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12-15-2003, 12:44 PM
Tony Parker leads the Spurs

Week 7 saw the capture of Saddam Hussein, the anointing of Howard Dean and Puerto Rican princess Sandra take home a million bucks on Survivor.

But wait, you wanted to talk basketball, right? How about the Spurs' six-game road streak quickly shutting up all of the pundits who had jumped off the San Antonio bandwagon? What about startling evidence coming out of Orlando, Chicago and Phoenix that firing the coach on bad team won't make it a good team overnight? Or -- and I know you've been waiting all season for this -- trouble in the paradise known as Golden State?

Insider breaks down the most intriguing storylines from Week 7.

And Tony Parker shall lead them? Wasn't it just two or three weeks ago when the NBA backseat drivers were screaming that the Spurs had made a wrong turn this offseason?
The team was 9-10, free-agent signees Rasho Nesterovic and Robert Horry looked like busts, and GM R.C. Buford's big trade acquisitions -- Hedo Turkoglu and Ron Mercer -- stunk. That was enough to spark a mass exodus off the defending champs' bandwagon. Rumors began flying that the Spurs were so desperate for a change that they were considering trading for Rasheed Wallace. Coach Gregg Popovich began cautioning reporters that his new team was radically different than the one that took home the NBA title last June.

Tony Parker
Point Guard
San Antonio Spurs

18 13.8 3.1 6.1 .417 .630

Two weeks and a six-game winning streak later, it's just a matter of time before the bandwagon starts filling right back up again. The Spurs are rolling, and they're doing it behind their young point guard, Tony Parker.

What was wrong with the Spurs in November? Tim Duncan was off to another slow start. But that's no different than the past three seasons. After averaging a "disappointing" 21.2 ppg and 11.6 rpg in November, he's been on a tear in December, putting up 23.3 ppg and 13.7 rpg.

Nesterovic was playing awful, but you knew Duncan and Nesterovic needed some time to get used to playing together. Nesterovic was awful in November, averaging just 8.5 ppg and 8.2 on 48 percent shooting. However, for those pining for the good old David Robinson days, those numbers were almost identical to the 8.5 ppg and 7.9 rpg Robinson put up last year. Nesterovic isn't the defender Robinson was, but neither was Robinson his last few years in the league.

Fast forward to December, and things look decidedly better. Nesterovic is averaging 15.2 ppg and 9.4 rpg on 57 percent shooting in the Spurs' last five games -- all wins.

But the biggest difference in the Spurs is at the point, where a healthy Parker is finally taking charge of this team. Parker missed the first seven games of the season with an injury. When he came back, he did more scoring than passing, averaging 14.6 ppg in November, but just 4.9 apg.

That had Popovich pulling his hair out. With the emergence of Emanuel Ginobili as a legit second scoring threat, as well as Nesterovic on the high post, the Spurs had been hoping to see Parker finally become more of the floor leader the team thinks he can be.

During the Spurs' six-game streak, Parker is averaging a whopping 9.5 apg. He's had four games during that streak in which he's averaged 10 or more assists. While his scoring is down slightly over the same period, the Spurs couldn't be more thrilled that their point guard is playing like a point guard.

What prompted the change? "We demanded it," Popovich told the San Antonio Express News.

"If he penetrates and there's a wide-open shot, that's one thing," Popovich said. "But if he goes in and there's two big guys standing there, I'm going to let him know that's not good basketball."

"I don't want him to be (John) Stockton, because we need him to score," Popovich said. "But I'd like for him to involve other people. Hopefully, as he matures he'll understand the value of it. He has the ability to do it, because if he didn't have the ability to pass or find people, I'd say be (selfish) and shoot it all the time."

Popovich's subtle digs at Parker's play highlight why Popovich was pushing for the Spurs to sign Jason Kidd over the summer. For all of Parker's skills, the Spurs still questioned whether Parker had the mentality necessary to run a championship team. Remember, it was Speedy Claxton, not Parker, on the floor in Game 6 when the Spurs beat the Nets in the NBA Finals.

