NBA Insiders Notebook: Taj Gibson making the most of starting role with Thunder

NBA Insiders Notebook: Taj Gibson making the most of starting role with Thunder

AN ARENA NEAR YOU – Welcome to the latest edition of the CSN Insiders notebook. It’s impossible to look at the NBA season these days and not think about playoffs or ping-pong balls. We’ve got plenty of time to talk about the lottery, so we’ll focus this week’s notebook on the former.

As much as teams want to be playing their best this time of year, they also want to go into the postseason as rested as possible.

The San Antonio Spurs have set the tone for this by sitting key players from time to time, often falling on the night of a nationally televised, hyped matchup.

But the Golden State Warriors took it to another level in resting four of their top-six players (Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala) in a national televised matchup against – who else? – the San Antonio Spurs. And remember, they were already without Kevin Durant (knee) so this game had the potential to get ugly real quick.

Indeed, it was that kind of game as the Spurs had no trouble in beating Warriors 107-85.

It’s not hard to understand why Kerr would make such a decision. The San Antonio game was their 10th since the All-Star break, seven of which were on the road.

And of those three games at home, two came right after the break.  

He’s trying to win a title and he knows he needs his best players at their peak health-wise in the playoffs.

And with the grind that they were nearing the end of schedule-wise, there’s a certain amount of logic to his decision.

But here’s the problem.

What’s best for the Warriors isn’t necessarily what’s best for the NBA’s fan base which is getting tired of shelling out big bucks to see stars who don’t play because their coach felt they needed a night off.

And when you look at this 10-game stretch, had Kerr sat them for one game after their Feb. 28 at Washington, his players would have had four days off before returning to the floor which is one day less than they’ll have after skipping out on the Spurs game this past weekend.

But what makes the resting of players late in the season stink so much is that coaches often choose to do it for road games, knowing full well that game may be the only shot fans in that market get to see the marquee players of opposing teams.

“I genuinely feel bad for the fans who bought tickets to see Steph, Klay and Draymond play, but I have to do what I have to do,” Kerr told reporters after the game. “Our team has been through the ringer here the last couple of weeks. The travel has really worn us out. We needed to get through this game and I’m really happy those guys will get several days rest before our next game. We needed to do this.”

And the league needs to do something before fans decide to take matters into their own hands; specifically, their wallets.

There are only so many of these late season superstar no-shows fans will stomach before they’ll take their entertainment dollars and become no-shows themselves.

This week we start off with the hottest 1-2 punch in the NBA right now, John Wall and Bradley Beal. Or is it Beal and Wall? CSN Mid-Atlantic J. Michael gets us up to speed on the Wizards’ dynamic duo which has fueled one of the best in-season turnarounds we have seen this season.

Eastern Conference

BEAL LEADING WIZARDS’ MAGICAL TURNAROUND THIS SEASON

After 10 games post-All-Star break, Bradley Beal has taken what he still considers a snub to the next level.

He’s averaging 28.3 points on 53.6% field-goal shooting, 44% from three-point range, 85.7% free throws, 3.9 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.2 steals.

His backcourt mate John Wall hasn’t been half-bad, either. His shooting percentages have dipped slightly but he’s at 24.4 points and 11.9 assists.

“They play both sides of the basketball,” coach Scott Brooks said. “They can score. They can help the team score with their play-making.”

The Wizards are averaging 115.1 points per game since the break, third-best in the NBA. – by J. Michael

SANDERS IN, BOGUT OUT

We hardly knew thee, Andrew Bogut!

Bogut’s career as a Cleveland Cavalier didn’t even last a minute - seriously.

The veteran big man, who signed with Cleveland after being waived by Dallas, suffered a broken bone in his leg just 58 seconds into this debut for Cleveland and was later ruled out for the rest of the season.

Still in need of rim protection, the Cavs waived Bogut and signed Larry Sanders who hasn’t played in an NBA game in two years.

“Everyone deserves a second chance and it looks like he wants to get back to playing the game he loves," LeBron James, speaking to reporters, said of Sanders recently. "You don't know how much you can get out of a guy that's been out so long, but I'd love to see it. Why not?"

