HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – When the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team finished off the competition at the London Olympics in 2012, head coach Mike Krzyzewski was primed to ride off into the sunset with a sparking 62-1 record, two gold medals in Olympic competition (2008 in Beijing) and one in World Championship competition (2010 Istanbul).
Every indication was that the longtime Duke coach had finished the job USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo needed him to and that his replacement would be sought while Coach K moved on in some capacity to assist Colangelo manage the rebuilt program.
It’s an abrupt about-face after months and months of speculation about who might replace Krzyzewski on the sideline with the Men’s Senior National Team and also a stern departure from Coach K’s own words, as recently as February on an ESPN Radio program where he suggested that his successor could be named by this summer.
Things changed dramatically today, per that SI.com report:
On Saturday, Krzyzewski said he and USA Basketball Chairman Jerry Colangelo have been talking about his return “quite a bit.”
Colangelo said Saturday he and Krzyzewski have been discussing his return “in installments.”
“I think it’s very close to being resolved,” Colangelo said. “That’s all I can say for sure.”
He added: “Give it another week and it should be resolved.”
Nailing down a head coach is the only outstanding business Colangelo has to tend to right now, because the player pool for the national team is as strong now as it’s since he took over in 2005.
Scores of NBA superstars, All-Stars and role players will be eager to be a part of the teams that represent the U.S. in Madrid and Rio De Janeiro. And that list should include four-time MVP LeBron James as well as All-Stars Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and plenty more.
Were Coach K to return to the program, procuring commitments for future competition wouldn’t appear to be much of an issue, given his history with so many of the players that would be in the mix. The continuity alone would ensure that the U.S. program resembles, at least in structure, many of the international programs they’ll compete against in the coming years.
SAN ANTONIO — Tim Duncan sat down heavily and breathed a sigh of someone who had just been asked to lift the back end of a school bus off the ground.
“It’s not going to be pretty,” he said. “Sorry.”
But the playoffs mean never having to say you’re sorry.
So when the Spurs and Grizzlies open the Western Conference finals on Sunday night, there will be no apologies offered.
Only elbows and hips, pushes and shoves, pulls and grabs and tugs and slaps and takedowns that could turn seven games into one gigantic bruise.
Having already dealt with the front-line size of the Lakers Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol and the aggressive play of the Warriors’ Andrew Bogut, Carl Landry and Festus Ezeli, the Spurs realized it was all just a warmup to the tandem of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, for whom grit and grind is more than a slogan.
“If you thought (the Golden State series) was physical, it’s going to turn up about 10 notches,” Duncan said.
It’s possible the Spurs might still have a few black and blue marks left over from their run-in with the Grizzlies in the first round of the 2011 playoffs. San Antonio entered that series as the prohibitive favorite and wound up becoming only the second No. 1 seed in history to lose to a No. 8 seed in a best-of-seven series.
By the time the series was over, the Spurs were as bludgeoned as they were beaten by Memphis’ inside game. Duncan, who played with a sprained ankle, and Manu Ginobili, who played with a fractured elbow, were exhausted and exposed.
Now though, the Spurs are feeling like a team that is much more equipped to deal with the Grizzlies’ size and force, having added Tiago Splitter to their starting lineup and Boris Diaw to their bench.
“It’s going to be a big-man series,” Duncan said. “I think the size definitely helps us. We’re a different team than when we faced them a couple years ago.”
The 6-foot-11 Splitter was a rookie in 2011 and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich did not feel confident using him two seasons ago, choosing to go with 6-9 veteran Antonio McDyess in his final NBA season. Splitter played just 51 minutes in the entire season and did not set foot onto the court until Game 4.
“Of course, you always want to play, because you believe that you can help,” Splitter said. “That’s the part of you that is the competitor. But that is the past and now I feel good.”
In the four regular season meetings this season, Splitter averaged 10.3 points, 7.8 rebounds and was able to stand his ground against the low-post relentlessness of Randolph.
“Its just nonstop fighting,” Splitter said. “He’s a warrior over there with the rebounding and positioning.”
The experience two years ago gave the Spurs a head start on the rest of the league in recognizing the Grizzlies as powerful, growing championship contenders.
“I’ve seen them as a major threat for years now,” Duncan said. “Obviously, they beat us in the first round when we were the top seed. They’ve been a very solid team, a very good team. They have always played us really tough. We respect them and their capabilities and we’re not surprised they’re here.”
