NBA @ 2: A New Beast In The East
For years NBA fans in Toronto have been involved in a love-hate relationship with Andrea Bargnani. Yes, he’s a seven-footer who can shoot from the parking lot, but his lack of defense or consistent effort on the glass has them ready to trade him away . . .to just about any team that would take him. Some have even suggested the Raptors use the amnesty clause on him.
Well, hold that thought, Toronto. There’s a new sheriff in town.
Dallas Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki is a seven-footer who can shoot, and also paid little attention to the defensive end of the floor before Avery Johnson came to town. Avery introduced Dirk to the defensive end, but he was actively engaged in the Mavericks’ defensive effort until assistant coach Dwane Casey came along. In an amazingly short period of time we’ve seen a transformation in Bargnani’s game, due largely to the influence of his new head coach.
“He’s growing, he’s really doing a good job for us,” Casey tells HOOPSWORLD. “Dirk is more of a veteran, experienced player now. In the process, Andrea’s a few years behind but a very talented young man, a very willing student. He’s been a sponge. I spent a lot of time with him, did dinner with him and talked to him about his responsibility. He’s taken everything in and going with it. He’s improved, he’s taken a step defensively up and this is what he needs to do.”
“Dwane has already had a significant impact on Andrea, first and foremost just by being able to communicate that experience with a guy with similar skill set,” says Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo. “I don’t like to make the comparison to Dirk, and I don’t think Andrea likes to be compared, but at the end of the day it is a similar skill set, especially the size to skill ratio that they display. With regard to Dirk and his improved defensive performance and his ability to play a key roll at the championship last year, not to mention what you see in Dwane’s experience has been able, I think it’s been impressive to see his ability to communicate with Andrea and in short, in a short window so far, we’ve had three or four weeks together, you see it every day in practice, every possession of every game. Andrea’s focused more on the defensive end, he’s getting out, he’s showing hard, he’s gotten out and taken a few charges, you never would’ve seen that out of him. I think that’s also a testament to Dwane’s statement early on to this group that if you don’t do what’s asked you probably will be sitting down here next to me, but if you want to be on the floor, you’ve got to do your part in what we’re trying to accomplish defensively as a team. I think that accountability is the thing that has really been evident in not only Andrea’s buy-in but I think everybody’s buy-in.”
So far Bargnani is embracing the challenges set forth by his new coach, and is even happy to see a better defensive approach being employed.
“He’s going to make us work, that’s for sure, so we’re working pretty hard,” Bargnani says of Casey. “Work ethic is really important, and we’re putting in a lot of hard work on the defensive end. Defense is the focus of everything that we do, and that’s good because from my point of view, last year we were one of the worst defensive teams. The one thing we have to improve is our defense, so that’s what we need to do. I’m happy that we’re going to work to improve that, and we already have. We’re already better now than we were last year.”
More than ever before, Bargnani understands that a better defensive approach can make a huge difference for the Raptors as they look to redefine who they are as a team.
“We have to play with the same intensity every game. We have to try to have the mental toughness on the defensive end. That will give us the opportunity to compete . . .the defense will give us the ability to play against everybody, not just our offense. Against Indiana we only scored 11 points in the first quarter, but in the fourth quarter, against a very good team, we were there and we had the opportunity to win the game. We didn’t make it, but we were right there.”
Since then the Raptors have been in games midway through the fourth quarter before big pushes by the Dallas Mavericks and Orlando Magic put them away. After four games Bargnani is showing he might just evolve into the player the Raptors hoped he would become after Chris Bosh last. He poured in 30 points in Dallas and 28 in Orlando, grabbing seven rebounds in each contest and showing a marked improvement on the defensive end. Bargnani admits he learned a lot from Bosh, but is also quick to point out that Bosh wasn’t exactly a championship player for the Raptors.
“Chris is a great player, but we never won anything with him. I respect Chris a lot and I learned many things from him, but it’s not like we were coming from a championship run, or we were first in the Eastern Conference before he left. It’s not like Cleveland when they lost LeBron. They were the best team in the NBA and we didn’t even make the playoffs. We still need a winning mentality, and it’s not like we had one when Chris was here and now we have to rebuild. We never had it, and we have to get a winning mentality before we can hope to be a good team. I’m not saying Chris was bad. He was an All-Star and a great player, but it’s not like we were a great team and now we’re not any more.”
That winning mentality is beginning to sink in, and it starts on the defensive end.
“I know I have to get better defensively, just like everybody. It’s a team effort so everybody has to get better. I can see that everybody is really making an extra effort. There is a big difference now from what we did last year.”
The Raptors are only going to get better, and with Bargnani buying into the defensive end of the floor, he may even convince Raptors fans that he’s worth keeping around.
Major Strides For Minnesota
NBA fans in Minnesota have had a special feeling growing about this season. They have a great new head coach in Rick Adelman and Ricky Rubio is finally in town . . .those two things were sure to spell major improvements for the Timberwolves, which is exactly what we’ve seen early.
The Timberwolves started the season with a thrilling loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, followed by nail-biting losses to Milwaukee and Miami, with only nine points between being 3-0 and 0-3. They started the new year right, blowing out the defending champion Dallas Mavericks, a game that showed just how good the Timberwolves might be this season.
One of the most encouraging signs for Minnesota was the way they responded each time the Mavericks made a push to get back into the game. Young teams often build early leads against veteran squads, but their inability to maintain such leads sink them in the end. That wasn’t the case on Sunday night, when the Wolves made huge plays, most notably back-to-back threes from Kevin Love in crunch time, to maintain their lead and close out the win.
“It’s a new year,” Love said afterward. “We’re the best team in 2012 right now.”
Love was brilliant, recording 25 points and 17 rebounds, while new set-up man Rubio compiled 14 points and seven assists – many of them in the fourth quarter.
The win broke an 18-game losing streak for Minnesota, with 15 coming under Kurt Rambis last season.
“I still take don’t credit for those 15 last year,” Adelman quipped after the game. “I have enough trouble with the three we have this year.”
By all indications, lengthy losing streaks are a thing of the past, and beating the Mavericks should be a big boost for the team as they look to make 2012 a much happier new year for their long-suffering fans.
Rockets, Pistons Interested in Cousins
The Sacramento Kings are saying they won’t honor any trade demand from DeMarcus Cousins’ camp, and Cousins’ agent is saying none has been issued, yet the fact remains that someone let the cat out of the bag on Sunday evening.
DeMarcus Cousins doesn’t want to be in Sacramento and Kings head coach Paul Westphal is none too eager to have him around the team. He ordered Cousins to stay away from last night’s game against New Orleans, which the Kings won handily behind brilliant backcourt play.
None of the drama surrounding Cousins comes as any surprise to avid followers of the NBA, nor of Kentucky basketball fans. Cousins is a wild card, to say the least. His immaturity is his Achilles’ heel and Paul Westphal isn’t exactly known for helping difficult personalities succeed.
It seems a matter of time until Cousins is wearing a different jersey.
Two teams that have shown interest in Cousins in the past continue to have interest, despite this recent issue. The Detroit Pistons made overtures to the Kings last season in hopes of landing Cousins and the Houston Rockets would love to add Cousins to their starting lineup, counting on Kevin McHale’s laid-back coaching style to help Cousins realize his seemingly endless potential.
No decision has been made in Sacramento, but how many more blow-ups can one team endure from a young player who should just be happy to be in the NBA? The Kings have enough problems without Cousins showing out constantly, and the Rockets, in particular, have a lot of nice pieces that could aid in Sacramento’s rebuilding process.
Stay tuned as we continue to closely follow this developing story.
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