Coach of the Year: Gregg Popovich

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

Gregg Popovich once again has the Spurs playing at a high level. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)

Gregg Popovich once again has the Spurs playing at a high level. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)

If you took a poll of their peers and asked them to name, year in and year out, the best coach in the NBA, the same name usually would show up.

Gregg Popovich.

That’s what happens when you spend 18 years establishing roots and a philosophy in a Spurs franchise that produces four NBA titles, 15 consecutive seasons of at least 50 victories and the best record in the Western Conference three of the past four seasons.

“I think for everybody in the league, you hope to get to that point where the established players, Hall of Fame type players, play in a system together for a long time,” said Rockets coach Kevin McHale. “They know each other, know the amount of effort that it takes, know how to get ready for games and how to get ready for series and how to get ready to win championships. All those things come from some time. It’s been a phenomenal run. In my career in the NBA, it’s been the most sustained long run. It’s just amazing that Pop gets them to play the same way every year.”

But especially this year, when the pages on the calendar cry out that Tim Duncan is soon-to-be 38, Manu Ginobili is 36 and Tony Parker is 31. Especially this year when the Spurs have worn the scars of their devastating loss of a fifth championship that was in their grasp until the last 28 seconds of Game 6 of the 2013 Finals. Especially this year when Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Tiago Splitter, Parker and Ginobili all spent stretches of time on the shelf with injuries or assorted aches and pains.

“Even if you have talent in this league, it isn’t as easy as people think,” Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman said. “You have to get guys to come together and get them to buy in and find a way that they can play as a team.”

Popovich, the longest-tenured coach in any professional sport, has won Coach of the Year honors twice before in 2003 and 2012. But the work he’s done this season just might be his finest.

He is the first to tell you that the Spurs keep winning year after year because they have the talent, professionalism and unselfish nature of their Big Three to be committed to common team goals. But they continue to succeed again and again because Popovich has ingrained a system where the ball moves to find the open man and the best shot on offense and the defenders’ feet move to cut off open shots by their opponents.

The cast of supporting characters changes frequently, but what doesn’t is the requirement to stick to the same basic, demanding understanding of how the game is played. He won’t lower his own expectations, but will constantly raise your own.

This season Popovich has coaxed and nurtured the Spurs to 62 wins in the powerful Western Conference, all while carefully managing the minutes of his stars. Not a single player on the roster plays an average of 30 minutes per game. Parker is at 29.6, Duncan and Leonard at 29.2, Ginobili 22.8. Parker is the team’s leading scorer at only 16.7 per game, but the Spurs have nine different players averaging at least 9.1.

The Spurs are strong. They are deep. They are resilient and healthy going into the playoffs and ready again to drill into opponents what has been drilled into them — the sheer simplicity and brutal efficiency of playing one way.

Pop’s way. Which proved to be the best way. Again.

The contenders

Doc Rivers, Clippers — The veteran coach made the cross country hop and immediately changed the culture and the attitude of the franchise. He demanded and got more out of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan and made a good team into a real playoff threat.

Jeff Hornacek, Suns — Getting his first chance as head coach, the last thing Hornacek wanted to hear was lottery talk. He took a disparate group of players and got them to share the ball and make the most of their ability. Nearly winning 50 games in the West is not to be undervalued.

Tom Thibodeau, Bulls — When Derrick Rose went down in the 10th game, he could have cursed the fates. When Luol Deng was given away to Cleveland, he could have thrown up his hands. Instead Thibodeau keeps grinding and now the Bulls are a fearsome matchup for anyone in the playoffs.

Steve Clifford, Bobcats — Another rookie head coach who gave the Bobcats what they’d been lacking for so long — an identity and a plan. He turned the worst defense in the league into one of the best (No. 6), made Al Jefferson the calling card of his offense and lifted Charlotte into the playoffs.

Executive of the Year: Ryan McDonough

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: McDonough answers questions from fans

Architects and general contractors hear all the oohs and aahs. Demolition crews just try to get in and get out, completing their gnarly but necessary work without soiling the carpet.

Phoenix’s Ryan McDonough figured to be one of the latter, doing a lot more tear-down than build-up in his first full year as the Suns’ general manager. Only he axed and crowbarred his way to something pretty impressive, winding up as the choice here at Hang Time HQ as the NBA’s 2013-14 Executive of the Year.

Technically, none of us in the media votes for the EOY — that’s done by executives from the 30 teams. But McDonough would get points from anywhere for helping turn the Suns into one of the league’s happiest stories from start nearly to end. Don’t put too much stock in that flameout in the final week. The Suns nearly doubled last season’s victory total (they won only 25 then) and became only the second team to win 48 and miss the postseason since the NBA went to its 16-team format. Their record would have tied for third in the East.

This is a tale of the Suns rising in the West and the role McDonough played. In this year of (cough) “tanking” — more accurately described as avowed rebuilding — Phoenix was supposed to be bottom and center. McDonough made moves to clear the roster, open up salary-cap space and stockpile draft picks, rounding up a coaching staff fresh and upbeat enough to endure the losing without fraying.

Double their victories? Bah. Las Vegas oddsmakers pegged the Suns’ over/under at 21.5, a swoon from last season.

It didn’t take long for Phoenix to make the experts look silly. They won five of their first seven and were 17-10 by Christmas. They topped last year’s victory total before the end of January and were in sixth place a day after the All-Star break.