Popovich rates the Grizzlies with Miami and Indiana as the top defensive teams in the league. But the Spurs themselves turned around the battle against the Warriors and put the clamps on the backcourt of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson with a defensive job that was aggressive, thorough and a throwback to their old championship ways and days.
Now it’s toe-to-toe, elbow-to-elbow, hip-check to bump-and-grind with the Grizzlies at a time when the 37-year-old Duncan can see the finish line.
“This run this year is extremely special to me,” he said. “People continue to count us out, year in and year out, and we continue to make runs deep into the playoffs. This is a special one.”
Knicks-Pacers has been kind of ugly. Eastern Conference playoff basketball at its finest.
The average score of the first five games has been 88-86. They’ve been slow and inefficient. Both teams have shot 41 percent. The Knicks can’t finish at the rim (shooting 48 percent from the restricted area) and the Pacers can’t hit a jump shot (shooting 34 percent from outside the restricted area).
Knicks defensive rebounding
DREB% = Percent of available def. reb.
That makes for a lot of missed shots. And if the Knicks had just rebounded a few more of those missed shots, they might be up 3-2, instead of facing elimination for the second straight time in Game 6 on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN). What was the fourth-best defensive rebounding team in the regular season and the best defensive rebounding team in the first round has been the worst defensive rebounding team in the conference semifinals.
The Pacers were the fourth-best offensive rebounding team in the regular season and have won the battle of the boards on that end of the floor in this series. They’re not the Boston Celtics, who have two jump-shooting bigs, eschew offensive rebounds for the sake of better transition defense, and totaled just 31 offensive boards in six first-round games.
Pacers offensive rebounding
OREB% = Percent of available off. reb.
The Pacers’ two big men play in the paint, they know the Knicks aren’t a fast-break team, and they’ve already grabbed more than twice as many offensive boards (64) as the Celtics did against New York. Roy Hibbert has 10 more offensive rebounds (26) than Tyson Chandler has defensive rebounds (16).
Knicks coach Mike Woodson has repeatedly pointed to the Pacers’ offensive rebounds as the difference between wins and losses. Indeed, the Knicks have won the two games in which they kept the Pacers’ offensive rebounding percentage under 30 percent, though Indy still managed to rack up a ton of second-chance points in Game 5.
Note 1: You can register second-chance points without an offensive rebound. On four occasions in Game 5, the Knicks blocked an Indiana shot out of bounds or committed a loose-ball foul on a defensive rebound, with the Pacers scoring subsequently. That helps account for the 24/12 conversion rate.
Despite all the offensive rebounds, the Pacers have still attempted far fewer shots (367) than the Knicks have (406) in this series. Part of the reason is that Indiana has gone to the free-throw line a lot more (130-89), but turnovers are also a big story.
The Pacers ranked 29th in turnover percentage in the regular season, committing 16.2 turnovers per 100 possessions. That number is at 19.8 in this series. If it was any lower, Indiana would be preparing for the Heat right now.
NYK Pts Off
This is what the Knicks’ defense is meant to do. They pressure the ball, trap pick-and-rolls, and double-team the post, trying to force their opponent into miscues and willing to concede weak-side 3-point attempts if the opponent can move the ball quickly enough. Against this opponent, it’s a sound strategy (though, with defenders out of position, it also contributes to the defensive rebounding issue).
The Pacers have committed a lot of turnovers in every game of the series, but there’s a difference between dead-ball turnovers (offensive fouls, traveling, throwing the ball out of bounds — which the Pacers are very good at) and live-ball turnovers (strips, pass deflections, interceptions, etc). And not coincidentally, the Knicks have won the two games in which the Pacers have committed more than 10 live-ball turnovers.
Note 2: Live-ball turnovers are always recorded as a steal for the opponent. Dead-ball turnovers are not. This makes it easy to tell how many of each there were.
Paul George, as great as he’s been defensively, has as many turnovers (25) as his next two teammates combined (David West has 13 and George Hill has 12). And if Hill is still out with a concussion, George will need to handle the ball more, which is obviously not a good thing for the Pacers’ offense.
Neither team is going to shoot well in this series. That fact has clearly been established. The Pacers just aren’t a good shooting team in the first place, and the Knicks are going against the No. 1 defense in the league.
For New York, staying alive is about cleaning the glass. For Indiana, finishing the series off is about taking care of the ball.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Zach Randolph has come a long way, baby.
From a 20-year-old, tantalizingly skilled and pudgy rookie reared by the infamous Portland “Jail” Blazers, to the now 31-year-old supremely skilled and pudgy leader of the first Memphis Grizzlies team to play for the Western Conference crown.
