Tony Parker was an MVP candidate and Tim Duncan has found the fountain of youth in the playoffs.

Still, fans and a large contingent of the media continue to sleep on the Spurs. Why? Because they aren’t flashy. They don’t have players popping up on TMZ for indiscretions off of the court and they aren’t seen yelling on ESPN or Sportsnet after dunks.

Heck, they don’t even have players showing up in commercials hawking shoes or soft drinks.

All they do is win.

“I heard we were dead,” Duncan recently joked with a reporter.

Not dead, but “old” like your coach joked when he submitted the official reason why you were sitting out a game back in March. And, for the current twenty-something generation, old means boring.

Still, despite being on his death bed, Duncan is dragging his “old” body up and down the court while averaging 17.4 points and 9.2 rebounds in the playoffs.

The other old guy on the roster, Manu Ginobili, is rocking a solar panel on the back of his head while taking the NBA’s current sixth man of the year, James Harden, to school.

Twitter exploded during Game 1 with jokes that Harden should lend Ginobili some hair from his beard for his bald spot, but the sneaky Euro got the last laugh as he exploded for 26 points in only 34 minutes off the bench.

Plus, Ginobili was a key part of San Antonio’s surge in the fourth quarter that put the dagger into the hearts of the Thunder.

Harden, meanwhile, had a brutal game as he went 7-17 from the field.

Parker, not to be ignored, is averaging 19.0 points and 7.0 assists. His biggest contribution has been on the defensive end as he has frustrated Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook.

The heart of the Spurs, Popovich, is putting his counterpart, Scott Brooks to shame. During a pivotal stretch to start the fourth quarter, San Antonio went on a 18-5 run, yet Brooks failed to call a single timeout during that run.

Popovich was in rare form calling out his players to be more nasty, getting timeouts at key moments and maximizing matchups on the court.

It’s a shame that fans don’t appreciate the greatness of this Spurs franchise over the past decade But, as Popovich begged his team to do, the Spurs are willing to get a little nasty and gritty on the court if it helps them win a Championship. Who cares if it’s not flashy? Not the Spurs, because they are content with the shine that comes from winning, not from the media glare.

And, along the way, the Spurs are showing that even old guys can get nasty once in awhile.

Fisher’s Biggest Impact Not In A Box Score

Leadership, heart and courage are just a few words used to describe Derek Fisher by his Oklahoma City Thunder teammates, however, experience is what they claim to be the most important.

“He’s a great leader by example and with his voice,” Royal Ivey said. “He’s very calm and his demeanor is out of this world. That helps. He brings this kind of calmness to the team.”

Ivey went on to explain that Fisher’s knowledge on how to connect with every player in the locker room has been key in his ability to click with the team on such short notice.

Fisher joined the Thunder on Mar. 21 after playing and starting 43 games with the Los Angeles Lakers, the franchise for which he earned five NBA championships. The Lakers traded Fisher to the Houston Rockets. Houston bought out his contract and a few days later, he signed with Oklahoma City.

Oklahoma City was in need of a backup point guard due to Eric Maynor’s ACL injury suffered in January. Rookie Reggie Jackson filled in for Maynor, but his lack of experience forced the Thunder’s hand in signing Fisher.

“Being a veteran in this league and being at the pinnacle of winning championships really says a lot,” Ivey said. “Getting his wisdom, experience and competitiveness when he came on board was a plus.”

Fisher’s role took a dramatic change when he signed with Oklahoma City. For much of his career, he had been the starting point guard for the NBA’s  premier franchise. When he signed with the Thunder, he became the backup for the league’s youngest and arguably most talented team. He’s had success working with players like Westbrook, Ivey Kevin Durant and James Harden and has helped shine a light on winning in the Thunder locker room.

“Derek is a natural born leader,” Westbrook said. “He knows what it takes to win. He understands the things that you need to do to get better. He communicates to us what it takes to get to the next level and it’s really helped me, Kevin and James a lot.”

The practice court is no different for Fisher. His teammates claim that he still communicates like the starting point guard and provides advice when need be. In a short period of time, he’s become a valuable extension of head coach Scott Brooks.

