Sunday, March 29, 2015

J-Speaks: Legendary Jazz Broadcaster Passes Away

There are very few in the world of sports that can say they were great in the field of play as well as one who can commentate it. The Utah Jazz had that kind of individual who was one of the all-time greats in college basketball, had a brief and solid career in the NBA and was one of the best ever calling games for the team when they were in New Orleans and in Utah for over three decades. This past Friday, that amazing voice was silenced.
Rodney Clark “Hot Rod” Hundley, the former West Virginia great, former NBA player and Hall of Fame play-by-play analyst for the Jazz in both New Orleans and Utah passed away on Friday. He was 80 years old.
According to the Jazz organization, Hundley passed away at his home in the area of Phoenix, AZ. Hundley had not been in public much because he had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease over the past few years. Hundley was remembered on Friday night in Denver as the Nuggets held a moment of silence before their tilt versus the Jazz at the Pepsi Center, which the Nuggets won 107-91. The Jazz before their contest on Saturday versus the Oklahoma City Thunder at EnergySolutions Arena had a moment of silence for Hundley. The Jazz beat the Thunder 94-89 to snap a four-game losing streak. The players wore black strips on the left shoulder of their jerseys in memory of Hundley.
Hundley was the play-by-play analyst for the Jazz for 3,051 games from 1974-2009. He joined the franchise before their first season in New Orleans in the 1974-75 NBA campaign and joined the team when they moved to Salt Lake City in 1979-80.
Five years ago, the organization honored Hundley by hanging a banner in the rafters next to the retired numbers of former head coach Frank Layden (1); Legendary Owner Larry H. Miller (9); Hall of Famers Pete “Pistol” Maravich (7) John Stockton (12), Karl Malone (32) and Adrian Dantley (4); Jeff Hornacek (14); Mark Eaton (53); Darrell Griffith (35) and Hall of Fame head coach Jerry Sloan (1,223). The Jazz dedicated the press room in Hundley’s honor, naming it the Hot Rod Hundley Media Center.
Inside the media center was a mural that featured in bold letters his signature line, “You Gotta Love it, Baby!”
“Hot Rod was the voice of the Utah Jazz for 35 years and his voice was synonymous with   Jazz radio,” team owner Gail Miller said in a statement on Friday.
“The expressions he used throughout the game broadcasts are legendary. He had a unique ability to make the game come to life so that you felt as though you could see what was happening on the floor when listing to him call games. Road was a very special talent and will be missed by our family as well as Jazz fans everywhere. Our thoughts and condolences are with the Hundley family.”
Hundley was born in Charleston, WV on Oct. 26, 1934. At a young age, Hundley was a wizard with the basketball. He averaged 30 points per game at Charleston High School, breaking the four-year record for the state and doing it in just three years.
He truly announced himself to many when he scored 45 points in the WV-Kentucky high school All-Star game.
The talented Hundley was named a high school All-American and his choices of where to attend college were limitless.
He stayed close to home playing for the West Virginia University Mountaineers from 1954-57.
In his freshmen season, Hundley scored a record 62 points against Ohio University and as a sophomore, where he averaged 23.7 points and 8.1 rebounds in 30 games, he scored a varsity school record 54 points against Furman.
In his junior season, Hundley averaged career-best of 26.6 points and 13.1 boards per contest. He had 34, 20, 27, 40, 20 and 21 points in his first six games of that season.
Hundley finished his West Virginia career as the fourth player in NCAA history at that time to score 2,000 points in his career, accomplishing that in three seasons because freshmen back then could not play on the varsity squad.
The two-time first team All-American and currently holder of eight school records averaged 24.5 points and 10.6 rebounds per contest.
In 2000, Hundley earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in arts and sciences, 43 years after leaving for the NBA.
In 1982, he received the NCAA Silver Anniversary All-America Team for distinguished service for all that he had accomplished in his life up to that point and ten years later was inducted into the West Virginia Sports Hall of Fame.
In Jan. 2010, WVU retired Hundley’s No. 33 making him and Hall of Famer and the NBA’s logo Jerry West the only players in the history of the University to have their jerseys retired.
Hundley, who also made a name for himself on the court with his antics of dribbling the ball behind his back, spinning the ball on his finger and bringing the ball around his back is the only Mountaineer to be drafted No. 1 overall in the NBA Draft, when he was selected at that position by the Cincinnati Royals back in 1957, though his rights were traded to the Minneapolis Lakers.
Hundley played for the Lakers both in Minneapolis and Los Angeles from 1957-1963, averaging 8.4 points per game. He made back-to-back All-Star appearances in 1960, where he had the best season of his career averaging 12.8 points, 5.3 boards and 4.6 assists per contest and 1961.
In 1960, he was teamed with West, who the Lakers drafted that season.
Due to knee issues, the two did not play together very long as Hundley retired at the age of 28 in 1963. He finished his six-year run in the league scoring a total of 3,625 points.
“Rod was not only a great basketball player, but one of the best play-by-play announcers in the game. He will be missed by all those he touched through his legendary career as will his colorful story-telling,” West said in a statement on Friday.
Upon his retirement, Hundley moved to the media side of the game, working four seasons with the Phoenix Suns and then with the Lakers for another four seasons.
In the early 1970s, he teamed with legendary play-by-play commentator Dick Enberg as they called syndicated college basketball games for TVS Television Network.
For five years, Hundley was an NBA announcer for CBS, where he called four All-Star Games and worked two All-Star Games for ABC radio.
He started his legendary run for the Jazz as mentioned in 1974 where he became the first radio and television voice for the team when they were an expansion team in New Orleans.
It was then he established his rapid-fire style of commentating and had such sayings like “from the parking lot,” pertaining when a player put up a shot from long distance.
His great broadcast work was honored in 1994 when the NBA awarded the legendary play-by-play man of the Jazz with their Distinguished Broadcaster of the Year award.
In 2003, Hundley received the Curt Gowdy Media Award from the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, making him the only former pro basketball player to receive that honor.
In 200, Hundley was voted into the Utah Broadcast Hall of Fame.  
Hundley became the full-time radio voice for the Jazz in the 2005-06 season when the NBA forced the Jazz to end their practice of simulcasting games on both radio and television. The play-by-play duties were taken over by current play-by-play voice of team Craig Bolerjack.
Unknowing, Hundley would be a trend setter as nearly all NBA teams moved radio broadcasters from courtside to perches high above the arena.
Unfortunately, the many walks up those perches to broadcast games put a serious strain on the hips and knees of Hundley and he announced his retirement on Apr. 24, 2009, effective at season’s end.
His last radio broadcast came on Apr. 27, 2009 when the Jazz fell to the Lakers in Game 5 of the opening round of the 2009 NBA Playoffs 107-96, losing the series 4-1.
Along with his great work on the microphone Hundley hosted his own Celebrity Golf Tournament to benefit the Salt Lake Shriners Hospital.  
There are a number of teams in the league that have legendary voices that have captured the greatness of the many players for that respective team. Marv Albert of the New York Knicks, now with NBA on TNT. Current play-by-play commentator for the Detroit Pistons George Blaha. Eric Reid of the Miami Heat. The late Chick Hearn of the Lakers. Bill Worrell of the Houston Rockets and Bob Rathman of the Atlanta Hawks to name a few. Hundley is no different.
He was the voice when Maravich was dazzling fans in New Orleans. He was the voice that was heard when Stockton became the all-time leader in assists and steals. He was the voice when Malone became the all-time leading scorer in NBA history. He was the voice heard when Malone scored a career-high 61 points to go along with 18 boards and three steals on 21 for 26 from the field and 19 for 23 from the free throw line as the Jazz won 144-96 versus the Milwaukee Bucks on Jan. 27, 1990. He was the voice heard when Stockton had 20 points and 28 assists and eight steals as the Jazz won 124-102 versus the San Antonio Spurs. Malone in that game had 32 points and 18 boards. He was the radio voice when the Jazz clinched their first trip to the NBA Finals on a game-winning three-pointer by Stockton in Game 6 at the Houston Rockets 103-100.
Along with being the voice of the Jazz, he was an inspiration to all young broadcasters like the current NBA on ESPN/ABC and play-by-play commentator for the New York Knicks Mike Breen.
“He was a friend to all the young broadcasters who came up,” Breen said during the ABC telecast of the Houston Rockets versus the Washington Wizards on Sunday afternoon. “Just a great basketball life.”  
Former Golden State Warriors head coach and current color commentator for NBA on ESPN/ABC Mark Jackson, who played for the Jazz in 2002-03 also on Sunday’s broadcast said Hundley “was a class man.”
He was a legend on the college hardwood. A brief career in the pros and then a legendary career as a play-by-play man with the Suns and the Jazz. He set a standard that has been respected by the Jazz organization, its players, the fans and fellow commentators. More than anything, he could tell a story that you want to hear from beginning to end.
“Basketball lifer. Every time you go to Utah, you would see him, he would always give you a great story. May he rest in peace,” NBATV analyst Dennis Scott said Saturday during “Gametime.”
“The NBA lost another legend in “Hot Rod” Hundley. Had the pleasure of hanging out with him for a while in L.A. Just a great guy. Sad loss for the NBA,” former Denver Nuggets head coach Brian Shaw also said this past Saturday during “Gametime.”
Information, statistics and quotes are courtesy of 3/27/15 article “Jazz mourn loss of Hot Rod Hundley;” 3/28/15 2 a.m. edition of NBATV’s “Gametime” with Rick Kamla, Dennis Scott and Brian Shaw; 3/29/15 12:30 p.m. NBA on ABC telecast Houston Rockets versus Washington Wizards with Mike Breen, Mark Jackson, Jeff Van Gundy and Lisa Salters;;;;; Sporting News Official 2006-07 NBA Guide.  

