Posts Tagged ‘Manu Ginobili’

Crafty Carlisle puts Pop to the test

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com

Rick Carlisle (shown earlier this season) and the Mavs must be doing something right in the playoffs (Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE)

Rick Carlisle (shown earlier this season) and the Mavs must be doing something right in the playoffs
(Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE)

SAN ANTONIO – Ever since the Spurs and Mavericks were first paired up in the first round, Rick Carlisle hasn’t missed a chance to praise the wonders of Pop. Even before Gregg Popovich officially won the Coach of the Year award on Tuesday, Carlisle anointed him the undisputed king of the hill.

Then it was Coach of the Century. Followed by best coach in the league. Ever. Which pretty much covers the last 100 years.

If Carlisle, a former Coach of the Year winner and the last coach to lead a team from the Lone Star State to an NBA championship, wasn’t so dang syrupy in his admiration for Pop, you’d swear he was playing some kind of Jedi mind trick.

The eighth-seeded Mavs headed home Wednesday night filled with gusto after a thorough, 113-92 thrashing of Pop’s perplexingly bumbling top-seeded bunch. This best-of-seven series that many figured came with a black-and-silver broom is tied 1-1. And as noted late Wednesday night, this could well be Mavs, 2-zip.

Not that you could tell listening to Carlisle.

“The coaching matchup is a wipeout, really,” Carlisle said following Game 2. “I feel like I have boulders piled on top of me. This kind of thing, you know you’re playing the No. 1 seed and all that, you’ve got to dig as deep as you can. They’re going to come up with some things up their sleeve for Game 3 and we’re going to have to counter and be ready.

“I’ve said it: I think Pop’s the greatest coach in NBA history, and I don’t think it’s close.”

Still, it’s not like Popovich and the Spurs don’t know failure. The last time San Antonio entered the playoffs as the No. 1 seed, in 2011, it ended badly, with Memphis sending them home.

Carlisle and his staff came to San Antonio last Sunday with a tricked-up defensive scheme that the Spurs admitted caught them off guard. Dallas switched up matchups everywhere, closed out hard to limit 3-point shots — or at least limit the good ones — and barely went into its well-known zone.

This has been one of the league’s most porous defenses all season, yet they are completely discombobulating the clockwork-like precision of the almighty Spurs. San Antonio shot the ball well in Game 2 (50 percent overall and 50 percent from beyond the arc, as opposed to Game 1, in which they they shot 3-for-17 in threes) when they didn’t turn it over a season-worst 24 times.

Anybody not named Manu Ginobili is struggling from beyond the arc. He’s 8-for-12; everybody else is 5-for-25.

Surprisingly for Dallas, it’s success has come with Dirk Nowitzki wildly out of rhythm, having made just 11 of 33 shots. Monta Ellis came back with a good Game 2, but the Mavs have boosted their confidence with detailed defensive work and a team effort all around.

Can Carlisle keep weaving this magic against the Coach of the Century and the Western Conference reigning champs? Nowitzki half-joked that he wants to play Game 3 in San Antonio because Dallas hasn’t been very good at home. San Antonio led the league in road wins with 30, four more than the Mavs’ home win total.

With a 48-hour break between games giving ample time for both coaches to adjust, Popovich will go back to the drawing board, .

“We didn’t expect to go 16-0,” said Tim Duncan, who had 11 points in Game 2 after 27 in Game 1. “We’ll make adjustments. We’ll play better. It’s all we can do.”


VIDEO: The Mavericks evened the series with a win in San Antonio on Wednesday night

Mavs surprise as Spurs spin their wheels

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Dallas dominates San Antonio 113-92 in Game 2 to even series

SAN ANTONIO –series that’s bolted off-script boils down to one simple reason as to why that is: The eighth-seeded Dallas Mavericks have more players playing harder than the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs.

And now Gregg Popovich, the Coach of the Year whom his astute counterpart Rick Carlisle called the Coach of the Century, must figure out why that is.

