As the 2014-15 season begins, the landscape in the NBA changed dramatically since the San Antonio Spurs hoisted the championship trophy by dominating the Miami Heat.
The Spurs remain every bit the favorite they were in June, but the Heat could fall back to the pack, looking up at … LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Here are 10 things to watch as the 2014-15 NBA season begins:
10. Will Steve Ballmer — supplanting Portland’s Paul Allen as the richest owner in the NBA — make a difference with the Los Angeles Clippers? It will most likely be addition by subtraction with the exit of the disgraced Donald Sterling. Coach Doc Rivers and his complement of strong talent can forget about controversy and concentrate fully on getting to the Promised Land.
9. How will Russell Westbrook handle being the big cheese (for a month, at least) in Oklahoma City? The NBA’s best two-way point guard is also given to letting his emotions get the best of him at times. Coach Scotty Brooks wants Westbrook to continue to let the game come to him and not worry about making up the points the Thunder will miss in Kevin Durant’s absence. Durant, more subdued by just as lethal, went on a record scoring binge with Westbrook sidelined with knee issues last season and said he talked to the All-Star sidekick about not changing during this solo act.
8. Take a careful look at the San Antonio Spurs this season. It could wind up being the last hurrah for one of the great dynasties in NBA history. If they make it back-to-back titles by bagging another in June, coach Gregg Popovich and superstars Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili could ride off into the sunset.
7. Portland has had the worst bench in the league over the past two seasons. With the addition of veterans Chris Kaman and Steve Blake, the Trail Blazers might be ready to make a jump into the conference finals for the first time since 2000. Then again, that’s what most thought last season. With LaMarcus Aldridge now a star with name value and Damian Lillard at or near the elite class of NBA guards, it could be this team’s time to shine.
6. Kobe, Kobe, Kobe. Injuries and age might drag him down, at least that’s what Bryant’s greatest critics are signaling. The irrepressible Mr. Bryant has disdain for those who don’t think the Los Angeles Lakers will rebound and make the playoffs this season. If Kobe and the Lakers pull it off, it will be up there with those 1914 Boston Braves as the biggest pro sports miracle in a century.
5. Heat is off. The Heat’s empire has ended after only four seasons, but four consecutive Finals appearances and two championships are still awfully impressive. Luol Deng replaces LeBron James, but Deng battled an Achilles injury last season and never looked like the same player in Cleveland he had been during an All-Star tenure with the Chicago Bulls. Meanwhile, Dwyane Wade continues to fight the same knee problems that plagued him all of last season. It took so many trade assets to build their Big Three that the Heat didn’t have the means to continually supplement them with young talent. As a result, they looked old and tired by the end of the Finals. They still don’t look any younger. Still a playoff team in the anemic East, but the Heat no longer are a feared predator.
4. Uncertainty in Atlanta. The sale of the Hawks is expected to close either late this year or early 2015, but the fallout from their volatile offseason is ongoing. Several prominent figures have already shown interest in purchasing controlling share of the Hawks from owner Bruce Levenson, who agreed to sell controlling interest of the team after disclosing his racially insensitive e-mail from 2012. General manager Danny Ferry, meanwhile, still has not returned from his self-imposed indefinite leave of absence, leaving coach Mike Budenholzer to run the personnel side. The Hawks only have four years left on their lease with Philips Arena, but city leaders have made it clear they want to keep the team in town long term. Lost in all this is the fact the Hawks were one of the best teams in the East last season before injuries decimated the roster.
3. New faces in new places. There are five new coaches in the Eastern Conference, but none is more fascinating than David Blatt, who coached more than 20 years overseas before heading to the NBA. He chose the Cavs head job over an assistant’s role at Golden State, then stood back in amazement when LeBron James chose to return. Now he’s in one of the league’s most high-profile positions running a high-powered offense with elite scoring talent — Cavs reserve Mike Miller called Blatt’s offensive schemes “near genius” early in training camp. Other new coaching faces include Stan Van Gundy, who has complete control of the Pistons operations, and Derek Fisher, who is following Jason Kidd’s path from a player’s uniform directly to a head coach position. Fisher will run Phil Jackson’s triangle in New York, but aside from Carmelo Anthony, he doesn’t have much with which to work.
2. First aid. Injuries are part of every NBA season, but they seem to be striking earlier than usual. Indiana’s Paul George will miss the season with that gruesome leg injury he suffered during a World Cup scrimmage, Washington’s Bradley Beal fractured his wrist and could be out until early December and Rookie of the Year runner-up Victor Oladipo is expected to miss the first month of the season with a facial fracture for the Magic. Then of course is Kevin Durant’s fractured foot, which will keep the reigning MVP out for another month.
