Friday January 25th, 2008

Also in this column: • Point guards on the market • The Knicks' latest PR blunder • A cloud on Blazers' horizon • Solving the Hornets, Sonics troubles

5. The drive home. We were the last table of customers to come out of the fine Italian restaurant Prezza in the North End of Boston. Five of us.

"We have to get you a taxi, too," said Maurizio Gherardini, the VP and assistant GM of the Toronto Raptors.

"No, that's OK," I said. "Tonight I drove."

"Good," said Gherardini. "Then you can give us a ride to the hotel."

"But it's a small car."

"That's OK," said Gherardini, an Italian. "We'll squeeze."

When the valet brought up my old gray Volvo S-40, it looked no bigger than one of those toy cars the NBA mascots drive around the court during the timeouts. Gherardini, his friend Dennis Ozer, and Chuck Swirsky, the esteemed TV announcer of the Raptors, arranged themselves into the back like layers of prosciutto freeze-wrapped in plastic.

But I wasn't so much worried for them as for my guest in the front seat. He was 7-feet tall with legs like a giraffe's neck. Andrea Bargnani folded himself into the front seat little by little, bending his knees up high beneath his chin with his long arms folded into the steep canyon of his lap. As we drove across Boston I glanced about for signs of impending, acute claustrophobia.

"We're OK back here," said Swirsky, who was contorted not unlike Robert Shaw in his final scene in Jaws.

But it was Bargnani who troubled me. He had been in a slump in recent weeks: off his balance during the games, shooting from the wrong foot and questioning everything he tried to do. For half of the dinner he had conversed in his native Italian with Gherardini, who encouraged him in all kinds of friendly gesturing ways to play with confidence. Now he was stuffed into my car in a way that gave new meaning to the term "death seat."

"I know how this is going to go," I announced to my passengers while glancing at Bargnani's knees mounted grotesquely against the dashboard. "I'm going to show up to your game tomorrow night and Sam [Mitchell, coach of the Raptors] is going to let me have it. Andrea is going to miss the game with mysterious knee injuries. Sam is going to ask what happened, and he's going to say, 'I don't know. When I got into the car they were OK, but then ...'"

4. Confronting Mitchell. I showed up to the game the following night and fortunately there was no injury report on Bargnani. He was going to play.

This should not imply that I approached Mitchell without caution. He is among the most entertaining and articulate people in the league, as well as the reigning coach of the year. But the key with him is to get through the first five minutes of the interview while his eyes roll and he makes fun of the questions he's grown tired of hearing. It's entertaining in a heckling way for everybody except the person who asked the question.

"Whenever y'all ready!" was how Mitchell, arms folded and leaning against the hallway wall, began his pregame meeting Wednesday with the press.

Somebody asked if this was a big game for the Raptors in order to avoid a four-game season sweep by the Celtics.

"No," Mitchell answered. "This is the next game on our schedule. I don't even know how to answer the question."

It's hard to beat somebody four times, the reporter insisted.

"Yeah, it is," Mitchell said. "But we're not looking at that. What, we're going to try harder because it's the fourth time? I think our team tries hard every night."

I truncate his answers to provide the gist. Somebody asked if having two days to practice had helped prepare the Raptors.

"We're trying to work on things that we need to get better at. So we're going to take two days, not worry about us and put all our energy into playing Boston? And then what are we going to do? What are we going to do with the other 40-something games? We had two days of practice, we focused on Boston, and if you happen to win the game is the season over?"

Someone else tried to change the subject by bringing up the good play of Carlos Delfino.

"You pick one player and act like one player has helped us to get to where we are."

But weren't the Raptors surprised by how well Delfino has been playing?

"I don't think we would have traded for him if we didn't think he could play."

Then came a question about T.J. Ford's continuing rehab. What kind of work was he doing in Houston?

"Guys, he's doing a lot of things. He's doing ... there's not enough time for me to sit down and talk about all the things that T.J. Ford is doing down in Houston.

"Basketball things. I would think he's doing a little running. I would think he's doing some shooting. Some ball-handling. Things of that nature. The things that you have to do to play basketball. I don't think he's rock climbing. I don't think he's down swimming off the coast of Galveston. I don't think he's doing anything like that. I think he's doing basketball things."

It was quiet. Mitchell said, "Is there anybody going to ask me something good?"

"Everybody's scared," I told him.

"Good," said Mitchell with the slightest grin. "Good."

3. Cajoling young players. Emboldened by the knowledge that Bargnani was able to walk again, I asked Mitchell about the slump of the No. 1 pick of last year's draft.

"I tell my players this all the time," Mitchell said. "If you want me to judge you on making shots, then you will play as you make shots. But if you want to have an opportunity to remain on the court on the night that you're not making shots -- by rebounding, [playing] defense, help defense, moving without the basketball, being active, getting deflections -- if you want me to judge you on those things which are going to keep you on the court longer, (as opposed to) if you're making shots ... which one do you want? Because you're not going to make shots every night. Does that mean you don't want to play that night? So that's the thing we tell Andrea.