And it could be worse. The Spurs were seven-minutes, 45 seconds and a trademark Dallas meltdown from heading a few hours up north down 0-2. Carlisle was so protective of Wednesday night’s 20-point lead that after Popovich emptied his bench with six minutes to go, Carlisle kept Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion and Monta Ellis out there for another three minutes.

“Having such a poor performance in the playoffs really bothers me,” said Spurs guard Manu Ginobili, whose sizzling shooting for a game-high 27 points was buried by a multitude of lazy, lackadaisical Spurs possessions and a season-worst 24 turnovers.

“We,” Ginobili continued, “are going to definitely have to play much, much better to have a chance in Dallas.”

To have a chance in Dallas? Where the Mavs’ 15 home losses, two to the Spurs, are the most of any West playoff team? That’s how strange this thing has become.

Here we are through two games and the sixth-most efficient offense in the league during the regular season is being choked at every turn by the eighth-least efficient defense. The Spurs’ offensive rating (98.6 points per 100 possessions) in the series is barely a tick better than the Charlotte Bobcats, who are matched up against the Heat. Their defensive rating (108.3 points per 100 possessions) would rank 28th in the regular season, just ahead of the Bucks and Jazz. That’s bad company.

And who would believe that the Mavs’ playoff defensive efficiency in these strange first two games would position them third in the regular season behind the Pacers and Bulls?

“We are mixing things up a lot and doing things we don’t really want to do, but we have to because they are such a potent team and they have such great players; they have the Coach of the Year,” Carlisle said. “It’s a monumental task, but we are in this thing to win.”

Dallas surprised San Antonio in Game 1 with a tweaked-up defense that switched on pick-and-rolls and was wholly focused on chasing the Spurs off the 3-point arc. It worked. The Spurs went 3-for-17 from deep and, again, were fortunate to pull it out late.

In Game 2, there were no surprises. San Antonio made 10 of its 20 3-point attempts, so that wasn’t the issue. Into the second quarter, the Spurs were shooting better than 70 percent, yet as their shooting percentage kept rising, so did their deficit. The culprit was nine turnovers in the first quarter and six more in the second. Then there were all those missed free throws: 18-for-29.

“It’s a bad combination to not play good defense at one end and give the ball up at the other end and not shoot free throws very well either,” Popovich said. “That’s a bad combination at both ends of the floor. That means you got your butt kicked and that’s what happened tonight.”

This cohesive, finely tuned engine is suddenly missing pistons. Topping the list is small forward Kawhi Leonard. Other than Ginobili, photos of San Antonio’s reserves should be plastered on milk cartons. Marco Belinelli, a key acquisition this summer who meshed so early and so well, has been nonexistent. Ditto for Patty Mills and Boris Diaw. Starting shooting guard Danny Green has six points in two games. Unlike Game 1, Parker and Tim Duncan didn’t find open real estate to the rim this time and combined for 23 points. Duncan had 27 and Parker scored 21 in Game 1.

For Dallas, which basically went 10-deep in Game 2, role players have provided such a boost that they’re in this position despite Nowitzki going 11-for-33 from the floor in the two games. Devin Harris has been sensational with 37 points on 15-for-25 shooting. Marion had 20 points, Ellis went for 21. Former Spur DeJuan Blair and the erratic Sam Dalembert provided real juice.

And point guard Jose Calderon, the tortoise trying to play against the hare, bounced back and scored all 12 of his points in the Mavs’ hugely important third quarter that they won 32-24.

See, just as Dallas built a 56-41 lead with a couple minutes left in the first half, San Antonio knocked it down to 56-51 at the half. It was their one and only spurt of the night.

“All season, sometimes we let up a bit and compete all the way until we get in trouble,” Nowitzki said. “I like our intensity right now. It is a little dangerous going home because we have been a decent road team all year. At home, we have not figured it out yet.”