1. Driving the tank. Now that lottery reform has been voted down (for now), the bottom dwellers can continue stockpiling draft picks and losses. The Sixers and Celtics have been eagerly absorbing unwanted contracts for months in exchange for future draft picks. It has left the league’s other owners aggravated two of the largest markets have no interest in winning (undrafted and unknown Henry Sims is the Sixers’ most viable, healthy center) as both teams take their time building through the draft. The net result: Boston has five first-round picks in the next two drafts, while the Sixers have a pair of first-round picks and five second-round picks in next summer’s draft.
Rockets spoil Griffin’s return in testy affair
If James Harden needed any extra motivation against the Los Angeles Clippers, he found it in the first half.
Harden scored 34 points, and the Rockets held on for a 100-98 victory over the Clippers in a sometimes testy affair on Sunday at Staples Center.
Point guard Chris Paul, who finished with 23 points, missed a contested shot at the buzzer that would have forced overtime.
“It was very important for us just to go out there and play well,” said Harden, who hit seven of 16 shots from the floor, three of five from 3-point range and 17 of 18 free throws. “The last two games we kind of struggled a little bit, but we got our pop back a little bit today, and it was a good win for us.”
Harden provided much of that pop, particularly in the second quarter after Clippers forward Matt Barnes was whistled for a flagrant-1 foul after pushing Harden to the court at 6:02. Harden scored 15 of his 18 points in the period after that, leading the Rockets to a 58-50 halftime lead.
Did the flagrant foul add more fuel for the Rockets’ All-Star guard and MVP candidate?
“Yeah. Things like that are fun,” said Harden, who had 24 points in the first half. “We have fun, we got boosted off of that.”
The win ended a two-game skid for the Rockets (44-22). Houston forward Trevor Ariza scored 19 points and grabbed nine rebounds, while forward Terrence Jones added 16 points and 12 boards.
“This was a win that we needed, especially on the road,” Ariza said. “Going into the home stretch, these are the types of games we have to win.”
Los Angeles forward Blake Griffin returned after missing 15 games due to surgery on his right elbow. Griffin had 11 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists, but committed five turnovers in 41 minutes.
“I didn’t think I played well,” said Griffin, who managed 4-of-10 shooting. “I was out of rhythm. Way too many turnovers, obviously.”
Barnes scored 19 points and guard J.J. Redick had 15 for the Clippers (42-24), who fell into a tie for the No. 5 spot in the Western Conference standings with the Dallas Mavericks.
Paul lamented a host of turnovers in the defeat, including a critical one involving center DeAndre Jordan.
“I had some bad turnovers,” said Paul, who committed three of the Clippers’ 20 miscues compared to 13 for the Rockets. “On one, I drove it off DeAndre’s foot, the other one I lost towards the end of the half. We have to take better care of the ball. We still had an opportunity to win, but we just didn’t do it.”
The Clippers came back from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit. Paul scored seven straight points, capping it with a 3-point basket to tie the score at 96 with 3:05 left in the game. Houston got a 3-pointer by Jones, but Barnes countered with a basket to keep Los Angeles within 99-98 with 1:35 left. Los Angeles, though, never scored again.
Griffin got a steal as Ariza attempted a pass to Harden, but Ariza drew a charging foul as Griffin bolted to the bucket with 12 seconds remaining. Griffin remained unhappy about the call after the game.
“If I speak on that, I’ll get fined,” Griffin said.
Harden hit one of two foul shots with 8.9 seconds left, capping the scoring before Paul failed to connect on a jumper in the lane with Ariza defending.
The Rockets outscored Los Angeles 36-20 in the second quarter despite making just 38.5 percent of their shots compared to 44.4 percent for the Clippers. Overall, the Clippers hit 43.9 percent to 37.2 percent for the Rockets. They also held an edge in 3-point shooting, converting 12 of 26 attempts to seven of 30 for Houston. The Rockets, though were 29 of 36 from the foul line to 14 of 24 for Los Angeles.
Jordan finished with 20 rebounds and four blocks.