How did this all come together? Let us count the ways in which McDonough transformed-not-tanked:

  • He hired Jeff Hornacek as a rookie head coach, getting someone who, true, faced no pressure to win and brought a temperament suited to taking the expected lumps. But the former NBA shooting guard had played for and learned from some of the game’s most-innovative coaches – Jerry Sloan in Utah, John MacLeod and Cotton Fitzsimmons in Phoenix, Doug Moe in Philadelphia — synthesizing a strategy from them. Hornacek didn’t need to hitch himself to a franchise/superstar player, getting plenty of whole from the sum of Suns parts. His players feel ownership in the surprising results, while he hasn’t had to wrangle any massive egos.
  • Trading for Eric Bledsoe, though, was a big-time move, worthy of the most ambitious contender. McDonough liked Bledsoe’s rookie contract, sure, but he also liked the prospect of sticking him alongside Goran Dragic in the backcourt. That gave Phoenix maximum playmaking options and the tandem clicked — the Suns were 23-11 when the two started together.
  • Acquiring Bledsoe brought along veteran forward Caron Butler, who was so leery of suffering through a dreary season that he lobbied for and got a trade to … Milwaukee? Worked out OK for Butler eventually (he ended up in Oklahoma City), worked out better for the Suns, who got back backup guard Ish Smith. Smith has been a valuable and speedy reserve.
  • Let’s not forget the future first-round draft pick McDonough got for veteran Luis Scola, another fellow who preferred a backup role on a good team to a starting job with a projected loser. But wait, there was more: the Pacers also sent Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee to Phoenix. Plumlee has been a helpful big, but Green has been reborn — or sold his soul to ol’ Lucifer. The much-traveled wing with the rarely harnessed skills is a top contender to be voted 2013-14′s Most Improved Player.
  • Gifting center Marcin Gortat to Washington, along with Kendall Marshall, Shannon Brown and Malcolm Lee for injured Wizards big man Emeka Okafor and a future first-rounder. Everyone knew the prognosis for Okafor — out all season with a herniated disc in his neck — so nothing screamed “tank!” more than McDonough swapping healthy for hurt a few days before Opening Night. Washington has been thrilled with Gortat but you’d have to say he’s been valued there more than he’s been missed in Phoenix. Plumlee has plugged in fine and Gortat’s erasure — along with Jared Dudley‘s, a disappointment with the Clippers — has enabled the Suns to play faster.

McDonough didn’t have his fingerprints on all Phoenix improvements. Dragic is getting all-NBA attention, Markieff Morris earned himself a bunch of Sixth Man votes and Channing Frye might be Comeback Player of the Year if the league hadn’t replaced that with the MIP. All preceded McDonough in Phoenix.

But McDonough has served competing masters, positioning Phoenix well with picks and with money to woo free agents. Shouldn’t be long before our Exec of the Year puts down his crowbar and picks up a scalpel to tweak a team well past the tear-down stage.

The contenders:

Daryl Morey, Houston. Landing Dwight Howard, despite the once-glamorous Lakers’ advantages, was a biggie unto itself. But this darling of the analytics crowd has been wheeling and dealing creatively all along. The Rockets are a playoff handful for any opponent, any round, and might be set up best to take a real run at Carmelo Anthony should the Knicks scorer actually consider leaving New York.

Rod Higgins, Charlotte. Hiring Steve Clifford, another COY contender, was a move that smacked of the Bulls tapping Tom Thibodeau in 2010. Signing Al Jefferson proved to be a bigger win-win, dropping Big Al into the Bobcats’ culture to be a leader and an anchor, while eliciting the best performance of his career.

Neil Olshey, Portland. Did you know that Robin Lopez was going to have a breakthrough season? Or that Mo Williams would prove so effective off the bench behind Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews? The biggest benefit of those Olshey moves was calming LaMarcus Aldridge, the All-Star power forward who no longer makes noise about exiting.

Danny Ferry, Atlanta. Letting Josh Smith walk while opting instead for Paul Millsap, at a much better value (two years, $19 million vs. Smith’s four years, $54 million), was a heist for Ferry. So was the easy decision to match Jeff Teague‘s offer sheet from Milwaukee at a reasonable price — four years, $32 million — for a full-service point guard without most of Brandon Jennings‘ (three years, $24 million) flaws. Ferry also hired Mike Budenholzer, Gregg Popovich’s former right-hand man with the Spurs.

Masai Ujiri, Toronto. Sometimes it’s addition by subtraction, moving Rudy Gay to Sacramento to get the bump every team apparently does when unloading the skilled forward. And sometimes it’s the move you don’t make at all: Dwane Casey had one of those “expiring contracts” that don’t have much allure among coaches, and the guy who hired him (Bryan Colangelo) got deleted last summer. But Casey’s defensive bent and calm, mature approach were given enough time to pay off in the Atlantic Division crown.

 

Morning Shootaround — April 17


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played April 16

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Kobe readying for comeback | Irving still weighing Cleveland future | Thompson blasts Griffin’s style of play | Walker credits Clifford for his growth

No. 1: Kobe already gearing up for next comeback– All you need to know about how Kobe Bryant felt about this disaster of a Los Angeles Lakers season could be summed up in his tweet last night:

It should come as no surprise, then, that Bryant is already gearing up for a monster comeback now that he’s been cleared to resume running and shooting drills after recovering from a knee fracture. Ramona Shelbourne of ESPNLosAngeles.com has more on Kobe’s workout plans:

Kobe Bryant has been cleared to resume running and shooting and will begin an intense, six-month training program next week upon his return from a short family trip to Europe, sources with knowledge of the situation told ESPN.

Bryant has been ramping up his activity level in recent weeks as he continues to recover from a fracture in his left knee suffered during the Lakers‘ victory Dec. 17 at Memphis, just six games into his return from a ruptured Achilles.

While he is in Europe, Bryant will visit the clinic in Germany where he had the platelet-rich plasma treatment known as Orthokineon on his knee, according to a source.

The visit to the clinic is a check-up to ensure all is structurally sound with his knee before he resumes intense training.