“He does a great job of staying on guys,” Ivey said. “As a player and as a coach he’s a great leader. He’s a great teacher. He sees things that maybe Russell (Westbrook) or I don’t see and he does a great job of walking through and showing us. He’s just a great communicator.”

Fisher’s experience has shown so far in the playoffs. He’s averaging six points per game and is shooting over 53% from beyond the three-point line. He is also playing good defense at age 37. In the Lakers series he was asked to guard Kobe Bryant and had success on numerous possessions.

Going into their Western Conference Finals matchup with the San Antonio Spurs, the Thunder will look to Fisher for strong execution on both the offensive and defensive end in a limited amount of minutes.

Fisher doesn’t get the same playing time that he got in L.A., but he still contributes.

“What Derek (Fisher) brings to the team can’t be measured,” Brooks said. “His ability to connect in the locker room in such a short period of time has been huge for our young guys like Kevin, Russell and James. You can’t find that on a box score.”

Blake Griffin Needed Some Adversity

Blake Griffin is on the cusp of something tremendous, and it’s all thanks to an embarrassing sweep by the San Antonio Spurs.

Perhaps the most explosive player in the league, he plays the game with the sort of captured chaos that rewards the I’ll-wait-to-go-to-the-bathroom anticipation of crowds in every arena. He possesses the natural talent to put up a 22-11-4 every night and the personality to turn himself into one of the most marketable athletes in the country.

And yet, getting swept by the Spurs in the second round of the NBA Playoffs might be the best thing that ever happened to Griffin. For all his high-flying prowess, his ability to fill out a box score, his wry smile that makes us think maybe we should consider a Kia, Blake Griffin is a liability to his team. And Chris Paul can fix that.

Paul’s descriptors say it all: architect, magician, maestro. But above all, he is a mean-streak competitor who doesn’t tolerate losing. And although Paul has done many things to enhance Griffin’s game and confidence—including his allowing Griffin to be the final player announced at home games—this summer will say even more about their relationship and Griffin’s commitment to improving his game.

Had the Clippers advanced further, had they played a lesser team, had they squeaked out win after win on Paul’s “I got this” confidence alone, Griffin might not have seen that his offensive game needs to evolve quickly. He might not have been so easily convinced that his 6.9 boards-per-game average in the postseason is indicative of a player who needs to develop playoff physicality. And he might not have appreciated that he needs to spend the summer on the charity stripe, fixing the hitch in his motion.

A player of Griffin’s caliber needs to be dominant throughout the game. But Griffin, with his poor free throw shooting, predictable set of offensive moves and suspect defense, sometimes finds himself hindering his team during the most critical moments of close games.

According to 82games.com, Griffin was 85th among qualifiers in crunch time scoring this season, placing him behind such round-ball luminaries as Gordon Hayward, Mike Dunleavy and Gustavo Ayón. (82games.com defines “crunch time” as the fourth quarter or overtime, less than five minutes left, neither team ahead by more than five points.) He shot just 43% from the field and 58% from the line, and was among the top 10 in turnovers per 48 minutes—all numbers that, with Paul’s guidance and competitive push, can be improved upon.

Of course, Griffin is still a 23-year-old in his second year in the league. He might still be considering what the hell just happened in his first postseason. And he hasn’t yet begun to reach his mental prime. There’s plenty of time for him to develop on both ends of the court, but if he’s willing to learn immediately from this series, he’ll get there that much sooner.

LeBron James Steps Up For Miami

The knock on LeBron James so far during his NBA career has been that he wilts under pressure.

Too much of a spotlight in Cleveland? Bolt to South Beach to play with two of his buddies from the Olympics.

Too much attention during the fourth quarter of playoff games last season? Defer to his teammates and become a distributor instead of a lethal scorer.

But, with Chris Bosh out of action on Sunday due to an injury and Dwyane Wade playing through an injury of his own, James took the opportunity to put his stamp on Game 4.

Miami struggled to start the game and James scored his teams first points with an emphatic dunk. Indiana coasted to a 25-18 lead to end the first quarter, but King James did anything but coast. He went 4-9 from the field for a team-high nine points.