NOTES: F Blake Griffin’s return benefits PG Chris Paul as much as any Clipper. “Teams have been able to trap (Paul) far more than they can when Blake is on the floor because of (Griffin’s) ability to pass,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “I’m sure CP is the happiest of all to have him back.” … Rivers isn’t sure if injured G Jamal Crawford would return before the playoffs. Crawford has missed six games with a right calf contusion. … Rockets C Dwight Howard sat out his 18th game with a right knee edema. “He’s doing everything he can, he’s trying to get better, but until you’re on the floor, it’s impossible to say,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said regarding Howard’s return. … Both clubs resume play Tuesday. Houston hosts the Orlando Magic, while Los Angeles plays the Charlotte Hornets at Staples Center.
Ginobili sprains ankle as Spurs rout Timberwolves
SAN ANTONIO — The fourth and final meeting of the season between the San Antonio Spurs and the Minnesota Timberwolves looked a lot like the first three.
Forward Kawhi Leonard scored a team-high 15 points as San Antonio defeated Minnesota 123-97 Sunday night at the AT&T Center. The only downside for the Spurs was losing guard Manu Ginobili due to a sprained right ankle.
Leonard was one of seven San Antonio players to score in double figures as the Spurs (41-24) completed a season sweep of Minnesota (14-51). The average margin of victory in the games as 23.
The Spurs earned their seventh win in eight games.
Guard Kevin Martin scored 19 points and guard Zach LaVine added 18 for the Timberwolves, who were missing many players on the final game of a four-game road trip. Minnesota lost its fourth game in a row.
“We moved (the ball) well, but it wasn’t a fair fight,” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. “Their guys are devastated by their injuries, so I thought we had good focus under the circumstances. They still played the right way, so that was the best part of the game.”
The Spurs pulled away in the third quarter behind a 13-0 run. The Wolves only shot 27.3 percent in the third, and the Spurs made 63.6 of their field goals while outscoring Minnesota 33-13 in the period.
“That’s what great teams do,” Martin said. “We knew they were going to do that. Kawhi Leonard had a first half that he probably didn’t want to have, and I’m sure Pop let him know about it. He came out in the second half and changed the whole game.”
Ginobili had to be helped off the court late in the third quarter, and he did not return. He was hurt with 43 seconds left in the quarter and with the Spurs up by 30 points.
Ginobili was taken immediately to the locker room and did not put any weight on his right leg, and he will be out for a to 10 days, Popovich said. Ginobili finished the game with 11 points in 19 minutes.
San Antonio forward Jeff Ayres sustained a rib contusion in the second half and also sat out the rest of the contest.
Sunday night marked the first time San Antonio stepped back on the court since a 128-125 overtime loss to the Cavaliers on Thursday that included a 57-point performance by Cleveland guard Kyrie Irving. The loss snapped the Spurs’ six game winning streak.
Minnesota dressed only eight players. Forward Kevin Garnett (knee), guard Ricky Rubio (ankle) and center Nikola Pekovic (ankle) were all ruled out by coach Flip Saunders before the game.
“It wasn’t a fair fight,” Saunders said. “We just weren’t alert mentally, as far as trying to play. They just mauled us basically.”
The Spurs took advantage of Minnesota’s depleted lineup and jumped out to a quick 8-2 lead behind guard Tony Parker, who made his first four shots of the game and finished the night with 11 points and eight assists. Minnesota trailed 60-50 at halftime.
The Spurs led by as many as 39 points in the fourth quarter.
Even though San Antonio was facing a team without a full complement of players, forward Tim Duncan said the final game of a 5-1 homestand was a sign of good things to come.
“We’re turning that corner,” said Duncan, who finished with 10 points, six rebounds and six assists. “I think we’re heading the right direction. The huge loss last game, I felt like we gave that one away. But other than that, we’re on the right track.”
San Antonio will hit the road for back-to-back games in New York on Tuesday and in Milwaukee on Wednesday. The Timberwolves head home to face the Brooklyn Nets on Monday night.
NOTES: San Antonio moved percentage points ahead of the Dallas Mavericks and the Los Angeles Clippers for fifth place in the Western Conference standings. The Clippers lost Sunday, while the Mavericks were idle. … Minnesota F Kevin Garnett (knee) missed his fourth game in a row. … Spurs G Manu Ginobili was back in action against Minnesota after battling a stomach illness that caused him to miss the team’s game against Toronto on Tuesday and play less than 10 minutes against Cleveland on Thursday.
Irving leads Cavaliers to rout of Magic
ORLANDO — Cleveland guard Kyrie Irving is in the midst of an incredible shooting zone. And he’s loving every minute of it. Irving followed his NBA-best, 57-point scoring burst on Thursday with a more-efficient, 33-point effort Sunday, leading the Cavaliers to a 123-108 victory over the outmatched Orlando Magic.
