Dec 02, 2013 5:38 PM EST
For the depth to which Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett infiltrated locker rooms, brought back championship respectability to the Boston Celtics, Avery Bradley absorbed his old veterans’ most subtle traits. From the ferocity with which Garnett and Pierce had to the dignity they distributed in every way, Bradley rekindled how those virtues never left from their unproven Minnesota Timberwolves and Celtics seasons, to legitimate contention in Boston.
Out of Boston and onto Brooklyn, Pierce and Garnett understood leaders on their former team would be newly cultivated. As much as anything, 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.
“They told me this was going to be hard,” Bradley told RealGM. “At some point in their careers, they both played on teams that were very young, and that’s how our team is now. It takes time, but if everybody buys into what we’re trying to do, everything works out.”
Bradley has been a solidified voice for these Celtics, and him developing a close relationship with Jeff Green has proven a reliable influence on a hard-playing team. Already, Brad Stevens has established a rapport within his locker room, a scheme on both ends of the court; infusing seven wins a month into the season.
For Stevens, Jordan Crawford has grown into a playmaker and Jared Sullinger is continuing his basketball growth, adding range and versatility to his jump shot. Nevertheless, the Celtics feed off Bradley’s tenacity on defense and he knows how critical his outside jumper is to the offense. In Bradley, teammates see a little more Pierce than Garnett, more action and force than rah-rah and verbiage.
“I don’t really speak much, I try to lead by example,” Bradley said. “I definitely learned leadership from the guys that were here before, because the Celtics have a culture. Playing hard and respecting the game – I try to keep that going, hoping it rubs off on my new teammates and some of the younger guys.”
Those three seasons under Doc Rivers and Pierce and Garnett went so far in instilling lessons into Bradley, and at 23, his value had been made clear last month when Danny Ainge held negotiations on a contract extension.
Bradley told RealGM he never got a sense about whether an extension was close, and his approach has kept him from straying in focusing on the season – separating himself from the way contract discussions impacted Gordon Hayward.
“I can’t read the future,” Bradley said, “but all I can control is improving every single game, improving for my team.”
Over a summer of sharpening his ball handling and smoothening his jumper, Bradley replayed situations from his most extensive memories last season. As a combo guard asked to play more point guard late in the year, he knew struggles would come in placing the Celtics into proper offensive sets. Yet, everyone around the Celtics expected out of Bradley nothing but further repetition in the offseason – now off to a career start.
“I was put in situations where I had to learn both guard positions,” Bradley said. “I just have to keep improving each game now. Once I got the chance, I knew everything would work out. My main thing now is just consistency.”
Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett had returned significant winning to the Celtics, but mostly a fury and respect to the game that incoming leaders like Bradley needed to grasp. Avery Bradley was so used to 50-win seasons in his first three NBA years, the deep playoff runs, and on their way out his two past vets let him know this rebuilding process won’t be simple and will take all the patience Boston’s got.
Nov 18, 2013 12:55 PM EST
On his last legs, his body in disregard all these seasons later, Derek Fisher feels so validated in the private moments people around him point out his significance. He’s always lived for the big shots, but he knows it’s his voice and habits everywhere that most serve the Oklahoma City Thunder. For Scott Brooks, Fisher is a daily reminder of team culture, a model of placing an imprint that goes far beyond his meager statistics.
From Kobe Bryant to Shaquille O’Neal, Pau Gasol to Lamar Odom, Fisher witnessed leaders forget about individual benchmarks and forfeit time away from the court for his five NBA championships. He’s pursuing a sixth now – one final ring before retirement – and in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Fisher knows there’s a commitment to fill any vacancy on the floor.
He’s noticed the two Thunder stars develop an understanding about removing themselves from a second tier of elite, and into champions. On the court, Durant and Westbrook have become more comfortable with the responsibilities, more vocal in huddles. Off the court, Westbrook and Durant lead a close, diligent team with young players eager to break out in Reggie Jackson and Steven Adams.
“Eventually – regardless of how long you’re in this league – you soon realize that winning and being on a winning team separates you from everybody else,” Fisher told RealGM. “There are big time scorers, talented players, guys that fill the stat sheet on every team. But now Kevin and Russell have realized in their short, but brilliant careers that winning and playing on a championship team is what will separate the two of them from the other great players who have big numbers.
“Guys are putting extra pressure on themselves and feeling like our task is something extraordinary, something beyond what we’re doing.”
Within the locker room, these Thunder remain bitter over how Westbrook was snatched away against the Houston Rockets last season, an opportunity lost after the franchise’s best regular season. A devastating knee injury to Westbrook derailed what likely would have been a deep playoff run, but he returned earlier than even some teammates expected, returned as explosive as ever.
For his part, Durant has posted up from the top of the key with greater frequency than past seasons, exploiting defenders by pulling up for jumpers over them and with a clear vision of defenders arriving to double-team him. It’s an old Dallas Mavericks wrinkle for Dirk Nowitzki that Brooks sharply installed a season ago, and some scouts believe that the Thunder are able to get Durant and his shooters in rhythm quicker with the play set early in games.