Bryant has rarely traveled with the team or appeared in public since, preferring to focus on his rehabilitation instead of a team wrapping up the worst season in Lakers history.

***

No. 2: Irving: ‘Exciting’ if Cavs offer max deal — All season long, it seems, Cleveland Cavaliers star guard Kyrie Irving has been dogged by rumors of his desire to leave the team as soon as he possibly can via free agency. Now that the Cavs have wrapped up their season — one in which they fell well short of expectations of a playoff run — the team has some key roster decisions to make, the foremost of which may be signing Irving to a contract extension. For all the rumblings of Irving’s supposed displeasure with the team, though, it sure doesn’t sound like he wants to move on, writes Bob Finnan of The News-Herald & The Morning Journal:

The Cavaliers’ franchise faces several major decisions this summer.

None is bigger than the five-year, $80 million maximum extension the Cavs are expected to offer two-time All-Star Kyrie Irving.

“Obviously, I’m aware I can be extended this summer,” he said after the Cavs’ 114-85 victory over the Brooklyn Nets on April 16 before 19,842 at Quicken Loans Arena.

“It’s a big deal for me if they do offer me that. It will be exciting. I’ll make the best decision for me and my family. That’s what it will boil down to.”

Irving doesn’t sound like someone who wants out.

“I’ve been part of this, and I want to continue to be part of this,” he said. “We’ve made some strides in the right direction, especially as an organization. I want to be part of something special. I don’t have a definitive answer to that right now.”

The offer is expected to come on July 1.

Cavs majority owner Dan Gilbert is attending the Board of Governors meeting April 17-18 in New York.

Brown has four years remaining on his original five-year, $20 million contract.

He said he won’t plead his case with Gilbert.

“I’m thankful to Dan for the opportunity he’s given me,” Brown said. “It’s his team. Whatever decision he makes, I’m going to support.”


VIDEO: Kyrie Irving talks after the Cavs’ season-ending win against the Nets

***

No. 3: Thompson blasts Griffin’s style of play — Who isn’t excited to watch the L.A. Clippers-Golden State Warriors first-round playoff series? Aside from the fact both teams have two of the better offenses and defenses in the league, there’s the added drama of them not liking each other in the mix as well. That latter point apparently is getting racheted up even more as a little war of words in the media seems to be breaking out between the Warriors’ Klay Thompson and the Clippers’ All-Star, Blake Griffin. Thompson accused Griffin of “flopping” and Griffin had his rebuttal to that claim yesterday, as Arash Markazi of ESPNLosAngeles.com reports:

The trash talking between the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors has started — even before their first-round playoff series became official late Wednesday night.

Earlier in the day, Warriors guard Klay Thompson called Clippers forward Blake Griffin out for flopping and playing “kind of out of control sometimes.”

“He is a good guy off the court but he probably just … I mean … plays pretty physical and flops a little bit,” Thompson told The Wheelhouse on 95.7 The Game radio in San Francisco.

“He flairs his arm around so you know you might catch a random elbow or something that doesn’t you know rub off too well on guys,” Thompson said. “He’s kind of like a bull in a china shop, kind of out of control sometimes. And then you do just see him flop sometimes like how can a guy that big and strong flop that much.

“I can see how that gets under people’s skin and be frustrating to play against.”

Griffin was ejected from a Christmas Day game between the Clippers and Warriors after an altercation with Warriors center Andrew Bogut and called the Warriors out after the game for playing “cowardly basketball.”

“If you look at it, I didn’t do anything, and I got thrown out of the game,” Griffin said. “It all boils down to they (the referees) fell for it. To me, that’s cowardly. That’s cowardly basketball… Instead of just playing straight up and playing a game, it got into something more than that, and it’s unfortunate because you want to play a team head-to-head. You don’t want to start playing other games and playing cowardly basketball.”

***

No. 4: Walker credits Clifford for change in his gameFor the first time since the 2009-10 season, the Charlotte Bobcats are a playoff-bound team. Unlike that squad from a few years ago, though, Charlotte has a more solid future thanks to the standout play of youngsters like guard Kemba Walker. The third-year guard has become one of the leaders of the team and his improved playmaking skills have been key to Charlotte’s rise this season. However, he wasn’t always such a promising piece of the Bobcats’ future and as Jessica Camerato of BasketballInsiders.com reports, Walker credits coach Steve Clifford for challenging him to grow his game:

During an early-season game against the Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Bobcats head coach Steve Clifford had seen enough of Kemba Walker’s defense of Jeff Teague – or lack thereof. Walker was lagging on the pick-and-roll, Teague was making plays at will.

Clifford and Walker had established a solid relationship shortly after Clifford was hired last offseason. The third-year guard jelled with the first-year coach, who he described as a “real down-to-earth, cool guy.” Walker saw another side of Clifford during that game, though, one that said more than the words he spoke.

“He really surprised me and he got into me. I really deserved it,” Walker told Basketball Insiders. “It motivated me and it helped me. … That’s kind of the first time an NBA coach has gotten into me. It was a mixture [of yelling and speaking]. It showed me that he cared about me because if he didn’t say anything, then I’m like he doesn’t care. But it showed me that he knows that I can do more. Looking back, I appreciate it.”

He added, “I think it definitely was (a turning point).”

Clifford made it clear early on he wanted to see Walker improve on the defensive end. He called Walker into his office to watch game film, pointing out clips where he played good defense and others where he was inconsistent.

“He’s made me a better player because he has so much confidence in me,” Walker said. “He told me that I could be a much better defensive player if I wanted to be. He challenged me with that.”

There are plenty of moments that go on between a player and coach that are not seen in practice or in games. Those are the instances that stand out to Walker this season – the conversations he has shared with Clifford, the times he has gone to him for advice, sometimes just as someone to listen.