"Everybody's worrying about Andrea. I'm not worried about Andrea. Because I understood a long time ago that Andrea is a young player and that Andrea has added to his game. Now you can't continue to do the same thing in the NBA because people are going to start taking things away from you, so your game has to evolve. And is it painful sometimes? Yes. But what's wrong with a young player going through some struggles? Isn't that what we do in life? Doesn't it build character? Doesn't it make you better when you come out on the other end? Don't it build toughness -- mental toughness -- and don't it make you appreciate everything? Andrea's working harder than he's ever worked before. So those are all the things you want him to learn. And I'm fine with that because his attitude's been great, his work ethic has been great. Him accepting what we're trying to teach him and working on it and bringing it to the practices and to the games has been great. So I look at those four things and I see all positive things. He's got talent, he wants to be great but it takes time. So my whole thing with Andrea is as long as he's in the right frame of mind and continues to get better, he'll make shots eventually."

I had the impression that Mitchell was taking a different approach with 22-year-old Bargnani than he had with Jose Calderon, the Spanish point guard who two seasons ago was a 24-year-old rookie with Toronto.

"Did you see Jose in his first year?" said Mitchell. "A lot of people in this league didn't think Jose could play in the NBA his first year. After that season I had a lot of guys -- in the media -- say he can't play, he's not that good. Now look at him. He went through some struggles. Look at the results. So what's wrong with that? Haven't you been through some struggles in your life?"

"No," I said. "Never."

"Well, I don't believe that," said Mitchell, looking away. "I'm pleased with Jose. I have the utmost respect for Jose. He's worked, and I was tough on Jose. Ask Jose what was his name his rookie year. It wasn't 'Jose Calderon.' I'll let him tell you."

2. The surprising result. Calderon has been averaging an impressive 12.1 points and 8.5 assists with an assist-turnover ratio of 5.4-1 this season while taking on more minutes in the absence of Ford. On Wednesday he played like an All-Star, piercing the Celtics' league-leading defense for 13 assists and 24 points on just 10 shots. Even more impressive was his effect on teammates, and especially Bargnani, who was 7-of-14 from the floor for 20 points with 7 assists and 7 rebounds. He was doing all of the other things Mitchell encouraged him to do.

The Raptors were 15-of-21 from the three-point line, shot 58 percent overall and had four players with 20 points or more to upset the Celtics 114-112.

Afterwards I asked Calderon what Mitchell used to called him.

"I cannot say that for the media," he said in his thick Spanish accent. "It was 'beeeeep rook.'" He made a long beeping noise to emphasize the abundance of syllables.

"In the beginning it was tough, because, you know, we didn't win many games," Calderon said. "He didn't let me practice sometimes. It was hard. But right now I am here because of him too. It was tough on me, but look, everything worked out. I feel really comfortable with him and with my teammates, so it's OK."

So Mitchell made you stronger?

"For sure, for sure," said Calderon. "I'm a better player because I have to wake up every day and work hard just to try to make it so he doesn't call me nothing."

1. A moral for Bargnani. When he was done with his other interviews, I approached Bargnani in the locker room. "I have a theory," I began. "The reason I think you played so well tonight is because ..."

"Because of the Italian food?" he said.

"Yes, because of the food," I said. "But then afterwards you were cramped into a tiny little space for an extended period of time, and when you stood up out of my car your body was relaxed in an entirely new way."

"I don't know," he said, rubbing his face. "Maybe for the food. But I don't know about the car."

Teams seeking midseason depth in the backcourt can search a variety of sources. Here are four of the top available candidates to provide instant experience at quarterback.

4. Keith McLeod, 6-2, Montepaschi Siena (Italy) ... He's averaging 4.3 points while working his way into the lineup in three Euroleague games since signing in January. The 28 year old has played 200 NBA games, but his shooting has kept him from finding a permanent home since he averaged 3.3 assists and 22 minutes in 119 games for Utah from 2004-06.

3. Randy Livingston, 6-4, Idaho Stampede (NBDL) ... The reigning D-League MVP is 32 and considering retirement after this season, yet he's giving Idaho 40.4 minutes and 11.1 assists per game. Livingston was on the verge of becoming a dominant point guard before suffering a pair of knee injuries at LSU; now he has the presence of a coach on the floor. He dreams of being picked up by the Celtics.

2. Earl Boykins, 5-5 ... Boykins opted out of a contract that would have paid him $3 million this season and priced himself out of the market. He hasn't played this season, but he's a workout addict and a game-changer who scored in double figures in 24 of 35 games last season with Milwaukee, including a pair of 36-point performances.

1. Damon Stoudamire, 5-10, Memphis Grizzlies ... The 34 year old has recovered from knee surgery of two seasons ago to give Memphis 7.3 points and 3.9 assists in 21.5 minutes. He's a big-time shooter who could help any number of contenders, and if he negotiates a buyout could wind up anywhere from Boston to Toronto to Denver.

3. Any of the New York Knicks beat writers ... I assume it was the pursuit of better public relations that concerned the Knicks' security team when they pushed around three beat writers as they tried to interview a heckling fan who had been ejected from a game in New York this week.

So what did the Knicks get from it? Worse public relations.

I assume they were hoping to ultimately improve their PR by having a security guard tail another beat writer earlier this season.

