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NBA Notebook: Competitive playoffs, draft season

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NBA Notebook: Competitive playoffs, draft season

Friday, April 29, 2011
Posted: 10:04 a.m.

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

And then there was one--first-round series, that is. In addition to Atlanta, the Bulls' second-round opponent, two other teams advanced Thursday night, leaving just Memphis and San Antonio as the lone ongoing opening-round matchup.

Although no series went to seven games--and none will, if the Grizzlies close out the Spurs at "The Grind House" (as Grizzlies guard Tony Allen has dubbed Memphis' Fed Ex Forum) Friday evening--this spring's edition of the playoffs has been among the most exciting in years. Only one team, Boston, swept its opponent (New York, which was missed both All-Star Amar'e Stoudemire and point guard Chauncey Billups for much of the series) and even in that instance, the Knicks gave the Celtics a battle half of the time.

READ: Second round matchup with Hawks favors Bulls

Upstart teams rose to the occasion--Indiana tested Chicago's mettle, Atlanta upset Orlando, Philadelphia refused to bow down to Miami, New Orleans stole two games from the defending champion Lakers, Portland threw a scare into Dallas, Denver didn't make it easy for Oklahoma City and Memphis is on the verge of shocking San Antonio--everywhere and even though the favored teams have mostly held serve, nobody appears to be invulnerable.

Adding to the fun is the possibility of a changing of the guard, with youth-driven teams in the Windy City and elsewhere (specifically Oklahoma City) having a clear path to the conference finals, something NBA conspiracy theorists probably love. That said, neither Derrick Rose nor Kevin Durant will have valet service on their way to their potential first NBA Finals trips, not with the old guard--the Lakers and Mavericks in the West, Miami and Boston in the East--looking to stand in their way after getting through much more obtrusive roadblocks.

Regardless of whether they face an underdog Memphis team or an aging San Antonio squad, the young Thunder should advance in no more than six games. As for the other conference semifinal matchups, expect the experience and team-oriented style of the Celtics to get them by the still-individualistic Heat in a hotly-contested, seven game slugfest, while the Lakers should make one more stand in Phil Jackson's final season coaching and rely on a rejuvenated Kobe Bryant--who, in turn, seemed to pass on that energy to his teammates in the process of dispatching Chris Paul's pesky Hornets--and their frontcourt dominance to beat Dirk Nowitzki's flawed Mavericks in six games.

Coaching carousel begins its ride

Always running concurrently with the playoffs is the start of the NBA's annual coaching carousel. The first organizations to make move this spring were Houston and Golden State, which parted ways with under-appreciated veteran Rick Adelman and rookie head coach Keith Smart, respectively.

READ: NBA releases Bulls vs. Hawks schedule

Adelman's ouster might not have been a surprise, but it seemed to come as a jolt to his players, who understood the incredible job he did with short-handed rosters that were without injured superstar center Yao Ming most of the time. Smart, on the other hand, was put in a tough position by being given the head job by the Warriors' new ownership group just before training camp; the longtime Don Nelson assistant couldn't be expected to change the team's culture in one season, but while free-agent signee Dorell Wright blossomed under his watch, their marquee acquisition David Lee was a mild disappointment and second-year star Stephen Curry appeared to regress.

One situation that bears watching is Indiana, where 37-year-old Frank Vogel took over for the deposed Jim O'Brien on an interim basis mid-year and not only led the Pacers to the playoffs, but adjusted the young team's approach and actually gave the Bulls a run for their money in four of the five games in the first-round series. Vogel is enthusiastic, a bit brash and somebody who inspires his team, which genuinely seemed to like playing for him.

If Larry Bird returns as the franchise's top executive, expect Vogel to also stay put, although Bird indicated he'd also interview other candidates for the opening. Indiana's youth and potential are obvious, and with the cap space the Pacers have, bringing in power forward that can score on the low block and a perimeter scorer to complement Danny Granger--a deal they almost made at the trade deadline would have brought them Grizzlies shooting guard O.J. Mayo--could elevate them in the Eastern Conference pecking order.

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While speculation about other openings--outside of the aforementioned Lakers, where Bryant has already offered his support for longtime assistant Brian Shaw to take over for the departing Jackson--would be unfair at this point, former NBA head coaches Mike Brown, Mike Woodson and Kevin McHale are hot names, as are a litany of current assistant coaches, such as Boston's Lawrence Frank and San Antonio's Mike Budzenholzer.

Draft season also shaping up

With the deadline for underclassmen to enter June's NBA Draft--players who didn't sign with agents have until May 8 to return to school--recently passing, it's clear that many collegiate stars are taking advantage of the upcoming multi-team mega-workout to be held in New Jersey. Sixty-nine underclassmen declared for the draft this year, with the usual anonymous names dotting the list alongside potential lottery picks like Duke point guard Kyrie Irving, Arizona forward Derrick Williams and Connecticut star Kemba Walker.

However, the list of entrants might be more notable for the names not on it, such as the freshman trio of North Carolina's Harrison Barnes, Ohio State's Jared Sullinger and Baylor's Perry Jones, all of whom were projected to be top picks, but opted to return to college. While some of those decisions were primarily motivated by the potential of team success--in Jones' case, it was surprisingly about improvement, something more shocking considering the NCAA-mandated suspension he faces at the beginning of next season for receiving improper benefits--the chance of an NBA lockout also likely played a role, as a truncated rookie campaign would be detrimental to player's development.

Having seen the three aforementioned prospects--and the majority of the other players on the early-entry list--develop from the time they were prep phenoms, their decision is commendable, although a perceived strong 2012 draft class might push some players to strike while the iron is hot. Still, even in what's being panned as a weak crop of incoming rookies for next season, there is a lot of underwhelming talent looking to make the leap and even if selected in the first round, some may never make an impact in the league due to lack of preparedness.