Saturday, March 28, 2015

J-Speaks: Shaq Honored by Magic

Before winning championships with the Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami Heat, future Hall of Famer and current NBA on TNT/NBATV analyst Shaquille O’Neal began his career with the Orlando Magic, who drafted him with the No. 1 overall on May 17, 1992. In his four seasons, he helped lead the Magic from the bottom of the East to the pinnacle of a championship 20 years ago. Following the 1995-96 season, O’Neal became a free agent and decided to sign with the Lakers. Despite playing for other the aforementioned Lakers, Heat, Phoenix Suns, Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics, O’Neal always made his home in Orlando, FL and this past Friday night, the team he first played for honored him in a big way.  
On Friday night, versus the Detroit Pistons, the Orlando Magic inducted O’Neal into their Hall of Fame. O’Neal joins former teammate and the Magic first overall pick Nick Anderson and the team’s first general manager Pat Williams.
In his four seasons (1992-96) with the Magic, O’Neal averaged 27.2 points, 12.5 rebounds and 2.8 blocks in 328 games. The Magic won 208 out of those 328 chances, winning 50 games or more in each of those three seasons.
O’Neal was honored before the Magic’s Friday night tilt versus the Detroit Pistons at the Amway Center, who defeated the Magic 111-97. O’Neal also joined the FOX Sports Florida broadcast team of David Steele and former teammate Jeff Turner to help call some of the action in the second quarter on Friday night.
“This is a great city. A great organization. The people here were great. It was a fabulous time,” O’Neal said at the induction ceremony earlier in the day on Friday.
“Being a young man growing into an adult here. We won a lot of games. We had that heart break in 95. That still kind of upsets me. B Hill [Brian Hill] knows. Nick knows. Jeff knows. We could have beaten those guys blind folded, but we let one get away.”
When the Magic selected O’Neal with the first pick of the 1992 out of Louisiana State University, he made an impact right away as the team went 41-41 in 1992-93, barely missing the playoffs as the Indiana Pacers overtook them for the No. 8 and final playoff spot. O’Neal won Rookie of the Year averaging 23.4 points, 13.9 rebounds and 3.5 blocks.
In the off-season then Magic head coach Matt Guokas stepped down as head coach and was replaced by Brian Hill. In the draft that summer, the Magic selected with the No. 1 overall pick Chris Webber out of Michigan, but dealt him to the Golden State Warriors for No. 3 overall pick Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway out of them Memphis State and three future first-round picks.
The new dynamic duo of O’Neal and Hardaway lead the Magic to their first 50-win season in franchise history going 50-32 making the playoffs as the No. Seed in the East. The first playoff series was one to forget as they were swept 3-0 by the eventual Eastern Conference runner-up Indiana Pacers 3-0.
The team added some much needed championship experience in the off-season signing free agent forward Horace Grant, who alongside future Hall of Famers Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson win three straight titles in the early 1990s.
The quintet of Grant, Hardaway, O’Neal and sharp shooters Anderson and Dennis Scott became one of the most dynamic starting five in the NBA.
The team won 57 games in 1994-95 winning their first Atlantic Division title in team history and the No. 1 overall Seed in the East. They were an incredible 39-2 at home. O’Neal averaged 29.3 points, 13.2 boards and 2.9 blocks per contest
The Magic won their first playoff series defeating the Boston Celtics 3-1. In the East Semifinals, they outlasted Jordan, Pippen and the Bulls defeating them in six games.
They battled tooth and nail with the Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals, but defeated them in seven games, becoming the second fastest team to appear in the NBA Finals.
Unfortunately, the young Magic in Game 1 of The Finals versus the more experienced Houston Rockets could not hold on to a double-digit lead and fell in overtime 120-118. The Magic were swept by the Rockets in four games, capturing their second straight title and become the first team in NBA history to not only win the title as a No. 6 Seed, but defeated four teams with 50-plus regular season wins in the postseason to win the title.
The Magic played like a team on a mission the next season as they went 60-22 capturing a second consecutive Atlantic Division title and the No. 2 Seed in the East, bested by the 72-10 record of the Bulls, the best regular season in NBA history. O’Neal averaged 26.6 points, 11.0 rebounds and 2.1 blocks on the season.
In the playoffs, they swept the Detroit Pistons 3-0. In the Semis, they took care of the Atlanta Hawks in five games. In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Bulls and an in shape Jordan were too much for the Magic to handle.
The Bulls made things difficult for the Magic right from the opening tip winning Game 1 121-83, the worst playoff loss in Magic history. The Bulls overcame an 18-point halftime lead in Game 2 to win 92-88 going up 2-0. The Bulls destroyed the Magic in Game 3 winning 86-67 and they completed the sweep in Game 4 winning 101-86 to advance back to the NBA Finals and eventually outlasting the Western Conference champion Seattle Supersonics 4-2 to win their fourth title in six seasons and the beginning of their second three-peat.
The Magic were never the same again as mentioned earlier O’Neal left in free agency for the Lakers. Hardaway was eventually traded to the Suns in the off-season three years later. Scott, Anderson and Grant also eventually moved on as well.
While he did eventually win titles in Los Angeles and Miami, O’Neal wishes that he would have stayed and finished the task in Orlando.
“I truly believe that I would have stayed there at least with the team we had, Penny, myself, I believe we could have gotten one or two,” he said on NBATV’s “Gametime” earlier in the week.
While he put the Magic on the map with his play on the court, O’Neal also became one of the game’s biggest personalities at the time. Not only was he an All-Star, dipped his toe into Hollywood a little bit staring in the movies “Blue Chips” and “Kazak.”
He also delved into music and his 1993 debut album “Shaq Diesel,” received platinum certification from the Recording Industry Association of America. O’Neal was also a guest rapper on the late great Michael Jackson’s song “2 Bad” from his 1995 album, “HIStory.”
While his career in Orlando may have been a short one, O’Neal’s four seasons in Orlando were ones not to forget and his overall career is one that some of the current Magic players respect and enjoyed.
Current Magic forward Channing Frye was once asked by O’Neal early in his career if he could get his shoes after the game because one of his sons was a fan of his.
“You look up to the guy,” Frye said of that first meeting. “Were vastly different players. I think at the end of it, everybody watched ‘Blue Chips’. Everybody watched ‘Blue Chips.’ I don’t know if everybody watched ‘Kazaam,’ but we make mistakes sometimes.”
Forward and Long Island, NY native Tobias Harris said on Friday that he and his younger brother Tyler watched “Kazaam,” and they really liked the personality that O’Neal brought to his character.
“It just showed his personality. He was able to do a lot of things off the floor. Just his whole charisma and his spirit. I think is probably one of the best things about him.”
There are very few players in NBA history that can come into the league and make an impact from day one. Have the ability to bring it on the court and be even more amazing off of it. O’Neal was able to do that in Orlando and those teams also brought a style of play that was must see television.
On top of that, O’Neal said he learned in Orlando how to become a leader on the court and while it did not lead the Magic to a title, it all came together for him in L.A. and in Miami
He said earlier in the week on NBATV’s “Gametime” that Guokas said to him in his early days with the Magic, “You’re our leader. The team is yours. We go as far as you take us.”
“I just wanted people to remember my name and just wanted to be like the greats before me. David Robinson, Hakeem [Olajuwon] and Patrick Ewing.”
The unfortunate thing about this great story is that it did not end with a championship. With that being said, it did have a lot of good times in the beginning and in the middle and despite a rough patch at the end, it ended with the Magic honoring the player that put them on the map with his induction into their Hall of Fame and very soon O’Neal will receive the ultimate honor by being inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
“If they’re going to have a Hall of Fame, Shaquille O’Neal has to be in the Magic Hall of Fame,” Hill, now a co-host of the pre-game show Magic Live on FOX Sports Florida said of his former player this past Friday.
“One of the NBA’s greatest all-time players. Obviously a great career here in Orlando and just a wonderful guy to be around and a lot of fun to coach.”
Information, Statistics and quotations are courtesy of 3/26/15 2 a.m. NBATV’s “Gametime” with Vince Cellini, Isiah Thomas and Shaquille O’Neal; 3/27/15 6:30 p.m. “Magic Live” on FOX Sports Florida with Dante Marchitelli and Brian Hill;’Neal;;

