Hawks’ Kent Bazemore close to returning from bruised right knee

ATLANTA — The slumping Atlanta Hawks are hopeful of getting back at least one of their injured players.

Barring a setback, guard Kent Bazemore should be able to play Wednesday when the Hawks begin a road trip at Philadelphia.

Bazemore missed his fifth straight game Tuesday night with a bruised right knee.

In another promising development for a short-handed team that had lost seven in a row, key bench player Thabo Sefolosha will accompany the Hawks on their road trip, indicating that he’s close to returning from a strained right groin that has kept him out for two games.

The Hawks will have to go longer without All-Star forward Paul Millsap, who has missed six games with an ailing left knee. He had been ruled out at least through Saturday’s contest at Chicago after undergoing a non-surgical procedure to deal with his injury.

Cavaliers frustrated with lack of defensive effort, toughness

DENVER — Following a 126-113 drubbing at the hands of the Nuggets on Wednesday, Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James called out his team’s toughness with just a dozen regular-season games remaining before the Cavs begin their title defense.

“It ain’t about a group. It’s about individuals,” James said after Cleveland allowed Denver to put up 73 points in the first half, score a whopping 70 points in the paint in the game and shoot 53.1 percent from the field and 42.3 percent from 3. “We’ve got to be more, just do more. It ain’t about no group. You can’t preach toughness. You’ve got to have it.”

James was asked how his individual defensive effort stacked up on a night when he registered a plus-minus of minus-30 in 34 minutes.

“Personally? I had opportunities where I could have been better,” James said before firing back with a rebuttal. “Um, one thing about it: I always bring toughness to the game. I know that. That’s for sure.”

What is also a sure thing is how dire the Cavs’ repeat chances will become if Cleveland continues its porous defense. The Cavs rank 22nd in the NBA in defensive efficiency this season and 29th in March, according to ESPN Stats & Information. No NBA champion in the past 20 seasons finished the regular season ranked worse than 19th in that category (the 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers, another repeat champion). Last season, the Cavs finished 10th in defensive efficiency.

Cleveland guard Kyrie Irving had no interest in reflecting on where the Cavs were at this point last season — holding a 50-20 record and dealing with the fallout of James’ bizarre social media habits after he unfollowed the Cavs’ team account on Twitter — compared to where they currently stand, at 46-24 and having lost six of their past 10 games.

“There’s no comparison, man,” Irving said. “Last year compared to this year, you can’t even [compare]. It wouldn’t be fair. It wouldn’t be fair because you see how we go on [comparing] the record, what’s our record at this particular date, and honestly, none of that s— matters. We’re trying to go into the playoffs as healthy as possible. Everybody is getting back. It’s been a very, very weird season for all of us. Injuries here and there. Things to figure out. New player trades and stuff like that.

“We’ll figure it out. I’m not concerned, though. These guys, our culture that is built here now over the last three years has been very great and something that we can all lean on to. We just got to stay more connected and just be there for one another, and we’ll be all right.”

Cavs coach Tyronn Lue was less optimistic. He has seen his team’s defensive efficiency get worse every month this season. The Cavaliers allowed 104 points per 100 possessions in October and November (15th in the NBA), 106.2 in December (14th), 107.0 in January (14th), 109.8 in February (23rd) and 114 this month.

Cleveland’s defense has been particularly reprehensible when it comes to forcing turnovers (only 9.5 per game in March, worst in the NBA), guarding the 3-point line (their 10.3 3-pointers allowed per game this season are 26th in the league) and protecting the paint (their 47.3 points given up in the key per game in March are also 26th).

“They came and just kicked our butt in every facet of the game,” Lue said. “Coaches, we got to be better, but players, they got to be better too. They got to be tougher. Got to [have] more urgency, and it comes from all of us. They got 3-point shots, they got points in the paint, they got offensive rebounds. They got, I mean, whatever they wanted. And we got to be better than that. It starts with the coaches, but the players got to look at themselves in the mirror too. They got to be more physical, they got to bring a physical presence, and they’ve got to take pride in guarding their man.”

Lue’s frustration in the game boiled over, as he was called for a rare technical foul late in the third quarter for getting on referee Zach Zarba for what he believed was incessant physical play by Denver’s Jameer Nelson.

“A team’s up 40 points and they’re just playing physical and hard,” Lue said of the Nuggets, whose largest lead was actually 21 points. “We’re down 40, and we got guys just walking away and doing whatever. So we got to take pride in that, and we got to be better.”

