Category Archives: From the Land of Ray and Reggie

The People’s 2011 NBA Trade Value Column

Earlier this week, I was asked by the Knicks blogger who runs the imminently readable “What Would Oakley Do?” website to participate in the first annual “People’s NBA Trade Value Column” — the NBA blogosphere’s response to The Sports Guy’s annual NBA trade value column at ESPN.com.

If you realize nothing else about WWOD, know that it has everything to do with a chain of carwashes owned by “the roughest and toughest power forward ever to own a chain of carwashes,” which met with hearty approval from The Bob Boozerjinx editorial board.)

Also know that, while I don’t mind The Sports Guy Bill Simmons so much, there is much about ESPN coverage of the NBA that I find truly abominable, so I jumped on board to be the Bucks’ voice in The People’s Trade Value Column.

This basically entailed figuring out who I would trade Andrew Bogut for straight up, taking age, health, salary and contract length into consideration.  Brandon Jennings has, as most Bucks fans realize, fallen out of consideration for this Top 50 list and the Bucks don’t have anybody else quite worthy of consideration unless it’s the Mbah a Moute-Ilysaova monster at power forward.  I decided to make a note on Ilyasova and leave it at that.

Would I trade Bogut for Kevin Garnett?  Maybe, but then I looked at KG’s contract and dismissed the idea.  I wouldn’t trade Bogut for Chris Bosh unless Bogut couldn’t walk, but then Bosh’s contract moves Bogut ahead of Bosh, too, on the list.  It all seemed fairly sensible until I read Simmons Trade Value Column this morning.

Simmons, in a podcast preview, had Bogut at about 30th, ranked with KG and Bosh, guys whose contracts are a lot more onerous the Bogues’, so I had in mind that I would probably move him up a few spots.   But in Simmons’ published version, he dumped AB all the way down to #40, at the head of a group that included Nene, Luis Scola, Danny Granger, Paul Millsap and Kevin Martin.  And Simmons failed to mention that Bogut is playing with one arm this season.  For reasons known only to someone who lives in L.A., Simmons then irrationally ranked notoriously injured Lakers center Andrew Bynum ahead of them all, despite his more-expensive-than-them-all contract.

Without further ado, here was my response:

Brandon Jennings is Simmons’ “toughest omission.”  The part of that I would argue with is this “toughest” thing.  Brandon’s a great kid who’s so quick he makes John Wall look like Chauncey Billups, and Isaiah Thomas raves about him in the March issue of GQ as one of the NBA’s top “five under 25” — but BJ has some growing to do.  He may never shoot consistently well enough to be a winning NBA point guard, and the Bucks should be open to offers for him.  Ouch, the Sports Guy is right — it is tough to come to that conclusion.

Ersan Ilyasova would be a much tougher omission if anybody at ESPN could remember his name. The Bucks starting power forward’s star will rise as fast as the Bucks allow it to, which is to say that the team has not allowed Ilyasova’s star to rise even as they’ve discovered that he’s making every five-man rotation he’s a part of play winning ball (+/-).  The hope here is that the Bucks will set his value (he’s currently a steal at $2.5 million per year, next season unguaranteed) without interference from the rest of the league. We may not get there, but he deserves consideration as a “cost effective building block.”  (Let’s call this a “watch list” note).

22. Andrew Bogut. When your center dominates the second half of a nationally televised NBA without taking a shot, there are two logical reactions.  The first is to wonder why the biggest man on the court isn’t getting more touches in the offense, and what could possibly be wrong with either the biggest man on the court or his teammates.  The second is to start counting blocked shots and rebounds and, oh there’s the charge he just took, and to look at the beleaguered faces of the guys on the other team fighting in the paint with your center, possession after weary possession. A third (and completely obligatory) reaction is to look up at the scoreboard, where you see that your team is ahead by 5 midway through the 4th quarter against the rugged sea of tattoos that are the Denver Nuggets.

The Bucks managed to lose the game down the stretch, but then, your center isn’t the player who threw the ball away in transition after he killed another Nuggets possession with a blocked shot.  Your center didn’t shoot 1-for-18 from the 3-point line or put himself in a position where the coach has to play him 44 minutes to give your team a shot at winning the game.  All Andrew Bogut did against Denver was grab 20 rebounds, block five shots, alter countless others, take a charge and control the defensive paint while wearing the Nuggets down and putting his team in position to win the game.

Bogut does this night in and night out. He’s 5th in the league in rebounding (11.5 per game) and leads the league in Defensive Plays (blocks, steals, charges taken) clocking in at just over 4 per game.

People, all this is difficult to trade and well worth the $13 million per year that the Bucks are paying Bogut through 2014.  That’s full time, borderline All-Star/All-NBA center pay in the NBA, and it’s less of a commitment than the Bulls have made to Joakim Noah, who’s under contract through 2016. Noah’s health has been worse than Bogut’s, believe it or not, and he’s been routinely outplayed by Bogut on the occasions that they’ve gone head-to-head.  Wherever one stands in the Bogut-Noah debate, edge to Bogut based on more reasonable length of contract.

Would you rather have Josh Smith’s shorter contract (2013, $25.8 million) and a hole in the pivot?  No.  And Bogut’s DPOY play at center gives him an edge over the other guards and forwards ranked behind him in the “borderline franchise player” group.

Want more efficient offense out of Bogut?  Trade for Al Horford or Amar’e Stoudemire, the big men ranked just ahead of Bogut.  But note that AB is clearly out of the can’t-win-with-Chris-Kaman-woods and is one of the better passing big men in the game.  And did we mention that his right arm, mangled in a horrific fall last March, is still on the mend?

Bogut’s scoring 13 points per game in the NBA with one arm, but we’re the Milwaukee Bucks, so, no — we’re not infuriated that you asked us about his availability.

So there you have it.  My thinking was to simply organize Simmons list and move Bogut up into a group of “Borderline Franchise” players that are (or will be in Joakim Noah’s case) working under $12 million per year contracts and all happen to play in frontcourt.  It’s a natural grouping that Simmons mixed up by putting in … the Warriors starting backcourt and Eric Gordon?   The result looks like this:

25. Rudy  Gay

24. Josh Smith

23. Joakim Noah

22. Andrew Bogut

21. Al Horford

20. Amar’e Stoudemire

No, that’s not an acknowledgement that Horford, or Stoudemire for that matter, are centers (Horford’s not; Amar’e plays more center for the Knicks than Horford does in Atlanta) but more of a nod to the fact that Horford’s right hand works better than Bogut or Noah’s.

Stoudemire begins Simmons’ first “Franchise” group, and rightly so, though I’m pretty sure he and D’Antoni will never deliver a championship.

Celebrating Ray Allen as the generally uninteresting Jerry Sloan era ends

NBA-TV has been reporting all day (Thursday) that coach Jerry Sloan and the Utah Jazz have scheduled a press conference for 5 PM (EST) and it is expected that Sloan will resign as Jazz coach after 23 years.

The Jazz have, in fact, accepted the resignations of Sloan and his top assistant, Phil Johnson, ending an era of stability in Utah that went on and on longer than any coaching run in North American “big four” professional sports; it was an era in which nothing terribly exciting or interesting ever really happened for the sports team from Utah.

There was “the shot” drained by Michael Jordan in game six of the 1998 NBA Finals to finish off the Jazz, but even that moment — a moment that belongs to Jordan and the Bulls — seemed less exciting and interesting than it might have been had the Jazz been elsewhere at the time.

It was a shot had been shot before, heard previously around the world against the Jazz in another game six of the NBA Finals, in 1997, with Steve Kerr doing the honors for the Bulls off a routine draw and kick from Jordan.

Yes, Jerry Sloan’s Jazz teams ran steadily like clockwork, played good defense, were consistently good and remarkably efficient — but they were never interesting or great.  Point guard John Stockton and power forward Karl Malone were likewise consistently good, remarkably efficient, an offensive clock ticking off the Stockton-Malone pick-and-roll — but there was nothing dynamic about the duo, and they never achieved greatness.

So the Jerry Sloan era — defined as it was by Jordan even as it failed to push to Jordan to further greatness or a game seven (Patrick Ewing‘s Knicks were the more worthy foils) — is over.  It’s about time, one might say, if only the timing had been better.

Tonight was expected to be a night to celebrate the greatness of Ray Allen, who needs to make just two high arching expressions of basketball beauty from Downtown to become the most prolific three-point shooter in NBA history.  That may happen tonight in Boston when the Celtics meet the Lakers.  It may even happen over the outstretched hand of Kobe Bryant, Allen’s longtime nemesis.

If the basketball gods are watching — and they surely will be — they might marvel at Allen’s longevity as the game’s most dangerous shooter.  They might wonder at the perfection of his shot, or pass a comment or two on Kobe’s competitiveness, reflect on the panicked despair that fell upon the faces of the Celtics last June when they realized they were on the brink of losing game seven.