Friday, March 27, 2015

J-Speaks: Nash Reaches End

In the summer of 1996, the Phoenix Suns drafted an unknown guard Canadian guard out of the University of Santa Clara. Nearly two decades later, he not only became a great player in the league, he helped to revolutionize how the game is played, especially from the point guard position. Unfortunately, the final act of his career saw him fighting back from injuries leaving him short of claiming the ultimate prize. On Saturday, this great guard made the most difficult decision any professional athlete has to make.
Los Angeles Lakers guard Steve Nash, who was the 15th pick in the 1996 NBA Draft by the Phoenix Suns announced his retirement on Saturday in a letter on The Players’ Tribune, a website where he is a senior producer of. He averaged for his career 14.3 points, 8.5 assists on 49.0 percent from the field; 42.8 percent from three-point range and 90.4 percent from the free throw line, the highest in NBA history.
Nash, who played 19 seasons with the Suns, Dallas Mavericks and aforementioned Lakers wrote, “The greatest gift has been to be completely immersed in my passion and striving for something that I loved so much visualizing a ladder, climbing up to my heroes. The obsession became my best friend. I talked to her, cherished her, fought with her and got knocked down on my ass by her.” 
The 41-year-old from Vancouver Island, British Columbia was an eight-time All-Star, two-time Most Valuable Player (2005 & 2006); seven-time All-NBA selection and five-time NBA assists leader (2004-07, 2009-11). Only Hall of Famers John Stockton (15,806) and Milwaukee Bucks head coach Jason Kidd (12,091) had more career assists in NBA history than Nash, who finished third with 10,335. Four times in his career he finished a season shooting 50-plus percent from the field, 40-plus percent from three-point range and 90-plus percent from the free throw line, the most in NBA history. Boston Celtics Hall of Fame forward Larry Bird did it twice and five other players did it once.
His final act with the Lakers was riddled with injuries, which included a persistent back problem that has kept on the shelf this entire season. In total, he played in 65 games for the Purple and Gold.
“I finally realized it wasn’t happening. I’ve been rehabbing and fighting to get back on the court for the majority of 18 months,” Nash, who was training twice a day during the aforementioned span, said to ESPN’s Marc Stein this past weekend.
“If you want to enjoy and be happy the rest of your life, you have to in some ways say goodbye to your former self and that’s not easy. I think just knowing that, I’m going to have to deal with this and I’m going to have to accept it and find new ways to challenge myself and enjoy myself. I think I’ll get there.”
In the off-season of 2012, the Lakers acquired Nash in a sign-and-trade with the Suns and they also acquired center Dwight Howard from the Magic. With the two new additions along with future Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant, it was believed that the Lakers on paper were a serious championship contender again.
However in the second game of the season of the 2012-13 season at the Portland Trail Blazers, Nash suffered a non-displaced fracture in his left leg after he collided with Blazers’ guard Damian Lillard.
Nash managed to play in just 50 games two seasons ago averaging just 12.7 points and 6.7 assists per game. The Lakers were swept by the eventual Western Conference Champion San Antonio Spurs in the first round that season. They played that series without Bryant, who sustained a torn Achilles near the end of the season.
Continuous nerve problems stemming from the same leg injury the season before limited Nash to just 15 games the next season, where he averaged 11.7 points and 9.9 assists.
The dream of two of the best guards, who were in the same 1996 Draft class to ever play, trying to win a championship never came to fruition and that is something that really frustrated Nash. However, he said to Stein that he was very grateful for the experience of being a teammate of Bryant, all be it in a limited capacity.
“It was a great experience for me to see how he works. At the same time we barely played together,” Nash said.
“Frustrating. Disappointing in the big picture. It was also a great experience just to be around him. See how he approaches the game.”
While the final chapter did not end well for Nash, his basketball career was one to marvel.
It all began back in Canada when in 8th grade, the former soccer and hockey player traded in his soccer cleats and ice skates for sneakers and became a star at St. Michaels University School.
It all came together for Nash in his senior season when he nearly averaged a triple-double of 21.3 points, 11.2 assists and 9.1 rebounds per contest in leading the private boarding school team to the British Columbia AAA title in 1991-92. On top of that, he was named the province’s Player of the Year.
Despite his great high-school career, no American Universities recruited Nash, except for Santa Clara University, who had not appeared in the NCAA Tournament in five years.
That all changed when Nash joined the team as he lead the Broncos to the West Coast Conference (WCC) in his freshmen season. In the tournament, the Broncos upset the No. 2 ranked Arizona Wildcats of the opening round thanks to six straight free throws by Nash in the final 30 seconds of the contest. The dream season ended in the next round as the Broncos were defeated by the Temple University Owls.
After a disappointing 1993-94 season where the Broncos were just 5-7 in the WCC, the bounced back the next season lead by Nash, who was named the Conference Player of the Year. The team were ousted by the Mississippi State Bulldogs in the tournament.
The Broncos had another solid season the following year and Nash became the first back-to-back WCC Player of the Year since four-time NBA champion, Santa Clara alum and current New York Knicks assistant coach Kurt Rambis.
In the NCAA Tournament, the No. 10 seeded Broncos upset the No. 7 seeded Maryland Terrapins as Nash led the way with 28 points. The Broncos season ended at the hands of the Kansas Jayhawks.
Nash would finish his collegiate career as Santa Clara’s all-time leader in assists with 510; free-throw percentage (.862) and in three-pointers made (263) and attempted (656). He today remains third on the school’s all-time scoring list with 1,689 and holds the single-season record for free throw percentage in a season, which Nash accomplished in his senior year of 1995-96 as he shot .894 percent.