Randolph arrived in Memphis in 2009 still the bearer of a bad rap and possibly even a worse rep. Thirty-nine games into his stint with the Los Angeles Clippers, Randolph was moved out to move in, ironically, No. 1 pick and soon-to-become Randolph’s playoff nemesis, Blake Griffin.
Randolph’s third trade in two calendar years — from Portland to the New York Knicks in June 2007; from the Knicks to the Clips in November 2008; and finally from the Clips to the Grizz in July 2009 for Quentin Richardson — has been the tonic for peace and happiness and maturity and some darn good basketball.
Randolph can now boast being a two-time All-Star with Memphis. He’s also an emblematic figure of this blue-collar city and a fan favorite of its hard-nosed citizens, and a loyal teammate that his peers pull for and gush over.
“His career has had a lot of ups and downs, and it’s just evident when you think of being in this moment that not a lot of people get here, and Z is a perfect example of that,” Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley said. “He’s been in the league so long and done so many great things, he hasn’t had the experience to go to the Western Conference finals or the Finals yet, and so it’s kind of the message that’s being sent around to everybody, and we’re feeding off what Z’s been through and the fact that this could be special.”
Before the low-post — and lower-center-of-gravity — scoring machine arrived in Memphis, his Portland teams had two one-and-done postseasons. The first, as a rookie, he logged one minute. The next season, in 2003, he averaged 13.9 ppg and 8.7 rebounds as those misfit Blazers almost became the first team to come back from a 3-0 hole against the Dallas Mavericks, but they were blown out in Game 7.
He then went six seasons sitting on the postseason sidelines. Now he’s seizing the moment heading to the biggest stage of his career. Randolph is averaging a team-high 19.7 ppg and 9.3 rpg while shooting 51.2 percent as he and low-post partner Marc Gasol get set to face the San Antonio Spurs in Game 1 of the West finals Sunday afternoon (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC).
Along the way, Randolph dominated Griffin in the final four games to dispatch the Clippers in a rugged, emotion-filled, six-game series. He saved his best game so far to eliminate the top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder in Wednesday’s Game 5, a punishing performance from the jump that ended with 28 points, 14 rebounds and one wide grin.
“This moment means a lot to me,” Randolph said. “I’m happy, but we still have work to do. I want to win a ring.”
Randolph can be the king of colloquialisms when talking about others, such as when he described the defense teammate Tony Allen was applying to Kevin Durant: “Tony’s a dog, man. He’s in the mud.” The Grizzlies marketing department has crafted slogans and campaigns around Randolph’s colorful descriptors and phrases.
But he’s mostly bland when talking about himself. It’s a subject best left unto others, like Allen.
“I’ve [known] Zach ever since I got in the league, what his skill level was,” said Allen, who joined the Grizzlies a season later in the summer of 2010. “But he was … at first all about going out and getting his. And ever since I got alongside him, he’s done a good job of mixing it up, passing the ball when you don’t have a shot, being more of a vocal leader and just a teddy bear off the court. When I say teddy bear, just a nice guy. He’s the nicest guy in the world. I saw him grow a lot despite what I heard about him previously before I got here.”
“Just rough around the edges, that’s all,” Allen said, chuckling. “But me and him pretty much got the same characteristics. Growing up we overcame a lot. Right now, it’s a big time to do something big and I think that’s what his mindset is right now — trying to do something real big.”
Everything with the 6-foot-9, 260-pound Randolph is big, especially his game. Nicknamed Z-Bo back in middle school growing up in gritty, small-town Marion, Indiana, the southpaw’s game is described as “old-school” or “old man.” That’s because his vertical won’t win him any dunk contests and because he relies more on guile and honed skill than athleticism. Randolph’s excellent footwork makes him quick, agile and unpredictable with his back to the basket. He has tremendous upper and lower body strength to gain position and a sublime touch to finish with short hooks and up-and-under bank shots. And he can always float in fall-away jumpers. His arsenal is a lethal combination of power and finesse that few power forwards today posses.
Just listen to Thunder coach Scott Brooks go on and on when asked to detail the difficulty in defending Randolph in the low post.