“When a coach is able to help you with things off the court, that’s a lot more important than being on the court,” said Walker. “We’re all pros, but we still have problems just like regular people. Sometimes we need to vent, sometimes we need people to talk to. When you’ve got a guy like Coach Clifford whose been through so much in his life, a guy who knows things, can give you advice and you can talk to him, that helps a lot.”


VIDEO:Kemba Walker discusses the Bobcats’ win Wednesday night against the Bulls

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Wolves don’t have any idea about whether or not coach Rick Adelman will retire or not … Like his teammate (and fellow free-agent) P.J. Tucker, Suns guard Ish Smith is hoping to stick around in Phoenix … Cleveland center Spencer Hawes says he’s open to returning to the team next season …

ICYMI of the Night: It’ll be a good six months or so before we see some of the teams in last night’s top 10 plays again, so let’s give ‘em one last opportunity to shine here …


VIDEO: Relive the top 10 plays from the final night of the 2013-14 regular season

During an early-season game against the Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Bobcats head coach Steve Clifford had seen enough of Kemba Walker’s defense of Jeff Teague – or lack thereof. Walker was lagging on the pick-and-roll, Teague was making plays at will.

Clifford and Walker had established a solid relationship shortly after Clifford was hired last offseason. The third-year guard jelled with the first-year coach, who he described as a “real down-to-earth, cool guy.” Walker saw another side of Clifford during that game, though, one that said more than the words he spoke.

“He really surprised me and he got into me. I really deserved it,” Walker told Basketball Insiders. “It motivated me and it helped me. … That’s kind of the first time an NBA coach has gotten into me. It was a mixture [of yelling and speaking]. It showed me that he cared about me because if he didn’t say anything, then I’m like he doesn’t care. But it showed me that he knows that I can do more. Looking back, I appreciate it.”

He added, “I think it definitely was (a turning point).”
Read more at http://www.basketballinsiders.com/cliffords-critique-led-to-walkers-success/#hDiVAClLkvlPCTqd.99

Kohl manages to save the Bucks … again


VIDEO: Lasry and Edens visit pro shop

By Jon Hartzell, NBA.com

Herb Kohl’s pending sale of the Milwaukee Bucks to hedge-fund billionaires Marc Lasry and Wes Edens for approximately $550 million, plus a $100 million gift from Kohl and $100 million commitment from Lasry and Edens to build a new arena, firmly cements the Bucks’ future in Milwaukee.

“My priority has always been and will continue to be keeping the Bucks in Milwaukee,” said Kohl during an afternoon press conference on Wednesday. “This announcement reinforces that Milwaukee is and will continue to be the home of the Bucks. Wes and Marc agree, and they share my commitment to the long-term success of this franchise in Milwaukee.”

This isn’t the first time Kohl has stepped up to keep the Bucks in Milwaukee.

During the heyday of the franchise – when they won 50 or more games each season from 1980-87 – Bucks’ principle owner Jim Fitzgerald was forced to put the franchise up for sale in 1985 after a failed business venture (a premium TV service called SportsVue started with then Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig). Fitzgerald quickly received offers from Minneapolis, Toronto, Miami and Santa Ana to buy the Bucks away from Milwaukee. Despite his preference to keep the team in Wisconsin, seemingly no local investors were willing to throw money at a franchise which was reportedly incapable of making a revenue in the incredibly small MECCA Arena which only sat 11,052 people.

“Herb was the only individual who pursued this diligently,” Fitzgerald said in 1985. “Milwaukee is very fortunate to have Herb Kohl.”

Kohl purchased the franchise for approximately $18 million (the highest price for an NBA franchise pre-expansion) on March 1, 1985. Even then, he knew the importance of the Bucks to Milwaukee.

“Had it not been for Herb Kohl, it would be inevitable that it would not be the Milwaukee Bucks today,” former NBA commissioner David Stern said during an interview in 1987. “He stepped in and did it not because it projected out to be such a great investment but because that was the price to keep the team in Milwaukee.”

The arena situation in 1985 was quickly settled when Lloyd and Jane Pettit privately financed the entire construction costs of the Bradley Center. It doesn’t seem likely the Bucks will be so fortunate this time around, but the $200 million commitment from Lasry, Edens and Kohl will surely help initiate the arena discussion.

The Bucks have struggled under Kohl. But his commitment to the franchise, City of Milwaukee and state of Wisconsin has not wavered. Which is why, after yesterday’s announcement, this quote from prominent Milwaukee real estate developer Marvin Fishman in 1985 still holds true:

“This purchase now by Herbie Kohl ensures that this team will never leave Milwaukee.”

Hang time podcast (episode 156): the playoffs … and ‘are you kidding me?’ featuring Steve Smith and Stu Jackson

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS —  With the start of the NBA playoffs just days away and the end of yet another marathon regular season almost in the books, it’s time to drag out those old predictions from October and November and … ah, never mind that. It’s time to refocus and take another look at the immediate (playoff) future for all 16 teams involved.

We already know who earned golden tickets to the postseason and who did not. The only thing left to sort out on the final night of the season is the seeding for most of those playoff bound teams.

All of our picks are alive for the NBA’s second season (despite his connections to the franchise, Rick Fox did NOT pick the Lakers to win it all this season), so we’re doing well in that regard.

What comes next, however, is anyone’s guess. The playoffs bring a certain air of predictability that intrigues this time of year. And we’re no different in that regard.

So we’re chopping up the playoff debates on each side of the conference divide on Episode 156 of the Webby-honored Hang Time Podcast: The Playoffs … And “Are You Kidding Me?” Featuring Steve Smith and Stu Jackson. Smitty is filling in for Reggie Miller as we debate the Kevin Durant-LeBron James MVP race and the notion that it’s time to make significant changes to the Draft lottery system.