Westbrook has a leveled edge to him that balances with Durant’s grace, a passionate energy increasingly filling his teammates with positivity, and with both healthy the Thunder are as dangerous a threat to the Miami Heat as any Western Conference team.
Never take winning for granted, nor the tireless work toward it, Fisher still tells them. This is why the NBA Finals defeat to the Heat creeps into their minds sometimes.
“I don’t think there’s been one transformational moment, but obviously the loss in the 2012 Finals is still very memorable, still a memory to us,” Fisher says. “It’s part of the organizational process, and part of the progress that’s been made since the team has been in existence. From moving to Oklahoma City in 2008, to what’s been built here year in and year out since.
“We’re still pushing ourselves to reach the level that we believe we’re capable of reaching. That’s of being a championship level team. We realize we have work to do, but with a young team we’re trying to continue to hold ourselves accountable to play at that level each night.
“What we’re trying to do and where we’re trying to go is the next step in our evolution.”
Eighteen seasons into his career, Fisher knows he’s a marginal scorer, a pro whom Brooks can place into the game’s bleakest of positions. He’ll go scoreless plenty of times throughout this year – yet it’s in those games when there will be a rebound, a defensive stand that Brooks lets his entire roster know about postgame.
In the locker room after the Thunder’s recent road win over the Milwaukee Bucks, the coach gave Fisher the greatest compliment of all: single him out with praise in front of his teammates and staff members. For everyone minimizing the values of Fisher and Kendrick Perkins, Brooks plays the role of instilling confidence externally.
“When [Fisher] doesn’t score a point, he still impacts the game,” Brooks says. “I tell the guys … that’s how you play: with your heart every possession, and good things will happen.”
Now at 39, Fisher is no longer bracing for another NBA season, no longer in competition to see whether he’ll last as long as Kobe Bryant. They came into the league battling each other as Lakers rookies, but they almost assuredly won’t leave together too. As Bryant prepares to return this season and for a few more, Fisher wants to beat him to No. 6, heading out of the league first in the process.
“It’s my last season,” Fisher told RealGM, “so I don’t have to worry about pacing myself for next season per se. I’m trying to make sure that I’m ready every night for whatever the team needs me to do. Whether it’s being active on the defensive end or making the timely basket, by and large it’s just about being a leader by example and continuing to show our guys that you help your team win by doing whatever it takes – not just things that show up on the stat sheet.”
For Scott Brooks, no one on the Thunder is a better example – with the credibility, the world titles – to deliver these messages than Fisher. He’s still the relentless, 6-foot-1 guard willing to put his body on the line for a late stop, a crucial rebound.
A wide smile covers his face, because there’s no more pacing the body for a 19th season. This is his farewell year. Then Derek Fisher’s voice becomes focused talking about Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, about how they’ve come so far to grasp how to separate themselves from superstar players to champions.
Nov 07, 2013 12:59 PM EST
MILWAUKEE – With bulky pads deliberating his legs and every move and every step now, Andrew Bynum came onto the court in warm-ups, and so much has been habitual for him. There were two trainers working out with Bynum, trying to elevate his stamina, his rhythm in an assortment of shooting and back-to-the-basket drills, and then they moved into the training room – all part of a regimen designed to keep him sharp and, most of all, healthy.
So far, so good. Bynum has played four games as part of a comeback with an established Cleveland Cavaliers organization that prepared itself to fulfill his rehabilitation. Through it all, a clear truth washed over Bynum: His rehab promises to be ongoing. His knees remain painful, as slightly as he concedes.
“I don’t think the pain will decrease,” Bynum told RealGM. “It’s just where I’m at. For my conditioning, the more I play, the better I’ll get conditioning wise.”
Before the Cavaliers’ five-point loss to the Bucks on Wednesday night, Bynum ran around the layup lines with burst, with enthusiasm, as he’d pull crossover dribbles out of his imagination and shoot jumpers. Even as he detaches emotion from his return, people close to him have alluded to his relief since the summer.
Bynum will bolster a frontcourt that has two physical players, Anderson Varejao and Tristan Thompson, but fails to complement a dynamic backcourt. He’s lacked his old mobility for extensive stretches during games, but scouts cite his spry movements in workouts, cite a belief that midseason is a fair, accurate determination of his status.
At that point, how much will Bynum’s athleticism have progressed? At that point, how close will he put himself with the skilled, agile center who started the All-Star game two seasons ago?
Mike Brown has eased Bynum into these games, and he knew the big man far better than any of the coaches competing for him in free agency. Away from Hollywood, Bynum listens to Brown, and there’s no hoisting three-pointers, no power struggle with the coach. Now, he’s receptive to run from one end of the floor to another – out of a call from the bench – to heed Brown’s strategy on defense.
Brown had given a grueling 3½-hour practice on Sunday, but Cavaliers players responded by tiring late in a one-point win over the Minnesota Timberwolves and let him know that the length of the session had an impact. So, he shortened Tuesday’s practice to just over an hour – and a sluggish start against Milwaukee came out of it.
O.J. Mayo and Gary Neal had combined to make 10 three-pointers and the Bucks had dropped 109 points on Brown’s defense, and it left Brown blasting the Cavaliers’ effort.
