Posted Date: April 23, 2014

Through Nene’s strength and versatility, Wizards take commanding lead on Bulls

2014 NBA playoffs, Chicago Bulls, Nene, Rob Mahoney, Washington Wizards
Nene helps Washington work the angles against a vaunted Chicago defense. (Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

Nene helps Washington work the angles against a vaunted Chicago defense. (Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

When desperation tolled on Tuesday night — first at the end of regulation and then at the end of overtime — the Wizards turned to Nene. In neither case was the final shot his to take. For the former, Nene was employed as a crucial screener and potential bail-out option for Bradley Beal. In the latter, his post position and passing were used as instruments of creation. Neither sequence ended in a score, which at a time as basketball-dense as the first round of the NBA playoffs currently is,  might be the functional equivalent of it never happening at all.

Those plays (and Nene’s hand in them) will undoubtedly be lost, drowned out in the greater triumph of Washington’s 2-0 push ahead of Chicago in this first-round series. Yet the possessions in question were telling in the way that all late-game decisions tend to be, especially those of a coach and team making their introduction to the postseason. With Game 2 riding on a single play, Wizards coach Randy Wittman trusted in Nene’s ability to pry Beal free of his defender and make himself available. Then, when given another chance, Wittman made Nene his play’s operational center — the point around which all action would revolve, including the curl up the middle of the floor that would give Beal a second chance to end the night.

RELATED: 2014 NBA playoffs schedule and results

Nene won’t touch the ball on Washington’s every trip down the floor, nor should he when John Wall’s driving ability is so clearly vital. But when faced with an opponent like the Bulls — one that squelches the rhythms of opposing offenses with precision and ferocity — Nene becomes utterly essential. Chicago systematically encourages opponents to settle in all of their usual play progressions. It’s amazing how often the Bulls can force their opponents to make one more pass than is entirely comfortable; even when the crowded superstar makes the right play in swinging the ball to an open teammate, Chicago rotates quickly to then apply pressure to a player slightly less accustomed to it.

Through Nene, Washington’s offense has the ability to mitigate that programmed denial. He’s a masterful facilitator — not as renowned for his passing as Joakim Noah, but no less capable of re-routing a possession in progress. Rather than roll toward the rim and into the teeth of the defense, Nene pops out to mid-range to give the Wizards a pressure release. He operates from the low post to attack the Bulls from within, bullying Noah inside and carefully navigating Chicago’s grip on interior space. Nene works the elbow, too, to orchestrate a series of incisive cuts — the kind of action that gives the Bulls little time to react and few options in help.

RELATED: Ranking each first-round series by watchability

Chicago knows just what kinds of shots to take away from its opponents and generally succeeds in its efforts to do so. Attacking that kind of defense with blunt driving and idling sets would get the Wizards nowhere. Yet with Nene so useful in so many functions, Washington’s offense can reorient itself to work around particular obstructions. Already we’ve seen Noah forced to play Nene a bit tighter on the perimeter, having surrendered a few too many open jumpers to a player making 57 percent of his mid-range shots for the series. That in itself is a big shift for a Bulls team that relies on Noah to protect against most any other threat. He can still make most necessary recoveries, but Noah is at times pulled a full step further from the action than Chicago generally likes. Such deviation comes with a cost.

This might all seem a bit abstract in describing a player who has blasted one of the best defenses in basketball for an ultra-efficient 20.5 points a night, but it’s important to understand the power Nene draws from finesse. This is a man strong enough to back down the Defensive Player of the Year without issue. Nene is massive — listed at 6-11 and stretched into broad shoulders built out with obvious strength. He damn near tears down the rim on his every dunk attempt. Yet the reason why he’s proven so potent against these Bulls is that he is wholly at ease doing just about anything. No space or action intimidates him. A catch on the block, on the wing, at the elbow, or at the top of the floor is met with the same measured response: Nene scans for openings and either makes his play or moves along. There is no anxiety in the game of a big man this capable.

Washington stands victorious after two games on that fact, its offense smoothed by Nene’s calm pliability. Nothing at all comes easy against a defense like Chicago’s, but in working through and around a talent like Nene Washington’s work turns markedly easier.