After the Spurs lost the chance to land Kidd, Buford & Co. went out of their way to bring in more scoring options so Parker could focus on running the offense. Lately, he has begun to embrace the role.

"This is my job now," Parker told the Express News. "It's been perfect because we're winning. ... That's why I haven't been shooting as much. When they need me, I'll still be there."

Popovich believes Parker's unselfishness has keyed the team's big turnaround.

"We still have a long way to go to compete with the best teams in the league, but we're on the right track," Popovich said. "People are beginning to pay attention and play within the system. They're allowing the system -- on both ends of the court -- to help them win instead of trying to do it as individuals."

Celtics no longer making Ainge green:

Two weeks ago the Celtics also seemed to be on the verge of imploding, but a five-game winning streak now has them sitting a top the Atlantic Division. Given the news last week that Raef LaFrentz will be lost for the season, how are they doing it?
In short, Paul Pierce is finally getting some help on the offensive end.

Mike James
Point Guard
Boston Celtics

24 11.5 3.4 5.0 .409 .844

The Celtics also seem to have settled on their point guard. Mike James, a Heat outcast, is averaging 17.7 ppg and six apg during the streak. Considering he averaged just 9.1 ppg and 4.3 apg on 37 percent shooting in November, that's a huge, huge improvement for the Celtics.

The other key has been the insertion of second-year forward Jiri Welsch into the lineup. Welsch is averaging 13.2 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 2.6 apg and 2.2 spg in 30 mpg during the streak. That's a major up-tick over the 3.6 ppg he put up for the Celtics in November.

The additional scoring from those two has given Pierce the freedom he needs to do his thing. The results have been amazing. Pierce is averaging 31.4 ppg, nine rpg and 5.2 apg on 49 percent shooting. Compare that to the 21.9 ppg on 39 percent shooting in November, and Pierce has really come alive.

Put all of that together, and the Celtics' offense has exploded. After topping 100 points in just two games before the five-game winning streak, the Celtics have scored more than 100 points in each of their last five. All of the winning is taking the heat off head coach Jim O'Brien and Celtics director of basketball operations Danny Ainge.

"It's just fun to watch them play well," Ainge told the Boston Globe. "Mike James is playing fantastic, Jiri Welsch is playing great, Paul was unbelievable [Saturday] night [at Cleveland]. It's encouraging."

But despite the recent great play, Ainge claims he's still looking to upgrade his roster. "Of course, we're looking to improve, but part of improving is developing. I'm very happy and satisfied with how we're playing right now. But I feel we need to improve."

Want hope, Heat fans, that there is life after Pat Riley?

The Heat got a number of encouraging signs this week that could mean big things for Miami down the road. The team has won three straight, is only 3 games behind the division-leading Celtics, has a 5-6 record vs. the East, a 6-4 home record and is getting back a healthy Caron Butler for the first time this season.
Lamar Odom
Miami Heat

22 16.5 9.1 3.6 .407 .673

Are the Heat good enough to stay in the Eastern Conference scrum? The answer is a resounding yes, if Lamar Odom keeps playing the way he has the past few weeks. During the team's three-game winning streak, Odom is averaging 20.7 ppg and 15.7 rpg. For the month of December, the numbers are 20 ppg, 13.7 rpg and 3.2 apg.

Pair him with rookie Dwyane Wade (18 ppg, 4 rpg, 3.2 apg over the last 5), a revitalized Brian Grant (13 ppg, 10.2 rpg in the last 5), Eddie Jones and the return of Butler, and the Heat suddenly look like an offensive juggernaut.

With that said, despite the denials, the Heat are still trying hard to find a home for Jones so Wade can play full time at the two. To get someone to swallow Jones' contract, the Heat (as first reported on Insider) are still willing to throw in Butler if they get an expiring contract or a good center or point guard in return. The latest rumor had the Heat talking to the Cavs about a swap that would bring Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Chris Mihm to Miami for Jones and Butler. Both sides have since denied there are any serious talks. The trade makes little sense for the Cavs, who already have a glut of swingmen on the roster.