We also crowned the regular season winner of “Braggin Rights” (that’s right, the champ is here!

Dive in for more on Episode 156 of the Hang Time Podcast, The Playoffs … And “Are You Kidding Me?” Featuring Steve Smith and Stu Jackson …

LISTEN HERE:


As always, we welcome your feedback. You can follow the entire crew, including the Hang Time Podcast, co-hosts Sekou Smith of NBA.com,  Lang Whitaker of NBA.com’s All-Ball Blog and renaissance man Rick Fox of NBA TV, as well as our new super producer Gregg (just like Popovich) Waigand and the best sound designer/engineer in the business,  Jarell “I Heart Peyton Manning” Wall.

– To download the podcast, click here. To subscribe via iTunes, click here, or get the xml feed if you want to subscribe some other, less iTunes-y way.

Mavs, Griz fight for right to play… OKC?

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Rick Carlisle talks about the Mavs’ season-ending game vs. the Grizzlies

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – The Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies might as well just come out and say it: Give us the MVP.

The vibe emanating from both camps as they prepare for tonight’s Grindhouse showdown that will decide the Nos. 7 and 8 seeds in the Western Conference is that both teams would just as soon stay away from the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs and take their chances against probable league MVP Kevin Durant and the somewhat shaky-looking Thunder (or still possibly the hard-charging Los Angeles Clippers).

Records before and after the All-Star break

                                    OKC              SA           Memphis       Dallas

Before                       43-12            39-15           30-23              32-23

After                           15-11              24-4             19-9                 17-9

With multiple story lines swirling, the Mavs and Grizzlies, both 49-32, will make this regular-season finale count (8 p.m. ET, ESPN). The loser settles for the No. 8 seed and a first-round playoff series against the Spurs. The winner takes the No. 7 seed and will head to either Oklahoma City or L.A., depending which team takes the No. 2 seed after tonight’s games.

Dallas won the first three meetings against Memphis. The first two came before Christmas when Memphis was a defensive mess. The third, at Memphis in early February, the Grizzlies played without point guard Mike Conley.

Memphis is trying to secure a second consecutive 50-win season. Dallas has been talking up 50 wins as a team goal for weeks, trying to get back to the mark it hit for 11 consecutive seasons, but not since the championship year of 2010-11 (they were 36-31 during the 2011-12 lockout season, falling below the .610 winning percentage of 50 wins, and 41-41 last season to snap a 12-year playoff streak).

After struggling early in the season at home, the Grizzlies are riding a season-best 13-game win there. The Mavs have won their last six road games, their longest such streak this season.

As for the preferred playoff matchup, neither the Spurs nor the Thunder will be a walk in the park. San Antonio ranks fifth in the league in offensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions) and fourth in defensive efficiency. OKC ranks seventh in offensive efficiency and fifth in defensive efficiency. Only the Thunder have looked out of sync since the All-Star break, struggling at times defensively and with cohesiveness because of missing pieces due to injuries.

The Mavs and Grizzlies both stumbled to 0-4 against the Spurs. Worse, Dallas has lost nine straight to San Antonio and Memphis has dropped 14 of 16.

Dallas’ four losses came by an average margin of 11.5 points; Memphis by 11.3. At least the Grizzlies can claim they were without big man Marc Gasol for essentially two of those games. Gasol injured his knee in the 102-86 loss on Nov. 22, playing just nine minutes. The injury that kept him out of the 110-108 overtime loss on Jan. 7, a game defensive bulldog Tony Allen also missed. However, fully loaded on April 6, Memphis got trounced in San Antonio, 112-92.

For offensive-minded Dallas, San Antonio simply presents an awful matchup. The Spurs’ excellent close-out defense limits the Mavs’ 3-point attempts while their precision offense dissects Dallas’ porous defense. In the four meetings, the Spurs have attempted 31 more 3s and outscored the Mavs from beyond the arc by 54 points. In their final meeting on April 10, Tony Parker didn’t play and Patty Mills did the honors, lighting up Dallas for six 3-pointers and 26 points.

Spurs vs. Mavs                      Spurs vs. Grizzlies

Dec. 26: W 116-107                  Oct. 30: W 101-94

 Jan. 8: W 112-90                     Nov. 22: W 102-86

 March 2: W 112-106               Jan. 7: W 110-108 (OT)

April 10: W 109-100                 April 16: W 112-92

If San Antonio has a rooting interest in tonight’s game as they wrap up the regular season at the Lakers, it has to be for the Mavs to pack to their bags for South Texas. Memphis puts up more defensive roadblocks and dishes out far more physical punishment that the Spurs and Tim Duncan, creeping up on his 38th birthday in nine days, would prefer to avoid.

Against Dallas, ranked 22nd in defensive efficiency, the worst among the 16 playoff teams, Duncan averaged 18.5 ppg on 51.1 percent shooting and 12.5 rebounds. Against Memphis, even with Gasol missing time, Duncan averaged 12.0 ppg on 45.0 percent shooting and 8.5 rebounds.

Memphis, which can have a hard time scoring — only the Pacers and Hawks rank lower in offensive efficiency among playoff teams — didn’t fare any better against the Thunder, losing all four games to the team they beat in five games in last year’s conference semifinals. Of course, OKC played that series without Russell Westbrook, as they did twice against Memphis this season. But Memphis can make similar claims with Gasol. As with any regular-season series, who’s in and out of the lineup can alter relevance.