In September 2006, became the first student-athlete in Santa Clara history to have his jersey (No. 11) retired.
As mentioned earlier, Nash was selected at No. 15 of that summer’s NBA draft by the Suns.
He played a supporting role in his first three seasons in the Phoenix behind star lead guards Kevin Johnson, Sam Cassell and then Kidd.
Nash’s career would take shape when he was dealt to the Mavericks following the 1998 NBA draft.
After a rough 1999-00 season, where he averaged just 8.6 points per game and 4.9 assists, Nash averaged 15.6, 17.9, 17.7 and 14.5 points per contest the following four seasons and the Dallas Mavericks won no less than 50 games during those seasons.
Unfortunately Nash, fellow All-Stars Dirk Nowitzki and Michael Finley, could not lead the Mavericks to the championship as their season ended three times in the Western Conference Semifinals and once in the Western Conference Finals.
After the 2003-04 season, Nash became a free agent. He wanted to stay in Dallas, but owner Marc Cuban did want to sign a 30-year-old Nash at the time to a long-term deal when he had $50 million in combined salary into Antoine Walker, Finley, Nowitzki and Antawn Jamison.
Nash’s former team the Suns offered him a six-year deal worth $63 million and he took the deal.
In his second stint with the Suns, Nash went from an All-Star to a household name. He also brought out the greatness of Shawn Marion, Joe Johnson and Amar’e Stoudemire and ran Head Coach Mike D’Antoni’s famed “Seven Seconds or Less” up-tempo offense to perfection as the Suns produced a 62-20 record, the best in the league in 2004-05.
Nash won his first MVP Award of his career as he averaged 15.5 points and 11.5 assists per game, which lead the NBA. He shot 50.2 percent from the floor, 43.1 percent from three-point range and 88.7 percent from the free throw line. He became the first Canadian to ever win MVP and the third point guard to ever win the award joining Hall of Famer Bob Cousy and Earvin “Magic” Johnson.
In the playoffs, the Suns swept the Memphis Grizzlies 4-0 in the opening round. In the Semis, they defeated Nash’s former team, the Mavericks 4-2, but lost to the eventual NBA champion Spurs 4-1 in the Western Conference Finals.
The Suns went 54-28 the next season, winning their second straight Pacific Division title and Nash won his second straight MVP Award averaging a career-high of 18.8 points and 10.5 assists on 51.2 percent from the field, 43.9 percent from three-point range and 92.1 percent from the charity stripe, which lead the NBA. After defeating the Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers in seven games respectably in the first two rounds, the Suns lost in the Conference again falling to the Mavs in six games.  
In 2006-07, the Suns won 61 games capturing their third straight Division title and the No. 1 Seed in the West for the third year in a row. Nash averaged 18.6 points and 11.6 assists on a career-best 53.2 percent from the floor, 45.5 percent from three-point territory and 89.9 percent from the free throw line. They efforts to win a title would come up short again losing to the Spurs in the Semis 4-2.
The Suns won 55 games in 2007-08, but lost to the Spurs for the third time in the last four seasons, falling in the opening round 4-1, which cost D’Antoni his job.
They missed the playoffs the next season despite a 46-36 record.
The 2009-10 season saw a return of the Suns’ “Seven Seconds or Less” offense under then head coach Alvin Gentry, who took over for Terry Porter midway through the prior season and the Suns won 54 games. Nash averaged 16.5 points and 11.0 assists on 50.7 percent from the field, 42.6 percent from the three-point line and 93.8 percent from the free throw line, which lead the league.
They defeated the Trail Blazers in the first round in six games and swept the Spurs in the Conference Semis. For the third time though in six seasons, the Suns lost in the Conference Finals, this time to the eventual NBA champion Lakers in six games.
Changes to the roster over the next two seasons weakened the Suns and they missed the playoffs.
This past Saturday, the NBA said goodbye to one of the best floor generals to ever step on the hardwood. This man for nearly a decade with the Mavericks and in his second tour of duty with the Suns led the best offenses in the league.  
He showed the value of having a team on the court who can space the floor with consistent shooting on the floor. The ability to have a team that can make and take three-pointers at the drop of a hat.
He has had a major influence on many of the NBA’s lead guards like Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors and Kyrie Irving of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
That greatness came from a never ending noise to the grindstone hard work, dedication and relentless determination that not only made himself great, but every teammate that took the floor with him and every coach that coach him.
Fellow Canadian, three-time NBA champion with the Lakers and NBATV analyst Rick Fox said during NBATV’s “Gametime” on Saturday that Nash is “Canada’s greatest basketball player ever.”
Not many players get a chance to leave the game on their own terms. Whether it is not being able to finish their career with a certain team or not being able to win the ultimate prize. Some can deal with it better than others and Nash is one that is not fazed by the fact he did not lead the Suns, Mavericks or Lakers to a championship.
“That’s fine. That’s fair game. I don’t hide from that. I didn’t win a championship,” Nash said to Stein.
“I don’t get caught up in legacy or where I fit in. That’s never the reason I play the game. I always play the game for the moment. For the opportunity. The challenge. To try to get better and transform myself into a better player.”
He started off as any Canadian. Playing soccer and hockey. He then found basketball he used relentless determination and commitment to be the best collegiate player in the country and then one of the best basketball players on the planet. He became a multiple All-Star, multiple All-NBA selection and a two-time MVP. More than anything else, he showed what a focused mined mixed in with tremendous talent and never giving up can do. He might not won a championship on the hardwood, but Steve Nash performed, worked and conducted himself like one.
Information, quotations and statistics are courtesy of 3/22/15 1 a.m. edition of “NBA Tonight” on ESPN 2 with Cassidy Hubbarth and Bruce Bowen; 3/22/15 1 a.m. NBATV’s “Gametime” with Jared Greenberg, Vinny Del Negro and Rick Fox, report from Vince Cellini;;;

Saturday, March 21, 2015

J-Speaks: “Clutch City’s Special Night”