Coaching carousel making players dizzy:

Doc Rivers, Bill Cartwright and Frank Johnson already have had their heads lopped off, but so far the Magic, Bulls and Suns have little to show for it.
Rivers got the Magic off to a 1-10 start before being axed. His replacement, Johnny Davis, is just 3-10 as the new head coach.

Cartwright posted a 4-11 record for the Bulls before being fired. Since then the Bulls are just 2-5.

And while it's way too early to start judging Mike D'Antoni, who replaced Johnson on Wednesday as the Suns new head coach, Phoenix is 0-3 since he took over, including an embarrassing loss to the Clippers.

I'm not putting the blame on any of the coaches, who have their hands full coming into a bad situation and trying to motivate and implement a new system -- but clearly firing the head coach isn't the cure-all it's often made out to be.

Go back to all the firings this summer and you'll see similar results. While personnel changes have to be factored in, teams like the Wizards, Pistons and Cavs aren't any better off, despite high-profile coaching hires.

Sometimes a new voice and a new approach can make a difference on a team with talent (see the Pacers, Hornets and Grizzlies), but if the roster is broken, the coach probably can't fix it.

Warriors woes?

It's about this time of the year I was planning on writing about the first big blow-up between coach Eric Musselman and Nick Van Exel. Surprise. Surprise. Van Exel has been (for the most part) on his best behavior in Golden State, despite the Warriors sitting just about where we thought they'd be with the third-worst record in the West.
Jason Richardson
Shooting Guard
Golden State Warriors

17 17.7 7.5 2.8 .426 .703

Instead, the feud between Musselman and Jason Richardson appears to be a rekindling. The funny thing is that Richardson, when he's been on, has been the key to the Warriors' season. In their eight wins, Richardson is averaging 19.9 ppg, 8.3 rpg and 3.1 apg on 46 percent shooting from the field. In their losses, he's putting up 15.8 ppg, 6.8 rpg and 2.6 apg on 39 percent shooting.

"We need him to play well in order for us to win. That's just a fact," Musselman told the San Francisco Chronicle. "We need Jason to have a good game -- he doesn't have to have a great game -- for us to win. He's a core piece for us offensively."

The problem is that Richardson has struggled the last couple of games, and Musselman has responded by benching him in favor of rookie Mickael Pietrus. Pietrus is a much better defender than Richardson and there has been speculation that Richardson is on the trading block ever since the Warriors drafted Pietrus in June.

Richardson has issues with Musselman's decision to bench him when he's struggling.

"Personally, I don't think that's fair," Richardson told the Chronicle. "I feel like all the things he's saying about me -- he wants me to be the guy on the team, he wants me to be a leader, he wants me to be vocal -- you have to let me play through things when I'm not playing well. That's the only way I think I will achieve the level I want to achieve as a basketball player. ... That's a negative aspect for me, him not letting me play through things.

"Just hearing him talk about how much they need me and stuff, if they need me, he has to let me play through my mistakes. Just let me go out there and let me learn. I'm still young. ... I want to fight through it and find ways to win the game."

Marion on fire:

With Amare Stoudemire out nursing a serious ankle sprain, Shawn Marion seems to have awoken from his early-season slumber. Marion is averaging 26.2 ppg, 11.2 rpg and four apg on just over 50 percent shooting per game since Stoudemire went down.

Kidd on fire too:

Jason Kidd ripped into his teammates in the locker room after the Nets were destroyed by the Grizzlies 110-63 on Saturday.
According to several newspaper reports, Kidd used a profanity-laced tirade on his teammates that was audible from outside the locker room.

"I'm glad somebody took it personally and cared enough to get upset about it," GM Rod Thorn told the New York Times. "You can't accept that kind of performance. It's one thing to lose and another to lose that way. I'm surprised more guys weren't very, very upset about it."