Reggie Miller, the current career three-point shot record holder, will be on hand in Boston, in the TNT broadcast chair, fittingly, appropriately.  This was to be Ray and Reggie’s night, a night to celebrate the art of shooting a basketball and the poetry of the game’s finest point. It even offered the possibility that two of the game’s great shooting guards might, for a change, take the spotlight from Kobe.

This was not a night to attempt to define the Jerry Sloan era, 23 years in which so many of the things taking place in the NBA were much more interesting than whatever it was that was happening with the team from Utah.

Halfway Report: Grizzlies loss a microcosm of season, in miniature

The Bucks stumbled to the halfway point of the NBA schedule with a 16-25 record, losing to the Grizzlies 94-81 Saturday night at the BC in a style Bucks fans have become accustomed to this season.  Analyze the game, and it suffices pretty well as an encapsulation of the season.

1) Andrew Bogut, ailing all season with back issues, a mysterious virus and his recovering right paw, was less than superlative.  He was outplayed by Marc Gasol, who recorded his first 20-10 game of the season (24 points, 16 rebs).  This was the type of performance by Bogut that has made this season a trial for the Bucks, and the type of loss that may keep him off the 2011 All-Star team.  Bogut had 14 pts, 9 rebs, 3 blks, 2 stls but wasn’t the center making competent decisions on the floor. That center was Gasol.

“It was an ugly basketball game for most of the night and they outplayed us. Gasol, he killed me tonight and he had a lot of easy baskets and post moves. Their bigs really played well.”  – Bogut after the game.

“Ugly basketball game” might have been a reference to the terrible refereeing.  The whistle-blowers were bad, even by NBA standards.  An inexplicable 2nd foul call on Bogut three minutes into the game shackled him for most of the first half.   One highly questionable and two “how-much-does-the-zebra-have-on-this-one?” calls against the Bucks in the 3rd quarter changed the game and pushed the Griz out to a 59-46 lead.  But this is supposed to be a microcosm game for the season. No referee beefs allowed, unless it’s to say that the Bucks have, at times, been a hard luck team.

2) Starting guard John Salmons, the Bucks second leading active scorer, missed his 2nd game due to a hip problem.  The Bucks lead the NBA in starter games missed, even if you don’t count Drew Gooden as a legitimate starter.  They played their 17th game without injured Brandon Jennings is recovering from surgery on a bone fracture in his left foot and may return this week.  The Bucks are 6-11 without their point guard.  They need him.  Earl Boykins really likes to dribble around and dribble around and shoot.

3) The Bucks guards shot 12 out of 47 from the floor, 25.5 percent.  Everybody else shot 22 of 43 – 51.2% – and were good enough to beat the Grizzlies.  Is it too late to send Keyon Dooling back to free agency?   Carlos Delfino played too much in his second game back from head injuries, and shot too much. Chris Douglas-Roberts started the game but was benched after the first quarter.

4) Ersan Ilyasova was yanked by Skiles in the third quarter and did not return to the game.  Why?  He was burned twice by shaky officiating on two possessions, one against Gasol after he and Bogut switched; the other on a shoulder-first move by Zach Randolph in the post.  Add this Grizzlies loss to the long line of “Ersanity Factor” games, with this one emphasizing the illogic of Skiles’ yanks and how they hurt his team.

Ilyasova and Randolph were having a good battle, with Ilyasova playing 16 mins in the first half, some of it at center when Bogut got hit with foul trouble.  The halftime score was 43-40 Grizzlies.  The Bucks were behind, not because Randolph was having a game — he wasn’t.  Gasol was.  The Bucks guards were both shot-happy and bad.  Ilyasova and Corey Maggette, along with Bogut, seemed to have matters under control in the 3rd but for the refs dictating the game.  Skiles first pulled Ilyasova, then sat Maggette down.  With his starting forwards on the bench, the Bucks quickly found themselves down by 18, 72-54.

When the Bucks by mid-4th quarter pulled to within four against the Grizzlies bench, it seemed the ideal time for Skiles go back to Bogut and his starting forwards.  Most coaches would have, and trusted them to finish a win at home.  But not Skiles, who left the reserves on the court too long and didn’t call Ilyasova off the bench at all.

Ilyasova’s critics will say that he’s inconsistent (code for “his shots don’t always go in the basket”), and this has justified Skiles’ short leash. Earlier in the season, Skiles was pulling Ersan after consecutive misses.   Now it seems the coach will yank him even when he isn’t taking shots.  Ersan on Saturday was three for five from the floor, six points, and had locked into his matchup against Randolph, which — if nothing else, was adding drama to the game that Skiles didn’t seem to appreciate.

Ersan, after the Grizzlies game, was tied for 18th with Dwyane Wade and David West in NBA defensive rating at 100.9 points allowed per 100 possessions played.  They’re in a group of five Top 20 defenders rated between 100 to 1oo.9 that also includes Tyson Chandler (100.5) and Lebron James (1oo.8).

With the loss, the Bucks record fell to 6-16 in games where Skiles has played Ilyasova fewer than 24 minutes.  Prior to Saturday’s loss, the most previous example of Skiles not playing Ilyasova in the 4th quarter was the Bucks’ lethargic loss in Houston.  The Bucks are 10-9 when Ilyasova plays 24+ minutes.

5. The Packers kick it off against the Bears at 2 pm this afternoon, and NBA league pass is free this weekend.  Time for me to stop worrying about the Bucks and Scott Skiles for at least a few hours.

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The Atlanta Hawks bounced back in Charlotte from their 100-59 humiliation to CP3 and the Hornets Friday.  Mike Bibby sparked the 3rd quarter offensive bust-out that made the difference in the game.  Joe Johnson was sharp (32 points) after shooting 1 for 16 against N’Awlins.  It was all very unspectacular and surprisingly ho-hum.  With Al Horford out nursing an ankle sprain, the grind-out, Eastern Conference style of the game went more the way of the Hawks, and  Charlotte didn’t put up much resistance after Bibby and Johnson’s offensive burst in the 3rd.  A team can’t let the Hawks feel good about themselves for any length of time, or their jumpers begin to fall like rain from all over the gym.  The ‘Cats understand this defensively, knowing both sides of the schizophrenic Hawks, and usually give the Hawks more trouble than they can handle in Carolina.  If only the ‘Cats offense would cooperate.

Stephen Jackson was horrible for the fifth game in a row, digging a steep production crater on the Bobcats’ wing.  It seems that ESPN’s Jackson to Dallas or Chicago trade campaigns are out to kill perceptions of Jackson as a reliable scorer.  It’s not that the extra attention and interest in Jackson has caused a slump — these slumps of his are natural.  The seven for 17 shooting guard who makes 2 of 6 threes looks good on paper, but he doesn’t shoot seven for 17 every game — the bad streaks are horrendous, as Jackson and the Bobcats know well.

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The Knicks want two All-Stars, Amar’e Stoudemire and Raymond Felton.  Saturday in Oklahoma City, Felton played like he wanted it, too, and was out to create the highlight plays that could help get him to Los Angeles next month.  Unfortunately, that wasn’t good for Felton’s teammates, who received all of one dime from their point guard in the second half.  The highlight play never materialized as Felton, possession after possession late in the 4th and went one on one against Russell Westbrook.  He hit one shot — a tough step-back, fallaway jumper with Westbrook in his face. The rest rimmed out, one drive drawing nothing but air.  The Thunder inched closer until they had the ball and a tie, with six seconds left on the clock after the Felton’s final exercise in one-on-one futility.  Kevin Durant calmly dropped a three-pointer from the far wing at the buzzer to win 101-98.

Kevin Durant (30 pts in the game) is an All-Star.  Raymond Felton?  Ten points, 5-for-16 shooting, seven assists … not an All-Star.  Ray’s not doing anything differently this season except shooting more, making a lower percentage and playing in New York.  If his assists are up (and they are with the Knicks), remember that last season he was a Bobcat.  Felton’s 2011 teammates, Amar’e Stoudemire for example, know a thing or two about scoring off a pass.

The Knicks loss dropped their record to 22-21, just five games ahead of the 10th place Bucks in the Eastern Conference.  The Knicks are in 6th and would play the Bulls if the playoffs started today.  … There’s nothing odd or controversial about the Knicks fall to the .500 zone of NBA mediocrity. The Knicks schedule has begun to even out after they feasted on NBA patsies like the Raptors and Wizards.  While the Bucks are 1-0 against the Wiz and haven’t played the Raptors, the Knicks are 5-0 against those Eastern Conference powerhouses.

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QUOTE OF THE WEEK:

“It’s not fun playing aggressive and really trying to apply some energy, and get penalized for it. A lot of guys are playing very, very physical toward me. I’m starting to get injured a lot. My shoulders, arms, hands are starting to get banged up a lot. It’s a little frustrating.”

