Apr 23, 2014 5:32 AM EDT
CHICAGO – For the first time in his NBA career, D.J. Augustin had received order to revive a season and a playoff series. No rhythm found, the postseason’s heightened defense elevating stress on the Chicago Bulls, and Tom Thibodeau yelled for Augustin’s name and placed him with the daunting task of leading a bench unit to resurrect them out of an embarrassing offensive display.
With three-pointers and floaters, mid-range jumpers and drive-and-kicks, Augustin fulfilled his meaning to the Bulls on Wednesday night and answered his own words about Game 2 against the Washington Wizards as a “must win.” He orchestrated a comeback and helped secured a six-point lead with less than three minutes to play, totaling a postseason career-high of 25 points and seven assists.
Suddenly, Washington was out to stop him. In a huddle in the fourth quarter, Randy Wittman had settled with Trevor Ariza his new defensive assignment: Augustin. Over eight inches taller, Ariza shadowed Augustin everywhere on the court, contested every shot and misplaced his comfort.
John Wall had thrown the basketball crosscourt at the buzzer to punctuate the Wizards’ 2-0 series lead in this first round, and Augustin was walking to the tunnel before jogging to corral the ball. His teammates were off the court now, but Augustin hoisted one more baseline jumper – cascading short on the rim, as if Ariza still hounded.
“[Ariza] is 6-8 and so lengthy, it’s hard to get free,” Augustin said at his locker. “We have to be ready and adjust for next game.”
Augustin missed his last six attempts from the field, a lone shot creator gone cold and sealed with the game in the balance. He put forth a brilliant performance for so long Wednesday, Thibodeau’s season-saver demanding the most out of his own offense. And like so many within these Bulls, Augustin noticed an offense lacking desired options when the game dictates response, a rotation of players exhausting play sets to continue creating quality shots on broken possessions.
With Derrick Rose on the sideline in a suit and a potential pursuit of Carmelo Anthony months away, this has become the Bulls’ reality. Thibodeau will keep searching for solutions to bring the series back to Chicago, for wrinkles in his scheme to discombobulate the Wizards.
As Taj Gibson said, “D.J., the way he ends games, he always takes the big shots for us,” and Augustin knew the critical, judicious looks came his way in regulation. He’s thrived with Thibodeau’s structure and opportunity, and this ideal fit will be a significant factor in his unrestricted free agency.
For now, Chicago observed the hunger in Bradley Beal and Wall and their Wizards, every facet coming together for a blend of young talents and veterans. The backcourt running mates had mightily struggled in Game 1, only to prove the coaching staff’s belief in the aberration.
Over and over, people presented the Bulls with chances to push the Game 2 loss onto the charge of other reasons. Late officiating calls. Tiring bodies.
When asked about minute distribution as an impact on the shooting in overtime, Augustin sighed. “It could be, but we’re not going to use it as an excuse.”
When baited to blame the referees for late-game whistles, Joakim Noah shook his head. “I’m not stupid. Come on.”
Before the Bulls showered, dressed and went into the night, Dikembe Mutombo stepped into the locker room and spoke to them about their responsibilities as professionals. Most of all, Mutumbo laughed with them, calmed the tenor of the room and shared his handling of overcoming a 2-0 deficit in a series – a comeback on Seattle in a best of five in 1994.
Mutombo watched a 6-feet guard yank his team from the remains of a disconcerting early deficit on their home court, a performance toward which even Wizards players marveled later. D.J. Augustin had kept shooting and hitting, slashing and cutting, and soon it had come to a weary halt for the Bulls. They all understand these playoffs fall upon their production, and the ranks of reliability are closing fast now.
Apr 21, 2014 4:50 AM EDT
CHICAGO – Inexperience promises to unravel and display flaws, these Washington Wizards listened to people tell them. All this talent up and down the roster, players with championship game moxie, and they still heard some couldn’t get over how their backcourt’s so young, how the veterans relied upon had broken down.