Cavs center Tristan Thompson took the critiques of his coach personally.

“When it comes to toughness, that’s an area that I’m definitely going to look at and take very seriously,” Thompson said. “Because at the end of the day, I’m the man in the middle, so I got to make sure I bring that toughness, and if it’s being questioned, I got to pick that s— up.”

Cleveland now holds just a one-game lead over the Boston Celtics for first place in the Eastern Conference.

“I think seeding is always something you pay attention to, but we need to focus on ourselves,” Kevin Love said. “It’s not like we were out there tonight thinking, ‘If we lose this game, Boston …’ We were thinking about getting better, and we didn’t do that tonight.”

Isaiah Thomas (knee) back in starting lineup for game vs. Wizards

BOSTON — Boston Celtics All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas is back in the starting lineup for Monday’s clash with the Washington Wizards after missing the past two games with a right knee bone bruise.

“[Thomas is] feeling a lot better,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. “I think all the treatment over the weekend, which he had a ton of, was all positive and so he’s good to go.”

The Thomas-less Celtics went 1-1 on their brief two-game road trip, struggling to put Brooklyn away on Friday night and then watching the Philadelphia 76ers rally from a double-digit second-half deficit on Sunday.

“I’m all right. I won’t be 100 [percent], but I’m good enough,” said Thomas. “I worked out a little bit [Sunday]. I didn’t feel that much pain, but I’ll be good. If I’m able to play, it’s because I’m able to somewhat be myself. I’m not going to play if I’m going to hurt the team.

“I can’t sit this one out. I know what’s at stake, I know it’s a big game for us. I did a lot of treatment in order to be able to play tonight. I was making sure I was in that training room and getting right.”

Stevens said he did not expect Thomas to be on any sort of a minutes restriction. Thomas engaged in the team’s light pregame walk-through and Stevens noted, “I have no idea how that translates to playing in a stance or running up and down the floor. But I’ve been told he’s fine.”

The Celtics are 2-4 in the games that Thomas has missed this season and average 100.8 points per game while shooting 42.9 percent when he’s not available. Boston is 42-22 with Thomas in the lineup and averages 108 points on 45.5 percent shooting.

Boston is 21-7 when it has its preferred starting five of Thomas, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Al Horford, and Amir Johnson together. That five will start Monday’s game.

The Celtics entered Monday’s tilt with a 1.5-game lead on the Wizards in the race for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. Stevens isn’t worried about jockeying for position as much as he is having his full team together.

“I think it’s about playing good basketball,” said Stevens. “That stuff sorts itself out. Obviously, you want to be as good of a seed as you can. I think that there’s no question about that. But, again, I’d like to have some healthy games here to play some good basketball and see if we can figure ourselves out as we head into the next month-plus.”

Kevin Love, since February 14 knee surgery, started Thursday as a knight

CLEVELAND — Kevin Love will make an earlier-than-expected return to the Cavaliers.

The All-Star forward will start Thursday night against the Utah Jazz, with the team making the announcement a day after general manager David Griffin had said Love likely would be back on the Cavs’ upcoming four-game road trip.

On Feb. 14, Love underwent arthroscopic surgery to have a loose body removed from his left knee. He was expected to miss six weeks.

“The medical staff just said he was great,” coach Tyronn Lue said Thursday of Love’s quick recovery. “He felt great after the few practices that we had and the couple 3-on-3s that they had. So they said he was ready to go tonight, and that’s a good sign for us, and hopefully he’ll continue to stay this way, stay healthy.”

Love will be on an undisclosed minutes restriction, according to Lue. He also likely will be held out of both ends of back-to-backs for the time being, the coach said.

Cleveland plays the Clippers on Saturday and the Lakers on Sunday.

Cleveland went just 7-6 in the 13 games Love missed. Lue said his contributions — 20 points, 11.1 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game — will be welcome. And not just the stats, but the manner by which Love goes about getting them.

“Well, his defensive rebounding for one,” Lue said of what Love will bring to the Cavs, who were outrebounded 12.0 to 7.2 offensively per game while he was sidelined. “The second thing is, just when we get those leads and we’re getting jump-shot happy, we’re able to throw the ball into the post and slow the game down. Either he’s going to score or get to the free throw line. That’s what was good for us before.

“When LeBron [James] goes out of the game, him and Kyrie [Irving] are kind of working that two-man game. That’s what we missed the most, just slowing the game down, posting the basketball and either him scoring or getting to the free throw line.”