Amar’e Stoudemire, after the Spurs beat him up on their way to a 101-92 win in San Antonio Friday.  Typical Amar’e.  Sounds like what he said after Andrew Bogut and the Bucks blew the Knicks out in Milwaukee earlier this season.  He accused Bogut of cracking him with an elbow under instructions from Scott Skiles to “retaliate” against him for pushing Bogut in the back on a breakaway last March and causing the momentum that caused the fall that mangled Bogut’s arm and finished his 2011 season.  “What play is he talking about” Bogut wondered.

The Knicks loss to the Thunder the next night was their 6th straight.

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Pacers vs. Nuggets: What a brawl a game against the Denver Nuggets is.  The Pacers and Tyler Hansbrough — who shot a lot for a guy who’s averaging 7.2 pts a game — weren’t quite ready for it, though they worked hard to keep it relatively close even as Carmelo Anthony was raining six three pointers on them in the 3rd quarter

Ty-bro, by the way, had a career high 27 in this one, which they needed to keep the score close because Danny Granger didn’t show up, then left the game with a sprained ankle. I don’t think Danny’s going to the All-Star game this year.  … The Ty-Bro show was by design, obviously.  The Nuggets frontline is about the same 6’8″- 6’9″, same limited wingspan, and, like Ty-bro, they’re strong, only wider and closer to the floor.  “Get that shit outta here,” Keyon Martin shouted as he blocked a Ty-bro post move in the 3rd quarter.  But Ty-Bro kept coming at the Nuggets and had his midrange game on target.

Martin’s lost a few steps in recent years but he’s still full of intimidation and noise, if not much else. 25 mins — 4 pts, 4 rebs would have Bucks fans demanding that Skiles yank the power forward.

There wasn’t much the Pacers, who played the night before in Portland, could do in this Sunday night game but collect the ball out of the net while Carmelo and friends were having far too much fun on their home court.  But down 15 at the end of the 3rd, the Pacers were still D-ing up with intensity, trying to stay in the game.  But they couldn’t get any closer against J.R. Smith, Al Harrington and the Nuggets bench.

The Pacers are now 16-25, tied with the Bucks, who’ve beat their Central Division rivals twice this season. In many statistical measures, the Pacers and the Bucks come out fairly even — they’ve both been a bit unlucky, based on what they’re scoring and giving up.  The Pacers defense is in the Top 10, while they play a pace quicker than the Bucks, but they’re still look like a team growing.  The Bucks 16-25 comes with a roster-full of injury problems against the toughest schedule of any Eastern Conference team.

Only the Mavs have played a slightly tougher schedule than the Bucks, based on opponent record.

Corey Maggette trade murmurs and John Salmons bombs from the Land of Ray and Reggie

With the first ever Packers-Bears NFC Championship on tap Sunday, few heads in cheesehead-land are wrapped around the goings-on of the Milwaukee Bucks.  This is not necessarily a bad thing considering the Bucks are ten games under .500, 12 games behind the Bulls and only a half game ahead of the hapless Pistons in 10th place.

Center Andrew Bogut‘s health continues to be an issue, team chemistry issues won’t go away, and, in a hapless effort in Houston on Martin Luther King Day, the Bucks lost their 10th game in the absence of injured Brandon Jennings (left foot fracture).

The Bucks looked dead in Houston, listless, out of gas, hungover, out-of-sync, bewildered.  If nothing else, they miss Jennings’ relentless energy even when shooting 5 for 16.

Tonight the Bucks are at the Bradley Center against rookie John Wall, coach Scott Skiles’ old protoge, Kirk Hinrich, Rashard Lewis, Nick Young and the Wizards. Perhaps Packers QB Aaron Rodgers will be in usual seat courtside, perhaps not.  If watching the Bucks lose at the BC has become part of Rodgers’ ritual of pregame preparation, it is most definitely working.

And if Bucks trade rumors are swirling around in winter Wisconsin, nobody is paying much attention.  The Carmelo-to-New-Jersey deal breaks down. Life in Packerland goes on. The Bucks beat the Wizards 100-87 while the Sixers and Pacers lose, and the Bucks are just a game out of the 7th playoff spot.  Packers-Bears kickoff is at 2 p.m. Central, Sunday.

There has been, however, one solid, honest-t0-Gooden Bucks related lead on the trade rumor mill:

Corey Maggette’s name has surfaced on the Dallas Mavericks “radar” in their search to replace forward Caron Butler, who popped the ligaments in his knee New Years Day in Milwaukee and is finished for the season. Butler says he plans to be back in time for the playoffs but the Mavs have been canvassing the league for small forward scoring.

ESPN The Magazine’s Ric Bucher mentioned in a (Jan. 13) Thursday night visit with 103.3 FM’s Ian Fitzsimmons that the Mavs and Bucks have discussed Maggette’s availability. Maggette, though, is even more expensive than [Stephen] Jackson, with more than $21 million left on his contract through 2012-13 after this season. Jackson is likewise a far better fit with his ability to stretch the floor, passing eye, defensive ability and proven toughness. If Philadelphia’s younger and more versatile Andre Iguodala is too expensive, Maggette is way too expensive for what he can deliver.

OK, so Maggette’s probably a bad idea for the Mavs, in light of the availability of the Bobcats’ Jackson and Detroit’s readiness to part ways with Tayshaun Prince.  Then there’s Melo, with Dallas no longer quite the longshot in the sweepstakes that they were before the Nets nixed the deal. Apparently.

But not to be so easily discouraged by ESPN, the Bucks moved Maggette into the starting lineup Monday in Houston and Maggette scored 25 in a season-high 38 minutes.  The Mavs big need sans Butler is offense. “We Have Offense!” Maggette and the Bucks showcased in Houston.

The Mavs would prefer a good long range shooter who can create his own offense without getting in Dirk Nowitzki’s way.  That’s what Butler (15 pts per game, 48.7% efg, a career-high 43% from behind the arc) gave them.  That’s not Maggette, a career 32% three-point shooter whose m.o. is to commandeer the ball, take it to the hoop head-down and look for a foul.  32% from Downtown?  Maggette hasn’t shot above the 26% he’s currently shooting for the Bucks since he left the Warriors in 2008.

And until this season in Milwaukee, Maggette has never been accused of being anything but indifferent to defense, much less playoff intensity defense.  This is where Jackson and Detroit’s Prince become the preferred options for Dallas.

But is Stephen Jackson really the shot-creator — I should say “the shot maker” — the Mavs are looking for?  Jackson’s playoff experience in recent years has been limited to four losses against the Orlando Magic last season — four games in which he shot 35% and needed 20+ opportunities to get his 18 points per game.   Things would open up for Jackson with Dirk commanding double teams, but he’s still not a highly efficient scorer who changes a game in the playoffs. In Charlotte, he’s more the guy the Bobcats play through on the wing. In Dallas, that’s Dirk in the high post.

If Jackson’s not the guy, the Mavs don’t have to look far to find a player who fits their needs to a Texas T.  He’s right next to Maggette in the Bucks current starting lineup, and is less expensive than any of the forwards ESPN has mentioned on the Mavs radar:   John Salmons.

The Fish, it should be famously remembered, came to Chicago in a trade from Sacramento in 2009 and filled in at small forward for injured Luol Deng during the Bulls end-of-season 2009 playoff run. Salmons then shocked — and thrilled — the basketball gods by gunning the Bulls into a Game 7 against the Celtics, scoring 35 clutch points in the classic triple-overtime Game 6 in Chicago.  In that series, he guarded Paul Pierce.

After the Bulls traded Salmons to the Bucks last February, he did it again as the Bucks finished 22-8 and pushed heavily favored (and strangely out of focus) Atlanta to a Game 7 in the first round of the playoffs.  In Games 3, 4 and 5, Salmons averaged 21 on a remarkably efficient 12.3 shots (shooting 18-19 from the line) and won his battle with Hawk All-Star guard, 6′-7″ Joe Johnson on both ends of the floor.

The edge that Salmons gave the Bucks in his matchup with Johnson enabled the Bucks, playing without injured All-Pro center Andrew Bogut, to a 3-2 series lead.  No, the Bucks didn’t win the series, but that’s the kind of edge the Mavs are looking for.

Salmons, like Jackson, is a proven 18 ppg scorer, but doesn’t require the volume of shots Jackson takes to do it.  Unlike Jackson, he’s a legitimate 3-point gunner, shooting over 40% in his last 197 NBA games, dating back to the start of the 2008-09 season in Sacramento (He’s currently shooting 42% from three).  Mark Cuban,  have you looked at Jackson’s shooting numbers? If 33% from 3-point line (Jackson’s career average and also what he’s shot in the last three seasons) can be deemed “ability to stretch the floor” in the eyes of ESPN analysts, what does 40 percent give you?

