Minnesota Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio discusses his development, the rumors surrounding Kevin Love, Flip Saunders’ decision to coach the team and much more in this exclusive interview.
Hate Doesn’t Faze HEAT
If you haven’t noticed, the Miami HEAT have quite a few people rooting against them in the NBA Finals. Miami is easily the most hated team in the NBA and one of the most despised franchises in all of professional sports. Some fans root just as passionately against the HEAT as they root for their favorite team, and social media can get downright ugly during Miami’s games.
LeBron James is a lightning rod for criticism, Chris Bosh seems to appear in a new mean-spirited meme every day and the HEAT as a whole are labeled dirty, soft and cocky among other things by many fans.
Ever since James and Bosh decided to join Dwyane Wade in South Beach back in the summer of 2010, Miami has had a target on their back. The Decision, followed by the over-the-top pep rally celebrating the Big Three’s arrival, rubbed many people the wrong way and many fans haven’t moved on.
That’s why four years later, there are many fans who revel in Miami’s struggles. James, Wade and Bosh have grown accustomed to this and no longer let it get to them, but that wasn’t always the case.
James and Bosh, in particular, struggled with the criticism early on. Bosh wasn’t used to the scrutiny and James, who is someone that cares about how he’s perceived, was used to being the NBA’s golden boy. James admitted that he didn’t enjoy the game of basketball as much during that first year in Miami and didn’t feel right in the villain role.
However, after being scrutinized so much in recent years, the hate no longer fazes the Big Three.
“I don’t care – that’s the main part – I don’t really care about criticism,” Bosh said. “If it doesn’t help me, then I don’t listen to it. Throughout my career, it’s changed, ever since I’ve gotten here, but you just have to put that behind you. Everybody gets criticized, and I understand that. I’m not immune to it. To know that that it’s happened before, I’m not the first, I won’t be the last. This team won’t be the first or the last. Each guy gets picked on. But I think it makes you stronger as a person and I believe in my craft. I work hard at my game and that’s all that matters. … I really let it go a long time ago. I don’t care about those things. I just care about the game. I focus on the game and what we’re supposed to do with it. We have a chance to compete for another championship. That’s all that matters to me right now.”
“You have to [push it aside],” James said. “It’s very difficult at times, very challenging, but for me, I’m here and I know who I’m playing for and what I’m playing for and what I stand for, not only as a basketball player but as man and as a role model. I know what I stand for. To be able to put an NBA uniform on every single night with my name on the back, knowing where I come from, it let’s me know that I’ve done something special. I just try to give back to the game as much as I can while I’m here. … I’ve got a great supporting cast around me that allows me to vent at times. [I] try not to hold it in. I also understand at this point in my life what’s important and what’s not important and what’s important is my teammates, what’s important is my two kids at home, my wife, my family and my friends. That’s what I can control and that’s what’s important to me. Obviously, the game of basketball has brought me so much, and I love to play this game at a high level. And without this game, I wouldn’t be who I am today. But I also know what’s important. Everything else kind of just falls by the wayside.”
After James had to exit Game 1 of the 2014 NBA Finals due to severe cramping, he was criticized endlessly. Pictures of fans “LeBroning” (pretending to be injured and carried away) trended on social media and he was blasted by fans, media and fellow athletes alike. James took it all in stride, understanding that he’s going to have these critics no matter what he does because of who he is.
“I know I’m the easiest target that we have in sports, I’m aware of it,” James told ESPN. “I really am. I believe it. … I can’t play the game of basketball and live my life on what other people expect me to do or what they think I should do, that doesn’t make me happy. What makes me happy is being able to make plays for my teammates, to be able to represent the name on the back of my jersey. That’s what makes me happy. What everybody else thinks? That doesn’t really matter to me.”
The next day, James didn’t back down from his comments when they were brought up. When a reporter asked why he thinks he’s the easiest target in sports, James interrupted.
“I don’t think it, I know it,” James said. “I just am, because I’ve been in front of the camera and the camera has been in front of me since I was 15 years old. You guys have seen everything from me, from being an adolescent kid just playing the game of basketball because he loves it as a hobby, to now playing as a professional, to succeeding, going to the top, to falling off the mountain, to going up to the top again. You guys have seen everything that my life has had to offer since I was a 15 year old kid. I don’t know if Brian Windhorst is in here somewhere, is he? He could tell you my life story almost better than my mother could (laughs.) So I think that has a lot to do with it. Half of my life I’ve been in front of this, so it makes me an easy target.”