They listened to people pester on about how this postseason serves as the learning template for John Wall and Bradley Beal, and nothing more. On his walk out of the interview room on Sunday night, out of a convincing 24 points on an array of jump shots and post moves in the Wizards’ 102-93 Game 1 win over the Bulls, Nene let out a laugh, smiling about the perception of him and Trevor Ariza, Marcin Gortat and Al Harrington, succumbing to this first-round series as an educational tool for Wall, Beal and Washington’s youth.
Nene had lost sleep Saturday night, tossing and turning about the challenges that the Bulls presented. So you mean to tell him Chicago is heavy favorites in the series, and Nene shakes his head and asserts: I kill hours overnight worrying about my job, and we all must inherit the same urgency.
Seven made jump shots, four finishes in the paint, and Nene absolutely shredded the Bulls and outmuscled and outmatched Joakim Noah. For all of Wall’s talent, Beal’s purity on the jump shot and the balanced cast around them, no one commands the need to be utilized – no one requires the defensive crowd – quite like Nene.
When he’s double-teamed, the passes swing to perimeter shooters. When the help fails to arrive, Nene goes to work.
“We never had a confident vet like Nene,” Wall told RealGM.
“Nene can come up with games like this when he’s rolling,” Gortat said. “Very talented, so dominant, so big – not many people in this league can match his strength and his skill.”
Production born out of his skill and strength never has been Nene’s issue, and his offensive grace and defensive hands – areas Tom Thibodeau marveled about – gave him All-Star potential with the Denver Nuggets. His ability to withstand a full season and stay effective into April became problematic, and this year some of his coaches quietly wondered about his capacity to contribute upon a return, wondered whether relying on his comeback was simply a wish.
Except Nene never endured a setback in his seven-week recovery from the knee injury, and teammates knew his desperate disposition would flow within him in those last four regular season games played. “He gives us our edge,” one Wizards staffer said. Wall and Beal dominate touches in Randy Wittman’s offense, and rightfully so, but they continued affirming Nene in huddles to stay aggressive and understood the sharpness in his mid-range jumper and post-up game.
The Wizards held their two most successful practices of the season leading up to Game 1, players said, pushing one another to maintain stamina. They had remembered giving away late leads throughout the season and punctuating losses with indecisive shot selection and passing.
Sunday had showed Washington grasping control of themselves and the early part of this series, a victory despite the Bulls’ 13-point lead in the third quarter and through nearly eight minutes of the fourth. “We lost a lot of games at the end, but this time we played like an experienced team,” said Gortat, who supported Nene with 15 points and 13 rebounds.
He knows this, too: “We can win against anybody, but also we can lose against anybody.”
Thibodeau has imprinted his genius all over the Bulls’ season, and adjustments, film study and his grueling practices loom. One of his first messages Monday, and one he delivered Sunday? “Stop giving the 15-footer,” Thibodeau would tell his players as Nene drained jumper after jumper after jumper.
Noah played with a heart that had tended to the death of a close friend and mentor just days ago, and it’s unclear how much the event – much less the travel – had impacted him from New York on Thursday to Bulls practice Saturday. These Bulls had gone on a second half season tear once Noah became a nightly threat for a triple-double, and so his 10-point, 10-rebound, four-assist performance Sunday left a desire for more.
Especially given Nene’s ferocity to bump and bruise bodies with Noah, his comfort with the ball in the high or low post. His fuel to delve deep into his repertoire – fadeaway jumpers, face-up shots, hooks – and those 35 minutes on that body left team officials nodding.
So there Nene was meeting his wife and walking out of the United Center on Sunday, from a mean demeanor on the court, delivering a hard foul on Jimmy Butler, to someone joyous to celebrate a holiday here. “To play on Easter Day is a double blessing,” Nene said.
Nene tossed and turned for hours trying to sleep, anxious about a franchise’s first postseason berth in seven years, and all Nene, Gortat and Ariza could do was smile about a supposed field trip here to learn. Everywhere around the Wizards, everyone knows Nene is capable of these big nights. Twenty-four points, eight rebounds and three assists, force, skill and a 1-0 series lead.
Apr 15, 2014 2:19 PM EDT
The crossroads of a franchise flashed before DeMar DeRozan, a text message punched to Rudy Gay signaling two paths. DeRozan stood inside the Los Angeles locker room in December with his Toronto Raptors teammates, hugging goodbye to Quincy Acy and Aaron Gray and some reaching Gay by phone, and privately many of them wondered: What’s next?