Salmons fits the Mavs other prerequisites arguably as well, if not better, than Jackson. He’s 6′-6″ and plays tough, playoff-ready defense, has ability to guard forwards (Johnson and Pierce), and he moves the ball well (3.1 assists per game).  Defensively, he did about as well as one could expect guarding Kobe Bryant in the Bucks win against the Lakers in Los Angeles last month, and he’s rugged enough to keep Ron Artest occupied.  Against the Spurs, Salmons’ natural matchup is forward Richard Jefferson, but he’s good to have around when relief is needed against Ginobili or Parker.  Kevin Durant?  Jackson might have the edge there but then, this move by the Mavs is primarily about playoff-tested offense, isn’t it?

Salmons has the edge in cost, at least over the next three years — $8 million this year, $8.5 million next year, 5 yrs – $33.16 million guaranteed, only $1 million in the final year. Jackson: 3 years – $27.77 million. Butler’s contract is a $10.56 expiring, which works straight up for Jackson but not for Salmons, which the Bucks and Mavs would have to work out.

Drew Gooden (5 yrs – $32 million) was a Mav for 46 games last season before being traded to the Wizards as part of the deal that brought Butler to Dallas. Dallas owner Cuban on Gooden:

“Damp [Erick Dampier] is having problems with his knees and requires rest every now and then, and we were in a spot without having a shot-blocker behind him. Drew did a great job. He laid it out there every game for us to try to fill in. Going into the season we thought that would work, and it just didn’t play out as planned.”

Gooden would add to the Mavs frontline scoring depth behind Tyson Chandler (who’s knees are fine) and Dirk.  Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson were also part of that trade with the Wizards.  Haywood, a true center, may have become expendable in Dallas.

If the Mavs realize that it’s John Salmons they really want, and not Maggette or Jackson — then it’s up to Bucks GM John Hammond to decide which of the deals he made last summer — signing Salmons and Gooden, trading for Maggette — were mistakes. I know, that’s asking quite a lot.

With Carlos Delfino planning to return to practice today and Maggette, Salmons, Chris Douglas-Roberts and Luc Mbah a Moute all vying for playing time, Hammond’s got to come to some decisions before the All-Star break.

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Good luck trading Drew Gooden.  It’s not easy finding a team that might be interested in Bucks big forward Drew Gooden, who’s slowing down considerably as he nears 10-year veteran status.  Now ol’ Drew is telling the world that his plantar fasciitis and bad heel are hurting so bad that he can’t jump. Hard to find a taker for a 5-year-$32 million, immobile big man who can’t jump.  Dallas?  Orlando?

“radar” in their search to replace forward Caron Butler, who

Feeling sorry for the Knicks because … they’re still the Knicks

I’m watching the Heat destroy the Knicks in New York in the second half and find myself feeling sorry for the Knicks.  This game was tied at 59 in the 3rd quarter.  A few minutes later it was a blowout as the Heat clamped down and the Knicks offered little more than token defensive resistance to Lebron, D-Wade, Bosh and Arroyo.  Even Joel Anthony got into the act as the Heat outscored the Knicks 54-32 from the 3rd quarter tie on.

Why feel sorry for Amar’e Stoudemire and his coach, Mike D’Antoni, who came into the game with a 16-10 record, 5th in the East, just a half game behind the 4th place Magic?

Because the Knicks just made it too easy for the Heat — something the Bucks refused to do two weeks ago at the Bradley Center, the last time I saw the Bucks play live.   Where the Bucks clawed at Lebron every time he touched the ball, the Knicks gave him a yard to survey the floor and decide how he was going to make them pay for it.  Where the Bucks scrambled for loose balls, the Knicks lost the 50-50 battles every time.  Where the Bucks made D-Wade fight for his game-leading 25 points, the Knicks let him waltz through their defense unattended.

After one long Knicks miss, Lebron broke out leading a three-on-three break and Chris Bosh cut to the basket, open for an instant but with two Knick defenders in the vicinity.  Lebron held the dribble top right, looked away, paused … and fired a no-look bullet pass to Bosh for a layup.  Bosh hadn’t moved from his spot — yet none of the Knicks near the hoop had bothered to pick him up. (Thinking back, James’ look-away fake seems gracious – he assumed — wrongly — that the Knicks were interested in defending Bosh.)

I felt sorry for the Knicks because, despite their 16-11 record, they’re still hapless and there’s little they’ll be able to do about it.  They can’t win in the East playing the porous, disinterested D that D’Antoni seems to encourage.  Oh, they’ll score alright, especially against the lesser teams.  But the top 5 defensive teams in the NBA are the competition in the East, and they rebound the basketball, too.  The Knicks don’t play D, and they don’t box out well either.

Where the Bucks were able to challenge the Heat and hold Lebron to 14 pts, he disgraced the Knicks with a triple double – 32 pts, 11 rebs and 10 assists and left the Knicks in his wake as though they were the Washington Generals, the Harlem Globetrotters’ patsy.

Where the Bucks are 10-14 and playing the toughest schedule in the league, the Knicks have played a soft one.   Despite their record, the Knicks have a negative SRS number (a complicated thingy that ranks teams success against their schedule).  (After losing in Cleveland on Saturday, the 16-12 Knicks are actually BEHIND the 10-15 Bucks, who took a tough loss to the Jazz at home, in SRS ranking.  The Bucks schedule has been that tough, the Knicks schedule that weak.)

I felt sorry for the Knicks because there no amount of hype can make them more competitive than a slow-starting, injury plagued 10-and-14 team from Milwaukee.  I felt sorry for the Knicks because, despite the Amar’e highlights, they’re still the Knicks and they can’t help it.

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Bogut since his return against the Magic Dec. 419.8 pts – 14.2 rebs – 4 blks – 1 steal – 2.3 assists per game.

Add in the possessions that he turns over by taking charges and the result is a center playing better now than Dwight Howard.  Overall, Bogut leads the NBA in blocks per game (3.1) and has the 3rd-best defensive rating in the league (96.5 pts allowed per 100 possessions when he’s on the court) behind Kevin Garnett and Howard.  That’s the sort of company AB keeps these days.

If Bogut keeps it up and continues hitting 55% of his shots (50 of 89 since tipping it off against the Magic), the Bucks should weather the current scheduling nightmare (and AB’s horrendous free throw shooting) by earning a few tough road wins in the West — and be right on the Bulls’ tails by late January.

The Bulls, it should be noted, won’t have their center for 8-10 weeks.  I don’t, however, feel sorry for the Bulls.  This, I suppose, is just one more reason to feel sorry for the Knicks.

Note: The Knicks on Saturday lost to Cleveland in OT, 109-102, in the kind of game Mo Williams loves — No defense required. Mo led all scorers with 23.  New York fell to 16-12.

The “Ginobili rules” of the West don’t put the Spurs in title contention

He took the ball on a bounce after a sloppy, tipped inbound.  He held it too long, allowing precious seconds tick away, robbing his team of any chance for an offensive rebound if his final shot missed.  He advanced then toward Luc Mbah a Moute, one of the best defenders — if not the best defender — in basketball.  He drove hard left but Mbah a Moute was there first.  He pushed Luc off with his right arm but not far enough — Mbah a Moute stayed right on him as he planted a pivot foot.  He had no time and no choice but to jump full back, with both feet — traveling — and tossed up a 20-footer that barely lofted over Mbah a Moute’s outstretched hand.

No whistles.  The jumper poured through the hoop at the buzzer, giving the Spurs a 92-90 win over the Bucks.

“He” is Manu Ginobili, Charles Barkley’s second favorite player.  How about Charles’ boy this week?

“You mean that he travelled?” – Sir Charles doth speaketh.  “… That’s a travel. In all 50 states, that’s a travel.”

Not in San Antonio, Texas, on a Wednesday night in December — and not when the 10-13 Milwaukee Bucks were on the verge of pulling off a Texas sweep of the teams with the best records in the West.  Are the Spurs and Mavs truly title contenders?   Maybe.  But no, not if Boston and Miami continue playing the way they’re playing, not really.  Not if they’re struggling — and the Mavs failing — to beat the Bucks in Texas.

It’s been two-plus seasons since Ginobili, Parker and Duncan made the West Finals but the story seems to be that this summer they “banded together” for a title run in 2011. It’s an improbable story when you consider that they haven’t really been close to a title since 2007 when they last won; and it’s not a story everybody’s buying into — the Denver Nuggets certainly didn’t on Thursday night.  FoxSports “In the Paint” NBA analyst Marques Johnson this week qualified  his take on the Spurs and Mavs as “the best in the West” with a telling … “for now.” And he says it twice for emphasis.

