Roy Hibbert, verticality and the new toughest call in the NBA. Mike Prada has more.
INDIANAPOLIS -- When Danny Granger checked into the Pacers’ lineup late in the first quarter against the Rockets on Friday night he received a thunderous standing ovation. A few minutes later he blocked a shot by Dwight Howard and the cheers came cascading down from the balcony. He took seven shots and missed six of them, which was to be expected after missing all but five games the last two seasons. But the one he hit also brought the crowd out of their seats.
"It was awesome," Granger said. "Just to be able to play in front of my home crowd again was a breath of fresh air."
The crowd’s reaction wasn’t surprising. This is Indiana after all, not Philly. But there was some angst about Granger’s return to a team that has become one of the league’s best. Pacer coach Frank Vogel isn’t worried. A few weeks prior when the team was in Boston, he told me that Granger would "be a beast" when he returned and that it was only a matter of time before he got his legs under him and recaptured his form.
During his pregame chat with the Indiana press, Vogel deflected question after question about how the former All-Star forward will fit on a team that now features Paul George at Granger’s old small forward position and the mercurial Lance Stephenson on the other wing.
"He’s a team first guy," Vogel said. "I don’t think it’s going to be a challenge at all. I don’t think it’s going to be a matter of fitting in. It’s going to be an adjustment period. The only way anyone can evaluate his play over the next month or so. He’s going to have some nights where he looks like the All-Star Danny Granger and some nights where he looks a little bit off."
Vogel isn’t hung up on traditional nomenclature, preferring guards, wings and bigs as his personnel groupings. To Vogel, Granger not only adds scoring punch, but also offers another big wing who can match up with the likes of Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
What did make Vogel happy was how Granger moved the ball, didn’t force the action and dug in on defense. It didn’t hurt that the Pacers played perhaps their most complete game of the season and buried the Rockets by 33 points, making his return a happy subplot as opposed to a main focal point.
"That’s exactly what he needed to do for this basketball team and I thought he had a great performance despite the numbers," Vogel said.
Granger’s return is an interesting reference point for a team that relied so heavily on his scoring for years, and then took off to unexpected heights when injuries forced him to the sidelines.
On the one hand, George has become a superstar in his absence while Stephenson has emerged from a curiosity into a force, albeit an unpredictable one. On the other, he fills an immediate void on the wing in their second unit that has tried to make do with the likes of Gerald Green and Orlando Johnson. It’s also telling that the Pacer players have few reservations about Granger’s return, believing that he will fit seamlessly back into the rotation.
"I think you saw it all tonight," George said. "He was able to share the ball. He was drawing guys to him. He didn’t force anything tonight and when he had opportunities to be aggressive offensively and look for his shot, he did. That’s what you’re going to see. Some nights he’s going to explode offensively. Some nights he’s going to miss a couple."
In some ways Granger is fighting the ghosts of the old Pacer teams that were coached by Vogel’s predecessor, Jim O’Brien. It’s an unfair proposition because while those were Granger’s most productive seasons, those teams are not remembered fondly here and Granger made sure to draw a line between then and now.
"I haven’t played that way for four years," he said. "Even when I was the leading scorer we punched the ball inside to Roy (Hibbert) and David (West). I led the team in scoring, but I got offense in transition, spot up three’s, coming off pindowns. Two years ago when we lost to Miami I wasn’t like a catch the ball, go one on one. I was never that type of player anyway. That kind of stopped after OB left where I just had to shoot a lot of shots. I think people forget that. The way I score, I don’t have to have the ball in my hands. That’s important with this team because we’ve got guys who are really good with the ball in their hands."
As for starting, Granger says he hasn’t given it a second thought. His only concern was getting back on the court. As for worries that he’ll disrupt what has become an excellent team in his absence, he was even more succinct. "No, that’s all I’m going to say. It doesn’t bother me."
On Nov. 22, the Boston Celtics scored just eight points in the third quarter against the Indiana Pacers, en route to their sixth straight loss. That game came on the heels of a disastrous road trip that saw them not just lose but get blown out by the Timberwolves, Rockets and Spurs.
It left them with a 4-10 record, which was essentially where everyone thought they would be at that point in the season. The losses mounted, the draft beckoned and no one gave them much of a second thought.
The next night in Atlanta, coach Brad Stevens moved Brandon Bass back into the starting lineup ahead of injured rookie Kelly Olynyk and the Celtics beat the Hawks. They won at Charlotte two nights later and ran off an 8-4 record including wins over Denver and Minnesota. They also beat the Knicks twice, including a ridiculous 41-point spread at Madison Square Garden.