At this point, adding Sanders is a high-reward, low-risk addition for the Cavs.

He replaces Bogut who gave them a whopping 58 seconds of court time, so it’s not like he’s got huge shoes to fill.

And if he can play even remotely close to the level he was at prior to walking away from the game, this will be a great addition for Cleveland not only now but also going forward.

Cleveland reportedly signed him to a two-year deal with a team option for next year. – by A. Sherrod Blakely

DISCIPLINE ISSUES IN ATLANTA?

The Hawks already punished starting point guard Dennis Schroder for being late in returning to the team after the All-Star break.

Now comes word that Thabo Sefolosha was benched recently because he was late to a shoot-around before playing the Raptors.

For a team that’s trying to find an identity through what has been a season of transition (Al Horford signed with Boston; Jeff Teague was traded to Indiana; Kyle Korver was traded to Cleveland), something like this doesn’t help.

Despite the suspensions, the Hawks are still finding ways to play winning basketball.

After finishing in a four-way tie for the third-best record in the East last season, the Hawks aren’t that far off a similar pace this season. They have won three straight and are currently fifth in the East. … The status of Mike Dunleavy is unknown as the Hawks try to compete for a top four seed. He has been out indefinitely since last month because of right ankle inflammation. Dunleavy was injured while playing with the Cleveland Cavaliers but was acquired in a trade for Kyle Korver. He’d missed four games before the deal was made. Not passing a physical has been known to void transactions (see Donatas Montiejunas trade from the Rockets to the Pistons being rejected last year) but Dunleavy’s injury seemed minor. – by J. Michael

RAPTORS IN TROUBLE WITHOUT KYLE LOWRY?

Toronto General Manager Masai Ujiri may have called Kyle Lowry’s right wrist surgery a temporary setback, but they’re in danger of dropping farther down the standings than anticipated.

Currently, the Raptors’ skid has included them 15 of their last 25 games as the Boston Celtics continue to put more and more distance between themselves and the Raptors for the best record in the Atlantic Division.

While there are a number of problems Toronto is grappling with now that Lowry will be out for a significant amount of time, too much one-on-everyone basketball has been a problem.

The Raptors’ reliance on so much isolation basketball from DeMar DeRozan to get buckets has strangled the offense without Lowry, their All-Star point guard there to help distribute and take off some of the scoring burden.

“DeMar is going to get his offensive game going no matter what, so we can’t just rely on him to carry us throughout the whole game,” coach Dwane Casey said recently. “We can’t just give him the ball and just go stand in the corner and be like, ‘Take us home.’”

In a 104-89 loss to the Miami Heat, the Raptors had an NBA-low seven assists on 33 field goals. In a loss two weeks ago to the Wizards, they were stuck on three assists in the fourth quarter until garbage time allowed them to inflate it to 11. The franchise low is six. – by J. Michael

Western Conference

SPURS’ ALDRIDGE (HEART) OUT INDEFINITELY

Injuries are a given that every team has to go through to some degree.

But the absence of San Antonio’s LaMarcus Aldridge is a much more serious matter.

He is out indefinitely because of what team officials describe as “a minor heart arrhythmia.”

“Somebody says a heart, you start thinking a little more possible long-term kind of stuff, that’s a little scary,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich told reporters after San Antonio’s 112-102 loss at Oklahoma City last week, a game in which Aldridge told the team that “he felt a little odd.”

This was not the first time that Aldridge had a heart-related issue.

As a rookie in 2007, Aldridge was diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome which is when extra electrical path in the heart causes a rapid heartbeat.

Aldridge’s heart condition was known when he came into the NBA, but wasn’t considered too serious because whenever he had an episode it didn’t keep him sidelined for very long.

Still, even with it not being a major setback in the past, that doesn’t make it any less scary for Aldridge or his teammates.

“It's a sensitive issue, so we want to make sure that he's fine," Spurs guard Manu Ginobili told reporters over the weekend. "The most important thing is to have him healthy. We'll wait as long as is necessary for him to feel secure and sure, and the team, too." – by A. Sherrod Blakely

PARSONS SUFFERS YET ANOTHER KNEE INJURY

The Memphis Grizzlies were hopeful that Chandler Parsons’ long history of knee problems was a thing of the past.