For Mavs, line of demarcation is 3

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Mavs vs. Spurs, Game 2 preview

SAN ANTONIO – When Danny Green plays the Dallas Mavericks, he thinks fireworks. He kills Dallas from beyond the 3-point arc like no other team with a career-best 33 long balls in 12 regular-season games. Twenty-six of those 3s (on just 39 attempts) have come in the last two seasons, which includes him going 12-for-20 vs. the Mavs in four games this season.

So when Green got off just one 3-point attempt, and missed it, in the San Antonio Spurs’ skin-of-their-teeth Game 1 victory Sunday, it came as a significant surprise. The Mavs’ defensive strategy of switching coverages and chasing Green and the Spurs’ other sharpshooters — who averaged 10.5 made 3s on 24.3 attempts against Dallas this season — mostly worked. The Spurs, No. 1 in the league in 3-point percentage, went 3-for-17 in Game 1 with Manu Ginobili accounting for all three.

Just two weeks ago, the Spurs bombarded the Mavs with 16 made 3-pointers, a combined 11 from Green and Patty Mills, in a win at Dallas.

Where the pick-your-poison strategy narrowly backfired on Dallas was opening the middle for Tony Parker and Tim Duncan to work mismatches. Those two combined for 48 points with heavy damage inflicted in the paint, the difference in the 90-85 win.

But, as Dirk Nowitzki said after Game 1: “I guess two points is better than three points.”

The Spurs, who have won 10 consecutive games against the Mavs, enter tonight’s Game 2 (8 p.m. ET, NBA TV) anticipating that their neighbor to the north will again live and die by the same strategy.

“In regular season they didn’t switch as much, they’re playing pick-and-roll defense a lot differently,” Green said. “That’s the main difference in everything they’ve done defensively and that’s kind of slowed us up. I think the biggest thing is getting stops and just running; running and cutting and moving more.”

The Spurs’ assist number provide evidence of that slowing up. San Antonio is a precision-passing team and led the league in assists (25.2 apg) during the regular season. They had just 14 on 35 baskets in Game 1. The 90 points was the Spurs’ lowest output since using a makeshift lineup in a 96-86 loss at Chicago on Jan. 29.

“Regardless of what kind of defense they play,” Green said, “we have to continue to play how we play and that’s attack, drive-and-kick and find each other and make the extra pass.”

Both teams have had two days to reassess their options. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, named Coach of the Year for the third time Tuesday, was predictably coy as to how he expects Dallas coach Rick Carlisle to tweak his defensive approach, if at all.

“We’ll play the game and then find out what’s going on,” Popovich said. “No sense guessing.”

Pop led Spurs out of Finals doldrums

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Gregg Popovich accepts his third Coach of the Year award

SAN ANTONIO – Last summer was unlike any of the previous 17 in Gregg Popovich‘s career as coach of the San Antonio Spurs. The long days passed, but the doldrums from the Spurs’ heartbreaking Finals defeat to Miami bogged down like a stagnant lake in the Texas heat.

The 2013 championship was right there, 28 seconds from glory for a proud San Antonio franchise, the model of the NBA if not professional sports as a whole. But everybody knows what happened next. Popovich lived with it every day thereafter until he finally could not any longer, when the players returned to begin, somehow, a brand new season.

“The way we lost in the Finals wasn’t an ordinary loss; it was pretty devastating,” Popovich said Tuesday afternoon at the Spurs’ practice facility as he received the Red Auerbach Coach of the Year trophy. “And we decided that we would just face that right off the bat at the beginning of the season and get it out of the way; don’t blame it on the basketball gods or bad fortune or anything like that. The Miami Heat beat us and won the championship and that’s that, and you move on. In all of our lives there are many things more important than winning and losing basketball games and that’s the perspective we had to take. And our team showed great maturity and resilience in being able to do that, so I’m very proud of them for that.”

Their resiliency also came during a period of transition on the bench. Popovich’s longtime aids, Brett Brown and Mike Budenholzer, became head coaches.