“He has relentless determination, he’s an aggressive offensive rebounder and he has so many different shots he can throw at you,” said Brooks, who watched Randolph work over Defensive Player of the Year runner-up Serge Ibaka for 18.4 ppg and 10.8 rpg. “He can face-up and hit a shot; he can drive right with one dribble and the little pull-up off the glass; he goes to the left, to the middle very well, and he has so many different release points. He can score down low at the block. He doesn’t look like he can do it, he just doesn’t have that body that you think that can score, and he doesn’t jump very high, but he has that determination and he obviously has the ability to score.
“He’s a handful.”
Allen calls the whole package “backyard ball.”
“He’s the backyard bully. Welcome to the Z block,” Allen said. “He’s just a monster down there; he’s a load.”
He’s now the responsibility of Spurs big men Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter, a tough job compounded by the fact that one of them will be preoccupied with Gasol, also having a brilliant postseason averaging 18.3 ppg and 7.9 rpg.
The big stage has been a long time coming for Randolph, a player many assumed would have run himself out of the league by now. That’s not the case or even any longer an option. The 12-year veteran has found a home and fulfillment in Memphis.
“He just understands the big picture a little bit better. He understands winning better,” Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said. “I think there are lot of good players in this league that have statistics, that have talent, but never win, never understand that it takes more than their 20 points to win; that it takes moving the basketball, it takes playing defense, it takes being a decoy sometimes.
“We just try to challenge him and he accepts being challenged, and he’s risen to the occasion.”
h CHICAGO – Potential No. 1 pick Nerlens Noel said his recovery from a torn knee ligament is going better than anticipated but that he expects to make his NBA debut sometime around Christmas, an assessment that should end speculation about whether he could be ready for the start of the season.
The Kentucky power forward/center is rivaled by only Kansas shooting guard Ben McLemore as the clear favorites to be chosen first overall in the June 27 NBA Draft. Noel has an edge in their head-to-head matchup but McLemore is a realistic option based on team need once the lottery order is set Tuesday. But Noel has the unique risk for a possible No. 1 of coming off knee surgery in March, late enough that he not only is unable to work out for clubs but also will force him to miss summer league and training camp.
His report on the current rehabilitation in Birmingham, Ala., offers the prognosis of a successful recovery yet also the reality he will probably miss at least the first two months of his rookie season. Noel said the timetable is based on what he calls ‘very encouraging’ feedback on the recovery efforts along with the initial estimate of needing six to eight months to get back on the court.
“I have no doubt that I will be 100 percent, [and] even better than before, especially with everything I’m doing now,” he said. “I’m strengthening everything – upper body, lower body. I’m sure I’ll be better than 100 percent when I get back.
“It’s [going] better than I expected. I expected to be moving at a fast rate, and I definitely am. I’ll be looking to make a comeback as soon as possible. I just want to make sure my knee is in a good state.”
While it is impossible to get a definitive read on the knee, there is the other update on his conditioning and prep work for the draft: Noel measured at 4.2 percent body fat earlier this week as part of all prospects from U.S. colleges going through physicals, a very good outcome for anyone but particularly a player who isn’t able to go through the same training regimen. He measured 6-foot-10 without shoes and 6-11 ¾ with shoes, and 206 pounds.
“There’s no risk at all,” Noel said of a being chosen first with the uncertainty of a knee injury. “I definitely have the mindset that I’m going to come back from this…. When I get back, I’m going to be the hardest worker I can be and do what I have to do to be the player I want to be and do good things for the team I get drafted by.”
Other news, notes and observations as the second and final day in the gym at the pre-draft combine concluded Friday afternoon:
Rudy Gobert, on the bubble for the lottery, scored points with teams by participating in drills when it has become common for most prospects with a good shot for the middle of the first round to skip the basketball portion of the event to protect draft stock. Front offices are annually frustrated by players ducking the competition. Gobert, a center from France, did not duck. “It shows that somebody’s aware,” one executive said. “The knock on him is that he doesn’t want to compete. Whether he listened to an agent or a coach or decided on his own, it’s a good sign that he’s here.”
Gobert looked stunned to learn there were doubts about his drive. But he did say he liked the idea of sending the message that he wants to face the top competition to get better after so far spending his entire career in Europe. Gobert also has the “Wow” factor with a wing span of 7-8 ½ and a standing reach of 9-7 in addition to standing 7-2 in shoes, meaning he can at least come close to touching the rim without jumping. His wingspan has been an obvious attribute for a long time, with people often asking him to stand and stretch his arms, just to get a look. One executive, seeing Gobert in person for the first time, said it’s a sight just to watch Gobert’s reach while standing next to another player. Teams want to fall in love with this guy. He had a disappointing 2012-13 in Europe, but with his potential plus the physical, Gobert easily moves into the lottery if he does anything in the individual workouts. He was No. 16 in the last NBA.com ranking.