Nope.

The veteran forward finds himself once again sidelined because of a knee-related injury. The Grizzlies announced that the 6-foot-9 forward is out indefinitely due to a partial meniscus tear in his left knee.

This is Parsons’ third injury to his left knee in three years, the kind of track record that no player wants to claim as their own.

You have to wonder just how many times can the 28-year-old work his way back on to the floor after what’s believed to be a season-ending injury.

“To suffer a setback like this after working so diligently to rebound from the injury to his right knee is obviously tough. That said, we know he will continue to work tirelessly to return to the court with his teammates and contribute,” said Memphis General Manager Chris Wallace. “Chandler has the full support of myself, Coach Fizz and the entire team and we are all focused on getting him healthy.” – by A. Sherrod Blakely

GIBSON MAKING MOST OF STARTING ROLE WITH THUNDER

When the Thunder traded for Taj Gibson from Chicago, it became a matter of when – not if – he would be inserted into the starting lineup.

Head coach Billy Donovan made the call prior to the Thunder’s 102-92 win over San Antonio on March 9.

The move had a two-fold objective: To provide more toughness and experience with Gibson with the first unit, while strengthening the bench by pairing former starter Domas Sabonis with Enes Kanter

And to prove it was no fluke, Gibson helped Oklahoma City knock off Utah 112-104. Gibson had 15 points on 7-for-9 shooting along with six rebounds. Just as important, the Thunder were +22 when he was on the floor – tops among all players. – by A. Sherrod Blakely

RUBIO QUIETLY LEADING TIMBERWOLVES’ PLAYOFF PUSH

Karl-Anthony Towns has been playing at an all-NBA level since the All-Star break. And Andrew Wiggins has elevated his play of late as well. But Minnesota clawing its way back into the playoff picture has been fueled by the defense with major contributions from Ricky Rubio.

Since the All-Star break, Rubio has a defensive rating of 99.0 – almost 10 points better than his defensive rating this season.

With Towns’ ability to protect the rim and Rubio doing a better job defensively at the point of attack, it has been instrumental in the Timberwolves being one of the NBA’s top defenses since the break.

Minnesota’s defensive rating of 100.0 since the All-Star break is second in the NBA only to San Antonio (98.6).

Seeing Rubio on the floor let alone making a major impact, was not how this season was supposed to play out for Minnesota.

They drafted Kris Dunn with the fifth overall pick, a player many anticipated would be a rookie of the year candidate.

But Dunn’s minutes have been few and far between, in large part because of Rubio’s play which has been better than expected. – by A. Sherrod Blakely

CLIPPERS GETTING RIGHT AT THE RIGHT TIME

Injuries and inconsistent play have both been common themes with the Los Angeles Clippers this season. They lost four of their first five after the all-star break and have since bounced back with wins in four of their last five.  Not including Monday’s game against Utah, the Clippers close out the season with 10 of their last 15 games at home which bodes well for a team that’s looking to fight off Utah for the No. 4 seed and with it, home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. The Clippers have won each of their first two matchups with two remaining.

But before the Clippers can even begin to think about that final stretch of games, they must somehow navigate their way through a stretch in which they play seven games in 11 days that began with Monday nights’ game against Utah.

On top of that, Rivers is trying to balance that pursuit of the No. 4 seed in the West with trying to manage his player’s minutes so they get the proper amount of rest between now and the playoffs.

“It’s just dicey,” Rivers told reporters recently. “We’re just trying to do the best we can.” – by A. Sherrod Blakely

Taj Gibson drains incredible shot from opposing 3-point line at the buzzer

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TNT

Taj Gibson drains incredible shot from opposing 3-point line at the buzzer

Taj Gibson hit the best three-pointer of his career on Thursday night.

With the Oklahoma City Thunder and Portland Trail Blazers tied 57-57 with 2.8 seconds left in the half, Gibson intercepted a long pass from Pat Connaughton, who inbounded the ball.