Bosh agrees that James is the most criticized player in the NBA, but he says he’s not too far behind.
“[If LeBron is the easiest target], I’m probably the second,” Bosh said.
The criticism of Bosh, in particular, annoys HEAT head coach Erik Spoelstra since the big man is just doing what his coaches ask of him. Since joining the HEAT, Bosh has changed his game a lot and made many sacrifices for the good of the team. Spoelstra doesn’t understand why Bosh is constantly being harassed by fans, who downplay his importance to the team and question his mental toughness.
“He’s stable, one of the most stable, mentally tough guys I’ve ever been around,” Spoelstra said of Bosh. “That’s why it raises the hair on the back of my neck when people question him. He has absolutely championship DNA. It’s that mental toughness that comes through because he understands he’s going to be criticized from the outside, because of how we ask him to play, which is paramount, that’s critical for our success.
“He’s arguably our most important player. We’ve said that now for four years. If he’s not getting the normal opportunities and he’s not scoring or doesn’t have big rebound numbers, it seems from the outside everybody is so critical about his game. But for us he has a lot on his plate. He’s a two‑way player on both ends of the court. He has to facilitate and space the floor, and he has to find opportunities to be aggressive. It’s a tough balance. He’s versatile enough and important enough for us that he’s been able to find that.”
For all of the hate that this team receives, it hasn’t slowed them down in recent years. The HEAT are three wins away from winning their third straight title and cementing themselves as a modern dynasty.
Divac Remains Involved in International Basketball
There’s no question that Vlade Divac is one of the most successful international players in NBA history. Over the course of his 16-year NBA career, Divac averaged 11.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.4 blocks and 1.1 steals. He made the playoffs in 14 of his 16 NBA seasons, and he was named an All-Star as well as one of FIBA’s 50 greatest players.
He’s one of only two players born and trained in Europe to appear in 1,000 NBA games (along with Dirk Nowitzki) and one of only three players born and trained in Europe to have his number retired by an NBA team (along with Dražen Petrović and Zydrunas Ilgauskas).
Divac retired from the NBA after the 2004-05 season, but he has remained involved with international basketball players who are trying to follow in his footsteps and make it to the NBA. He tries to help foreign players maximize their potential and mentor them throughout their basketball journey.
“Thankfully, I have experience to tell the guys and help them not to make mistakes that we did when we came over there,” Divac told Basketball Insiders at adidas Eurocamp in Treviso, Italy. “I think it’s very important to talk to the kids about the future of their career. … I feel happy that in the late 80s we kind of opened the door for all of them to start thinking maybe one day they can be part of the NBA. I think that is the best league in the world and a dream of any kid around the world to become an NBA player.
“I owe it to basketball to do things like this. I would be very happy that I had a mentor and somebody who could help me, especially the first six months, and I did. I talk about it in my speech, the Lakers organization really helped me a lot and my teammates. I think it’s very important for the kids to know what they can expect in the league when they go there.”
Divac is staying very busy these days, as he has carved out a successful post-playing career.
“I’m in management of the sports; I’m president of the Olympic Committee of Serbia,” Divac said. “I try to help Serbian athletes reach their goals and become Olympians; so far it’s a great opportunity for me.”
The 46-year-old has some concerns about international basketball, particularly when it comes to “the structure of the teams.”
“In Europe, you see it goes country by country – every year they’re changing the budgets,” Divac said. “It’s not the real rule like the NBA, [where] you have a salary cap and you know exactly how you deal with those things. In Europe, one day it’s a Greek team, one day it’s a Spanish team, a Russian team – the talent moves around and I think it’s not good for basketball.”
When Divac looks at the NBA landscape today, he believes the league has changed and gotten better.
“It’s not just the NBA, every year the sport starts changing, it’s always going a level up,” Divac said. “I think it’s more physical. What’s great about it, especially on the west coast, teams are scoring more points and it’s exciting for the fans. … Some new teams are rising above the shadow. The Clippers, during my career, they always were on the bottom then finally they became a very serious contender. It’s more spread out, it’s not two or three teams anymore, half of the league can think about winning the championship.”
Divac played against Tim Duncan, Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs a lot during his career, and he’s not shocked that they have remained one of the league’s elite franchises over such a long period of time.
“Knowing the San Antonio Spurs and Gregg Popovich, I’m not surprised at all,” Divac said. “I think that is a true example of true athletes and true management and somebody who really loves the game of basketball; they should be an example for everybody else. I like the San Antonio Spurs, the way they play. I hope they win the championship this year; they had bad luck last year.”