What did they receive? More public ridicule.

It should be obvious to anybody that I bear no ill feeling toward the Knicks, seeing as how I was just about the only writer in the country who imagined they would be good this year. So I think I'm being entirely fair in pointing out that owner James Dolan is moronic when it comes to public relations. Everything the Knicks do in this area starts with his irrational relationships with fellow human beings. The childish tantrums he throws in reaction to incidents beyond his control creates more problems than the original incidents themselves. He is the authority figure who never learns from mistakes, the figure of the evil stooge in a bad comedy.

The relationship between the Knicks and their beat writers is turning into a farce of All The President's Men. Dear Jim: The harder you try to beat them at their own game, the more the beat writers are going to win. And P.S. Everybody is rooting for them against you. Everybody.

2. Kobe Bryant ... He's the NBA's equivalent of Jack Bauer. He survives everything, and even his harshest critics have to respect him for never giving up. It is going to be fascinating to see whether he can carry the Lakers over the next two months without Andrew Bynum and Trevor Ariza. If so, look forward to watching him dominate the playoffs.

1. Russell Hodsdon ... You probably don't know Russell, but he's a friend of mine, and the toughest guy I have ever known. He has been fighting the worst kind of cancer for six years and yet each day he shows up to work, keeps his sense of humor and remains in spite of everything one of the most generous people you ever could meet. Yet he's too humble to realize the level of respect and affection his friends have for him. Russell, it is an honor to know you.

2. "You wrote, 'In 2004-05, [Jeff] Bower was the player personnel director whose scouting laid the foundation for New Orleans to use the No. 4 pick on Chris Paul, who at the time wasn't loved by most teams picking high in the lottery.' Are you kidding me? What kind of revisionist history are you selling? There is not a single team out there who would have passed on Chris Paul at No. 4 in that draft. Not one. In everyone's book Chris Paul was in the top four. In most books he was in the top three (ahead of Deron Williams). You can make a case for Bower without rewriting history.'' -- Blake Ashby of Orem, Utah

You are correct in saying that it was a four-player draft. As for the rest of it, I can't begin to understand where you're coming from.

A few days after the draft lottery that year it became known throughout the league that Paul was not a favorite among the teams at the top of the draft. Other teams did love him -- the Celtics' Danny Ainge thought he would be a terrific player, and tried to trade Paul Pierce to Portland so Boston could use the No. 3 pick on Paul. But the teams that held the high picks had their doubts about Paul, which were confirmed as the draft played out. The Hawks had the No. 2 pick and a need at point guard, but they passed on Paul. The Trail Blazers traded down from No. 3 because they preferred Sebastian Telfair as their point guard of the future, and the Jazz used that pick to take Deron Williams instead of Paul.

Of course, the Hornets were going to take Paul at No. 4 -- there was a big drop to the next tier of players. But the teams picking at the top of the lottery -- Milwaukee, Atlanta, Portland and then Utah -- either had relatively little interest, or had a preference for Williams. Had they envisioned Paul becoming the player he is today, they would have drafted him before he reached New Orleans.

Nor should this be seen as an attack on Paul, because players are underrated at the draft every year. In hindsight, the top three of that draft probably should have been Paul, Williams and Bynum, in whatever order.

1. "After praising Portland and LaMarcus Aldridge's improvement this year, you picked the Blazers to miss the playoffs, and finish behind the train wreck that is Houston and a team that the Blazers completely stomped recently (Golden State). Could you explain this somewhat two-faced assessment?'' -- blzr610 of Portland

This is a good one. Two years ago you bandwagon guys in Portland were on the verge of running your team out of town; and now, after two winning months, you're calling other people two-faced?

Look at the standings. The Blazers are two games ahead of Houston, and the Rockets by far are the more experienced team. It's no longshot to imagine them edging out the Blazers in a conference where 47 wins will qualify for the lottery, at current rates.

The Knicks completely stomped the Pistons recently: Does that mean I should be picking the Knicks to be great? Trust me, I tried that once already, and it doesn't fly.

1. Resolving the messes in Seattle and New Orleans. So here's the plan for David Stern: Convince George Shinn to sell his Hornets to Clay Bennett, who in turn sells his Sonics to local ownership in Seattle.

Here's why it works: If Shinn can't draw fans in New Orleans by next season he can escape his lease and move the Hornets. But he probably can't afford the transfer fee of at least $36 million as demanded by the league office.

As for the Sonics, his fellow owners don't want to keep exchanging big markets for small as Bennett proposes to do by moving his team to Oklahoma City. So let him buy the Hornets and move them to Oklahoma City, where he can be happy forever after.

In the meantime, the people who buy the Sonics (Microsoft's Steve Ballmer, for example) would be treated as heroes in Seattle for retaining their NBA team, and they would have a much better chance of working out an arena deal than Bennett.

Here's why it probably won't work: It's far too complicated to make all of these moving parts coincide. Shinn will be an unwilling seller, just as Donald T. Sterling has refused to let go of his Clippers for all of these years. But if it turns out that Shinn can't afford to stay in New Orleans and he can't afford to move again ...

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