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

Play to win or play to develop and evaluate?

Play to win or play to develop and evaluate?

Dwyane Wade was cooking, fresh after a two-game absence and his body was giving him a little extra life, so he was going to continue this hot streak shortly after re-entering in the second quarter of Friday night’s game against the Rockets.

As Cameron Payne looked to inbound the ball to Wade after a turnover, Wade pitched it back to Payne to run the show—perhaps sensing his teammate needed a confidence boost after going five minutes without touching the ball.

A few seconds later, Payne and Wade were running back on defense after a Payne turnover when the point guard jumped in the air to pass and the ball wound up in the hands of a Rocket defender.

Rajon Rondo’s usually-poked out chest and forward-looking shoulders slumped down, and Wade grimaced a bit in frustration once play stopped. Several minutes later, that one play meant nothing as the Rockets went on an amazing 33-2 run that made the game a laugher and questioned the Bulls’ appetite for making the playoffs.

“We’re doing everything we can to compete to win, at the same time we have some young guys we wanna get on the floor. It’s a balance,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “It’s guys, we want to get them out there and see how they play then make a decision in the second half.”

The seemingly impossibly vague task was laid out when the Bulls traded Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott to Oklahoma City for Payne, Joffrey Lauvergne and Anthony Morrow.

Gibson was the third dependable nightly player on the roster along with Jimmy Butler and Wade. For a locker room that wants to make the playoffs, it was a gut punch. For the organization, it was deemed a necessary move to evaluate players like Payne, Bobby Portis and Denzel Valentine moving forward.

If one is keeping count, it makes Payne the third “point guard of the future” since Derrick Rose was traded before the draft, as Jerian Grant and Michael Carter-Williams were the first two candidates.

When Hoiberg plays every active roster player except for the banished Nikola Mirotic in the first halves of games, it seems clear the business of basketball is getting in the way of winning.

“Hell yeah it’s hard. Absolutely. I want to win,” Rajon Rondo said to CSNChicago.com recently. “That’s what we’re here to do, is win. I had one goal when I came here: that’s to win. Business or not, that’s part of it.”

As much as it could help the Bulls in theory to “know what they have” going forward, it seems like getting a playoff berth would help the future prospects as much as anything.

“When you develop a business or have a brand, you want it to win, you want it to sell. You want it to do well,” Rondo said to CSNChicago.com. “I don’t think we do it to experiment or go different from that.”

Rondo was part of a 24-win Celtics team his rookie year, with Paul Pierce, Al Jefferson and Delonte West as the three leading scorers. Guys like Kendrick Perkins and Tony Allen were on the roster, developing but not impact players.

That June, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen were added and the next June, Boston won the NBA title. Rondo had to deal with those personalities in his second season and figure it out on the fly.

But even he can’t say whether that miserable rookie season had any bearing on how he developed the next year and beyond, whether playing losing basketball did more good compared to watching winning basketball.

“There’s no exact answer, you gotta learn through experience,” Rondo said to CSNChicago.com. “We go out there, we’re in sixth place (tied at that point in the East)…I don’t feel like…I feel like we should be trying to move up.”

Now on the outside looking into the playoff picture, it wasn’t that way after the Bulls beat the Golden State Warriors on national TV. One could say the Bulls had an inside track at staying at the sixth spot ahead of Indiana and Detroit as opposed to the free fall since.

“(We should) continue to try to move up in seeding versus experimenting,” Rondo said.

Experimenting like Carter-Williams going from barely playing at all to being thrown in early against the Rockets because of his relative success against James Harden in their first meeting.

Experimenting like Grant being subbed out for Carter-Williams at the 8:45 mark of the first quarter against the Rockets after being the only one with a pulse two nights before in the fourth quarter against the Orlando Magic.

Grant only played 12 minutes against the Rockets, so was his lack of playing time related to matchups or evaluations?

Which brings things in Hoiberg’s direction, as it doesn’t seem like he has specific directives aside from knowing he has to play the young guys so they can be evaluated.

And to be clear, even before the recent alterations to the roster, there were plenty of gripes from the locker room about the lack of consistency in terms of player rotations and accountability from the start of the season.

One wonders if players can be evaluated or grow when there’s no consistency. With this process, how are the young players learning much of anything?