Artest wins league's citizenship award

Lastly, Lakers forward Ron Artest won the NBA's annual Walter J. Kennedy Citizenship Award, voted on by the Professional Basketball Writers Association, for his efforts in the field of mental; health. The former Bulls draft pick, who famously thanked his therapist after the Lakers won last season's NBA Finals, is one of the league's great turnaround stories, going from a pariah after various antics--well, the antics are still there, but in a non-destructive fashion--and more importantly, his role in the infamous "Malice in the Palace," to a media darling and fan favorite.

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.com's Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.

Steve Kerr told a Michael Jordan Bulls story to give advice to Kevin Durant

Steve Kerr told a Michael Jordan Bulls story to give advice to Kevin Durant

Anyone who lived through the Michael Jordan Bulls remembers those games when he was putting up tons of points, but the Bulls were still struggling overall.

Steve Kerr referenced one of those games to give advice to Kevin Durant during Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals. The TNT broadcast caught the conversation and aired it late in the third quarter.

"When MJ was with the Bulls, we had a playoff game," Kerr began the story. "He kept trying to score and he was scoring, but we weren't getting anything going. Phil Jackson said 'Who's open?' He said, 'John Paxson.'"

Paxson scored 10 of 12 points for the Bulls during a fourth quarter run in Game 5 of the 1991 NBA Finals, the series clincher, and famously hit the game-winning shot in Game 6 of the 1993 NBA Finals to clinch that series. Kerr, who later hit his own championship-winning shot on an assist from Jordan in 1997, was trying to get to get his teammates involved.

"I want to trust your teammates early," Kerr said. "What you're doing is you're getting to the rim and then you're trying to hit him. I want you to trust the first guy and then move. Still attack, still look to score, but trust these guys, OK?"

Watch the video above to see the interaction.

Durant scored 29 points in Game 5 to lead the Warriors, but Houston took a 3-2 series lead with a 98-94 win.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander stock is on the rise; just how high will he climb?

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USA TODAY

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander stock is on the rise; just how high will he climb?

John Calipari's 2017 recruiting class featured five McDonald's All-Americans and Hamidou Diallo, a former five-star recruit who nearly jumped to the NBA the previous year. It also included a lanky 6-foot-6 point guard named Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. And for the first part of the 2017-18 season, the Toronto native who played his final two high school years in Tennessee, appeared to be a nice fit off the bench for Calipari.

But something flipped. Gilgeous-Alexander was inserted into the starting lineup for good on January 9 and never looked back. He played his best basketball beginning in late February to the end of the season, a span of 10 games against eight NCAA Tournament opponents. In those games Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 19.0 points, 6.3 rebounds and 6.7 assists. He shot 51 percent from the field, 50 percent from deep and 84 percent from the free throw line, and added 1.4 steals in nearly 38 minutes per game for good measure. He was one of the best players in the country, and on a team with five McDonald's All-Americans, he was Calipari's best freshman.

"I knew with how hard I worked that anything was possible," SGA said at last week's NBA Draft Combine in Chicago. "It was just a matter of time before it started clicking and I started to get it rolling."

That stretch included a 17-point, 10-assist double-double against Ole Miss, a 29-point showing against Tennessee in the SEC Tournament, and 27 more points in the second round of the NCAA Tournament against Buffalo. Even in his worst game of the stretch, a 15-point effort against Kansas State in the Tournament, he made up for 2 of 10 shooting by getting to the free throw line 12, converting 11 of them.

It made his decision to make the jump to the NBA an easy one - that, and another loaded Calipari recruiting class incoming. He stands taller than just about any other point guard in the class and might have as good a jump shot as any. He's adept at getting to the rim, averaging 4.7 free throw attempts per game (that number jumped to 5.6 after he became a starter, and 7.5 in those final 10 games of the season. He isn't the quickest guard in the class, but he uses his feet well, is able to find open shooters due to his height and improved on making mistakes on drive-and-kicks as the season went on.

"I think I translate really well to the next level with there being so much more space on the floor and the open court stretched out," he said. "It only benefits me and my ability to get in the lane and make plays."

There's something to be said for him being the next in line of the Calipari point guards. The ever-growing list includes players like Derrick Rose, John Wall, Tyreke Evans, Eric Bledsoe, Jamal Murray and DeAaron Fox. It's the NBA's version of Penn State linebackers or Alabama defensive linemen. The success rate is nearly 100 percent when it comes to Calipari's freshmen point guards; even Brandon Knight averaged 18.1 points over a three-year span in the NBA.

"That’s why guys go to Kentucky," Gilgeous-Alexander said. "It prepares them for the next level. Coach (Calipari) does a really good job, especially with point guards, getting them ready for that next level in a short amount of time."

Gilgeous-Alexander didn't test or play in the 5-on-5 scrimmages, but he still came out of Chicago a winner. He measured 6-foot-6 in shoes with a ridiculous 6-foot-11 1/2 wingspan, a full three inches longer than any other point guard at the Combine. He also added, rather uniquely, that he watches of film Kawhi Leonard playing defense. Most players don't mention watching film on different-position players; most players aren't 6-foot-6 point guards.

"(It's) obviously a more versatile league and playing small ball. And with me being able to guard multiple positions, a lot of teams are switching things like the pick and roll off ball screens, so me being able to switch and guard multiple positions can help an organization."

Gilgeous-Alexander's arrow is pointing way up. He appears to be teetering near Lottery pick status, though that could go one way or the other in private team workouts, especially if he's pitted against fellow top point guards like Trae Young and Collin Sexton. But if his rise at Kentucky is any indication, he'll only continue to improve his game, his stock and eventually his draft position.