Throw in James’ three dimes in the opening quarter and his fingerprints were on seven of Miami’s first nine field goals.

When James wasn’t active looking for his shot, he was grabbing rebounds with one hand while holding off an Indiana defender with his other arm.

James finished the first half scoring 19 of Miami’s 46 points while going an efficient 8-14 from the field. His well-balanced game also included five rebounds and four assists.

What was impressive was James’ determination to attack Indian’s defense and either get easy points in the paint or draw fouls. In the second quarter James six of his seven shots came in the paint. This was just an extension of the first quarter where James was attacking the rim and attempted eight of his ten field goals in the paint.

James left the court at halftime with his shoulders dropping and a bewildered look on his face, almost asking, “What else can I do?”

Instead of forcing things in the third quarter or giving up in resignation, James allowed Wade to get some easy looks which got his teammates into a groove. Wade started the third quarter 3-3 from the field with all of those looks at the rim.

James, however, wasn’t a ghost during this stretch. He went 2-3 from the field and continued to be aggressive while helping Wade get into a groove.

Indiana called a timeout in an attempt to stop the bleeding and James answered with an emphatic dunk to pull Miami to within two points. On Miami’s next possession he attacked the rim and forced David West into fouling him and he made both free throws to tie the game at 61.

The play of Wade and James was huge in a 17-2 run that allowed Miami to secure a 68-63 advantage. James and Wade combined to score 27 points on 10-of-11 shooting in the third quarter.  This capped a run that started during the second quarter during which the duo combined 38 straight points for Miami.

Miami’s strong play culminated in a 30-16 advantage during the third quarter which helped move the heat from a seven point deficit at halftime to a six point lead heading into the fourth quarter.

Just when Indiana appeared to be making a run in the fourth quarter, James dunked a miss by Anthony that hushed the crowd. This pushed Miami’s lead back to five and Indiana wouldn’t be able to get any closer the remainder of the game.

One of the main reasons why Indiana wasn’t able to make a run to get back in the game is because West and Roy Hibbert spent most of the second half on the bench in foul trouble. This was in large part due to James attacking the defense and taking the contact on drives to the bucket.

In short, James was focused on getting Miami the win they would need to even this series at two games a piece. His stat line of 40 points, 18 rebounds, nine assists, two steals and two blocks was nothing short of flawless.

It’s a shame that a large group of fans and members of the media will turn a blind eye to James being the reason why Miami was able to snatch a win from the jaws of defeat.

Indiana Pacers Basketball Is Back

“Pacers basketball is back.”

Those were the words of Indiana Pacers head coach Frank Vogel following his squad’s series-clinching win over Orlando in the first round. Now, with the Pacers holding a 2-1 series lead over the Miami Heat, it certainly seems that Vogel was right.

Indiana placed 29th in league attendance during the regular season, but fans turned out in full force Thursday to help the Pacers defend their home court advantage. A sellout crowd of more than 18,000 provided a spark that led to the Pacers 94-75 Game 3 victory. Each fan received a gold t-shirt upon admittance, creating a vibrant aesthetic force to compliment the verbal one.

“It was the best building I’ve ever been in for basketball,” Vogel said following the win. “It was the best crowd I’ve ever witnessed.”

Seventh-year forward Danny Granger agreed.

“With all the gold, I was almost blind,” Granger said of the thousands of gold t-shirts in the stands. “I haven’t seen it like this since I’ve been here. We’re just thankful so many fans came out to support us.”

Granger is the longest-tenured Pacers player, having been selected by the team in the first round of the 2005 NBA Draft.

The Game 3 win came one day after president of basketball operations Larry Bird was named the 2011-12 NBA Executive of the Year. With the distinction, Bird became the first ever person to win league MVP, Coach of the Year and Executive of the Year honors.

“Larry [Bird] got Executive of the Year because he put together a team that likes to play together and share the ball,” center Roy Hibbert said. “That’s how we roll.”

Indiana’s unselfish, team approach to the game has yielded impressive results.