Dallas gained a measure of confidence against OKC over the last month, beating it twice, routing the Thunder at their place on March 16 and outlasting them in a wild OT game at home nine days later. In the two games, Dallas made 28 3-pointers, four more than it managed in four games against San Antonio. Of course, the Thunder was missing Westbrook, defensive stopper Thabo Sefolosha and starting center Kendrick Perkins in the first Dallas win and Sefolosha and Perkins in the second.

Thunder vs. Mavs                      Thunder vs. Grizzlies

Nov. 6: W 107-93                            Dec. 11: W 116-100

March 16: L 109-86                        Jan. 14: W 90-87

March 25: L 128-119 (OT)              Feb. 3: W 86-77

–                                              Feb. 28: W 113-107

Finally, after tonight, the playoff pairings will be set and all these numbers can be tossed out the window.

Report: Bucks to announce sale of team

From NBA.com staff reports

The Milwaukee Bucks face an uncertain future — as detailed here by our own Jon Hartzell — as current owner Herb Kohl seeks a new owner who will help keep the team in town and secure a new arena to replace the dilapidated BMO Harris Bradley Center.

A new arena for the Bucks remains up in the air, but it looks like a new owner may be on board. ESPN.com’s Marc Stein first reported today that Kohl has reached an agreement to sell the team to a pair of investors:

The Milwaukee Bucks will announce later Wednesday that longtime owner Herb Kohl has reached an agreement to sell the team to Wesley Edens and Mark Lasry for a purchase price of $550 million, according to sources familiar with the transaction.

Sources told ESPN.com that the deal, subject to league approval, will be confirmed in an afternoon news conference.

The Bucks have a news conference scheduled for 3:30 p.m. ET today, presumably to announce this transaction.

Blogtable: Can’t miss this

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Memories | One to watch | A surprise champ


San Antonio's Tim Duncan has played in 211 playoff games in his illustrious career. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE)

San Antonio’s Tim Duncan has played in 211 playoff games in his illustrious career. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE)

> A quick look forward: Other than KD and LeBron, who’s your can’t-miss performer for these playoffs?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.comTony Parker. No more resting, no more worries about point-guard rankings as individuals. None of that. Parker gets to quarterback the San Antonio push through the playoffs, and given his experience and the tools at his disposal, I think he’s going to remind people how valuable he really is.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.comBlake Griffin.  He’s taken his game to the next level and forced his way into the MVP conversation.  If he keeps it up in the playoffs, the Clippers are a real threat in the West.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.comChris Paul. He’s the rare superstar lacking a championship who doesn’t get hassled for having not won one. Think about that. That’s all we do is ask when so-and-so is going to finally win a title? CP3′s in his ninth season yet seems to stay removed from that discussion. He’s made it out of the first round only twice, in 2008 with New Orleans on a team with Tyson Chandler, David West and Peja Stojakovic that lost to San Antonio in Game 7 of the semis, and then his first season with the Clippers when they were swept by the Spurs. A run to the conference finals looks like it will take getting through Golden State and then Oklahoma City, a mighty task indeed, but it’s time for this superstar to get there.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.comHyland DeAndre Jordan Jr., Clippers. Already putting up big rebounding numbers and on a hot streak with blocks, now he may get the gift beginning of a first round with the Warriors down Andrew Bogut and, still, Festus Ezeli. With the pace Golden State and L.A. play at, a 20-rebound game by Jordan is very realistic. And even if the Clippers open against someone else, Jordan will continue his regular-season impact anyway.

John Schuhmann, NBA.comTim Duncan. At some point, this ride has to end, and we should appreciate the best player of his generation as much as we can, while we can. As a whole, the Spurs are brilliant, but it all starts with Duncan’s leadership and play on both ends of the floor. It will also be fascinating to see if they can get back to where they were last year and somehow redeem themselves for Game 6 and, for Duncan, the missed bunny in Game 7.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: There are a number of players I’m expecting to show up and show out in the playoffs, the leading two candidates for MVP, of course, headline the list. But I’ve enjoyed watching Joakim Noah perform as much as I have any single player in the league this season. His playoff breakout came last year, when the Bulls surprised us with that epic effort in that seven-game series against Brooklyn. Noah’s a better player now than he was then and I can see him chasing a triple-double every night in these playoffs. No one brings more raw energy and effort to the party than the Bulls’ big man.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball Blog: It’s not exactly like he’s overlooked, but one player I traditionally love watching in the postseason is Chris Paul. The game slows down, offenses become more halfcourt-based, and having a floor general like Paul becomes essential. As great as Paul is during the season, he turns up in the postseason and finds another level. It’s the playoffs where Paul takes over games, threatening triple-doubles and commanding games. And that’s must see TV.

Akshay Manwani, NBA India: Blake Griffin. His mid-range game, his post play and his athleticism all make him compulsory viewing material. Also, Griffin — who has been at the receiving end of some really hard fouls right through the regular season — will have his patience tested, perhaps, more severely in the playoffs. It would be interesting to see how he responds in the pressure cooker environment that are the playoffs. Chris Paul is undoubtedly the nerve center of the Clippers, but Griffin has to play big if the Clippers are to have a great run.

Aldo Avinante, NBA Philippines: I think it will be fun to watch Dirk Nowitzki. He has been relatively healthy all-season long, and after the Dallas’ absence last year Dirk knows he only has a couple of playoff runs left in him. He will surely try to make the most out of it. And with that sweet stroke and unstoppable one-foot fadeaway, it will be fun to watch him torment defenders on the big stage again. DeMar DeRozan is another player to watch out for, the athletic swingman could use the playoffs as his spring board to stardom a la Paul George and provide the fans a showcase of his vastly improved skills.

Stefanos Triantafyllos, NBA Greece: I don’t know how we should leave Paul George out of the equation. Especially after last year’s games against the Heat. Or Tim Duncan. He had a phenomenal regular season and it’s really interesting to see if he can carry on his second youth during the postseason.