In Treviso, Divac is speaking to the adidas Eurocamp players and running clinics, passing on his wisdom and molding the next wave of international players who will enter the NBA.
Monte Morris: Waiting for his Chance
Nuggets two-way guard Monte Morris talks to Basketball Insiders about his time with Denver.
Monte Morris has only seen action in three NBA games with the Denver Nuggets this year. While most players who receive little playing time spend most of their time at the end of the bench cheering their teammates on, Morris’ situation is a bit different. He’s spent the majority of his rookie year in the G-League.
The NBA’s minor league has grown tremendously since it’s inception in 2001. All but four NBA teams have a G-League affiliate now. There are plans for the New Orleans Pelicans to have their own team by next season, and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has spoken about having a team in Mexico.
As part of the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement, they expanded the partnership between NBA teams and their G-League affiliates even more by adding two-way contracts. Essentially creating a 16th and 17th roster spot, two-way players are allowed to split time between an NBA team and the G-League.
For Morris, two-way contracts are an added opportunity for players to make an NBA roster.
“It’s a good chance for guys to make a roster, especially second-round picks to get a chance,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “With two-way contracts, I feel like they’re going to get a lot better as far as rules and things like that go. This is the first year so they’re testing it out, but it’s a good opportunity. It’s a blessing at the end of the day.”
Morris was drafted by the Nuggets with the 51st overall pick in last summer’s draft. Second round picks are not afforded the guaranteed contract stability that comes with being a first-round pick. He was tabbed for a two-way contract almost immediately after he was drafted.
He had a stellar four years of college at Iowa State, where he was one of the top point guards in the nation as a senior. He also had a strong showing in Las Vegas with the Nuggets’ summer league team.
The Nuggets were a little crowded in the backcourt to begin the season with Jamal Murray and Emmanuel Mudiay ahead of Morris in the rotation. When Mudiay was injured and out of the rotation, Mike Malone opted to go with Will Barton as the backup point guard. The Nuggets’ trade deadline acquisition of Devin Harris pushed Morris farther back on the depth chart.
“The toughest thing is just staying mentally tough, staying true to yourself, and developing your own craft,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “Just not losing that self-confidence cause you might not play when you go up. When you come down here [G-League], take advantage of it, have fun, and keep getting better.”
Morris has definitely done his part to stand out in the G-League. The Nuggets are without a sole affiliate, so they’ve used the Houston Rockets G-League team, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, to get Morris additional experience. In 36 games with the Valley Vipers, he’s put up 18.2 points per game on 47.8 percent shooting from the field, 35.6 percent from the three-point line, 4.6 rebounds, 6.6 assists, and 1.8 steals.
He believes that if called upon, he can be a major contributor for the Nuggets. There are certain aspects he can bring to the team and he thinks it’s possible for him to play with Murray in the backcourt together.
“I think I can bring energy off the bench. I feel like me and Jamal Murray, the way the game is going you can play small ball. I feel like I can bring pace to the game and play defensively,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “I like getting after it when I’m up there with those guys on defense and getting guys open shots. I know we got a lot of scorers, my goal would be getting everybody their shots.”
Morris has been able to show he can produce at the NBA level, even if it’s a small sample size. On Feb. 9, only the second game he’s played in with Denver, he scored ten points on 4-5 shooting from the field, dished out six assists, and nabbed three steals against the Rockets.
Players on two-way contracts are allowed a maximum of 45 days with the NBA team. Those days are not solely game days; they include practices and travel days as well. Once those 45 days are up, NBA teams have the option of converting a two-way contract to a standard NBA deal provided they have roster space.
If a player uses up the 45 days and does not have their contract converted, they go back to the G-League. They can rejoin their NBA team once the G-League season ends but are not able to play in the playoffs.
For now, Morris is just biding his time, waiting for his opportunity. He’s staying ready for when the Nuggets might need him. In the meantime, he’ll continue to take advantage of what the G-League has to offer.
“It’s definitely a good starting point. It’s just all about how guys attack it on and off the court,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s just being a pro and not losing confidence in your ability when you go up and don’t play. You just got to be ready, you’re really one injury away, one call away to step on and have to play.”
Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close
Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.
You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?
Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.
With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?
Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.
For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?
I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.
Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.
I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.
Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?
Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.
Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?
I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.
Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?
Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.
Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.
Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?
Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.
Would you welcome that rematch?
I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.
What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?
Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.
NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense
The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.
“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].
“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.
“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”
Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.
“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”
Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.
According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.
The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.
“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”
Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.
“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”
Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.
“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”
While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.
“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.
The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.