The Pacers finished the season with the fifth-best record in the league, with the franchise enjoying its most successful regular season since 2004. Despite the success, Indiana has been out of the national spotlight for much of the season, playing just one nationally-televised game during the regular season.

“We don’t need credit from the media to know what we can do,”  guard George Hill said. “As long as everyone in this locker room believes that we can win and everyone is on the same page, that’s all that matters.”

Indiana will attempt to take a commanding 3-1 series lead when it plays the Heat tomorrow afternoon.

The Pacers are confident that they can beat Miami.

“We felt confident when we found out we had the match-up with Miami,” second-year guard Paul George said. “We felt confident that we can win it all if we stay playing together.”

And while the Pacers themselves believe they can make a run at a title, there are still many skeptics who doubt the team’s chances.

“The way we’re playing—how hard we’re playing and the intensity we’re playing with—they’re going to have to believe at one point,” Granger said.

Bosh’s Absence Is Being Felt By Miami

The Miami Heat have only played two games without Chris Bosh, but already it’s become painfully clear the team has a Big Three, not a dynamic duo like many have joked the past two seasons.

This year Bosh was a starter on the All-Star team while posting less than impressive numbers with 18.0 points points and 7.9 boards. Both stats were well below the career averages that many journalists and fans feel were inflated due to his time playing for the Toronto Raptors.

Bosh’s critics were vocal in declaring that Miami doesn’t need his inflated salary and they would be better served moving him for some depth on the roster. However, those same critics have gotten silent after Bosh went down in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

Miami had a dominant  95-86 win in Game 1 of this series but they have looked beatable since.

The shift in momentum started in Game 2 when Indiana escaped South Beach with a win after bullying Miami around in the paint and on the glass.

The Pacers outrebounded the Heat 50-40 in Game 2 after Miami won the war on the glass 45-38 in Game 1.

Points in the paint were even at 38 in Game 2, but many of Miami’s interior points came from drives by LeBron James and Dwyane Wade which skewed this number a bit. This is a stark contrast to the Miami’s noticeable 52-40 advantage in Game 1.

Plus, the three “bigs” Miami played – Udonis Haslem, Ronny Turiaf and Joel Anthony – combined to score seven points. Yuck.

LeBron James admitted it was “taxing” to play power forward in Game 2 and things didn’t get much better in Game 3.

Things got off to a rough start when Dexter Pittman got the first start in the playoffs during his career.  Pittman was inserted into the game with the intent on muscling Roy Hibbert away from the bucket and the glass. That plan didn’t work out as Erik Spoelstra had planned as Indiana raced out to a 9-2 lead and Miami while Miami started the game shooting an abysmal 1-11 from the field. Pittman played the first three minutes of the game and didn’t see the court again the remainder of the game.

Hibbert started 4-4 from the field and scored eight points, grabbed five boards and swatted two shots in the first quarter alone. He finished with 19 points, 18 rebounds and five blocks. Miami clearly has no answer for Hibbert and that isn’t likely to change looking at how their roster is constructed.

While it may not show up in the stat sheet, David West did a brilliant job of taking James out of the game. James had 16 points in the first half while going 7-13 from the field. The second half, however, was a completely different story. James seemed to fatigue after being constantly bumped and elbowed by David West in the paint and he went 3-9 from the field to finish with 22 points. There were a couple of times West tossed James to the floor in the lane, and Danny Granger got in the James’ face after a foul on a breakaway where he tugged on Superman’s cape.

With James being slowed in the second half by the bruising play of West, Miami needed Wade to step up in a big way. Instead, Wade pulled a disappearing act and started the game 1-11 from the field and was held scoreless at the half. He looked listless and uninspired unless he was seen arguing with his head coach.

Instead of attacking the paint like he is known for, Wade seemed content to settle for perimeter jumpers and finished the game 2-13 from the field with only five points.

Bosh only had 13 points and five rebounds in 16 minutes of burn in Game 1 before leaving the game with his injury. Again, those aren’t flashy numbers, but this series is showing Bosh’s biggest impact isn’t always in the stat sheet.

It’s a shame some basketball fans and members of the media aren’t willing to give Bosh the credit he deserves.