The Raptors could have crumbled under the weight of endless questions about their futures, put Dwane Casey on severe lookout for his job and faltered toward a lottery pick – or bonded inside a tight locker room with stabilizing newcomers from the Sacramento Kings, cleansed the playbook of dense isolation sets and implement a free-flowing style that has given a raucous fan base reason to believe in sacrificing basketball.
Mostly, DeRozan had to prove the organization’s old vision of him as a cornerstone, as an efficient guard and reliable leader. He needed to mature as a two-way, inside and out player. For DeRozan, the departure of Gay had been the precise sign. His stats couldn’t be empty anymore.
Masai Ujiri had entertained a serious reconstruction of the roster before the trade deadline, as he’s publicly stated, but DeRozan had already made clear in his mind: He had to stay – and win – with the Raptors.
“There was no doubt about my future here and I never had a doubt,” DeRozan told RealGM. “It was never a thought of leaving or nothing. I took an onus of myself to step up my game, especially when the trade happened because I understood what it feels like to be in a struggle and be in a tough season. Now, we have great relationships with each other, before it comes to basketball.
“That trade was our cue that everybody has to step up. It could’ve turned real ugly, real fast.”
So now, DeRozan earns his first showing in the postseason, a premiere stage for an All-Star scorer of his ilk. Around him, Casey’s mastered the pedal on this team, cognizant of when to motivate forcefully and subtly, and Kyle Lowry instigates balanced shots and sharp ball movement.
Before a dramatic reversal of a season, Toronto had been a meddling, mediocre group. There was no choice but to jolt the players and coaches with that first trade. They had no identity, no established system – only jump-shooting tendencies, external blame for the coaching staff and a perception across the NBA of me-first attitudes.
“When I got here, I read up on the team and people were talking about how they wanted the team to tank so they could get a good draft pick,” Patrick Patterson said. “They said the ball movement wasn’t there; that players were selfish holding the ball, a lot of isos, and that it wasn’t great basketball. I was unaware of that situation, what was going on, but I’m thankful for when I got here it wasn’t like that at all. People moved the ball, averaged high assists and bought into their roles.”
They started an alluring brand of ball, and it’s in turn made them an appealing franchise with which to remain. Casey admits he owes a tremendous amount to Patterson, Greivis Vasquez, John Salmons and Chuck Hayes for cultivating positivity among younger players, for providing calmness amid the ups and downs of a season and eliminating any locker room divides. With DeRozan locked into his contract potentially until 2017, with a priority to re-sign Lowry and with a firm front office, two pending free agents who are critical to the rotation, Patterson and Vasquez, are immensely open to returning on long-term deals.
Winning does this for any organization. After Chris Bosh left in 2010, the Raptors dwelled toward the bottom of the league, free agents losing sight of the city’s draw and fans’ backing. And now, they’ll be a desired destination.
“I wouldn’t mind staying with the Raptors at all,” Patterson told RealGM. “Toronto is a great city, and it has great basketball fans, which surprised me the most when I got here. I didn’t know the fan support was so great in Toronto.”
“If we stay together for three, four years … woo, this team will be scary,” Vasquez said. “We just got to stay humble.”
DeRozan kept his humility through the losing seasons, but he noticed increasing detractors of his game, his contract. He never implored Gay about his similar judgments, because he said he knew, “Being overlooked comes with [the league], and you use it as motivation. That’s all I did – use negative thoughts, critics as motivation.”
DeMar has some Rudy in him – the exciting athleticism and habit to fall in love with the jumper – and Gay received a maximum contract in 2010 for this blend in his repertoire. As Gay faded farther and farther away from the rim, regaining some of his old propensities with the Kings, DeRozan has shown far more determination to use his leaping ability and strength to attack the basket.
Now, Toronto gets homecourt advantage in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, and DeRozan promises these Raptors have a measured vision of advancing. This season was spiraling in two avenues months ago, uncertainties clouding DeRozan’s future and the standing of his point guard and coach and franchise. Sure, his GM received inquiries from teams searching to pickpocket the 24-year-old.