Jeff Withey, center from Kansas, is aware teams like him around the middle of the first round for defense and rebounding, and has been working to improve his mid-range and post game since the end of the season. The result was some positive feedback off drills in the gym.
Steven Adams, was the big man who impressed the most in that area, showing a mid-range game that didn’t get noticed in one season at Pittsburgh. That Adams is expanding his game is especially noteworthy as a relatively inexperienced player, and very inexperienced at a high level of competition, after learning the game in his native New Zealand. He is an aggressive, fluid 7-footer.
Dennis Schroeder, the German point guard making a late charge up draft boards, has singled out Utah and Milwaukee as preferred destinations on draft night. The disclosure is particularly relevant because the interest may be mutual and both will probably be picking in the right range, with the Jazz at 14 barring a long-shot climb into the top three on lottery night and the Bucks at 15. As Schroeder himself pointed out, the Jazz have the position need as Mo Williams heads into free agency (with a good chance they’d have the need even if Williams wasn’t). When asked what he considered the best place to start his NBA career, he mentioned Utah first. Milwaukee is a possibility with Brandon Jennings about to become a free agent. That draft-night decision by the Bucks, if Schroeder is available at 15, will be as much about weighing their future with Jennings as weighing Schroeder. And if they draft one and re-sign the other, it creates trade chips. Schroeder said he has scheduled a work out with the Rockets as well as the Jazz and Bucks. Houston picks 18, though. At this rate, he’ll be long gone.
McLemore-Shabazz Muhammad was once shaping up as the best matchup once individual workouts got underway for the top prospects following the lottery. No more. Now it’s Schroeder-Trey Burke, even if Michael Carter-Williams, not Schroeder, remains the second-best prospect among point guards. The warp speed of Schroeder, the tournament-tested experience of Burke, the drive of both – that’s a great show.
One GM, on Tony Mitchell, once a possibility for the lottery but now trying to hold on to a spot in the first round after a difficult season at North Texas: “He’s the best athlete here. It’s not even close. He’s a freak of nature.”
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS –Kevin Durant is not getting a pass around here. No excuses, no pardon, exoneration or any other escape hatch for the Oklahoma City Thunder’s failures in these NBA playoffs.
There will be no handouts for Durant or any other superstar who falls down on the big stage. Durant should be held to the same standard all of his contemporaries, past and present, have been held to in the annals of this game. You either win it all or you go home with nothing. It’s a fair trade-off and one that all superstars sign off on when they play.
That said, the rush to judge Durant after he struggled against the Memphis Grizzlies without Russell Westbrook is overcooked dramatically. The Thunder’s 3-6 postseason mark without Westbrook, who saw a torn meniscus in his knee end his season in the first round against Houston, says more about Westbrook’s value to his team than it does about Durant’s inability to lift them up on his own.
This notion that a lone superstar of any ilk will lead his team to a championship is a longstanding myth that needs to be debunked. It almost never happens. Not at the NBA level. Not in the past 40 years or so. The only exceptions to that statement might be the Hakeem Olajuwon-led Houston Rockets of 1993-94 and the Dirk Nowitzki-led Dallas Mavericks of 2010.
Magic Johnson didn’t do it alone. Larry Bird didn’t do it alone. Isiah Thomas didn’t do it alone. Michael Jordan didn’t do it alone. Shaquille O’Neal didn’t do it alone. Tim Duncan didn’t do it alone. And the list goes on.
Kobe Bryant had help (in the form of Pau Gasol and others) after serving as Shaq’s superstar partner and LeBron James tried to break the mold in Cleveland, only to find out that he needed Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami to seal the deal.
Contrary to Twitter wisdom, there is no shame in recognizing and realizing that reality. This need for someone to blame when things go wrong isn’t a new phenomenon. But it’s taken on epic proportions in the social media age. That’s why it’s fine to point out Durant’s breakdowns against the Grizzlies without absolving him of all responsibility.
He struggled mightily against a complete team that might not have a superstar of his caliber on its roster but is stronger collectively — something especially true when Durant’s superstar partner is out of commission. Jordan knows that better than anyone, having failed repeatedly against the Bad Boys Pistons before he and Scottie Pippen were able to finally stare down that demon.
Trials and tribulation are generally a prerequisite for NBA championship contention. The Grizzlies served that up aplenty in their conference semifinal conquest. Durant was met with defender after defender. He was the focal point of a Grizzlies defensive attack for which he and the Thunder had no counter-punch.