Even in losses, the Celtics looked far better than they had earlier in the month. They dropped a game to an inspired Nets team, played the Clippers to the wire and lost by a single point against the Pistons who had roughed them up earlier in the season.
Suddenly they were in first place, albeit in the woeful Atlantic Division, but they kept that in perspective. Even the woeful Knicks are only a few games out of first. The real story was found deeper in the numbers where an offense that lacked creativity and scoring suddenly came alive, averaging 104.9 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com.
During that 12-game stretch, Avery Bradley shot 48 percent from the floor and 50 percent from behind the arc. Jared Sullinger averaged 15.4 points and 7.4 rebounds. Jeff Green played consistent basketball. Word that Rajon Rondo was getting closer to a return brought further optimism and then came the rumors of a deal for Rockets center Omer Asik.
It’s important to keep everything that’s happening with the Celtics in context. There is opportunity for someone -- anyone -- to emerge among the crowded field of mediocrity in the Eastern Conference, and a team with Rondo, Asik, Bradley, Sullinger and Green instantly becomes decent, for lack of a better word. ‘Decent’ is enough to enjoy a solid season and maybe even a playoff round or two considering the sorry state of the conference, but that’s not the end game.
That may seem like a curious route for the Celtics to take considering they are in the early stages of a rebuilding process. Why should they strive to be decent now when the lottery holds so much promise? The answer again is opportunity.
When Asik became available, Danny Ainge offered two players in Brandon Bass and Courtney Lee, whose contracts that extend past this season, and a protected future pick. Those are not prime assets. The Rockets rejected it and the Asik dream died on the vine when Houston’s self-imposed deadline passed. What’s telling is that the Celtics didn’t up their offer.
The chance to add a player they like at the cost of contracts they don’t want and a protected pick is a chance any smart front office would take. If it makes them better in the short run and opens up cap space in the long run, then all the better. Ainge has been clear from the beginning that he’s not putting all his chips on securing a top pick.
As has been noted in this space before, Ainge feels like he is dealing from a position of strength thanks to his young nucleus, his treasure trove of draft picks and Stevens, who has adapted quickly to the pro game. There is a constant evaluation process happening in Boston and no one should be surprised if they make a move that feels like one step forward, or even two steps back.
Christmas Day is arguably the NBA’s biggest regular season event and we’ve got no less than five games on the docket. Unfortunately, the schedule-makers did us no favors with some of these matchups, but we’ll play along.
Take your time opening presents. Enjoy a late brunch. Go out and make a snowman. There’s nothing to see here except two beaten down teams staring at the harsh glare of tattered expectations and broken dreams. But hey, maybe Kevin Garnett and Joakim Noah can get into the holiday spirit. Just keep those courtside mics on a 35-second delay.
This will be hyped as Kevin Durant vs. Carmelo Anthony and that’s fine as far as it goes, but it might be time to introduce the Sunday Shootaround Drinking Game to help us get through this one. Take it slow, we’ve got all day.
Drink once whenever:
Mike Woodson stares incredulously at the court
Andrea Bargnani takes an ill-advised jumper
J.R. Smith takes a shot, any shot
The Knicks botch a 2-for-1
You should be good and toasty by halftime and on the same elevated plane with your favorite Knicks bloggers who have been absolutely brilliant during these trying times.
The following matchups would be better than this one:
Miami vs. Indiana
Miami vs. San Antonio
Miami vs. Oklahoma City
Miami vs. The Other L.A. Team
Miami vs. Golden State
Miami vs. Houston
Miami vs. Portland
Miami vs. Kentucky
Ok, now we’re talking. Two good basketball teams and traditional rivals to tip-off the evening slate. You’ll probably have to involve the whole family so here’s some talking points:
1. Dwight Howard’s free agency was less about a pampered star wanting his own spotlight and more about establishing a new paradigm in franchise building.
2. Extol the virtues of the corner three and both teams’ significance in making it such an integral part of the modern game.
3. Explain why that angry man in the sideline interviews is in fact doing performance art.
4. Have a Euro-step contest during commercial breaks.
5. James Harden’s beard: Real or fake?
This one is for us. It’s our present from the league from suffering through an abominable slate of early games. Let’s all meet up on Twitter and talk about it.
The Shootaround goes on holiday hiatus next week, so let’s check in on some of the awards before saying goodbye to 2013.