Every one of these Raptors was on the clock to see how this core would respond and how far these once misfit parts could go, and no one continues to outlast it more than DeMar DeRozan.
Apr 02, 2014
For three seasons, Xavier Henry had been a meager part and less heralded talents rose above him in rotations. He was a five-star college recruit fleeting out of a role in the NBA.
Mar 26, 2014
Upon his release from the D-League, Aquille Carr started a purifying process around him, eliminating distractions and creating a gym regimen.
Mar 11, 2014
John Wall had grown so accustom to the scene: a lackluster start to the season and segments of the Wizards' locker room slowly griping. This team meeting, teammates had settled upon the chair of the franchise’s max player.
Feb 23, 2014
How close Nuggets management ever came to consummating a deal is uncertain, and every round of speculation surrounding Kenneth Faried had presented like a hopeless plea on the outside. His youth and blend of athleticism and ferocious knack for the ball make him a self-starter.
Feb 13, 2014
Anthony Davis talks to RealGM about the model leaders on burgeoning teams, how he stays focused and the story behind finding out about his All-Star bid.
Feb 10, 2014
The Rockets didn’t promise Dwight Howard winning, as much as it promised the comfort and attainment of his own locker room to lead again.
Feb 03, 2014
As superstar players applied supreme caution healing from significant knee surgeries, Leandro Barbosa was steadfast and sought an unconventional technique – training with Brazilian soccer players, consuming their conditioning exercises.
Jan 31, 2014
With tremendous earning potential in the offseason, Eric Bledsoe could very well be motivated by returning as soon as the removal surgery permits, by proving his worth before free agency. No matter: The Suns believe in Bledsoe, and the front office has made clear it will match any offer someone could give him in July.
Jan 27, 2014
Paul Millsap had anticipated a prosperous collaboration with Al Horford, a cleverly run offense by Jeff Teague – not Horford’s second major torn pectoral injury in two years, Teague lost to an ankle injury for now, and, most of all, a charge to be “Do it all Paul,” as teammates call him.
Jan 17, 2014
From the moment he arrived to the Grizzlies, Zach Randolph imagined a cooperation with Marc Gasol defying NBA odds. An unorthodox, once ball dominant power forward, and a forgotten Gasol brother.
Jan 09, 2014
Not every 23-year-old rising star accepts his role being teetered. Astute and understanding, Klay Thompson held a calm demeanor as coaches debated the best course of action in camp, displaying exactly the type of self-starting and ego sacrifice the Warriors now integrate within their culture.
Dec 16, 2013
Aside from Derrick Rose, Tom Thibodeau has been the best thing that happened to this management core, a wise and franchise-altering hire three years ago, and now they shouldn’t let his future in Chicago spin and swerve and jeopardize in front of the NBA.
Dec 13, 2013
From 1997 to now, nothing has changed, as Gregg Popovich states exactly right: Tim Duncan is still the base of everything for the Spurs. As well conditioned as a year ago where the Finals were nearly in hand and still breaking records and chasing history at 37 years old.
Dec 02, 2013
Out of Boston and onto Brooklyn, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett understood leaders would be newly cultivated. As much as anything, Avery Bradley heard from them that being a foundational part of the Celtics’ rebuild wouldn’t be easy – that there’s a preciousness to patience, to discipline.
Nov 18, 2013
Derek Fisher has witnessed leaders forget about individual benchmarks and forfeit time away from the court for his five NBA championships. He’s pursuing a sixth now and in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Fisher knows there’s a commitment to fill any vacancy on the floor.
Nov 07, 2013
Andrew Bynum has played four games as part of a comeback with an established Cavaliers organization that prepared itself to fulfill his rehabilitation. Through it all, a clear truth washed over Bynum: His rehab promises to be ongoing as he talks to RealGM about the state of his health.
Oct 14, 2013
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has evident traits to translate into an elite player. He’s lengthy, relentless in drives to the basket, and displays a visible passion in both high and low moments in a game. His first season didn’t match the expectations of the Bobcats’ No. 2 pick, and yet MKG remains a willing learner at just 20.
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