But that doesn’t mean you write Durant off now, not after all that he’s accomplished before his 25th birthday.
It’s not like he laid down for the Grizzlies anyway. He played 46 minutes a night in the series, averaged 29 points, 10.4 rebounds, 6.6 assists and 1.2 blocks, all done — save for Kevin Martin‘s Game 1 outburst — without any consistent supporting cast assistance. And basically every game went down to the wire. Durant, Westbrook and James Harden barely survived a seven-game series with these Grizzlies a couple of years ago, so there is no shame in falling to them under these circumstances.
To his credit, Durant stood up and accepted all of the blame. He didn’t shirk his responsibility as the Thunder’s leader. And with his track record and work ethic, you know his rigorous offseason routine will be fueled by this most recent failure.
His sudden crowd of detractors will, of course, label him and suggest that he just doesn’t have the fire or mean streak to be a champion because he chose to view this latest setback like the adult that he is. No, it’s not the end of his world. He doesn’t view the entire season as a complete waste of time, like Kobe claims he does when his season ends without confetti and a championship parade.
Save the drama, folks. You don’t have to give Durant a pass … he doesn’t want one and doesn’t deserve one.
Just give him the time to right whatever went wrong.
If he’s half the superstar you thought he was before this postseason, you won’t be disappointed.
OAKLAND, Calif. — Gregg Popovich manages Tim Duncan’s minutes all season long as if he were a pastry chef baking a souffle. Too long in the oven and everything can fall flat.
“It’s what we do,” says the Spurs coach.
Except how many coaches would do it with a two-point lead in the final 4 1/2 minutes of a close-out game in a playoff series that always seemed on edge?
But there were a couple of weak jumpers that seemed to come off tired legs and then an absent-minded crosscourt pass that nearly took the bald head right off the shoulders of referee Joey Crawford and wound up in the stands.
So that’s how Duncan came to watch the final scenes of his 200th career playoff game, a 94-82 win over the Warriors that put his Spurs back into the Western Conference finals.
“I don’t think he was giving me a break,” Duncan said, ruefully smiling and shaking his head. “I think I had played three or four pretty bad minutes in a row and he decided to go with something else.
“It is what it is and we were able to finish the series. I wish I could be out there, but honestly the way we playing and the way we finished it was the right move. So I’m happy for it.”
It is what it is and the Spurs are what they are, which is a more experienced, more mature, just plain better team than the one that bolted to a 2-0 lead over Oklahoma City in the conference finals in 2012 and then was steamrolled out in four straight defeats.
They’re a team that could have Tony Parker make only 1 of his first 13 shots and survive. They’re a team that could have Manu Ginobili go 1-for-6 and still advance. They’re a team that could have their 14-time NBA All-Star Duncan get the hook in the clutch and still go into the next round against the rugged Grizzlies as the team to beat.
“Oh, it won’t be pretty,” Duncan said looking ahead to the mud-wrestling match with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. But then again, neither was this and yet the Spurs somehow made it look like a work of art.
Maybe nobody but Popovich could have gotten away with sitting Duncan down at that critical point in the game. After Stephen Curry hit a jumper from the key to cut the Spurs’ lead to 77-75, Duncan made his wildly inaccurate pass and the Oracle crowd rose for one last deafening roar.
“I just made that choice,” Popovich said.
Probably no superstar of his stature would have accepted the seat on the bench with Duncan’s aplomb.
“Of course, as a player you want to be in there competing,” he said. “But you had other guys in there getting the job done, so it was obviously the thing to do.”
It is that union of coach and star, that steadiness that has enabled the Spurs to advance to the Conference finals for the eighth time — with four championships already — in Duncan’s career.
There was a time — just two years ago — when the Spurs were the No. 1 seed in the West and were unceremoniously run out of the playoffs by the No. 8-seeded Grizzlies. It was a series when Duncan limped in on a bad ankle, Ginobili played with what was later found to be a fractured elbow and the Spurs’ bench faltered. So Popovich chose to roll the dice with last-gasp veteran Antonio McDyess over a rookie named Tiago Splitter.
Two seasons later, Splitter was hitting 6 of 8 shots, scoring 14 points, grabbing four rebounds and holding his own on the inside of the defense while Duncan became a spectator.