Irving was sensational again.
In the last two games, Irving has made 12 of 13 shots from 3-point range. He has made 32 of 47 shots overall. He made the Cavs look unstoppable.
“It’s just a feel, an overall body feel right now,” Irving said. “The basketball feels a little bit better. It’s a fun game right now, and it’s fun to be part of something like this.”
Irving made 12 of his 15 shots Sunday and hit five of six from 3-point range, finding time to add four rebounds and four assists in leading the Cavs (43-25) to their fourth consecutive victory.
“Someone did ask me (before the game), what does he do for an encore (after his 57 point effort),” said Cavs coach David Blatt. “I didn’t have a good answer, But 12 of 15 from the field, in 34 minutes. That’s a pretty good encore. And he played right, which is the most important thing. It’s not the scoring as much as it is him just being engaged, locked in.”
LeBron James happily provided the perfect complement and setup man. He had 21 points, 13 assists, eight rebounds, and three steals, creating opportunities for everyone else. The Cavs buried the Magic by making 18 of 35 3-point shots, most of which were wide open.
Guard J.R. Smith scored 25 points, leading the 3-point onslaught by making six of his 10 from long range.
“I thought LeBron seemed to be seeing everyone in the gym tonight,” Blatt said. “And he threw it to them in the shooting pocket, and it seemed like that made every one. It seemed like he found guys in the eighth row that could make an open shot tonight.”
The Cavs received a brief scare midway in the third period when James went up to contest a shot and landed awkwardly, twisting his right knee. He continued to play and looked fine, but he raised the issue about his availability for Monday’s game in Miami.
“A scary moment for myself obviously,” he said. “I’ll see how I feel tomorrow and go from there. I haven’t had one of those falls in a pretty long time. I was happy to stay in the game.”
The Cavs made 45 of 76 shots (59.2 percent). The Magic (21-47) made 42 of 88 (47.7 percent, but they never seriously challenged in the second half, even though they closed to nine points twice in the fourth quarter.
Magic guard Victor Olidipo had 25 points and seven assists. Center Nikola Vucevic had 22 points and 15 rebounds. Rookie point guard Elfrid Payton had 13 points, nine rebounds and 10 assists. Forward Tobias Harris had 24 points and eight rebounds. Reserve guard Luke Ridnour had a season-high 15 points.
Irving made his first four 3-point attempts, giving him 11 consecutive 3-pointers without a miss, dating back to his 7-for-7 effort Thursday against San Antonio. He finally missed from 3-point range midway in the third period.
The Magic twice fouled Smith while he was shooting beyond the 3-point line, accounting for all five of his free throws.
“That’s a tough team. You have to give them credit,” Harris said. “They have a lot of options out there, and guys who can make tough shots. It’s just overall tough for us against a team like that.”
The Cavaliers led 100-86 going into the fourth quarter. Smith made a trio of 3-pointers in the third period, helping hold off every Magic charge in the period.
Smith hit back-to-back 3-pointers to give the Cavaliers a 84-68 lead. Irving hit a pair of 3-pointers earlier in the period.
The Cavaliers led 66-55 at intermission, riding a red-hot shooting start and a 40-point second quarter. They made 26 of 42 shots (61.9 percent) and eight of their 16 3-point attempts in the first half.
Irving hit both of his 3-pointers in the first half. The Magic held a 28-16 rebound edge in the first half, but they couldn’t keep pace with the Cavaliers, who exploded in the second period when they made 16 of their 20 shots.
The Magic led the entire first quarter. Forward James Jones gave the Cavaliers their first lead when he opened the second with a 3-pointer.
Vucevic and Harris each had 14 points by halftime. James had 15 points and six assists before intermission. Irving made six of his first seven shots for 14 points.
NOTES: The Cavaliers were without PF Kevin Love (sore back), but they were helped by the return of veteran Shawn Marion, who missed the past three weeks with a strained hip muscle. F Tristan Thompson started in Love’s place. … The Magic were without reserve G Willie Green, who missed his third consecutive game with lower back spasms and F Evan Fournier, who missed his eighth consecutive game with a sore right hip. … A quirk in the schedule gave the Cavs two-plus days in balmy Orlando before the game Sunday. The extra time gave one fan of James the opportunity to invite him Friday to his wedding reception Saturday night at the posh hotel where the Cavs were staying. James politely declined.