‘That’s Pretty Interesting’: Tony Parker a perfect match for Kemba Walker, Hornets; Knicks’ Frank Ntilikina still enigmatic

NEW YORK — Tony Parker backed up behind the 3-point line on Sunday at Madison Square Garden. He cleared out against New York Knicks rookie Mitchell Robinson, crossed over, drove left and hit the center with an up-and-under, finishing with a lefty layup as Robinson went flying the wrong way. On the Charlotte Hornets’ bench, Parker’s teammates jumped out of their seats. One of them, Devonte’ Graham, did a little pirouette. Parker may be 36, but his old tricks still work.

“He’s so crafty,” Hornets forward Marvin Williams told CBS Sports. “It’s kind of fun to watch, and you see younger, more athletic guys guarding him. He still finds a way to get to the basket, man. He’s just so smart. He’s been doing it for so long, man. That’s what makes him great.”

On Charlotte’s next possession, Parker turned the corner on a pick-and-roll and went right at Robinson, accelerating at just the right time to finger roll the ball past the 20-year-old’s long arms. A couple of trips later, Robinson was the victim of Parker’s patented floater. After a crossover set up another layup, he had scored eight points in two minutes.

“Obviously, Mr. Parker is not done,” Knicks coach David Fizdale said

Parker is on a new NBA team for the first time since he left Paris for San Antonio 17 years ago. He is fully healthy, unlike last season, when he came back from a 10-11 month quadriceps injury in only seven. He is averaging 10.5 points and 4.3 assists in 19.5 minutes, both backing up Kemba Walker and sharing the court with him.

According to Cleaning The Glass, Parker’s usage is higher than it’s been since the Spurs won the 2014 championship. He is not the star that he was in his prime, but in stretches like that one at MSG, he can look an awful lot like he used to. It turns out that, when you are the quickest guard in the league at your peak, you can lose some of your burst and still get where you need to go.

“I worked hard this summer to get my leg strong, and I feel healthy again,” Parker said. “I feel like I have my 20-years-old legs, and I can get back to the paint and penetrate and create. It feels good. It feels good to have my body back. That’s the key.”

Walker’s All-Star-to-superstar turn is the biggest story in Charlotte, but if this team maintains its playoff position, it will not just be because of its starting point guard. After years of self-destructing whenever Walker sits, Parker has provided stability. In the 282 minutes he has played without Walker, the Hornets have a plus-5.8 net rating.

Fizdale called it an “incredible luxury” for his longtime friend James Borrego to be able to sub Walker out and put in someone with Parker’s pedigree. It also helps that the two of them love working together. Ex-Charlotte assistant coach Stephen Silas used to cut up clips of Parker running pick-and-rolls, making floaters and finishing around the rim for Walker to watch. When Walker found out the Hornets could sign the four-time champion and six-time All-Star, he was geeked.

Since then, Walker has told Parker that he used to study him, and Parker has been happy to take some of the pressure off Walker when he gets tired or trapped. Parker even gave Walker the ultimate compliment, saying his lack of ego and commitment to winning reminded him of Tim Duncan.

The respect is clearly mutual: Walker said it has been amazing to have Parker around, as the veteran has “changed our team in many ways” and helped him make yet another leap.

“I’m no genius,” Walker said. “I’m no genius at all. I mean, I’m always learning, I’m always trying to get better. I don’t know if anyone can ever stop learning. I’m a student of the game forever, regardless of how much older I’m going to get, year by year, I’m always going to learn. T.P. has been doing this for 18 years. He’s played tons more games than me, been in tons of situations. I’m always learning from him. Always.”

Parker has been everything Charlotte hoped he’d be, and it seems like the Hornets have given him exactly what he needed, too. “I think it’s fresh for him,” Borrego said: The new home, the new people, the frequent visits to cities in the East. Borrego appreciates that Parker has embraced his role, served as an extension of the coaching staff and helped lead the team, especially because he could have easily walked away.

“I’m really happy for him because, you all know, you guys saw that injury, he could have been done after that injury and he could have just shut it down and all of us standing here would have gone, ‘Heck of a career, Hall of Fame career,'” Borrego said. “And he put the time and the effort in to not go out that way. He didn’t want to go out that way.”

Three-point revolution? LeBron’s noticed

 

EARLIER THIS MONTH, facing a near double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter against a San Antonio Spurs team that had already beaten the Los Angeles Lakers twice this season, LeBron James took over.

At first, the dominance was familiar: James streaking across the open court, plowing by a hapless defender for the and-1, slapping his biceps for effect; James coming up with a sudden surge of energy to turn a lazy San Antonio pass into a steal, and then passing the ball to a wide-open teammate on the fast break after pushing it up the court.

And then — three times — there was LeBron’s latest finishing move: the step-back 3-pointer that he is taking and making at a rate not seen before in his 16-year career.