Duncan and Ginobili are older now, but the Spurs are deeper with Splitter, Danny Green and the quietly deadly force of Kawhi Leonard stepping up. They’re a team that can see the in-full-bloom Parker miss 12 of his first 13 shots in the game and be confident that he’ll make the right choices and hit the big shots when needed.
Ginobili won the incredible double-overtime Game 1 of the series by hitting the game-winning shot on a night when he was 5-for-20 from the field. And even though he could hardly find the basket in Game 6, twice in the last three minutes, he drove toward the hoop, drew the defense to him and delivered perfect passes into the left corner that produced treys from Parker and Leonard.
The Spurs’ core that looked old and tired the last time they faced Memphis in the playoffs is older now, yet playing spryer because Popovich is so diligent about managing those minutes. However, there is also fresh blood running through those veins in Leonard, Green and Splitter that makes much of what’s happening this season possible.
Even stunning things like Duncan watching from the bench in the close-out stretch of a close-out game and nobody thinking twice.
With one starter out and another in foul trouble, the Pacers’ Achilles heel was on full display in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Thursday, an 85-75 victory for the New York Knicks that sends the series back to Indianapolis for Game 6 on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).
The Pacers now look a lot more vulnerable than they did just hours before Game 5, not just because their 3-1 series lead is now 3-2, but because starting point guard George Hill is out with a concussion he suffered in Game 4 on Tuesday. Hill’s status for Game 6 is unknown, but he must pass the NBA’s concussion testing before he can play again. (And if you read that link, you’ll probably guess that he won’t play again in this series, no matter who wins Saturday.)
D.J. Augustin, who started in Hill’s place on Thursday, is a decent back-up point guard and came up with a huge performance (16 points, 4-for-5 from 3-point range) in Game 1 of this series. But at 40 minutes per game, he’s a big step down from Hill. He scored 12 points on nine shots on Thursday, but didn’t record a single assist in 39 minutes.
Hill’s 26 points helped the Pacers win an ugly Game 4. And more important than his scoring is his ability to get his team into its offense. With one less point guard to call on, Paul George was needed to bring the ball up the floor at times, and the Pacers struggled to get much going offensively. They shot 36 percent and committed 19 turnovers (12 of them live balls), making things even worse by shooting 19-for-33 from the free throw line.
Hill’s absence was felt more on defense, where his size and tenacity has been a key to the Pacers’ ability to defend the Knicks’ pick-and-roll attack. Raymond Felton had a little more space on those pick-and-rolls in Game 5, with Augustin as his primary defender. And Indiana’s league-best defense was further compromised when Roy Hibbert picked up his second foul midway through the first quarter and his fourth foul early in the third.
That, in part, allowed the Knicks to awake from their offensive slumber, which is a scary thing for Indiana going forward. Mike Woodson‘s use of his own bench was another key.
Jason Kidd and Amar’e Stoudemire each played less than seven minutes, and neither saw the floor in the second half. Chris Copeland, who provided a (too-little, too-late) spark in Game 4, played a postseason-high 19:25, giving the Knicks some much-needed 3-point shooting and scoring 13 points.
“Copeland just has a knack for scoring,” Tyson Chandler said. “Anytime you get him in the game, he’s going to make something happen offensively. He’s been doing it all year. He came up huge for us tonight.”
After reaching for answers and coming up empty in Game 4, Woodson found something that worked on Thursday. The Knicks barely scored a point per possession, but that was plenty enough against what the Pacers were doing on the other end of the floor. J.R. Smith (4-for-11) didn’t shoot quite as poorly as he had been over the previous six games, and the New York bench outscored the Indiana bench 35-10.
Having a good bench isn’t necessarily about the points it scores, but rather the drop-off suffered when one or more starters are resting. And while the Pacers weren’t making any excuses after Game 5 – “I don’t think it has anything to do with it,” Frank Vogel said of Hill’s absence – the numbers speak for themselves.
In the regular season, Indiana’s regular starting lineup (with Hill at PG) scored 108.6 points per 100 possessions, while all other lineups scored just 98.5. That’s like the difference between the league’s third best offense and the league’s third worst offense. In this series, their regular starting lineup is a plus-21 in 92 minutes, while all other lineups are now a minus-28 in 148 minutes.
That’s a big drop-off. And with Hill likely out at least another game, Indiana must find a way to nudge that minus-28 closer to zero on Saturday. Otherwise, this series is coming back to New York for Game 7.
CHICAGO – NBA executives are raising the possibility that Shabazz Muhammad could fall out of the first top 10 picks in the NBA Draft and possibly the lottery entirely, the latest draft setback for the UCLA swingman who began the season in the conversation for the No. 1 pick.