Marques (1977-1984) was the greatest forward to ever wear a Bucks uniform, the only Buck not named Kareem or Sidney to be a 1st team All-Pro.   It’s always strange to see Junior Bridgeman‘s #2 up in the BC rafters (though they on the court together for roughly half the game, Bridgeman was Marques’ backup) while Marques’ #8 is still in circulation, worn by rookie Larry Sanders (heck, I’d wear it too if I were a Bucks rookie).  Like Barkley, Marques is more keen on the Mavs chances — probably figuring that Dirk Nowitzki is the one player whom none of his contending Bucks teams would have had a defense for.  The Spurs?  “The Spurs are the Spurs,” Johnson shrugged.

But the thing that’s going unmentioned in the NBA this week by Marques, Barkley or anybody is that neither the Spurs or Mavs looked like championship contenders against the Bucks — a concession perhaps to the idea that the Bucks have the unluckiest 10-14 record in basketball and are so-under-the-radar in terms of contention that you need sonar to track them.  The Bucks haven’t backed away from any challenges since Andrew Bogut came back into the lineup, including the Heat, but that’s not the point — nobody’s going to talk about the Bucks until they start putting the ball in the basket with more regularity, go on a winning streak and actually beat the Heat, which they’ll get two chances to do the first week of January.

The point is, the Bucks were screwed in San Antonio — no other way to put it.  The refs didn’t just eat their whistles on Ginobili’s buzzer beater, they were loathe the entire game to call fouls on the Spurs starting five.  That isn’t going to happen if and when the Spurs meet Kobe, Gasol and the Lakers in the playoffs.

Here’s the foul story: One on Manu, one on Parker, one on DeJuan Blair and three on Tim Duncan, who was guarding Bogut most of the night and basically humped his arm with the score tied 90-90 and the Bucks trying to feed their All-Star center in the post.   No fouls on Richard Jefferson.  That’s six fouls in 150 minutes played by the Spurs starters — or an astounding one foul per 25 minutes played, which means the refs were not about to whistle even 5 fouls on the Spurs starters per 120 mins of available PT in a half.

Brandon Jennings was hacked all night by Tony Parker and battered to a 4-18 shooting night.  Yet the Bucks, with John Salmons and Corey Maggette all but benched for the game and Carlos Delfino still recovering from a head injury, had the ball with the score tied at 90 and 30 seconds to play.

The following night in Denver it was more of the same for the Spurs, playing at full strength against the Chauncey-less Nuggets.  Duncan fouled out two or three times by my count but was only whistled for four, even as his counterpart, Nene Hilario, was fouled out.  Parker — who fouls everybody in sight — was caught for all of one foul playing 37 minutes.  In the end it was Manu twisting for a layup to give the Spurs the lead and then saving the game by leaping into Carmelo Anthony‘s path to draw a charge as time expired — taking the winning points off the Denver scoreboard.

Was Ginobili there, planted in position in time?   It was close, too close not to question — but it was Manu.  Of course the call went his way, whether or not what he did was to jump — leap, literally, both feet in the air from the weakside — under Carmelo as Carmelo (31 pts in the game) was gathering to lift to the rim.

But hey — it was Manu.  Tough luck, Carmelo.  “Bullshit,” said Nuggets coach George Karl.  The Spurs are now 22-3, the best record in basketball and they’re playing at full strength in December. It’s the fastest start in Spurs history.  But I watched the Spurs lose twice this week, and so did you — only to see the refs award them the wins.  No, the Spurs are no title contender — they don’t have the muscle in the paint to help Duncan and truly contend, and no amount of magical refereeing will allow the Manu and Parker and RJ show to carry them to the finals.

Call the Spurs a lucky 22-3, as lucky as the Bucks 10-14 mark has been unlucky and injury riddled.  As lucky as the Bears 9-4 record atop the NFC North (oh, that’s probably stretching it).  The luck of things in the NBA have a tendency to even out over the grueling 82-game schedule — let’s not go ahead and crown their asses yet.   Remember, against the Bucks, the Spurs were posterized in the 4th quarter by, of all people, Drew Gooden.

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“I still don’t think he’s a center” — Kevin McHale on the Hawks Al Horford — who is not a center despite the Hawks insistence (under Mike Woodson anyway) that Horford is a 6’11″center.   In Boston, Horford had just hit an early 18-footer against the Celtics, and McHale noted that Horford’s improving 18-footer was the thing that “separates him from other big forwards.”  Al Horford, power forward.  Too small to start against Andrew Bogut and other centers (that task goes to Hawks big man Jason Collins), and too small at 6’9 to appear on center ranking lists.  Hopefully, commentary like McHale’s is a sign that Bogut will be making his All-Star game debut in Los Angeles in February.

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Bogut since his return against the Magic Dec. 4:  19.8 pts – 14.2 rebs – 4 blks – 1 steal – 2.3 assists per game.  Add in the possessions that he turns over by taking charges and the result is a center playing better now than Dwight Howard.  Overall, Bogut leads the NBA in blocks per game (3.1) and has the 3rd-best defensive rating in the league (96.5 pts allowed per 100 possessions when he’s on the court) behind Kevin Garnett and Howard.  That’s the sort of company AB keeps these days.

If Bogut keeps it up and continues hitting 55% of his shots (50 of 89 since tipping it off against the Magic), the Bucks should weather the current scheduling nightmare (and AB’s horrendous free throw shooting) by earning a few tough road wins in the West — and be right on the Bulls’ tails by late January.

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Speaking of centers and the Bulls, Joakim Noah will be out nursing a broken right thumb until after the All-Star break.  With the Bucks in the middle of the toughest stretch of basketball in the league this season, fate (or Bulls management) has conspired to make sure the Bulls don’t run away with the Central.  The Bulls can’t and won’t keep up their 16-8 pace (and 3rd-ranked defense) without their defensive anchor in the paint having the All-Star season he was having — but the Bucks have a six game hole to climb out of while playing the toughest December-early January schedule in the league.

The Bucks play Dec. 28 and Jan. 24 in Chicago.  Noah will miss both of those, which means the Bucks won’t get a chance to see the Rose-Noah-Boozer Bulls until Feb. 26 in Milwaukee.  That’s too bad, because a Bucks-Bulls game without Joakim Noah is like playing the Celtics without Kevin Garnett — it takes the fun out of the battle for the paint.  I wonder if Bogut will miss him.

I can’t help but wonder, though, given that 2-handed push shot that Noah throws up at the rim,  what he needs his right thumb for?

Dogged in Denver and notes from around the NBA

An agonizing game last night in Denver, as the Bucks blew an opportunity to steal a win before Andrew Bogut’s expected return Saturday vs. Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic.  This was a foul marred game in which some of the things that had been going wrong for the Bucks went right, and things that seemed to be going right were sometimes wrong.

John Salmons hit two threes to get the Bucks off to a good start and finally appeared to be coming around, scoring 21 pts on 7-15 shooting while playing tough D for 36 mins.  That’s the kind of effort the Bucks have needed from Salmons all season.

Yet Luc Mbah a Moute — the Bucks best defender and most reliable player this season — was hit with early fouls guarding Carmelo Anthony and seemed to disappear.

Larry Sanders blocked 8 shots – 8 SHOTS!!!  And scored 14 pts and grabbed 10 rebounds.

Yet Ersan Ilyasova, who had been stellar in every other game in which he’s played 25+ minutes, couldn’t get his jumper straight in Denver, missing some wide open looks that could have kept the Bucks in striking distance.   Ersan scored 7 points in 40 mins – not nearly enough.  Not being greedy here but a timely 3-pointer, a garbage bucket, a drawn foul — the Bucks needed Ersan in double figures when it counted.  This earned Ersan “Stiff of the night” honors from the Nuggets blogger at the Denver Stiffs — despite his 9 boards, good D and tough battle with Al Harrington and Shelden Williams.  Not sure the Denver fans know good D when they see it.  But it was that kind of night.

Corey Maggette was turning in one of his best games as a Buck (17 pts on 8 shots, 1o free throws) …. until about 8 minutes left in the 4th quarter when he blew up two straight Bucks possessions by killing the ball movement and hondo-ing matters into his own hands.  The Maggette-Sanders two-man set up on the weak side does not appear to be a good idea.

Chris Douglas-Roberts, so good in his first two games as a Buck, wasn’t effective off the bench (just 2 of 9) and seemed to be pressing, already.

Keyon Dooling was hitting his shots — two threes and a lay-in — usually a good sign that the Bucks will at least be in the game until the end. … Yet Dooling turned the ball over three times in 14-plus minutes.

Carmelo Anthony got kicked out the game carping at the refs over two straight Sanders in-your-face blocks. …  Yet the Nuggets got better in the game without him.

Brandon Jennings was OK, below average by his standards with 14 pts, making clutch plays in the 4th that pulled the Bucks back to within six.  Where are the assists, Brandon?   Only 3 on the night.  It was that kind of night, and the Bucks headed home with a 105-94 loss.