From 28 feet away, with 7 minutes, 11 seconds to go, to bring L.A. from down four to down one? Good. From 36 feet, with 5:26 remaining, to go from down two to up one? Bang. From 29 feet, with 1:13 left, to double L.A.’s lead from three points to six and salt the win away? Money.

“Once I’m in the gym, I’m in my range,” James told ESPN.

“It’s not a confidence thing,” said James, who shot 29 percent from 3-point territory his rookie season, the jump shot considered the lone weakness in his game when he entered the league. “It’s a work-ethic thing. You put in the work, and then you trust it when you get on the floor. I work on it when we got practice. And when you work on stuff and you put the work in, [you get results]. And for me, I put the work in. That’s just a byproduct of it.”

Much to Antoine Walker’s chagrin, making a shot way out there still awards the shooter the same 3 points had he made it two feet closer — there are no 4s. So, simply, why launch from Orange County when James can surely create a shot from, say, the Hollywood sign?

We’re playing Houston the other night, they got guys pulling up for 35-foot shots,” said Dallas Maverickscoach Rick Carlisle. “Just in the regular flow of the game. And that’s becoming the norm. There really is no 3-point line. I mean, there is, but where guys are shooting from now, they’re shooting out there because people are meeting 3-point shooters at the line. So they’re backing up and then, you tell me, how are you going to stop James Harden and Eric Gordon from driving the ball? When you’re closing out on them from 33, 34 feet out, it’s very difficult.”

Indeed, the average 3-point distance in the league this season is 25.14 feet. That’s on pace to become the farthest it has been in the past 10 seasons, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information. So James isn’t the only one loving the long ball.

The NBA 3-point line is 22 feet away from the rim at its closest, in the corners of the court, and 23.75 feet away from the farthest distance out past the top of the key. The distance of James’ average 3-point shot this season is 26 feet — more than 2 feet beyond the longest spot on the line.

So is this just a natural evolution of the pace-and-space game? Or is there something more personal to James’ 3-point journey?

DURING JAMES’ LAST four seasons in Cleveland, multiple Cavs sources put James’ deep 3s in one of two categories: Either it was a sign of him being in a great groove, looking to land a dagger and light up the crowd, or it was just the opposite, LeBron launching from out there almost out of protest by how his teammates were approaching the game, as if to say, “OK, you want to play that way? Fine, I’ll just keep bombing from 30.”

The result, according to one source: “When he’s pissed off, when he makes it, it’s a great shot. When he misses it, he’s mad anyway, so he doesn’t care.”

There is a flex that comes with taking a long 3. It’s an unspoken declaration: The conventional rules don’t apply to me. For James, it’s more: I deserve to take these, too.

How far will he go with it?

“I don’t think he is trying to be Steph Curry at this point in his career,” said a Western Conference scout.

After more than a decade in the NBA with no natural rival, Curry has proven to be the defining foil in James’ career.

Beyond beating James to win three of the past four NBA Finals, including the past two years straight, Curry has spearheaded the 3-point explosion that changed the league.

While James will never be a marksman of Curry’s caliber — Curry has never shot less than 41 percent from 3-point territory and is currently hitting 49 percent this season — James is hitting a respectable 37.1 percent this season (up from a career average of 34.4 percent) on the highest volume of his career. That’s better than the likes of J.J. Redick, Damian Lillard, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant.

Blogtable: Who should be team captains for NBA All-Star 2019? Each week, we ask our scribes to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day.

All-Star voting begins next week. Who should NBA fans be rooting for to win Team Captain spots?

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Steve Aschburner: Please, please, please let the top vote-getters in each conference be Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid and Golden State’s Draymond Green. Those two would give us a real show when they picked their teams playground-style. The choices would be intriguing but the commentary would be even better, with a couple of guys in charge who are quite willing to let it fly verbally about anyone or anything. If we’re going to make this a televised event, let’s go full “WWE heel” with it. Stoke a rivalry, not just for the All-Star Game but for various meetings that follow, all the way into spring.

Shaun Powell:  Keep in mind that this will now be A Big Thing because it’ll be turned into a made-for-TV event. With that, LeBron James in the West and Joel Embiid in the East would be good for laughs. Oh well, we’ll probably get Kawhi instead.

John Schuhmann:  Because the All-Star draft is going to be televised this year, and for the sake of entertainment value, we should all be rooting for Joel Embiid and LeBron James. Stephen Curry wouldn’t be a terrible alternative to James, and there’s potential for a fun back-and-forth if it were James and Kyrie Irving. Klay Thompson’s humor would keep it interesting, but he doesn’t have much of a shot at being the No. 1 vote-getter in the West.