But nothing seems to phase this group. With Manu Ginobili turning 36 over the summer and Tim Duncan celebrating his 38th birthday on Friday, neither had to return, or return in better shape than they finished the previous season. When this season could finally have been the one that signaled the inevitable descent it seems has been predicted for the past half-dozen seasons, the Spurs won 62 games, the second-most of Popovich’s 18-year career and earned home-court advantage throughout the playoffs with the league’s top record.

With the Spurs, everything is a collective effort. They win together, lose together and plan how to win again together.

“We’re fortunate,” Popovich said. “These guys don’t care about stats, they only care about winning basketball games. You might get a championship, you might not, but you give it your best effort. But these guys could all have better stats. I play them for 29 or 30 minutes a game in their careers and their stats suffer because of it, but that sacrifice helps our entire team. and this year, whatever adversity we had — every team has adversity — but our bench really helped us through that. We would not have had the same success without what our bench did. I think that and the leadership that our older players showed helped us get through the hard times.”

In accepting his third Coach of the Year trophy, joining only Pat Riley and Don Nelson as three-time winners, Popovich spoke sincerely. He praised owner Peter Holt for granting he and general manager R.C. Buford, who sat next to his friend of more than two decades at the table during the news conference, the freedom to do their jobs, and said he was humbled to be singled out among the many worthy candidates this season that included first-year coaches Jeff Hornacek at Phoenix and Steve Clifford at Charlotte, plus Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau, Portland’s Terry Stotts and others.

None faced quite the unpredictable psychological hurdle that Popovich did with his heartbroken team.

“I think his steadfast attention to detail and facing the realities of last season’s end and immediately getting it behind us was really important,” Spurs general manager Buford said. “And his approach with his staff was different because it was a different staff, but the energy and the leadership we’ve seen has been consistent throughout his time as a coach.”

But of course it wouldn’t be a Popovich press conference without a measure of snark, and Pop didn’t disappoint.

When asked about losing his two longtime assistants, he interrupted the questioner:  “Thank God.”

Asked where he displays his Coach of the Year trophies, Popovich said: “They’re on the hood of my car. … I’ve got three of those right on the hood.”

As a younger man, Popovich dreamed of a playing career in the NBA before turning to coaching, getting his start as an assistant at the Air Force Academy. Asked if he knew he wanted to coach in the NBA once he didn’t make it as a player, Pop responded: “Larry Brown screwed me as a player. He had the unmitigated gall to pick David Thompson over me back when he was the Nuggets coach.”

Brown, of course, is one of Popovich’s mentors and who helped him get to the NBA, a place Popovich said was never truly a goal. He said he would have been happy to live out his days where he spent his early coaching days at Division III Pomona-Pitzer College in California.

“For me, the NBA was watching on TV back when they had the long nets and watching the ball go through the long nets; I really enjoyed that,” Popovich said. “I was fat, dumb and happy as a Division III coach. I could do it the rest of my life, it was fantastic, I loved it. But all of us take a different road here and there. The NBA was never a dream or thought of, ‘I’m going to go to the NBA and be a coach and do this.’ I had no clue.

“We run a lot of the same drills to be honest with you, pivoting drills and sitting on chairs, silly things like that, but all fundamental basketball stuff. After that, let the players play. They know how to get it done.”

So, too, does Pop.

Pop (hmmph) picks up third Coach award

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: The best of Gregg Popovich (2013 playoffs)

SAN ANTONIO — Even after coaching 217 playoff games over the last 17 seasons, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich embarked on another postseason Sunday with butterflies swirling.

“Heck yeah,” Popovich quipped 90 minutes before the Spurs began their 17th consecutive playoffs under the coach everybody knows as ‘Pop.’ “If you don’t get nervous, you’re dead.”

The gruff Air Force Academy graduate is maybe the only coach in U.S. sports who has to come to be as celebrated for his typically terse exchanges with the media — particularly for his now famous, one-word retorts to television sideline reporters — as he is for his enduring legacy with a single franchise.