“Maybe I spoke too soon about our team defensively,” Brown said. “We have to figure out what it takes to win on the road, and right now, as a group, we don’t know what it takes to win on the road. That’s disappointing.
“I need somebody on this team that wants to come out and get stops at the beginning. Not only get stops, but have a mental edge, a mental focus on the defensive end of the floor.”
For Bynum, these four games have been relieving, yet unsatisfying. He’s confident that he’s passed a threshold for more minutes, but the Cavaliers are wise to bring him along gradually. A return to Philadelphia looms on Friday, and he’ll surely get booed mercilessly.
Between now and then, Bynum will spend his training with the Cleveland staff. “Just working toward getting back,” he said late Wednesday, “they’ve helped me.” For Andrew Bynum, so much has become part of normalcy: Those hulking pads, a training plan under the Cavaliers – all in hopes of managing his knees. So far, so good.
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.
Oct 06, 2013
As Derrick Rose went further and further into his comeback, George Hill had grasped an unmistakable trend with what was transpiring between his team’s defense and the 2011 MVP. In many ways, he sought the collisions to reassert that there will be no change in his fearless driving style.
Jul 28, 2013
Just last year, Larry Sanders had been toiling as a lost player, but he has played himself into the USA Basketball program and now comes out of it wiser after being around some of the best coaching minds.
Jul 23, 2013
John Wall has seen NBA players come into the USA Basketball program over the summers to absorb the experience and competition, only to turn it all into a career season in the fall. He wants to take from this week’s minicamp a similar impact, but there’s a desire to show the coaches and officials that he’s a rising guard, too.
Jul 18, 2013
Skill and talent, scoring and athleticism have never been issues for Eric Gordon. Health has. He knows that, and just three years ago it seemed he was on the cusp of the All-Star game. As a growing leader, Gordon has tried to mend fences with the Pelicans this summer.
Jul 16, 2013
Danny Ferry and Mike Budenholzer called Jeff Teague late Saturday afternoon. Together they delivered a message Teague wanted all along out of the organization that drafted him in 2009 and thrust him into a 2011 playoff series against Derrick Rose that he still credits as outline for his potential.
Jun 21, 2013
Pat Riley smoothens all around the Miami Heat: LeBron James’ decision, the talent around him. Heat executives call Riley the fabric of Miami’s structure, and the architect has a vision of this ride going on and on.
Jun 19, 2013
Maybe teammates had been so used to LeBron James needing his headband, whether it’s for comfort or appearance. Fighting for his life in these NBA Finals, fighting for his basketball stature, this accessory was the last thing James had on his mind in Game 6.
Jun 10, 2013
This was LeBron James’ transcendent memory of The Finals, a remembrance forever. It will be repeated over and over and over and over, Chris Bosh said. As clutch as that shot with cramps was a year ago, this block, to assist, to steal, to dunk moment was a four-part masterpiece.
Jun 08, 2013
Chris Bosh is the member of the Big 3 who could have the most to lose in a potential Finals collapse: His place as an untouchable on the roster. He had grown up idolizing Duncan, imagining he was hitting jumpers atop Garnett in early workouts in Toronto, and the Heat must believe now that somewhere within Bosh still exists that self-action to match the burden.
Jun 07, 2013
For Tony Parker, winning The Finals MVP in 2007 was supposed to bring validation to his game. Forget recognition as a top guard, those Finals instilled in Parker that he’s a top player in the NBA.
Jun 02, 2013
Lance Stephenson knows what’s awaiting them with the way LeBron has dominated in Miami, and still Frank Vogel will develop their confidence between now and Game 7. Here were Roy Hibbert and Paul George in agreement over an ending of this series that would send these franchises in different directions.
May 29, 2013
LeBron James’ ease was telling on his way out of fouling out of Game 4. He was calm in his responses, tranquil over a game that had both teams irate at times about calls. James was snatched an opportunity to close out a potential 3-1 series lead, basketball’s premiere closer fouling out of a tight game.
May 27, 2013
At 32, Udonis Haslem understands this postseason – this Eastern Conference finals series, in particular – has tested his body. Roy Hibbert and David West will continue trying to impose their physicality on the Heat, a tiring challenge Haslem has embraced.
May 15, 2013
Shooting hasn’t always been pretty for Paul George in these playoffs, but he’s already rivaling LeBron James as one of the game’s most prolific, complete players. On those terrible shooting nights, George is all over the place – defending the opponent’s best, rebounding and disrupting passes. On offense, he doesn’t need solacing.
May 12, 2013
J.R. Smith had gotten a virus on Friday night and sat for dinner here, wondering how worse it would get, wondering if he’d play. Sure enough, there was no flu game out of Smith on Saturday – just shots going awry, shots falling short, and a teetering, welcomed walk out of the Fieldhouse and into recovery time to find any resemblance of the Sixth Man.
Apr 17, 2013
George Karl has immense trust in Ty Lawson, a relationship that has constantly tightened. They know it had to be this way once Chauncey Billups left in the Carmelo Anthony trade. Ultimately, Karl understood the Nuggets’ future rested on giving Lawson freedom, and in turn rested on his ability to blossom with it.
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