Twenty years ago, the Houston Rockets joined an exclusive NBA club when they won their second consecutive NBA title. Eventual Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon went from being just a great player to one an all-time great in helping lead the Rockets to back-to-back titles. They also can claim they are the first of the three Texas teams in the NBA to become champions first ahead of their Southwest Division Rivals the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks. This past Thursday night at the Toyota Center in Houston, TX, the Rockets took their fans back down memory lane and the Rockets current best player in All-Star James Harden had a historic evening.
In the Rockets (46-22) 118-108 victory versus the Denver Nuggets (26-44) this past Thursday night, their third win in a row, Harden scored a career-high 50 points going 12 for 27 from the field and 22 for 25 from the free throw line. He also had 10 rebounds and four assists.
It was the first 50-plus point performance since the aforementioned Olajuwon scored 51 points going 20 for 37 from the field and 11 for 14 from the charity stripe, grabbing 14 boards, three steals and two block shots, but the Rockets lost versus the Boston Celtics 108-106.
On top of that Harden became the ninth player in Rockets history to score 50 points or more in a regular season game and the four Rocket in team history compile 50-plus points and 10-plus boards in a regular season game in Rockets history. Olajuwon and fellow Hall of Famers Moses Malone and Elvin Hayes each accomplish that feat twice in their Rocket careers. Harden also became the first player in the league to achieve those stats since Miami Heat All-Star guard and three-time NBA champion Dwyane Wade did it on Mar. 14, 2009, when he had 50 points, 10 boards, nine assists, four steals and two blocks in leading the Heat to a 140-129 victory versus the Utah Jazz in triple-overtime.
“It’s a blessing. All the glory to God,” Harden said to the NBATV’s Jared Greenberg and Dennis Scott after the game on Thursday.
“Credit my teammates and coaches. They did an unbelievable job as they do every single night. Getting me in positions to be successful. I got some shots to fall tonight and I was just in attack mode all night.”
Harden had this great performance on a night when the Rockets celebrated the 20-year anniversary of the team’s back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995, with public address announcer during those two season Matt Thomas as the master of ceremony.
The celebration consisted of former players, coaches, front office personnel and the television and radio broadcasters from those back-to-back title teams. Also on hand was NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.
Among the players that were in attendance along with Olajuwon were his former “Phi Slama Jama” college teammate from his days with the Houston Cougars Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler, who the Rockets traded for along with sharp shooter Tracy Murray in the middle of the 1994-95 season for Otis Thorpe who was also in attendance.
Other former players that were honored were sharp shooter Vernon Maxwell, Robert Horry, Mario Elie, Eric Riley, Earl Cureton, Tim Breaux, Chris Jent, Charles Jones, Pete Chilcutt and Matt Bullard.
Two key players that were not on hand for the festivities, but were major cogs in the Rockets back-to-back titles were starting lead guard Kenny Smith, who is now busy with Turner Sports coverage of the NCAA Tournament and his understudy Sam Cassell, who is an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Clippers.
Along with honoring former players, the Rockets also honored the coaching staff and key members of the front office from those title teams like head coach Rudy Tomjanovich, the franchise leader in regular season victories with 503 and playoff wins with 90; assistant coaches “Mr. Mean” Larry Smith, Bill Berry, Carroll Dawson and Jim Boylen, who was also the video coordinator; General Manager Bob Weinhauer; head trainer Ray Melchiorre; player scout Joe Ash and directory of player development Robert Barr.
The Rockets also honored the radio and television broadcasters during those seasons. Gene Peterson, the radio play-by-play announcer whose famous line was “How sweet it is!” and his partner color analyst Jim Foley. The Spanish broadcast radio broadcast team of Danny Gonzalez and Alex Lopez Negrete were also on hand as well as the television broadcast duo of play-by-play announcer Bill Worrell and color analyst Hall of Famer Calvin Murphy.  
Like any journey to height professional sports lure, there are many highs and many obstacles to overcome in reaching the mountain top of any professional sport.
For the Rockets, their championship journey began one year prior when they won then a franchise record 55 games and capturing their first then Midwest Division title since the 1985-86 season. They defeated the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round in five games, their first playoff series win 1987. Their season ended at the hands of the eventual Western Conference runner-up in the Seattle Supersonics in seven games.
The next season, the Rockets won 58 games in capturing their second straight division title, a first in team history. Olajuwon was named the Most Valuable Player and the Defensive Player of the Year.
As the No. 2 Seed in the West, the Rockets defeated the No. 7 Seeded Portland Trail Blazers in the opening round 3-1.
In the Conference Semifinals against Charles Barkley, Kevin Johnson and the No. 3 Seeded Phoenix Suns, the Rockets had big leads in Games 1 and 2 at home, but lost both games and were staring at a four-game sweep. They starred that painful possibility and never blinked winning Games 3 118-102 behind the 34 points Maxwell and the 26 points, 15 boards, six assists and six blocks from Olajuwon, who led the way in Game 4 with 28 points, 12 boards, eight assists and five blocks as the Rockets won in Phoenix 107-96 to even the series at 2-2. The teams split the next two games and the Rockets won Game 7 104-94 on their home floor to send the defending Western Conference champs home 4-3. Olajuwon had 37 points, 17 rebounds, five assists and three blocks in the clincher. Cassell was big off the bench with 22 points and seven assists.
In the West Finals, the Rockets made short work of the Hall of Fame duo of John Stockton, Karl Malone and the Jazz defeating them in five games.
In The Finals, the Rockets faced the rough and tumble Eastern Conference champion New York Knicks.
After splitting the first four games, the Knicks took care of things at home capturing Game 5 91-84 leaving them one game away from their first title since 1973.
In the closing moments of Game 6 though leading 86-84, Knicks’ guards John Starks, who had scored 27 points had his game-winning three-point shot blocked by Olajuwon preserving the win and evening the series up at 3-3. Olajuwon finished with 30 points, 10 boards and four blocks.
In Game 7, Olajuwon led the way with 25 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and three blocks in leading the Rockets to a 90-84 win capturing the city of Houston’s first pro sports title since the Houston Oilers of the American Football League won it all in 1961.  