Kyle Korver, meanwhile, will miss his fifth straight game Thursday due to a sore left foot. Lue said the veteran shooter is expected back on the court early in the upcoming road trip, which begins Saturday in L.A.

Kawhi Leonard returns to the Spurs; LaMarcus Aldridge is uncertain

SAN ANTONIO — Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard made his return Monday, as the team hosted the Atlanta Hawks at the AT&T Center, after spending four days going through the NBA’s concussion protocol.

The outlook for power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, however, remains uncertain after he underwent a battery of medical tests Monday, after experiencing an episode of minor heart arrhythmia over the weekend.

“We’re just gonna wait until he comes back and assess everything,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said regarding Aldridge. “I think he’ll be back either tomorrow morning or tonight — I don’t know which.”

In other injury news, point guards Tony Parker (back) and Dejounte Murray (groin) remained out.

Despite the uncertainty regarding Aldridge’s immediate future, the Spurs received some positive news in Leonard’s quick procession through the league’s concussion protocol. Leonard attended the team’s shootaround Monday morning at the Spurs’ practice facility. The forward emerged from the locker room for pregame warm-ups just minutes before Popovich held his pregame news conference.

Leonard and Aldridge sat out of San Antonio’s pivotal win Saturday over the Golden State Warriors.

Leonard suffered the injury Thursday in the Spurs’ loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Leonard suffered a blow to the left side of his head by Victor Oladipo as the Thunder guard flailed his arms after losing the ball on a drive to the basket.

Leonard connected on a pair of free throws at the 2:29 mark of the third quarter in that game before walking off the court to the locker room with a trainer, only to never return to the floor. The club originally anticipated that Leonard would not go into the NBA’s concussion protocol but changed course after performing additional evaluations.

Leonard’s injury came during a contest that a few Spurs described as “chippy” due to the physicality between the teams.

As for Aldridge, the power forward wasn’t at the team’s facility during morning shootaround or at the AT&T Center for Monday’s game, as he was completing a series of medical tests.

Popovich said Saturday that Aldridge complained of “feeling odd” after Thursday’s loss at Oklahoma City.

“We just don’t know the extent of LaMarcus’s health and situation,” Spurs center Pau Gasol said Monday morning. “I guess we’ll take it one game at a time, and we’ll all just try to adjust from there. Hopefully, he’ll be back with us soon and at full strength and full health, which is the most important.”

As a rookie in 2007, the 6-foot-11, 260-pound Aldridge received a diagnosis of Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, which is an abnormality of the heart’s electrical system that can cause an abnormal heartbeat and dizziness.

Aldridge sat out the final nine games of that season with the Portland Trail Blazers after undergoing a minor procedure to correct the issue. Aldridge experienced a recurrence of the condition at the start of the 2011-12 season after it was discovered during a preseason checkup with a cardiologist — which he has had every year since he was diagnosed with WPW — and underwent a radiofrequency catheter ablation. That’s the same treatment Aldridge received in 2007 after he was diagnosed with WPW.

Still, Aldridge was able to return to action just 10 days later for a preseason outing against the Utah Jazz.

“He’s a great player,” Spurs reserve David Lee said. “He’s one of our cornerstones right now, a guy that gets a lot of isos in the post and can do a lot of things for us and demand double-teams and things like that. So we’re definitely going to have to do it by committee. But I think that it’s something that we’re gonna be capable of doing. It’s gonna take every one of our big stepping up and Coach being a little creative with the rotations.”

LeBron James is ready to play in the last official season of the palace

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — LeBron James will play his last regular-season game in the arena where he first truly realized his potential for greatness when the Detroit Pistons host the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday.

Ten years ago James, just 22 years old, scored 48 points against the Pistons in Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference finals at the Palace of Auburn Hills. The win, which included James scoring his team’s final 25 points and 29 of its final 30 in the 109-107 overtime victory, helped the Cavs upset the Pistons in six games after Detroit started the series up 2-0.

The Palace, located approximately 35 miles northwest of downtown Detroit, will no longer be home for the Pistons after this season. They will move into Little Caesars Arena in Detroit beginning with the start of the 2017-18 season.

“I’ve had a lot of memories obviously,” said James, who has averaged 23.2 points, 6.6 rebounds and 7.1 assists in 25 regular-season games at the Palace, going 14-11. “It’s been fun to play here in this building and see the history. This went up in ’89 I believe. I’ve had a lot of games here, a lot of battles with a lot of great teams and the fans have always been pretty great. That will continue to happen when they move downtown, too.”