Blogtable: A surprising champion

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Memories | One to watch | A surprise champ


A darkhorse? Maybe not, but the Clippers could still be a surprise in June. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE)

A darkhorse? Maybe not, but the Clippers could still be a surprise in June. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE)

> Your definition, your choice, your reasoning: Your darkhorse pick to win the NBA title.

Steve Aschburner, NBA.comDo the Clippers qualify as a dark horse? I’d argue yes and pick them, because that insta-champion business – last witnessed in Boston in June 2008 – is no simple thing. Doc Rivers might wind up as the link from the last one to the next one if his ability to manage both his roster and the unique challenges of the postseason mesh just so. The Clippers clearly have the talent, both to survive the West and to topple the three-peat-aiming Miami Heat.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: In the past, the Clippers were just Lob City and a bunch of nightly highlight reel dunks.  In his first season as coach, Doc Rivers has given them a sense of purpose and direction.  He’s demanded and gotten more out of Blake Griffin.  He’s gotten DeAndre Jordan to play with confidence and consistency.  Of course, he’s got the best point in the game in Chris Paul running the show.  A healthy J.J. Redick gives them the outside shooting to keep defenses honest and Matt Barnes defends on the wing.  They are deeper than ever with Jamal Crawford again making a run at Sixth Man of the Year and get help from Darren Collison, Jared Dudley, Glen Davis and Danny Granger.  Rivers knows what it takes to run the playoff gauntlet and his ability to inject a new sense of personal responsibility and commitment to the task has these Clippers looking and playing vastly different than the past few years.  They are a dark horse, but one that you wouldn’t mind saddling up for a ride.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: Houston. The Rockets are remarkably young, but also remarkably talented. They’ve got the perimeter (James Harden) and the middle (Dwight Howard) covered by All-Stars, plus shooters all around. Omer Asik behind Howard provides 48 minutes of crucial rim protection. They can be their own worst enemy, especially defensively, but put it all together and they can give any opponent nightmares.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: I don’t put the Clippers in the darkhorse category, but a lot of other people seem to, so that’s the pick. The Clips certainly aren’t sneaking up on anyone — Blake Griffin, CP3, Lob City, Doc Rivers — but I’ve gotten the question a few times the last couple weeks: Is it possible someone other than the Spurs or Thunder would win the West? Sure it is. The team that was a realistic pick from the start of the season.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: I’ve wavered back and forth on whether to deem the Thunder a darkhorse or not. But my final answer is the Clippers. Their defense hasn’t really held up against good teams, but their offense is near unstoppable, especially if J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford are healthy.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: Can we really call a team with Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Jamal Crawford and Doc Rivers as coach really be considered a “dark horse?” I hope so, because the Los Angeles Clippers are my pick. They have all of the ingredients — star power, depth, balance, experience, etc. – needed to make their way to the championship round and win it all. We’ll find out of they are tough enough to endure the grind of making it that far. But there is no doubt in my mind that all of the pieces are in place. Blake’s work this season while CP3 was out and the overall improvement to DeAndre Jordan’s game are the two wild cards for the Clippers. They had to come back with those guys having improved their respective games for me to believe in them. And they did exactly what they had to do.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball Blog: My definition of a darkhorse is a team nobody is picking. My choice, well, that’s more complicated. I would have mentioned Golden State, but to me the Andrew Bogut injury might take them out of the running. I’ll throw a team out there: Houston. The Rockets strike me as a team that haven’t hit their stride just yet. They have it all: scoring, a strong interior presence, a tough perimeter defender, depth. Every year, there’s a team that gets hot and goes on a run in the postseason. Perhaps this spring we’ll see the Rockets’ red glare.

Simon Legg, NBA Australia: I’ve been saying a lot lately that I think only five teams can win the title (two from the East and three from the West) so my selection probably won’t sound like a dark horse. Anyway, I’m going with the Clippers as the only team outside of the Spurs and Thunder who can win the West and then, challenge for a title. We all know about their credentials offensively and they have two top-10 players, but the aspect of their game that has impressed me the most this season has been their defence, the achilles heel of this team under Vinny Del Negro. Now, with Doc Rivers in charge, they have transformed into a top-10 defensive unit and thus, can challenge for a title.

Davide Chinellato, NBA Italia: I think the Nets really have a chance to hug the Larry O’Brien trophy in June. They were out of contention after a 10-21 start, but Jason Kidd somehow transformed a bunch of great players into a team around January and now they have the momentum, the depth, the experience and the talent to upset both Indiana and Miami and made it to the Finals. They need to be healthy, but they have a chance.

Adriano Albuquerque, NBA Brasil: I guess the Clippers qualify as a dark horse contender. The major favorites have to be Miami, San Antonio and OKC, though not necessarily in that order, right? Indiana, the Clippers and Houston are the dark horses. I pick LA’s representative. Their defense still isn’t all that great, but it’s much better than it was when the season started. They have a coach who has won a ring – one of only four championship-winning coaches still in the tournament – they added key veterans with Finals experience via free agency late in the season, and I feel that Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan have matured enough to absorb the punishment they will take from teams still questioning their toughness, especially Golden State, their opponents in the first round. Plus, it’s time for Chris Paul to take the wheels and lead a team past the second round, even if he has to beat Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to do it.

Blogtable: Fave regular-season moment

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Memories | One to watch | A surprise champ



VIDEO: Derrick Rose sinks the game-winner to beat the Knicks on Oct. 31, 2013

> A quick look back: Your favorite moment of the 2013-14 regular season.