Olajuwon, who averaged 26.9 points. 9.1 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 3.9 blocks in the seven game on 50.0 percent from the floor was named the Most Valuable Player of the 1994 Finals and he became the only player in league history to win the regular-season MVP, Finals MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season. He also became the first NBA player not born in the United States to win league MVP.
The next season was not as impressive for the defending champion Rockets as injuries and inconsistency limited them to just 47 wins and the No. 6 Seed in the West.
Even with the acquisition of Drexler as mentioned earlier, many thought that the Rockets chances of repeating were very slim, especially without having home court advantage.
All the Rockets did in the 1995 NBA Playoffs was go out and win, defeating the arch rival Jazz, who finished 60-22 that season in the opening round in five games.
For the second year in a row, the Rockets met Barkley, Johnson and the Suns, who won 57 games that year in the West Semis and once again had the Rockets behind the eight ball winning three of the first four games.
While many thought the Rockets would fold, they rose to the occasion and won Game 5 in Phoenix 103-97 in overtime led by the 31 points and 16 boards of Olajuwon. Smith had 21 points, hitting 5 for 11 from three-point range to go along with seven boards and seven assists. Elie had 15 off the bench as well as forward Chucky Brown and Horry had 11 points and 11 rebounds and five assists.
The Rockets dominated the Suns in Game 6, winning 116-103 to even the series 3-3.
In the closing moments of Game 7, Elie got open in the corner and knocked down a three-pointer, which gave the Rockets the lead and eventually the victory 115-114, taking the series 4-3. For an exclamation point, Elie blew a kiss to the Suns’ bench as he was greeted by his Rocket teammates.
In the Western Conference Finals against the West top Seed the San Antonio Spurs, who won a franchise record 62 games and league MVP and Hall of Famer David Robinson, Olajuwon put on one of the best displays in NBA history.
Olajuwon outplayed Robinson in the series averaging 35.3 points, 12.5 rebounds, five assists and 4.2 blocks on 50 percent from the field. Robinson averaged 23.8 points, 11.3 boards, 2.2 blocks and 1.5 steals in the six-game series.
The Rockets took control of the series winning the first two games in San Antonio. The Spurs turned the tide winning both games in Houston to even the series at 2-2.
In the pivotal Game 5, the Rockets came with it right from the jump outscoring the Spurs 32-18 in the opening stanza and they never looked back stealing back home court advantage with a 111-90 victory to take a 3-2 lead over the Spurs. Olajuwon was magnificent once again with 42 points, nine boards, eight assists and five blocks. Cassell had 30 points, 12 assists and three steals off the bench. Drexler had 19 points and Horry had 14 points, 13 rebounds and four steals.  
In a nip and tuck Game 6, the Rockets outscored the Spurs 24-20 in the fourth quarter to win Game 6 100-95 and the series 4-2 to advance back to the NBA Finals.
Olajuwon, who outscored Robinson 81-41 the last four games had 39 points, 17 rebounds, and five blocks in the closing Game 6. Horry had 22 points and seven boards and Drexler had 16 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and two steals.
The Rockets met the Orlando Magic and the up and coming dynamic duo of Shaquille O’Neal, Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway and the Orlando Magic in The 1995 NBA Finals.
As they have throughout the playoffs, the Rockets had to overcome an early deficit as they trailed 61-50 at intermission.
A 37-19 third quarter gave the Rockets an 87-80 lead entering the four quarter. Leading by three in the closing moments of the fourth Magic guard Nick Anderson missed four straight free throws that gave the Rockets a chance. Smith made the most of that opportunity by nailing his seventh three-pointer of the game to tie the game at 110.
In the closing seconds of overtime, Olajuwon scored points 36 and 37 off a Drexler missed layup that gave the Rockets the lead and eventually the victory 120-118.
They never looked back capturing Game 2 in convincing fashion 117-106 thanks to 34 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks from Olajuwon. The Rockets won a tight Game 3 106-103 back in Houston.
A 66-point second half, outscoring the Magic by 66-50 points in the second 24 minutes earned the Rockets a 113-101 victory and their second straight title. Olajuwon, who won his second straight Finals MVP had 35 points, 15 rebounds, six assists and three steals in the clinching Game 6. Elie had 22 points on 9 for 11 from the floor, including 4 for 6 from three-point territory. Horry, who had a great Finals had 21 points, 13 boards and five assists. Drexler, who finally got that elusive championship after falling in his first two chances with the Trail Blazers in 1990 and 1992 had 15 points, nine boards, eight assists and two steals.
When the journey was completed, Tomjanovich said the iconic line that has stood for many years about the Rockets back-to-back titles.
He said after the presentation of the Larry O’Brien Trophy, “I have one thing to say to those non-believers. Don’t every underestimate the heart of a champion.”
The journey to the top of the NBA for the Houston Rockets began on July 30, 1993 when current owner Leslie Alexander bought the Rockets for $85 million. He took in interim tag from Tomjanovich making him the full-time head coach and the likes of Smith, Maxwell, Horry, Elie, Cassell and Thorpe became the supporting cast that Olajuwon needed and the rest is history.
The current edition of the Rockets has a very similar makeup. They have a dominate center in Dwight Howard, who has been named Defensive Player of the Year. A great two guard in Harden and solid role players like Trevor Ariza, Patrick Beverly, Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, Jason Terry, Josh Smith, Corey Brewer and Pablo Prigioni and a three-time NBA champion in head coach Kevin McHale.
They also have the motivation of disappointment from losing in the first round a season ago to the Trail Blazers, who took the series in six games when All-Star guard Damian Lillard hit the game-winning three-pointer in the closing moments.
Last Thursday night was a time to look back at a team that won back-to-back titles and immortalized themselves in the hearts of many of their fans. It was also an opportunity for the current Rockets to see what is possible and the necessary focus that it will take for them bring another title to “Clutch City.”
For that to have a chance of happening the Rockets need Howard back on the court as he has not played since Jan. 23 because of swelling in his right knee. He did say the day before that he is getting close to returning and has returned to practice this past week.
“When he gets back, nothing changes,” Harden said on Thursday to Greenberg and Scott. “He’s going to do whatever it takes to help this team get to where we want to go. We can’t wait. We’re waiting for the big fella to get back and he’s going to help us with this playoff push.”
Information, quotations and statistics are courtesy of 3/20/15 1:30 a.m. edition of NBATV’s “Gametime” with Jared Greenberg, Dennis Scott and Tracy McGrady; Sporting News “Official 2006-07 NBA Guide;”;;; Feb. 10, 1994 article “The Voices of Los Rockets”  by David Theis of Houston Press from;; Video titled “Honoring The Champs” posted Mar. 19, 2015 on;;;   