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NOTES from the Land of Ray and Reggie  —  ATLANTA —  Joe Johnson will undergo elbow surgery on his shooting arm and will miss 4-to-6 weeks.  I wouldn’t mention this but IF Johnson takes six weeks getting back, he’ll miss 24 games, more than the entire Hawks rotation missed last season when they won 53 games and the 3rd seed in the East.  I mention this only because most of the NBA had the Hawks so supremely overrated going into the playoffs against the Bucks — who all but fractured the Hawks mental well-being taking that series to seven.  The Hawks are 12-7, on a pace to win 51 games.  They’re not a tough-minded bunch, those Hawks, and it’ll be interesting to see how they handle a little adversity.

BOSTON – I just watched a late night rerun of the Celtics-Blazers game in Boston, and was amazed at how ugly and out of sync the Celtics looked through one, two, and into three quarters.  The C’s were losing by seven late in the 3rd.   Then the Celtics made one of the toughest defensive stands I’ve seen in a long time, probably since the Pistons teams of 2004 and 2005.  The Bucks have thrown up similar D on teams but I can’t recall them holding a team with Portland’s weapons scoreless for five minutes (could have been longer).  It went on so long that a 72-65 Blazers lead late in the 3rd had turned 96-80 Celtics deep into the 4th a desperate run by Portland made it 99-95.  … Ray Allen hit his only three-pointer of the night to ice the game in the final minute.

NEXT UP FOR the Bucks:  Dwight Howard and the Magic, Saturday — then D-Wade, Lebron and the Heat on Monday.  The Bucks have been holding Andrew Bogut out in anticipation that he’ll be close to full strength for these games and their December schedule — the toughest in the league.   There’s nobody tougher on the Bucks than the Magic in recent years, and while Bogut has played well in some of the matchups, he hasn’t gotten the better of Dwight yet — and Bogut and Skiles have yet to beat Dwight’s team in the Skiles era.

All Star Voting: The four Celtics and Dwight Howard blog

I’ll get back to Ray and D-Wade and the Heat … First …

The beleaguered-yet-determined Bucks — what’s left of them — are out west, headed for Denver where who-does-what-now should decide how the lineup shakes up when Bogut is ready to come back to work.   The early returns suggest that Ersan Ilyasova has taken Drew Gooden’s starting power forward job and John Salmons may end up taking a seat soon so that he and the Bucks can figure out what ails him.

The better-than-expected arrival of Chris Douglas-Roberts Saturday and the pending return of Corey Maggette gives the Bucks some options with the Fish, who’s sluggish game thus far has made me miss Charlie Bell.  CD-R in two games has been just what the Bucks have needed — an NBA guard who can hit a shot.   (15 pts per game on excellent 61.1% eff-shooting.)

Ersan Ilyasova in Utah (18 pts on 10 shots, six tough-to-get-in-Utah rebs and three steals) continued to show that when he gets minutes, he produces.  In the 7 games that Ersan has played 25+ minutes, he’s averaging 14.6 ppg and 7.1 rpg, shooting an e-fg rate of 53.2% — that’ll win a few games for the Bucks if he keeps it up. He’s also managed 13 steals, pretty impressive for a power forward.

And no, Ersan’s not riding a six steal game or getting a bump from a 27 pt break-out — he has consistently scored and wreaked havoc on opposing offenses in each of the seven games that Skiles has given him 25+ the minutes.   All evidence suggests that Ersan has recovered from leading Turkey to a silver medal at the 2010 World Championships, and has likewise recovered from the early season benching-by-Skiles that his Turkish heroics earned him back in Milwaukee.

ALL STAR VOTING: This apparent rebooting of the Bucks has given me time to think about the All-Star ballot and mull over what’s been what in the first one-fifth of the season.  Have Lebron and D-Wade really earned a trip to the All-Star game?   Why do the Spurs and Lakers refuse to allow their centers to be listed as centers?   And who’s to stop me from voting four Celtics as the East starters?

On this last question: Nobody.  So I did.  And I probably will again until Lebron James does something truly impressive, like listen to his coach, Erik Spoelstra.  Rajon Rondo is an obvious choice to be the east starter at point guard.  I’ve seen enough Paul Pierce this season to know that he’s still knocking ’em down with clockwork regularity and leading the Celtics in scoring.  Those two selections were easy.

At power forward I would consider voting for Lebron, because the Heat don’t have one now that Udonis Haslem is hurt (note: this wasn’t intended as a knock on Chris Bosh but the word “power” just doesn’t connote the word “Bosh” in my mind.)  And I would consider voting for the Hawks Al Horford if only he were not listed as a center. Anybody who saw Dwight Howard and the Magic pummel the Hawks in four straight in the East semi-finals knows that Al Horford is not a center.  Anybody who watched the Bucks take the Hawks apart earlier this season knows the same — the Hawks don’t let Horford guard Andrew Bogut, instead starting Jason Collins at center against the Bucks.  Horford’s not big enough to tangle with Bogut, Howard, Noah, Lopez, the real centers of the East.

Dwight Howard is the All-Star starter at center, and it’s too bad Bogut hasn’t given Bucks fans a reason to vote for him … yet.  Let’s hope that changes.  Right now, Joakim Noah has the edge to be the backup center to Howard.

That leaves me with Kevin Garnett at power forward.  Sure, he backs away when confronted by guys like Bogut, but he’s still KG — love him, loathe him, he’s at least that — and his Celtics are still the team to beat in the East.  Done.  That’s three Celtics and a maybe for Lebron.  Maybe, but not now.  Did I forget Amar’e Stoudemire?  I forgot Amar””e, though he may be listed as a center, which makes him not only forgettable but irrelevant here.  I seem to have forgotten Chris Bosh, too.  Imagine that.  Bosh has not played like an All-Star in 2010, going back to last season.  (If you watched him in Toronto at the end of last season, you’d have wondered who was leading the Raptors in their bid for the playoffs.)

My shooting guard should be Dwyane Wade, shouldn’t it?  This is usually automatic.  But after two losses to the Celtics in which Ray Allen scored 55 points on him and shot 20 for 36 — see highlight reel above — it’s time to reconsider.  On the season, Ray’s shooting better than any long range gunner has a right to — 56.8% effectively, which takes into account his 44% shooting from Downtown.  Ray’s a weapon, pure and simple.  D-Wade is scoring 21.3 pts per game but it’s been a struggle to get those, and with the weapons the Heat have, his assists shouldn’t be down.  In Atlanta, Joe Jonson has also struggled to be the triple-threat that he was last season.  In Boston, Ray just lets the game come to him.  Easy, nothing but net.

One-fifth of the season done, the Celtics and Magic are leading the East at 12-4.  Punch it in: Four Celtics and Dwight to the 2011 All-Star game.

THE WEST: This is much tougher since I don’t watch the West as much as the East.  But these teams/the NBA (whoever makes the call on the ballot) don’t make it easy to pick a forward, do they?  Pau Gasol and Tim Duncan — two big men who mostly play center — are listed as forwards.  Dirk, West, Carmelo Anthony, what’s the voting fan to do?   At this point in the season, I’m punching in Gasol and New Orleans Bucks-assassin David West but that could change.  Dirk, carrying the Mavs and dropping the occasional 4o — deserve a vote.

The West guards: Kobe, Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Brandon Roy, Kevin Durant … After Deron Williams‘ shredding of the Bucks last night, I went with Deron.  This brought to mind CP3’s expert game management in the Hornets two wins over the Bucks, so I gave the nod to Chris Paul, in recognition that the NBA is a better place with CP3 in it.   I then immediately thought of Kobe’s 30-point game in Milwaukee and how Brandon Roy’s Blazers handed the Bucks arses to them, also in Milwaukee.  Good thing Durant missed his game in Brewtown.  I may have to vote again.

Yao doesn’t need my vote at center, but he’s the only center on the ballot for the West.  There’s Haywood in Dallas, but he doesn’t start.  Tyson Chandler anyone?  Didn’t see him on the ballot.  Yao, even in his part time role, is out indefinitely with a bone spur.  Nene Hilario?

C’mon. Don’t make me vote for Chris Kaman.  At last check, Kaman says he doesn’t want “to be a hindrance” to the young Clippers. The West has not All-Star worthy center on the ballot, so I picked Yao, figuring it was the fair thing to do because he won’t play anyway and that’ll open up a spot for a deserving forward who plays center  — which will then open up a forward spot, which will help ensure that somebody like David West isn’t snubbed.  See how this works — or does it?

I’ll probably have to vote again tomorrow to see how all this settles.

Bucks-Hawks Game 5: Brandon Jennings… Hawks frontline shrinking down to size… D-Wade and the Heat… and other playoff notes

THE MAGNIFICENT DAMAGE that Bucks rookie Brandon Jennings inflicted on the Hawks porous D Monday in Game 4 has a lot of people rethinking the Bucks-Hawks series now that it’s tied 2-2.  Jennings’ bout with playoff inexperience (Game 2) is behind him, and the 20-year-old point guard is on the attack, his confidence and aggressiveness growing as the series progresses. The Hawks don’t have a defender who can stay in front of the young Buck.