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: My favorite moment came way at the beginning: Derrick Rose’s high-arcing 12-foot game-winner from the right baseline over Tyson Chandler with 5.7 seconds left at United Center in the Bulls’ home opener. There was electricity and anticipation in the air that, alas, lasted only 10 games before the Chicago MVP candidate went down and out — again. Rose had looked good in October, leading Chicago in scoring (20.7 points a game) and hitting 44.4 percent of his 3-pointers, and everything seemed all right until … y’know. I’d also list the moments Greg Oden, Danny Granger and any other injured guy returned to action –- comebacks are a lot more enjoyable to cover than season-ending injury stories — and Shaun Livingston‘s continued ability to thrive in his revived career.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: Pick a moment, any moment, in any game when Joakim Noah was hungrily, frantically, feverishly passing, rebounding, scoring, pushing, shoving, diving to the floor, doing anything to help the Bulls win the next possession and the next game in a season that he could easily have let go.  For someone who has covered the league for nearly 40 years, Noah has been pure joy to watch.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: I harken to a game I witnessed on the Kevin Durant Experience. Go back to Jan. 22 at Oklahoma City. The Portland Trail Blazers were in town with a 31-10 record. They led 95-90 with 3:45 to go. Looking good. Then Durant went MVP. A driving layup gave him 37 points and cut the deficit to 95-92. A 3-pointer gave him 40 points and tied it at 95. Reggie Jackson and Kendrick Perkins made it 99-95 OKC. Then on consecutive possessions, the first with 48 seconds to play and the second with 26 seconds left, Durant drilled killer 3s from straightaway, giving him 46 points and 11 in the final 3:45. Afterward, the dejected Blazers all but handed Durant the MVP right there and then. “MVP performance,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “He’s the MVP. He’s the MVP,” Blazers forward Nicolas Batum said. “I mean, six years I have been in this league, I have never seen a performance like that. Six years.”

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.comSan Antonio’s 19-game winning streak. The consistency, the dependability, the way players who weren’t on the roster the season before stepped up, the tying for the sixth-best run in NBA history while maintaining a tight hold on minutes. It was all so Spurs-like. Oh, and everyone else was counting along more than the San Antonio players and coaches. Also so Spurs-like. Also worth remembering: Doc Rivers’ heartfelt return to Boston, the purple-splashed celebration at the opening night in Sacramento that almost wasn’t, Jerry Sloan’s tribute night in Salt Lake City. I’m sure there are other moments worth remembering that I am just not remembering.

John Schuhmann, NBA.comThe reception Paul Pierce got in his first game back in Boston (Jan. 26) was very cool. There are not many guys that have played 15 years in one city, and it was great to how much that connection means to the player, the franchise and the fans. Though Pierce played pretty poorly that night, every player would love to have a moment like that.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: That’s a tough one. We’re talking about an entire 82-game season and countless highlights and jaw-dropping moments. Picking one is nearly impossible. But it’ll be hard for me to shake the memory of TNT’s Charles Barkley walking in on my Hang Time One-On-One interview with Milwaukee Bucks rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo. The rookie’s jaw dropped, literally, and his eyes lit up. It was a totally impromptu moment that none of us caught on video because everyone in the room was so surprised it happened. Barkley told Antetokounmpo he needed to “eat a sandwich” before telling him how much he enjoyed watching the youngest player in the league play. Antetokounmpo was in disbelief for the next 10 minutes. He couldn’t get over his chance meeting with one of his idols. “Charles Barkley is huge,” he said before breaking into a wide smile.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball Blog: How about a look back quickly: Perhaps it’s because it’s still fresh on my mind, but that Memphis/Phoenix game the other night with a postseason trip on the line was incredible. Not only because the stakes were so high — it was essentially win or go home. But it was also because the quality of play was terrific — guys were sinking shot after shot, and it felt like they were almost willing the ball into the basket. If the level of play in the postseason comes anything close to that, should be an amazing postseason.

Adriano Albuquerque, NBA Brasil: My favorite moment of the season is still the shock and amazement of seeing the Philadelphia 76ers win their first three games in a row, especially that season-opening win versus the defending champions Miami Heat that included Michael Carter-Williams’ coming out party. Despite all the losing the young Sixers had to suffer during this season — especially that 26-game streak — “The Hyphen” and his peers can look back at that stretch and draw inspiration for climbing higher next season. Also, I loved that amazing Jeff Green 3-point shot with 0.4 seconds on the clock to beat the Heat in Miami. That was just ridiculous. And my third favorite moment was Carmelo Anthony hanging 62 points on the Bobcats to break the Knicks’ and Madison Square Garden’s scoring records.

Philipp Dornhegge, NBA Deutschland: Is it just me, or does everybody feel that you always miss the games with crazy endings? Therefore I’m super-glad that I did, in fact, watch the two Warriors-Thunder games live in which Andre Iguodala and Russell Westbrook hit game-winners. Intense games, playoff atmosphere, perfect endings.

Davide Chinellato, NBA Italia: I pick an All-Star moment, when Marco Belinelli won the Three-Point Contest. It was an historic moment for Italian basketball, and Marco totally deserved it because he made his way up from an end-of-the-bench guy in his first 2 seasons with the Warriors to one of the key role players in a team that can win the title. Putting my role as editor of NBA Italy aside for a moment, my favorite moment of the season is the second Heat vs. Thunder game. Those first minutes in which LeBron played like a monster are unforgettable.

Stefanos Triantafyllos, NBA Greece: OK, I cannot be objective about that. It’s not every day that you see a Greek player featured in the No. 1 of the NBA’s Top-10 highlight reel. So, my favourite moments were Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s coast to coast block-and-dunk against the Cetlics, and when he blocked twice Kevin Durant, forcing KD to call out the rookies’ skills.