Saturday, March 14, 2015

J-Speaks: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in NBA in Month of February

With less than two months before the postseason begins, two teams have risen from the ashes at the beginning of this season to be real serious players to not only make the playoffs, but make some noise when they get there and one team has played at a very high level despite missing their starting center. A couple of early favorites in the Eastern Conference have been leaking oil of late and injuries to key people has put another team’s championship hopes into question. Two other NBA teams began the journey for next season by making changes in the coaching ranks. Here is the good, the bad and the ugly in “The Association” for the month of February.

The Good
Thunder Striking Thanks to Westbrook
After a tough beginning to the season which saw them losing 12 of their first 17 games, due in large part to the absence of All-Star tandem of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, the Oklahoma City Thunder (36-29) have won 31 of their last 48 games, which includes a 8-3 February, that has them in a dead heat with the New Orleans Pelicans (36-29) for the No. 8 and final playoff spot in the West.
A big reason for the uptick in wins, particularly in February is the play of Westbrook, who averaged 31.2 points, 10.3 assists, 9.1 rebounds and 2.6 steals per contest, joining Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson as the only players in NBA history to averaged 30-10-9 for a month.
He had a real strong finish to the month which 21 points, a career-high 17 assists and eight boards in leading the Thunder to a 119-94 win versus the Denver Nuggets (25-41) on Feb 22.
The stellar play of Westbrook continued two nights later as he began an amazing streak of four straight games with a triple-double and six triple-doubles in the last eight games for the Thunder with 20 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists as the Thunder defeated the surging Indiana Pacers (30-34) 105-92 back on Feb. 24, earning their seventh win in a row. Forward Serge Ibaka, who has really come on since the All-Star break lead the team with a game-high 23 points along with 10 boards and three blocks. Center Enes Kanter, who was acquired at the trade deadline along with guard D.J. Augustin, forwards Kyle Singler and Steve Novak had 15 points. Dion Waiters had 14 points off the bench and sharp shooter Anthony Marrow had 12 points and five boards.
While Westbrook garnered two more triple-doubles in back-to-back games at the Phoenix Suns (34-33), with 39 points, 14 rebounds, 11 assists and three steals and at the Portland Trail Blazers (43-20) garnering 40 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists, the Thunder lost those back-to-back games 117-113 in overtime and 115-112 respectably.
While the team has recovered to begin the month of March winning four of their first six contests, the Thunder is in a dog fight with the Pelicans for the No. 8 spot as they are in a virtual tie with the same record, but the Pelicans have won two of the first three meetings giving them current hold on the last playoff spot in the Western Conference.
This makes it all that more important for last season’s MVP in Durant to get back on the court from another surgery on his right foot that he injured back in Oct. 2014 that has forced him to miss the last 11 games. The Thunder have gone 8-3 in his latest absence though. If they have any hope of making the playoffs though, he must get back on the court and play to the level that he has shown.
As far as what adjustment Westbrook is going to have to make when Durant does get back into the lineup, things should be better for him and the team. If there is one thing that Westbrook has gotten better at in Durant’s absence is the fact that he has gotten the rest of the team involved in the game by getting the likes of Ibaka, Kanter, Morrow, Mitch McGary shots in the areas of the court that they are effective. He just has to be able to do that for Durant. If that happens, the Thunder will make the playoffs and can give their likely opponent the top seeded Golden State Warriors (51-13) a run for their money.
Rising Pacers
When the 2014-15 NBA campaign began, the Indiana Pacers, the East runner-up the last two postseasons had all the excuses in the world to fall to the bottom. They lost swingman Lance Stephenson in free agency when he decided to sign with the Charlotte Hornets. The team’s best player Paul George suffered a broken leg during the summer in a game for Team USA. On top of that, two key starters in forward David West and lead guard George Hill began this season on the shelf because of injury as well as Hills understudy C.J. Watson.
At one point this season, the Pacers playoffs were very slim after a 104-91 loss versus the Toronto Raptors back on Jan. 27, their eighth loss in their last nine games that brought their record to 16-31.
Since that point, the Pacers picked themselves off the pavement and have won 14 of their last 17 games, which includes a 7-2 mark in the month of February, which earned head coach Frank Vogel Eastern Conference Coach of the Month.
They concluded the month by defeating the red hot Cleveland Cavaliers (42-25) 93-86 back on Feb. 27, which ignited a seven-game winning streak. It was the Pacers 10th consecutive victory at Bankers Life Fieldhouse versus their Central Division rivals, who were without four-time MVP LeBron James and guard Kyrie Irving. The Cavs last victory at the Pacers was on Jan. 29, 2010.
The aforementioned Hill had his first career triple-double with 15 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists. Rodney Stuckey led the way with 19 points off the bench. C.J. Miles had 13 points. West had 12 points and six rebounds.
While he has played in just 25 games this season, Hill has been a serious factor in whether the Pacers win or lose when he has been on the court. In the wins, the hometown product who played his collegiate ball at IUPUI is averaging 14.7 points, 4.9 assists on 44.0 percent shooting in 18 wins and just 12 points, 3.6 assists on 40.7 percent from the floor in the seven losses.
What has helped the Pacers rise from the ashes has been their ability to stick with their team identity that has gotten to the cusp of the NBA Finals the past two seasons and that is playing defense.
The team is ranked third in the league in points allowed at 96.1 and in field goal percentage allowed at 43.2 percent. They are seventh in the league in opponent’s three-point percentage at 33.8 percent. They are sixth in rebound differential at +2.6 per game and are ranked fifth in total boards per contest at 45.1.
With all of the injuries that the Pacers have had this season, it has given opportunity to others to step up. Miles (12.5 ppg) and Stuckey (13.1 ppg, 45.5 FG%, 39.8 3-Pt.%) have been big time additions to the team this season. Luis Scola (9.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg), Solomon Hill (9.3 ppg), Donald Sloan (8.6 ppg, 4.0 apg), Ian Mahimi and Chris Copeland (6.7 ppg) have had their moments. The Pacers also have gotten solid play from rookie forward Damjan Rudez from Yugoslavia.
The Pacers current winning-streak has them in the No. 7 position in the East and if the playoffs started today, they would take on the struggling Raptors, who have beaten the Pacers in their first two meetings with one more contest against them on Mar. 16 at home.
There is speculation that George might come back this season. Conventional wisdom says that would not be a good idea because it would mess with the chemistry of the team and that he had a very serious injury that he would need weeks of time to just get his confidence back in terms of being on the court and playing at the high level on both ends of the court that made him an All-Star.
Considering where the Pacers began to start this season and where they find themselves now, the organization looks a lot better in giving Vogel a contract extension before this season began. More than anything his unflappable confidence in his team and holding it together in the rough times early on has made them a stronger team.

Soaring Rockets
When a team loses to key pieces like its starting center and starting power forward for lengthy periods because of injury, it will cause a major reduction in the number of wins it can obtain. That has not been the case for the Houston Rockets (43-22) this season.  
They have continued to win despite the starting front court tandem of All-Star center Dwight Howard (16.3 ppg, 11.0 rpg) and forward Terrence Jones (12.6 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 51.6 FG%) have missed a combined 76 games because of injury. Howard is still on the mend following a procedure he had on his right knee back in early February.
Without Howard, the Rockets have been led by All-Star guard James Harden (26.8 ppg-2nd NBA, 5.8 rpg, 7.1 apg, 2.0 spg) whose spectacular season has him at the top of the 2015 Most Valuable Player race in the league.
Along with the Harden, new additions Trevor Ariza (12.3 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 1.9 spg), Corey Brewer (12.7 ppg) and Josh Smith (11.5 ppg, 6.1 rpg) have had a serious impact.
The emergence of forward Donatas Motiejunas (11.7 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 50.4 FG%, 36.7 3-pt.%) and guard Patrick Beverly (10.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 35.5 3-Pt.%) has helped the Rockets maintain a high seed in the West.
While the team has been a solid offense this season, particularly from three-point range, leading the league in made three-pointers at 11.6 and attempts at 33.6 and ranking seventh in scoring per game (103.0) and 10th in assists per contest (22.0), the Rockets have won over 40 games this season because of their improved defense.
They are tied with the Chicago Bulls for 10th in opponent’s field goal percentage at 44.0 percent. The Rockets are No. 1 in the NBA in opponent’s three-point percentage at 31.1 percent; No. 4 in steals per game at 9.6 and in forced turnovers at 15.7.
While the team has played well without Howard, the Rockets and head coach Kevin McHale knows that their chances of succeeding in the postseason with him still on the shelf are very minimal. The sooner he can get back and round into form for the playoffs, the Rockets chances of competing in the West increase greatly.

The Bad
The Unraveling Raptors
Coming into this season, the Toronto Raptors (39-26) were looking to build on their record setting season a year ago that saw them win a franchise-tying 48 games and their second Atlantic Division title in team history.
Through the first three months of this season they looked every bit like a serious contender in the East. They even survived the loss of leading scorer DeMar DeRozen (18.9 ppg) for 21 games because of injury earlier in the season going 13-8.
A 4-7 mark in the month of February, which included four straight defeats to close the months has the Raptors sitting in the No. 3 spot in the East, which is not a bad place to be. With that being said, they are in a virtual tie with the up and down Chicago Bulls (40-27) for the No. 4 spot in the East and are just two games in front of the slumping Washington Wizards (37-28), who are the No. 5 Seed currently.
One big reason the Raptors have slipped record wise lately has been their inability to keep their opponent from lighting up the scoreboard.
The Atlantic Division leaders have given up 100 points or more in eight of their last 11 games, garnering just three wins in that span.
This has been a serious problem all season long for the Raptors, who last season were a top ten offense and a top 10 defense.
This season, the Raptors rank 23rd in points allowed at 101.2 per game; 27th in opponent’s field goal percentage at 46.0 percent; 14th in opponent’s three-point percentage at 34.7 percent and 21st in rebound differential at -1.5.
The Raptors got back on track with a solid 102-92 win versus the Miami Heat (29-36) last night, ending a 16-game skid against the four-time defending East champs, holding them to 44.3 percent shooting and just 21.7 percent (5-17) from three-point range. The Raptors scored 21 points off 20 Heat turnovers and had 26 assists on 34 made field goals.
First-time All-Star Kyle Lowry led the Raptors with 19 points, eight boards, eight assists and seven steals on 7 for 12 from the field, including 5 for 8 from three-point range. DeRozan had 18 points, six boards and six assists. Lou Williams had 14 points off the bench. Amir Johnson had 13 points and Greivis Vasquez had 12 off the bench.
Teams that go far in the postseason have the ability to shut people down at their offensive end for long stretches. If the Raptors and head coach Dwane Casey have any plans on making a serious playoff run this year, they have to correct their problems at the defensive end. If they don’t, their season will end just like last year’s did, in the opening round.