Hawks All-Star Joe Johnson was asked whether the Hawks needed to make any adjustments. He said no, that his team needed “more energy, more passion and heart. “

In other words, there are no adjustments the Hawks can make for Jennings.  There’s no Kobe Bryant on the roster to assign himself the responsibility, as Kobe did against Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook in their Game 5.  If the task is left to Al Horford and Josh Smith, switching onto Young Buck on high screens, Jennings’ teammates have plenty more unchallenged layups coming their way. If point guard Mike Bibby switches to allow Marvin Williams or Johnson a turn on Jennings, John Salmons and Carlos Delfino have the field days they had Monday (44 pts combined). The Hawks are an average defensive team (15th in the league) with very below average perimeter defenders. At this point, they have no choice but to live with it.

As for heart, passion, energy and determination, Jennings brings it almost every night, and so do most of his teammates. The Bucks were the wrong team for the Hawks to give any kind of foothold to.

The HAWKS are in the NBA news quite a bit today: Rumors have Hawks management planning to lowball Woodson (I think they’re just going to fire him), offer Joe Johnson a max contract and possible sell their first round draft pick for $3 mill.  Peachtree Hoops wonders if the Hawks are still in the playoffs.  Less and less, Hawks fans.

A PET PEEVE: The disparity between the perception of the Hawks’ front court and the reality of the Hawks front court is almost a national phenomenon. Let’s set the record straight and see if anybody’s paying attention:

Josh Smith, Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia do not have a size advantage over the Bucks’ Luc Mbah a Moute, Ersan Ilyasova, Kurt Thomas and Dan Gadzuric. This is plain for the eye to see yet everybody continues to report, write, comment that the Hawks are failing to exploit “a size advantage.”

Horford is an undersized center, and that’s not good enough in the playoffs. At age 23, even journeyman NBA centers are going to be,

1) Bigger and stronger;

2) More skilled in at least a facet or two of the game; and,

3) A lot more experienced.

Andrew Bogut’s two-headed center in relief (Thomas and Gadzuric) are any one (or all) of those three things and it shows. Even Gadzuric, who was hardly active all season, has been around long enough to control the glass and play good D. Gadz has played Horford strong and outplayed Pachulia in his 18 minutes in Game 4 and the first half of the Game 3 blowout.

Smith does give the Hawks some advantages at power forward — experience, upper body strength and ups.  But now that he’s battling Mbah a Moute and Ilyasova instead of Carlos Delfino and Ilyasova, the Bucks have matched Smith up. Let’s be real, NBA faithful — some of that heft Smith is carrying around isn’t muscle, and it shows when he’s up against the quicker Mbah a Moute.  …  “The Prince” and Ersan are both taller than Smith and long-armed, too.  They’ve also outproduced Josh in this series.

Sixth Man of the Year: The Hawks Jamal Crawford won it, but before it was announced Journal Sentinel scribe Tom Enlund asked Crawford what it was like playing for Scott Skiles on the 2003-04 Chicago Bulls.  Let’s just say Enlund left out some important details in this blurb — like Crawford’s nonexistent D and the fact that the Bulls shipped him out of Chi-town after Skiles’ first season.

Crawford is a good shooter and averaged 18 off the bench for the Hawks this season.  He shot well in Game 1 but looked awfully lost on the court in the first playoff series of is career — until  Game 4.  Now that he’s “back to normal” as he put it, it’s probably a good idea to stay at home on him. Luke Ridnour and Brandon Jennings draw the Crawford assignment more often than not.

Hawks Coach Mike Woodson: His contract’s up, the Hawks won’t talk to him about it, and he’ll be gone after the playoffs — the Bucks have assured that.  Vinnie Del Negro’s job in Chicago is probably more secure than Woodson’s, though at this point Woodson probably wouldn’t mind parting ways with the Hawks’ brass.   “Sources say” the Bulls won’t decide on Del Negro’s fate until sometime this weekend, but that was an ESPN story so … wait for the Chicago papers before telling your friends and neighbors or that stranger in the bar stool next to you. The Bulls put up a great fight to get into the playoffs and an even better one against the Cavs. Del Negro doesn’t deserve the axe.

The Miami Heat are impressive.  Overmatched and down 0-3 to the Celtics, Dwyane Wade pulled them to 1-3 on Sunday.  Then in Game 5 Tuesday in Boston, the Heat withstood a textbook Celtics offensive game and were hanging in there, down seven, staying well within D-Wade striking distance. …

I’m a Celtics/Ray Allen fan, not a surprising revelation from a Bucks blogger. And I’ve always liked KG’s game. How quickly so many have forgetten that Garnett was hands down the best player in the NBA circa 2003-05 when Shaq-Kobe malfunctioned in L.A.   The thing I’ve had to get over in following the Celtics is Paul Pierce and the ill will that I had toward the Pierce-Antoine Walker teams of the late 1990’s-2003.  Walker and his sluggish ball-hoggery were the source of those feelings, to be sure, but Pierce bears some responsibility in his role as Walker’s better half.  But I got over it and make it a point to watch the Celtics whenever I can, adopting them as “my team” for the playoffs in the absence of the Bucks in 2008 and ’09.

I can say with fandom authority that the Celtics don’t play much better than they did Tuesday in Game 5, and when the Celtics are good, they’re as good as anybody in the NBA.  Yet the Heat refused to go away until the final 1:30 of the game.  Sure, being led by the 2nd best player in the NBA (sorry Dwight) goes a long way — of course it does. But what’s really impressive is how unifed and indomnable the team behind him is.  At times they even seem like an organic extension of Wade on both ends of the court.  This is a credit to Erik Spoelstra, one of the more underrated coaches in the NBA, and says a lot about Wade as a leader.

The organic effect, visually speaking, is aided by Michael Beasley, such a natural ball player (even when he’s being benched in Game 5), but it comes through in everything the Heat do on the court. Their ball movement and spacing is always good, their shot selection just as good; and Spoelstra has them playing tough, sticky, ball pressure defense that rotates as well as the Top 4 Eastern conference defenses (Charlotte, Orlando, Milwaukee and Boston). In Toronto, Jermaine O’Neal seemed out of place and on his last legs. In Miami he’s a defensive presence, a legitimate and effective center.

The Celtics prevailed 96-86 (24 pts and 5 threes from Ray) and the Heat have “gone fishing,” to quote Kenny and Charles. A retooling is ahead in the offseason with most of the Heat roster in free agency and cap space to land an All-Star.  I don’t see Wade leaving Miami/Spoelstra (neither does he, it seems) nor do I see Heat GM Pat Riley failing to bring in the right big man (Bosh, Boozer, maybe David Lee?). Riley will let others make the Ama’re Stoudemire mistake.

A DIFFERENT BREED (Tyreke Evans not included).  Sekou Smith tracked down Bucks guard John Salmons this week for his “Hang Time” blog at NBA.com. The reason?  Salmons has had the unique experience of sharing backcourts this season with Derrick Rose and Brandon Jennings. How are Rose and Jennings able to be so good so young?

“They’re just a different breed,” Salmons concludes. Writer Smith names Jennings, Rose, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in his context.  He’d like to include Rookie of the Year favorite Tyreke Evans in the mix, but it doesn’t sound as though Salmons and Jennings are willing to play ball r.e. the Kings rookie. Here’s what Jennings had to say:

“I think it really depends on the person and how he approaches the games. Kevin Durant is a winner. Derrick Rose is a winner. Of course, I like to win. I’ve been saying that from the first day I got here. Winning is everything to me. So it just depends on the type person you are, the player you are.” — Brandon Jennings.

20-5-5? Don’t get me started about the historical irrelevance of this thing. Five rebounds from the guard position is tough in any day and NBA era and it’s great that Evans has a nose for the ball and a drive for the glass. But as the #1 scorer on the ping-counting Kings, Evans and his team would have been better served in the long run had he focused less on passing and more on his shooting/scoring  That’s what Jerry West did in his first few years in the league, and West didn’t hit the 5 assists mark (per 36) minutes until his 3rd year in the NBA.  He was too busy putting the ball in the hole.  Not to put Evans in the company of West, who played before my time, nor to say that 5 assists is anything to be aimed for … don’t get me started on 20-5-5.

Sactown Royalty has learned that Evans has won Rookie of the Year, which will be annonced later this week.  Jennings has accomplished more this season, leading a team still very much in transition — and making personnel changes on the go — into the playoffs.  It wouldn’t have happened had Jennings cared less about winning.

“Scott Skiles: More than a tough guy.” You gotta love the guys at Celticsblog.com. After the last regular season game, blogger tenaciousT eschewed the usual press conference mumbo jumbo and decided to spend his time in the Bucks locker room interviewing Bucks players about what makes their coach tick.