On Tuesday, Popovich, 65, added yet another layer to his rich, sure-fire Hall of Fame career as the recipient of the Red Auerbach Trophy as the 2013-14 NBA Coach of the Year. He led the Spurs to a 62-20 record, the best record in basketball, made more impressive because it came on the heels of a devastating loss last year in the NBA Finals.

“I feel very honored for a whole lot of reasons,” Popovich said at the news conference announcing the award. “First of all because there were so many coaches who did such a great job this year. I think it was really unique. A lot of people were really special and to be singled out is pretty humbling. I know I’ve been very lucky for a good number of years and I know full well I just represent part of what goes on here.”

It’s his third Coach of the Year honor and second in the last three years. He joins Don Nelson and Pat Riley as the only coaches to win the award three times. Popovich totaled 380 points, including 59 first-place votes, from a panel of 124 sportswriters and broadcasters throughout the United States and Canada.

First-year Phoenix Suns coach Jeff Hornacek finished second with 339 votes, Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau was third, Charlotte’s first-year coach Steve Clifford was fourth and Toronto’s Dwane Casey finished fifth in the voting. (Complete voting totals here.)

Popovich also won the award following the 2011-12 season and also for 2002-03, the season in which Manu Ginobili joined Tim Duncan and Tony Parker to form the Big Three. They won their first of three championships that season. (Popovich won another title with Duncan and David Robinson back in 1999.) The Spurs entered these playoffs as the reigning Western Conference champions, boasting the No. 1 seed and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.

That consistency is the hallmark of Popovich’s 18-year career in San Antonio. This season included a 19-game winning streak and only one losing streak of more than two games (three, back in late January). The Spurs extended their streak of winning at least 50 games to an NBA record 15 consecutive seasons.

The Spurs’ 62 wins is their second-highest total under Popovich, one fewer than the 2005-06 team. This team was an offensive juggernaut, ranking sixth in the league in offensive efficiency (points per 108.2 points per 100 possessions) and No. 1 in 3-point shooting at 39.7 percent. At the other end they ranked fourth overall in defensive efficiency and second in the Western Conference.

Popovich achieved it while masterfully managing his team’s minutes and particularly his two aging stars, Duncan, 38, and Ginobili, 36. Popovich limited every player on the roster to less than 30 minutes a game while nine players averaged at least 18.9 mpg.

“We saved minutes all year long so we could give those minutes come playoff time,” Popovich said.

Rick Adelman‘s announcement Monday that he was stepping down as coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves moved Popovich to the top of the list of career victories among active coaches — ninth on the all-time list — with a record of 967-443. Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers (644-498) is second and Dallas’ Rick Carlisle (569-339), who is matching wits with Popovich in their first-round playoff series, is third.

“Pop’s the best coach in the game and for my money he’s the best coach in history because of what he’s been able to do over a period of almost two decades, keeping the same system and just plugging in different players,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. “It’s been phenomenal.”

Popovich is the longest-tenured coach with the same team in all four major professional U.S. sports.

Old guys got job done for Mavs

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – The fate of this Dallas Mavericks season was placed on faith that their three aging, yet ultra-integral, players could stay healthy.

Dirk Nowitzki, 35, Shawn Marion, 35, and Vince Carter, 37, combined to play 237 of 246 games this season, every second essential as they won 49 games and pushed the franchise back into the playoffs. It will be seen if this trio of iron men have enough to shove the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs deep into a first-round series that begins Sunday (1 p.m., ET, TNT). Still, it’s been another legacy-making season for all three.

“For these old guys — our old guys — getting in the playoffs is huge,” reserve guard Devin Harris said. “Everybody wants to be competitive, especially since we don’t know how many years they have left. We want to make sure we compete at the highest level.”

Of the Mavs’ top minute men, Monta Ellis logged the most by a wide margin. The next four: Nowitzki, Jose Calderon, Marion and Carter.

“It’s a tribute to us three taking care of our bodies,” Nowitzki said. “We try to live right, we try to eat right and get our sleep. Ultimately, our guys do the maintenance stuff we need to do to still compete at a high level, whether it’s lifting or stretching or running in the pool or getting some extra cardio in, I think all three of us are willing to do that work and I think it shows.”