“Just no consistency at all… Our team overall. It’s difficult,” Rondo said. “We are losing some games in the fourth, some games we should win…I don’t know if we’re doing analytics, what we’re doing as far as who we play, who’s not. Everybody has to be ready when their name is called.”

It seems unfair to ask Hoiberg to play virtually everybody with the intent of player evaluation, as even the worst teams aren’t stock full of unproven talent. Some players are highlighted and pressed forward, others are left behind.

Even Isaiah Thomas of the Boston Celtics was disgusted with the notion of coach Brad Stevens still tinkering too much with the rotation, this deep into the season.

But the Celtics are in a position where playoff seeding doesn’t matter as much as getting players ready for the postseason.

The Bulls don’t have that luxury, in terms of playoff positioning.

“You’re right,” Hoiberg said when presented with the notion hardly any team plays 12 players in a competitive game, leaving it to interpretation, like everything else in this Bulls season.

“I think it is a goal…for the majority of us,” said Rondo on the notion of winning. “I don’t know what the business side of it is. I’m not involved in it. We don’t know, we try to play with what we have and try to win. But the business part of it has the most control.”

Choosing his words very carefully, a notion repeated by Wade nights later, Rondo was asked if he was confused.

“It’s not confusing, it’s frustrating,” Rondo said. “I feel like I know what it is. I know what it is, but I don’t have all the answers, I may be wrong. But there’s no consistency.”

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Laughter is common in the Bulls locker room after games, probably more therapy than apathy considering the state of affairs. Given the last performance and result, along with this four-game losing streak that can increase to six in the next 72 hours, it’s easy to say the laughter is from players who are just happy to collect checks and are anxious to play out the string, but players didn’t get to this level by just mailing it in.

Cards, dominos, video games. You name it, this collection of players want to win.

Competition is in their blood and they’ve been wired that way since they were teenagers.

It’s not exclusive to the Bulls; You put five guys in a game and put five players in front of them, they’re gonna try to win.

But with the objective being as such, they feel pretty powerless to the inevitability of things as they seem destined for a lottery appearance they don’t want.

“Yes,” Wade said when asked if it’s hard to play 12 during a game. “But we’re players. It’s tough because guys don’t know how many minutes they’re gonna play. Mentally it’s tough. You got younger guys, it’s hard to bring them back. You stick with it. No matter who coach puts out there on the floor. He’s trying to figure it out as well.”

“Guys in the locker room are fine. Some guys don’t know when they’re gonna play, some guys don’t know how much so it could be a little challenging. Especially young guys, when you’re trying to develop mental toughness, it could be tough. It’s the hand we’re dealt and we gotta find a way to play it.”

When Wade was asked if he signed “in Chicago to play on a developmental team”, Wade wouldn’t wade into those treacherous waters that got him fined and benched a couple months ago.

“I’m not really gonna go there. I’m not getting in trouble no more. Not gonna do it man, not gonna do it,” Wade said. “I sit in a locker, I got a jersey. I don’t wear a suit. It’s not my job. My job is to play. And try to give confidence and lead along the way. We took a smack tonight. I’ll be there against Boston trying to lead my guys in the next game.”

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In theory, you can develop young players under the scope of white-hot NBA playoff pressure. Giving out free reign with no expectations isn’t the reality of professional basketball, nor is playing 12 guys in what should be a competitive exercise.

It’s a meritocracy, not little league where everybody gets a chance at bat.

Just doling out minutes sets a bad standard considering nobody this side of the recent vintage Philadelphia 76ers, a team that embarrassed the league with their tanking efforts—and years later, they’re no closer to contention; In fact they’re worse off than if they had played things honest and made a true effort at competing.

Bulls GM Gar Forman has said repeatedly that you don’t want to establish a losing culture by sinking all the way to the bottom like the 76ers have in the attempt to rig the lottery system.

While that’s agreeable, this way has just as many kinks when the young players are supposed to learn on the fly from the veterans but the veterans are becoming so disenchanted with the process there’s no way for the youth on the roster to progress.

And with as much growing that Hoiberg has to do in terms of his command in holding a team accountable and figuring out how to best coach at this level, the “everybody plays” mindset isn’t exactly a fertile learning ground for him, either.

It’s clear he’s struggling with this, playing the entire roster save for Mirotic in the first half when trying to figure out who’ll play in the second half of games.

He doesn’t allow himself to have any wiggle room as far as feel and at this stage of the season, the time for juggling ended long ago.

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.