"We can't let this carry over," said a red-faced Kidd. "For all that we've done, this loss will overshadow that. But we have to stay together. We had a bad performance and we have to fight through it."

Peep Show

Los Angeles Lakers: Weren't you supposed to be the 82-0 Lakers by now? Or at least 23-0? "We have no idea how we're going to respond," head coach Phil Jackson said in the Los Angeles Times after his team dropped two games in a row this weekend. "We have no history with it. We'll know Friday or Sunday this week." The Lakers had won 10 in a row and still have the best record in the league, but that didn't make Jackson feel any better after surrendering 222 points in their last two defeats. "Some nights it's like that," Jackson said with a sigh. "We have to swallow our pride and eat the loss."

Houston Rockets: Jeff Van Gundy knows his team is good. But he wants it to be great, and to get that message across, he's begun passing out self-help books for his players to read. "You have to strive to be a great team," Moochie Norris told the Houston Chronicle. "I'm not satisfied with just playing in this league, and I don't think anybody is happy just to be on an NBA team. The goal is to win an NBA championship and as many as possible. That's what we want. This year is a major step toward that. We've been good. It's time for us to get over the hump." So far, it seems to be working. "He's a very thoughtful dude," Cuttino Mobley said. "He's a deep thinker. He thinks things out, and they make sense. That book, of course, has a message in there that will apply to us as a team. When things are going well, you can become content."

Detroit Pistons: That would be head coach Larry Brown pulling his hair out after the Pistons dropped four consecutive games. "I don't think I've been as frustrated," Brown said in the Detroit Free Press. "I know these guys want to do what's right, but if you're watching us play, it almost looks like one of those summer league Nike games, only we're the Nike team and we're playing against a select team that has worked together. That's me. It's my responsibility to try and change that. So many things bother me. I've never had a problem getting guys to play hard in my life. I never had a problem with guys sharing the ball, except the beginning of my stay in Philly and the beginning of my stay in San Antonio. That changed in the middle of the year. Here, I see the same thing over and over again."

Seattle SuperSonics: Easy come, easy go. With Ray Allen scheduled to join the team in Phoenix as he steps up his practice program while recovering from ankle surgery, now comes news that Rashard Lewis is experiencing pain in the shoulder he hurt last year in the playoffs. "I've been real comfortable this season because it has been feeling good," Lewis said in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "And I haven't really had no problems until this past week. ... If it continues to do it, I would start to worry about it. But right now, it's just something that happened and won't continue to happen, hopefully." Lewis re-injured the shoulder in the previous game and, at worse, could face season-ending surgery.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Zydrunas Ilgauskas is about to learn how hard it is to score points from the bench. "We have to have a guy that shores up the middle and blocks shots," head coach Paul Silas said in the Lorraine Morning News. "That's what we're looking for Z to do. Z's whole thought process is to put the ball in the hoop. My thing is that you have to rebound and defend. If he wants to be on the court, he has to rebound and block some shots." Silas has used Chris Mihm, Carlos Boozer and Michael Stewart in Z's place and says he will continue to do so until Ilgauskas learns to play defense.

New Jersey Nets: It took Jason Kidd 25 minutes to start talking in the locker room following the Nets latest loss, but when he did . . . "When I was in there, players were sitting at their lockers not saying anything," team president Rod Thorn said in the Newark Star Ledger. "I wasn't there for what happened later. From what I gather, Jason was pretty vociferous." A few teammates even spoke out against Kidd who only shouted them down. "Jason is quiet most of the time, but he's also very competitive, and I think he was embarrassed. I think everyone was embarrassed," Thorn said. "I'm happy someone felt strongly enough to say something about it."

12-15-2003, 04:53 PM
tooooooo loooong!i/expressions/face-icon-small-confused.gifi/expressions/face-icon-small-tongue.gif

12-15-2003, 06:46 PM
Excellent... thanks thebac!