Sekou Smith:  If we wanted to see NBA Twitter explode with the Petty Olympics, we’d get Kevin Durant on one side and Joel Embiid on the other.Talk about pure entertainment … I’d sign up for that right now. And I think the fans would love every single troll-filled second of that All-Star draft. That said, a LeBron James-Kawhi Leonard matchup is probably a much more realistic probability. And that’s fine. We’d certainly eliminate some of the emotion of the process with Kawhi doing his best to eliminate the drama.

Blogtable: Are Warriors about to pull away from the pack in West? Each week, we ask our scribes to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day. From NBA.com Staff

Stephen Curry is back. Draymond Green is back. Are we about to see the Warriors pull away from the pack in the crowded Western Conference?

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Steve Aschburner:  Not only that, but DeMarcus Cousins is on his way back too. I do think Golden State has both the ability and the motivation now to put some distance between itself and the challengers of the West. Old nemesis Houston isn’t pushing hard from behind, but OKC and Denver are hungry, high-quality teams that the Warriors dare not take lightly. Plus coach Steve Kerr always is looking for a new edge with which to play the regular season. And there’s this: Golden State should want to leave the fans who have made Oracle Arena such a fantastic home court with something special. Playoff schedules are unpredictable, but the Warriors know what home games they have remaining in the regular season and ought to show off their best selves the rest of the way.

Shaun Powell: Yes, yes, yes. Not just because the Warriors are stocked better than anyone else, but there isn’t a strong No. 2 in the West, not like last season. My hunch is the Christmas Day game with the Los Angeles Lakers will determine first place in the West, and that’s the springboard the Warriors will use to leap beyond everyone else. That overblown KD-Draymond dustup (happens on plenty of teams) is history. Draymond’s back, Steph’s back and DeMarcus Cousins is coming.

John Schuhmann:  All the ingredients are there. Denver is banged up, with Gary Harris and Paul Millsap both out for a few weeks. The next few weeks of Oklahoma City’s schedule are tougher than the last few weeks were, and the LA Clippers have been showing signs of slippage. When the Warriors are healthy, they can be the league’s best team on both ends of the floor and put together a lot of wins. But the champs are about to begin a tough stretch of the schedule themselves. Eight of their next nine games are against teams with winning records, and the only exception is a game in Utah (where the Warriors lost two games by a total of 70 points last season). They can obviously beat any team in the league, six of those other eight games are at home, and they just finished a five-game trip with an impressive win in Milwaukee. But these next 18 days will tell us a lot about where they’re at in regard to their focus on both ends of the floor. For the sake of assistant coach Ron Adams’ sanity, it would be nice to see them climb from 17th to the top 10 in defensive efficiency by the end of the month.

Sekou Smith:  We are absolutely going to see the Warriors stretch out in the coming weeks. They’ve been waiting all season to get healthy enough to play to their true form. Add in the fact DeMarcus Cousins is clearly ramping up for his debut and the rest of the West should brace themselves for the flurry. They’ll use all of these early-season hiccups as reminders of how quickly things can go awry when they’re not on their grind. It might be the one thing they really needed to focus themselves prior to the start of the postseason. Talent-wise we know they don’t have a peer in the Western Conference or the league. As long as they don’t get in their own way, it’s their world until someone stops them.

Teams unveil Earned Edition uniforms for 2018-19 season

Add another look to the wardrobe for several NBA teams.

Today, the NBA announced that teams that made the playoffs from the previous season will now be rewarded with an exclusive on-court look for the following season. It’s part of the Nike NBA Earned Program, which tips off in 2018 with a collection of Earned Edition uniforms. The new jerseys and shorts, which are color variations of each team’s Statement or City Edition uniforms, gives fans a tangible claim to both their team’s heritage and current success.

Starting with the Christmas Day slate this season, select teams will debut these uniforms then. Other participating teams will begin wearing their Nike NBA Earned Edition uniforms in games soon after.

Here’s a quick look at the 16 uniforms set to hit the court in the coming weeks.

               

NBA News-Giannis Antetokounmpo, Victor Oladipo back in action Wednesday night

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Victor Oladipo back in action Wednesday night.

INDIANAPOLIS (AP)  — The Milwaukee Bucks and Indiana Pacers will both be at full strength Wednesday night when All-Stars Giannis Antetokounmpo and Victor Oladipo return to the court.

Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee’s star forward, sat out Monday’s game with neck soreness. Coach Mike Budenholzer said he expects the Eastern Conference’s leading scorer to start. Antetokounmpo averages 26.5 points.

Oladipo, the Pacers’ star guard, returns after missing 11 consecutive games with soreness in his right knee.

Coach Nate McMillan said Oladipo practiced Tuesday and felt no pain. He said Oladipo’s minutes would be restricted.

The Pacers went 7-4 in his absence, including four straight wins heading into Wednesday’s game. Indiana was 0-6 without Oladipo last season.