Scott Skiles, writes tenaciousT, is intriguing because, well, “coaching styles, personalities and results” are intriguing.  TenaciousT is like a lot of Celtics fans who appreciate defense, so he wanted to know how one of the NBA’s top defensive coaches makes it all work.

Tenacious interviews Skiles and the veterans: Kurt Thomas, Charlie Bell, John Salmons and Jerry Stackhouse. There are comments from Skiles on whether his Chicago Bulls “stopped listening” to him.  The comments from Salmons, the fish who saves but can opt out and leave, are worth a read. Most candid was Charlie Bell, tenacious says, and pay no attention to the elephant in the room during his interview with Charlie.

Bango is nuts! This was at Game 4.  What does he have planned for Game 6?

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Brandon Jennings, #1 at age 10 (pic from the famous ballboy archives)

BJ4GThe 45-34 Bucks are 3-1 without center Andrew Bogut and are playoff bound in the East with a seed no worse than 6th. They’ve successfully avoided a Round 1 matchup with the Orlando Magic, which could have been quite embarrassing and depressing to watch with no Bogut to battle on in the paint against Dwight Howard.

I’m sure Howard’s happy about this too, given the mano-a-mano nature of center battles and the pride that goes into the post rivalries. Sixers center Sam Dalembert, ever the Bogut nemesis, seemed a little lost on the court against the Bucks in Philly Friday, eventually picking it up in the second half to help bring the Sixers back into the game with some active help D … above the free throw line?  Never if Bogut was on the court. On Saturday, the Celtics gave KG the night off and center Kendrick Perkins played just 18 mins.

But I digress. It’s time to celebrate in Brewtown, to party, literally, like it’s 1999 and Dominguez High out of Compton is the Division II state champion, the top-ranked ballers in all of California.  A 10-year-old named Brandon Jennings was a ball boy for the Dominguez basketball factory, led by smooth shooting, 6’4″ senior guard Keith Kincade and sophomore center Tyson Chandler (at left), already a household name thanks to a 60 Minutes profile. Kincade scored 23 in the title game against Sacramento Grant, while Chandler was held to 5 pts, 5 boards before fouling out.

The above photo came my way via an email from Dewey (thanks again Dewey!), a blogger at PlaymakerMobile. Dewey’s site is all-sports with what looks like a strong NFL focus (lots of McNabb trade stuff there now), and he’s been keeping an eye on BJ’s exploits in his rookie season.

Back to this photo:  We all know what became of the Dominguez ballboy. And Chandler, a Parade and McDonald’s HS All-American by his senior year, declared for the 2001 NBA draft right out of high school. The Clippers drafted him #2 overall and traded him to the Bulls for 2000 ROY Elton Brand. After years of back trouble, grumbling by Chicago fans about “potential” and a few more in and out of Scott Skiles‘ doghouse, Chandler became a shot-blocking, offensive rebounding machine.  He’s now with Larry Brown in Charlotte, a good place for that sort of specialist to be.

Funny isn’t it, that the the towering 10th grader on the left and the beaming 4th grader in the lower right would eventually end up under Scott Skiles’ tutelage, like it or not. But whatever happened to Keith Kincade?

Celtics 105, Bucks 90: I’ve never believed the reports about the demise of the Celtics, and not for once thought the Bucks could take them in a 7-game playoff, Bogut in the lineup or not. Playing without Kevin Garnett and with center Kendrick Perkins sitting out two-thirds of the game, the Celtics flexed what was left of their muscles and simply overpowered the Bucks. Kurt Thomas didn’t dent the Celtics front line. Ersan Ilyasova was game but too often on his own in the paint, with Luc Mbah a Moute in foul trouble. Ray Allen (21 pts on seven shots; attempted a single three pointer) Rondo and Pierce were too much for BJ, Salmons and Delfino. Sheed was a Bucks killer, as always, and Big Baby wants to fight, someone, anyone.

BJ’s brashness aside, the Celtics are not the playoff matchup for the Bucks —  this year. With better inside help for Bogut, Ilyasova and Mbah a Moute, the Bucks should be ready for the Celtics in 2011.  The Hawks? The Bucks are ready for them right now. 

Bucks 99, Sixers 90: The Bucks won in Philly without Bogut, which, as discombobulating as that was for Dalembert, is just plain weird given The Revenge of the Airball and all things that make little sense about a Bucks-Sixers game. The Bucks managed it with half-a-John Salmons too, as their leading scorer fought a bout with the flu through halftime but looked dead on his feet by the 3rd quarter. Jennings had a bad night shooting (4-17) but I’m becoming more and more impressed with BJ’s defense. Tuesday night he slowed down Derrick Rose in the 4th quarter, enough for the Bucks to eke out a win in Chicago. Last night BJ harassed fellow rookie pg Jrue Holiday into an 0-10 start from the field, a far cry from the hot shooting night Holiday had in Milwaukee March 24.

Where’d the offense come from?  Carlos Delfino was lights out with 23 pts (5-8 from downtown) and Luke Ridnour had one of those nights off the bench where everything found the bottom of the net (18 for Luke on 8-12 shooting). … Centers Kurt Thomas and Dan Gadzuric were awful on the offensive end but solid and focused on D (5 blocked shots between them). The Bucks do what they can, and it’s been good enough all year.

Yi Jianlian #9 of the New Jersey Nets looks to shoot during the second half of a pre-season game against the New York Knicks on October 20, 2008 at the IZOD Center in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The Knicks won 114-106. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.The Nets’ Brook Lopez got away with a goaltend to dunk the Nets into overtime against the Bulls in New Jersey, on an otherwise very workable play drawn up by coach Kiki Vandeweghe with 3.6 seconds to go. Vandeweghe set up a football-like screen for Lopez and Yi Jianlian to freely stream into the paint as Terrence Williams drove in on Derrick Rose.  When Williams’ shot rimmed out, both Yi and Lopez were right there for the tap, which Lopez delivered, hand and ball clearly in the cylinder. No call, and on to OT they went, tied at 103.

In the first overtime, the Bulls jumped out to a 110-103 lead but some more terrible officiating (two no-calls on Courtney Lee hacking Rose) and two missed free throws by Rose pushed the game to a second overtime, 112-112.  In the second OT, Devin Harris and T.Williams staked the Nets to a five point lead and the Bulls folded.

This was actually a pretty good game, New Jersey’s 12th win.  Lopez and Yi combined for 41 pts and 26 boards; Brad Miller and Joakim Noah responded with 43 and 19, while Williams had the second rookie triple double of the season for the Nets.  But refs will be refs in the NBA. And this loss by the Bulls (38-41) sets up a Sunday night showdown with the 38-41 Raptors in Toronto for the 8th playoff spot in the East.   

Over at Blog-a-Bull, friendly neighborhood Bulls fans are, as usual, trying to fire coach Vinnie Del Negro.

Very, very interesting box score from Miami. Pistons fans have always regretted trading the wrong guard (Chauncey) for Allen Iverson in 2008 but very few fans seemed to notice that the Pistons went 8-2 last year with the Answer doing his thing while Rip Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace were out with injuries.  This season, it’s more of the same. Deactivate Hamilton and suddenly coach John Kuester remembers that Ben Gordon is on his team. 39 points from Gordon later and the Pistons had broken Miami’s nine game winning streak. Things are getting real obvious in Detroit, as in Michael Redd-Tracy McGrady obvious.

Somebody in the West plays defense?  Of coures the Lakers do when they want to but how about the Oklahoma City Thunder?   I didn’t think coach Scott Brooks had them playing Eastern Conference style D but after last night in OK City vs. the Suns, I’m a believer. The Thunder held run-and-gun Phoenix  to 34 pts in the 2nd half and closed out a 96-91 win. This is the kind of game that will win Brooks Coach of the Year honors, though it doesn’t seem as though OK City fans really appreciate a good defensive performance.  Or maybe it’s just because the blog I read was one of those ESPN jobs. 

I’m still in awe about the final shot defensive stand the Bobcats made this week in New Orleans. Mean and suffocating it was, and game winning. The Cats and Bucks are tied as the stingiest defenses in the NBA, ahead of the Magic, Celtics and Lakers. Then the Heat and the Cavs. The Thunder are 8th, giving up 104.2 pts per 100 possessions, just ahead of the Spurs and Jazz, rounding out the top 10.

Point being – it doesn’t take much to get it together in the NBA, really. Play dedicated team D, rebound the ball, have a reliable, go-to scorer and you’ll win some games.  It’s no great secret why the Bucks are 21-6 since acquiring John Salmons – they were winning and playing great D most of the year, and Salmons gave them the go-to offense they needed.  The Thunder play some excellent team D for Brooks; Kevin Durant‘s got the scoring end of it well in hand. It’s the D that makes them a likable sleeper pick to get to the West semis.