More SI.com NBA playoff coverage

2013-14 NBA playoff schedule: Dates, times, TV
NBA playoff predictions: SI experts give series-by-series picks
MAHONEY: Why your team will (or won’t) win the title
GOLLIVER: Five storylines to watch in 2014 playoffs
MAHONEY: Ranking first round series by watchability
GOLLIVER: Grading all 30 NBA teams’ seasons
AWARDS: Durant SI.com’s unanimous MVP winner
DOLLINGERRanking playoff teams 1-16 in Power Rankings

Posted Date: April 23, 2014

Pacers’ Frank Vogel reportedly ‘coaching for his job’ after recent struggles

Atlanta Hawks, Frank Vogel, Indiana Pacers
Frank Vogel

Frank Vogel is reportedly on the hot seat due to the Pacers’ end-of-season struggles. (Ron Hoskins/NBAE/Getty Images)

The top-seeded Pacers grabbed a series-tying victory with a lopsided win over the Hawks in Game 2 on Tuesday, but according to a new report, that showing did virtually nothing to quell the doubts surrounding the future of head coach Frank Vogel.

Marc Stein of ESPN.com brings news that Vogel might have his back against the wall with regard to his employment:

Sources close to the situation told ESPN.com that Vogel, despite a 56-win season that secured the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, is “coaching for his job” in the wake of a prolonged slide that has stretched into its third month.

After Indiana’s 101-85 triumph over Atlanta in Game 2 of the teams’ first-round playoff series, sources told ESPN.com that coming back to win the series against the Hawks would not automatically ensure Vogel’s safety. After a 40-11 start, the Pacers went just 16-15 the rest of the way before a humbling loss in the series opener to the eighth-seeded Hawks.

Continue Reading

Posted Date: April 23, 2014

Did Goran Dragic deserve to win Most Improved Player? History suggests …

Goran Dragic, Most Improved Player, Paul George, Phoenix Suns
Goran Dragic; Paul George

Goran Dragic won 2014 Most Improved Player award after Paul George (left) claimed it last year. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The purpose of the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award is to recognize a player who has made “a significant improvement from the previous season.” At least, that was the language used in Wednesday’s official press release announcing Suns guard Goran Dragic as the 2013-14 recipient.

Dragic won handily, just as Paul George did in 2012-13. The Pacers’ forward posted sizable increases in virtually every major statistical category last season while leading Indiana to 49 wins, the team’s most since 2003-04, and a third-place finish in the Eastern Conference. George was such a convincing winner that he earned four times as many first-place votes as runner-up Greivis Vasquez.

The voting isn’t always as clear-cut, though. Sometimes there are a number of candidates with a viable claim to the honor. And further complicating matters is the lack of clear criteria to win the award.

Continue Reading

Posted Date: April 23, 2014

Suns’ Goran Dragic wins NBA’s Most Improved Player Award

Goran Dragic, Most Improved Player, Phoenix Suns
Goran Dragic

Goran Dragic averaged a career-high 20.3 points per game in 2013-14. (Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty Images)

Suns guard Goran Dragic was named the 2013-14 Most Improved Player on Wednesday after leading Phoenix to the NBA’s biggest turnaround this season.

Dragic, 27, powered the Suns to a 23-win improvement (48-34), averaging a career-best 20.3 points to go with 5.9 assists and 3.2 rebounds. Known for his fearlessness when driving to the rim and his sharpshooting, Dragic took his games to new heights in his sixth season. He averaged almost seven more points per game than the year before and shot career bests from the field (50.5 percent) and three-point range (40.8), becoming the first guard since 1992-93 to reach those percentages while averaging 20 points. His Player Efficiency Rating (21.4) topped 20 for the first time and he established himself as one of the best point guards in the league, ranking in the top 20 overall in points, assists, PER and true shooting percentage.

Continue Reading

Posted Date: April 23, 2014

Phil Jackson and James Dolan reportedly already clashing over Knicks decisions

James Dolan, New York Knicks, Phil Jackson
James Dolan; Phil Jackson

Doesn’t this seem like years ago? It was actually last month. (James Devaney/Getty Images)

Just a few short weeks after joining forces in New York, there is already a report that suggests Knicks president Phil Jackson and owner James Dolan are having a bit of a tough time. The rumored tension centers around a New York Daily News report that Dolan is having trouble ceding his decision-making power.

Continue Reading