The Palace actually opened its doors in August 1988 and was the Pistons’ home for their three championship seasons in 1989, 1990 and 2004.

Detroit had championship aspirations in 2007 as the No. 1 seed in the East as well until James’ No. 2-seeded Cavs took the Pistons out thanks in large part to James’ brilliance in Game 5.

“I haven’t ranked games yet for me because I’m still going and still playing,” James said when asked to put that performance up against others in his career. “When I played that particular game that night, I was exhausted. I had nothing left after that game. I left everything out on the floor and we was able to close that series out back at home in Game 6. I haven’t had time to rank what I’ve done so far.” Cavs assistant coach Larry Drew, who was coaching the Atlanta Hawks back in 2007, had no problem ranking that game by James among the most notable showings in league history.

“I thought that was a phenomenal performance by an individual,” Drew said. “You can look at guys throughout our league, the 81 that Kobe (Bryant) scored, you have to put that in that same mode of guys that have the ability to do those type things. You don’t forget, you don’t forget ‘em. I’ve had the opportunity to be around Kobe and coach ‘Bron and a lot of these other great guys, Magic (Johnson); I was with Michael (Jordan). You always remember those type situations when guys do have those type of performances.”

While James is ranked eighth on the all-time scoring list, he’s always defined his play by more than just putting the ball in the bucket, which makes that game against the Pistons stand out even more.

“I’ve been in some good zones before, I’ve put up some big numbers,” said James who added that he has the jersey and sneakers he wore that night against Detroit as keepsakes. “But the one thing I’ve always kept on my mind is what the main goal is and that’s to win. I’m not a high volume guy. I’m not just casting up shots and hopefully see things go in or try to get in a rhythm. I’ve always understood scoring time and things of that nature and what’s going on in the game and keeping the main focus, and that’s to win.

The Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony sat on the magic due to pain on the left knee

New York Knicks star Carmelo Anthony will sit out of Monday’s game against the Orlando Magic because of left knee soreness, the team announced.

It’s unclear when the soreness first surfaced, but the Knicks are playing the second game of a back-to-back on Monday, so Anthony’s absence could also be related to a desire to rest and recover.

Anthony, 32, has started 62 of the Knicks’ 63 games this season, averaging 23 points and six rebounds per game.

The club entered play Monday 5½ games behind the Detroit Pistons, who occupy the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference standings. The team remains committed to pursuing a playoff spot, despite the long odds.

Pistons of Andre Drummond launched the pelican’s Tim Fraser

NEW ORLEANS — Andre Drummond was ejected from the Detroit Pistons’ 109-86 loss to the Pelicans on Wednesday night for shoving New Orleans’ Tim Frazier in the back of the head after the whistle.

Frazier, a 6-foot-1 point guard, ripped away a defensive rebound from the 6-foot-11 Drummond underneath the Pelicans’ basket with 1:23 to play in the third quarter. Drummond then grabbed Frazier’s left arm and tried to wrap him up around the waist, leading to a personal foul call.

As they jostled for position, Frazier tried to forcefully break away, and Drummond responded by shoving Frazier in the back of the guard’s head with his right arm. Players from both teams had to separate Drummond from Frazier and Pelicans star Anthony Davis.

After an official replay, Drummond was assessed a flagrant foul 2 and automatically ejected.

“We lost the game,” Drummond said. “One thing led to another, I was in the locker room. They won the game. Simple as that.”

Drummond finished the game with 13 points and 17 rebounds — 10 of which came on the offensive glass.

“We lose our composure last night and get a technical that [almost] cost us the game, and then tonight he loses his composure,” Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said, referring to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s technical with 10.8 seconds left in the Pistons’ 120-113 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers. “Yeah, it’s ridiculous.”

Frazier made one of his two allotted free throws and scored twice more from the field before the end of the quarter for his only points of the game.

“I’m not going to back down from anybody,” Frazier said. “That’s how I was raised, and I had to fight for a lot of where I am to be successful. So I’m not going to back down from anybody. I let the refs handle it. They were able to get it on film to see what happened. Then [I] moved on from it. ”

The Pistons, at 29-32, are a game ahead of the Miami Heat for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference.

New Orleans, at 24-27, is four games back of eighth place in the West.

“He’s a little hothead,” Davis said of Frazier, “so you have to make sure that we don’t lose him. Because he comes in and plays well for us, off that bench running that second unit. We’re definitely going to need him.”