Gibson caught it then chucked it up from Portland's free throw line and buried it at the buzzer.

Here's another angle:

As if it weren't weird enough, a fan hit a half court shot during a timeout to win a new car.

TNT must really love the Bulls — and former Bulls.

This comes over an hour after Chicago beat the Golden State Warriors, which extended their TNT Thursday home game win streak to 18.

What the Bulls are getting in point guard Cameron Payne

What the Bulls are getting in point guard Cameron Payne

The Bulls got more than a good dancer when they traded Doug McDermott and Taj Gibson for Cameron Payne and two others at Thursday's trade deadline. Though the 6-foot-3 point guard has been known more for his pregame dance routines with Russell Westbrook than his play on the court through two seasons, he’s still a 22-year-old two years removed from being a lottery pick in the 2015 NBA Draft.

Payne was a relative unknown to the casual NBA fan coming out of Murray State in 2015. Payne won the Ohio Valley Player of the Year as a sophomore, averaging 20.2 points, 6.0 assists and 1.9 steals, and ultimately became the lone mid-major selected in the lottery that year. He said at the 2015 Combine in Chicago that he wanted to be the next Steph Curry, going from an unknown at a mid-major to NBA stardom.

The Oklahoma City Thunder selected Payne that June over fellow point guards Terry Rozier, Delon Wright, Tys Jones and Jerian Grant, the last of whom the Bulls traded for this past offseason.

Payne’s biggest struggle in the NBA through two seasons backing up Westbrook has been his shooting. Though he shot nearly 46 percent from the field and 38 percent from deep as a college sophomore, Payne has been among the worst shooters in the league this season. In fact, among 295 players averaging at least 16 minutes per game, Payne’s 40.2 true shooting percentage is second worst in the league, in front of only Justise Winslow (39.7 percent).

Part of his lackluster shooting may be attributed to rust, as Payne missed the first 37 games of the season while recovering from a broken foot suffered in the preseason. He’s appeared in each of the Thunder’s last 20 games running the second unit, but with Westbrook putting up historic numbers there hasn’t been much of a need for him – he and Westbrook have shared the court for just 59 minutes this season.

The Thunder bench has produced the eighth worst net rating in the NBA this season, which could be part of the reason general manager Sam Presti made the move to acquire Doug McDermott and Taj Gibson. Payne’s shooting woes have attributed to that, as the Thunder are more than 8 points per 100 possessions worse offensively with him on the floor.

But Payne has provided value on the other end of the court; he has a positive net rating and his defensive RPM is 20th among point guards. Put in layman’s terms, Payne has been a solid defender, which has allowed him playing time despite his shooting.

He hasn’t shown a knack for being a great passer, as his assist ratio (Thunder possessions that end in a Payne assist) of 21.3 percent is 67th among 96 qualified point guards. He has improved on taking care of the ball, with his turnover ratio shrinking this season despite a slight uptick in minutes from his rookie season. It’s not uncommon to see a reserve point guard take a backseat, so the verdict is still out on how good a passer he can become.

Where he fits into the Bulls’ equation is another story. Fred Hoiberg’s group now touts five point guards, with Grant the only real player who can move off the ball – Rajon Rondo, Michael Carter-Williams, and Payne are strictly point guards, and Isaiah Canaan is simply an end-of-the-bench option.

The Bulls liked Grant enough to include him in last summer’s trade for Derrick Rose, and he’s under contract for two more seasons. Rondo and Carter-Williams are likely playing their final seasons in Chicago, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Gar Forman and John Paxson go after a floor general in a loaded point guard draft class.

All told, Payne projects as a nice second unit guard capable of playing solid defense. He’s under contract for two more seasons on a rookie deal and, given that he was playing behind Ironman in Westbrook, still has room to grow. He and Grant will challenge each other in practice and only be better for it, but the long-term solution at the point is not currently on the team’s roster.

Receiving Payne – as well as Anthony Morrow and Joffrey Lauvergne – wasn’t a terrible haul given Gibson’s impending free agency and Doug McDermott’s defensive limitations. But the trade certainly wasn’t the splash Bulls fans were hoping to see at the trade deadline, either.