Muhammad being on the board until the middle of the first round on June 27 was once inconceivable, and still is to some within the league, for a prospect with the potential to be a scoring star. But in noting his selfish play, poor body language and the new perspective after the discovery Muhammad had been lying about his age, some teams had turned shockingly cold as the annual pre-draft combine Thursday began the first of two days of drills and workouts.
One executive said, on the matter of Muhammad dropping in the draft, “I’m not saying it happens. But I wouldn’t be surprised.”
“Out of the lottery?” another personnel boss said. “I guess it’s possible.”
And from another head of basketball operations, without hesitation, when asked if Muhammad could fall from the top 14: “He could.”
The climate has turned so bad that another general manager savaged the prospect even while saying there is no chance Muhammad gets out of the lottery, and maybe doesn’t even reach double digits.
“It’s his overall attitude,” that executive said. “His presentation of himself. It’s an all-about-me presentation. I think that’s his biggest knock…. His selfish tendencies on the floor show up at certain times. But that’s what scorers do.”
Indeed, there is the possibility that Muhammad is in the common role of former high school phenom struggling to transition to the college game and now the pros, all with a large spotlight as a recruit expected to help rejuvenate a prominent program. It may simply be a matter of maturing, in play and personality.
Either way, Muhammad has a bad image as the draft approaches, and not just in the moment. Scouts and executives had been increasingly hard on him during his freshman season at UCLA, noting his selfish play with various versions of “He doesn’t get others involved,” the way a star should elevate an entire team. The concern among losing franchises that might take him near the top of the draft was that Muhammad would be little more than a stat stuffer. Clubs in the lottery that already had pieces in place worried that continued work as a volume scorer would create problems on a roster.
His play is the primary concern, but that hit also comes in the wake of the strange discovery in March by the Los Angeles Times that Muhammad, while listed as a 19-year-old by the school, was actually 20. While some teams have already gotten past the concern of what other secrets could jump out down the line, the real issue of the adjusted age became his development. He had been overpowering younger players in high school and some in the one college season, an advantage he would not have among grownups in the NBA, and he suddenly had one less year to develop. Muhammad, simply, was not as advanced for his age as once thought.
“I don’t think that’ll hurt me,” Muhammad said. “To know I’m 20, I’m still pretty young, one of the youngest guys in this draft. I’m just going to see where it takes me.”
Asked what questions he anticipates from teams once he sets a schedule for individual workouts following the lottery outcome on Tuesday night, Muhammad said, “It’s up in the air. It’s going to be really interesting, so I’m looking to that and looking forward to talking to teams and telling them a little bit more about myself.”
But, there will be birth-certificate questions.
“Probably so,” he said. “But I’m going to answer the questions truthfully and tell them what’s really going on.”
OAKLAND, Calif. — After spending the last four weeks pushing credulity to the limits with some of the shooting performances by Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, now the Warriors stand at the brink.
For the first time in the playoffs, Golden State’s Cinderella story approaches the stroke of midnight with the Spurs holding a 3-2 lead going into tonight’s Game 6 at the Oracle.
But that doesn’t mean the Warriors are thinking that their time has run out.
“This is one of those games where you win or you go home, almost like an NCAA tournament game,” said forward Carl Landry. “We have to go out there and not take any possessions off, and after the game, we shouldn’t have anything left. We shouldn’t be able to walk to our cars. It should all be left on the court.”
The cold, raw numbers say that in all previous best-of-seven NBA series that were tied at 2-2, the team that took Game 5 went on to win 83.3 percent of the time. The Spurs, of course won Game 5 in a 109-91 rout.
The last time the Warriors franchise faced an elimination game at home was in the first round of the 1994 playoffs. That’s a generation ago and it means nothing to this bunch that coach Mark Jackson says has “been touched by the hand of God.”
These Warriors have not lost back-to-back games so far in the playoffs, showing an ability to regroup every time they’ve been knocked down. So even with the mobility of Curry and center Andrew Bogut limited by injured left ankles, they’re believing.”
“I’m not worried about my guys,” Jackson said. “If you would have rewound this thing all the way back to Day 1 and said we’d have a Game 6 at home in the second round of the playoffs against the San Antonio Spurs after defeating the No. 3 seed (Denver), we would have taken it.
“So we’re thrilled about where we are. We don’t want our backs against the wall, but this is where we are today. It’s as simple of putting together 96 minutes of our brand of basketball.”