Injury Ravage Bulls
Over the past two seasons, the Chicago Bulls (40-27) have been injury hit at the end of the season and it has killed their championships dreams both times. This season has been no different.
All-Stars Derrick Rose (18.4 ppg, 5.0 apg), Jimmy Butler (20.2 ppg-leads team, 5.9 rpg), Joakim Noah (7.5 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 4.4 apg), forward Taj Gibson (10.6 ppg, 6.6 rpg), swingman Mike Duleavy, Jr. (9.1 ppg, 41.5 3-Pt.%), guard Kirk Hinrich and rookie forward Doug McDermott have missed a total of 130 games because of injury.
Currently, the starting backcourt of Butler and Rose are on the mend because of a knee surgery and an elbow injury respectably.
The saving grace for the Bulls this season has been the play of Gasol (18.4 ppg, 12.1 rpg-4th NBA, 2.0 bpg-leads team) who in his first year with the team leads the league with 44 double-doubles.
The absence of so many key members of the Bulls has not deterred them in the win column as they went 7-3 in the month of February, but it has been a different story to start March as the team is 3-5 so far and currently has lost four of their last five games, giving up 100-puls points in three of their last four contest.
This latest slump has raised the question is this the end for head coach Tom Thibodeau, who ever since he has been in Chicago has delivered many victories and playoff appearances in all four of his seasons, soon to be five.
With that being said, the Bulls, who have been one of the most hard noise teams in the league under Thibodeau, the bottom line is they have flamed out in the playoffs the last two years. The team’s best player in Rose has not been himself since that terrible knee injury in the playoffs three years ago.
Talent wise this is the best team Thibodeau has had since his first season in the “Windy City.” If Rose can come back and be close to his MV level for 2011 and the team can build some chemistry as this regular season winds down and be what many people expect of them, the can make all the way to The Finals and possibly win it. The team’s health is going to be the key. 
Bad Magic in Nation’s Capital
Coming into this season, the Wizards new that they were not going to be sneaking up on people. They were going to get their best from whoever they played. The dynamic young backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal needed to bring their games even higher for the Wizards to make some more noise this season. The addition of former champ Paul Pierce and his plethora of playoff experience said that the Wizards are serious about winning a title.
They got off to a strong start and at the end of January were 31-17 and were playing really well.
All of those great feelings were put to the ground in February as the absence of Beal for eight games because of a stress reaction in his right leg and the inability for the Wizards to hold onto big leads are two big reasons why they went 4-9.
With Beal out, the Wizards lost their best perimeter shooter that spaced the floor and had the ability to create shots for others. Without his back court mate, Wall was the only duel threat on the floor at times and he turned the ball over a lot in taking on too much of the responsibility of creating shots for others.
In their second meeting last month in Charlotte, the Wizards blew an 11-point lead late in the third at the Hornets and fell 94-87 for their fifth straight loss.
After two straight wins versus the Brooklyn Nets (25-38) 114-77 and the Orlando Magic (21-46) 96-80 on Feb. 7th and 9th respectably, the Wizards lost six games in a row, with the last two coming at the Minnesota Timberwolves (14-50) 97-77 on Feb. 25 and at Philadelphia 76ers (15-50) 89-91 two days later.
The team got back on track to close the month with a 99-95 win versus the Detroit Pistons (23-42). With that being said, they had to hold on for dear life after blowing a 21-point lead in the second half. They did avoid dropping their seventh consecutive contest.
Wall led the way with a game-high 22 points to go along with six assists. Forward Nene had 21 points, seven boards and two steals. Center Marcin Gortat had 16 points, 17 boards and three steals and Pierce had 14 points, five rebounds and five assists.
The Wizards started the month of March with a 97-92 loss at the Bulls 11 days ago, but have won three of the next four games.
Their inability to hold big leads continued back on Mar. 6 versus the Heat when the Wizards nearly gave up a 35-point lead, but held on to win 99-97. Following a close loss to the surprising Milwaukee Bucks (34-31), 91-85 on the back end of a back-to-back, the Wizards garnered their first win against the Hornets blowing them out on their home court 95-69 this past Monday night.
They followed that up with a 107-87 victory this past Thursday versus the Memphis Grizzlies (45-20), who rested starters Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Mike Conley and reserve Tony Allen.
Wall, who had 21 points, seven boards and six assists and two blocks in the contest was not pleased with the fact that Memphis held out three of their starters.
“They sit’em, and I don’t know the reason why,” the All-Star guard said after the game. “I think we’re a team that’s on the rise, and teams respect us now. And I guess they don’t respect us.”
Gortat lead the way with a game-high 22 points along with nine boards, three steals and three blocks. Pierce had 17 points and Drew Gooden had 13 points and five boards.
Coming into this season, the Wizards had the talent to be a contender in the East. Many thought they also had the maturity to become a title contender. They have shown in the past few weeks that they have a long way to go to be a part of that top tier of teams that can win a title. They have some time to get things right before the playoffs. If they do not, they will be taking a serious step back in their maturation as a title contender.
The Ugly
Coaching Change in Orlando
When a head coach takes the job being the leader of a young team that is trying to build something from scratch, there is a very good chance he may not be there to see the finished product when they become a team that wins consistently.
That was the case in early February for Orlando Magic head coach Jacque Vaughn who was relieved of his duties on February 5. The team named lead assistant and a product of the San Antonio Spurs organization James Borrego.
Borrego born in Albuquerque, NM began his basketball journey at Albuquerque Academy, where he led the school to two state title.
After earning his bachelor’s degree in English and then a master’s degree in leadership studies from University of San Diego in 2001, Borrego started his coaching career as an assistant from 2001-2003 at his alma mater, where they won a West Coast Conference title and earned a trip to the NCAA Tournament 12 years ago.
Borrego’s coaching career in the NBA began in 2003 with the Spurs, where he worked for seven seasons. He worked his way up from video coordinator in the summer of 2003 to becoming an assistant head coach. He was a part of the 2005 and 2007 title teams before joining another former Spurs assistant Monty Williams when he became the head coach back in 2010.
Borrego was a part of Williams’ staff for two seasons before joining Vaughn’s staff in Orlando in 2012.
Just 24 hours after being named interim head coach, Borrego made his head coaching debut versus the Los Angeles Lakers (17-47), earning his first victory 103-97 in overtime, which ended a 10-game losing streak.
Tobias Harris led the way with a game-high 34 points, going 14 for 18 from the field and seven rebounds. Nikola Vucevic, who is currently third in the NBA in double-doubles with 37, had 25 points and 13 rebounds and second-year guard Victory Oladipo had 12 points, 11 rebounds and five assists.
The Magic shot 51.8 percent from the field, out-rebounded the Lakers 48-43 and outscored them in the paint 58-34.
“It’s exhausting,” Borrego said after his first win back on Feb. 6. “I have a much deeper appreciation for what head coaches do, the amount of mental stress as well as physical stress, the amount of decisions you have to make, the management of the game. The emotion was the moment, the fight, sticking with the guys. They really pulled us through tonight.”
The Magic have played much better under Borrego, going 6-9 so far. Whether he is the long term answer for getting this team back to title contention where they were not too long ago when they had perennial All-Star and Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard, now with the Houston Rockets remains to be seen.
One thing he has in his favor is a talent group of players led by Harris, an unrestricted free agent at season’s end, Vucevic, Oladipo, rookie Elfrid Payton, Evan Fournier, Channing Frye, rookie Aaron Gordon to work with for the rest of this season.
Information, statistics and quotations are courtesy of; 3/3/15 12:30 a.m. NBATV’s “The Beat” with Vince Cellini, Sekou Smith and David Aldridge; and