MVP: LeBron James, Miami
Let’s get down to brass tacks, which means Kevin Love, Steph Curry and LaMarcus Aldridge have got to go. Great players having fantastic seasons, but it’s time to get serious. We’d love to include Paul George, but not yet. That leaves us with three choices: LeBron, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul.
You can make a solid case for all three. Durant is the best scorer, CP3 is the best playmaker and LeBron is the best combination of everything really, along with being the superior defender. It’s that last bit that separates him -- along with that insane .680 True Shooting Percentage -- but it still is a very thin line of distinction.
That says less about LeBron than it does Durant and Paul, and as always with the MVP race, there is a risk in overstating narrative. Bron’s backers will decry any attempt to unseat him as illegitimate, while his detractors will use any excuse to anoint a new king. That’s unfortunate because this should be about three wondrous talents having exceptional seasons. Right now, today, LeBron is the pick.
Rookie: Michael Carter-Williams, Philadelphia
Considering the struggles of Anthony Bennett and Cody Zeller, along with injuries to Otto Porter, Alex Len, Nerlens Noel and C.J. McCollum, this is one of the more underwhelming rookie classes in years. Even the front-runners have had injury problems.
That left Victor Oladipo by default and he’s veered wildly between great games -- like going for 26-10-10 against the Sixers -- and truly awful: witness his 1-for-12 outing against the Jazz. While inconsistency was expected as he adjusts to a new position and Oladipo still looks like a gem, it doesn’t make for a Rookie of the Year.
Despite missing 11 games, Carter-Williams has posted numbers superior to the other guards, so he’s the choice. Utah’s Trey Burke is also making a push now that he’s healthy. This race, depressing as it is, has barely begun.
Sixth Man: Reggie Jackson, Oklahoma City
Jackson is averaging about 12 points and 4 assists and rebounds per game, which are solid numbers to start the discussion. But bench play is about impact and changing the flow of the game. The Thunder are 16.2 points better than their opponents per 100 possessions when Jackson is on the court, per NBA.com. They are essentially neutral when he’s on the bench.
Jackson plays great when teamed with OKC’s other young players like Jeremy Lamb and Steven Adams and he’s also been a great fit with the starters, which is what sixth man play is all about. Honorable mention to the great Manu Ginobili who has recovered from his injury-plagued season and is doing Manu things again.
Defensive: Roy Hibbert, Indiana
He’s the anchor of the best defense in the league and his impact is so noticeable that it would be difficult for him to not win the award this season.
Coach: Terry Stotts, Portland
Brad Stevens and Jeff Hornacek deserve tons of credit for making their teams competitive and playing a style that suits their respective personnel. Charlotte’s Steve Clifford has made the Bobcats respectable with even less talent.
But the vote here is for Stotts who has led the Blazers from also-ran status to one of the best records in the league. That’s an immense jump and even more difficult than taking a bad team on paper and making it competitive.
Roy Hibbert, verticality and the new toughest call in the NBA. Mike Prada has more.
The Bulls are a mess and our man in Chicago, Ricky O’Donnell delves into their sorry state.
Something that gets lost in the Great Tanking Debate of 2013 is that you actually have to make good choices and that’s not limited to the top of the draft. Tom Ziller explains in The Hook.
Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio-Express News joins the Drive & Kick podcast to talk about the Spurs and share some Pop stories.
Doug Eberhardt tells us about the nail, and why it’s one of the most important spots on the court.
"In the event new investor partners are added, they will need to be as committed to keeping the team in Milwaukee as I am."-- Bucks owner Herb Kohl.
Reaction: Kudos to Kohl who is basically pulling an anti-Maloof by trying to keep the Bucks in MIlwaukee. Seattle still looms large here. As long as the city is without an NBA team and has a prospective ownership group willing to throw huge sums of money toward acquiring one, Seattle is a battering ram against resistance to building a new arena in Milwaukee or anywhere else that wants one.
"Never did I think I would come here and not play, otherwise I probably wouldn't have come. I had a bunch of other options, but I saw opportunity here."-- Lakers center Chris Kaman.
Reaction: Ah, the sad song of journeyman regret.
"Keep them away from me or they’ll want to change their majors."-- Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to a group of high school journalism students.
Reaction: You and me both, Pop.
"Mike’s taking the heat. If he said it’s his fault, it’s his fault."-- Carmelo Anthony after the Knicks botched numerous end-game situations in a loss to the Wizards.
Reaction: That’s the sound of the bus backing over Mike Woodson.
Pfft, one-trick pony.
A form Dwight Howard ought to consider.
Just practicing for the company picnic.
... at the Nets game ... not at courtside ... begging for a free t-shirt.