Marion completed his 15th regular season and played 76 games. Nowitzki and Carter each finished their 16th season. Nowitzki played in 80 games and Carter fired off the bench in 81. To push the top-seeded Spurs, who surround their three older players, Tim Duncan, a week from turning 38, Manu Ginobili, 36, and Tony Parker — who’s still just 31 — with a deep and youthful crew, Dallas will need vintage Dirk, an all-around effort from Marion and a 3-point bonanza from Carter.

“They could be sitting on the couch at home if they didn’t want to play, so there’s a reason they’re here,” 26-year-old reserve center Brandan Wright said. “They want to get back to the playoffs and make some things happen.”

Nowitzki led Dallas in scoring and moved to No. 10 on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. He joined Elgin BaylorKareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone as the only players in the history of the game to average at least 21 points and six assists at age 35 or older. He finished as close to a 50-40-90 season as possible without getting there in any of the three categories: 49.7 percent overall, 39.8 percent from 3-point range and 89.9 percent from the free throw line.

Marion finished second on the team in rebounding after being first the previous two seasons. The 6-foot-7 small forward is now 35th on the NBA’s all-time rebounding list, and 17th on the all-time steals list.

Carter moved to No. 25 on the all-time scoring list last weekend and he moved up to No. 7 on the all-time 3-pointers made list. He drained more 3-pointers this season (146) than any player in the league off the bench, and more than only Calderon on the team despite logging nearly 500 fewer minutes.

“An injury to Vince off the bench would have been devastating for us,” Nowitzki said. “He’s a big scorer and we need him out there for us.”

This could be the final season in Dallas for Marion, the last remaining member with Nowitzki from the 2011 title team, and Carter. Both veterans are in the final year of their contracts. There’s already whispers that Marion would be a logical fit to replace the retiring Shane Battier in Miami. Carter has said he’d like to remain with Dallas for a fourth season.

“I do all the things I need to do just to compete because every night I step on the floor there’s guys who I’m guarding who are 10, 12 years younger than me,” Carter said. “So how can I compete? I just put my work in.”

Just three seasons ago after being traded from Orlando to Phoenix, Carter’s career seemed to be headed for a final sunset. But he’s been reinvigorated in Dallas, accepting a sixth man role and one of the top 3-point shooters going, hitting at a 39.4-percent clip.

“I think he wasn’t really happy with the role he had there,” Nowitzki said. “Sometimes they would just put him in the corner and he felt like he wasn’t really involved; that’s how it looked to me. Here, he can do whatever he wants. He’s got the ultimate green light off the bench. He knows we need him.”

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.

Sixth Man Of the Year: Jamal Crawford

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Jamal Crawford has made a strong case for Sixth Man of the Year

There came a point this season where Jamal Crawford was starting so many games as an injury fill-in that it seemed impossible he’d be eligible to make another run at the Kia Sixth Man of the Year award.

He won it in 2010 with Atlanta and he thought he should have won it last season with the Clippers. Instead J.R. Smith of the New York Knicks — remember him? — took the prize. This season, the Clippers wouldn’t be in control of the Western Conference’s No. 3 seed and in line to nab the No. 2 seed with a bit of help (an Oklahoma City loss) before tonight’s season finale at Portland (10:30 p.m., ET, ESPN).

Whether Crawford was coming off the bench, where he’s averaged 17.2 ppg and 3.1 apg, or putting up 20.6 ppg and 3.3 apg in 23 games as a starter in place with either J.J. Redick or Chris Paul or both out, Crawford’s playmaking and shot-making have been invaluable. The lone blemish on his resume is the left calf injury that kept him out of all but eight games since the end of February.

Two games before the calf injury occurred on Feb. 26, Crawford scored 36 points in 40 minutes as a starter to help the Clippers win at Oklahoma City. It was his 11th game of 25 points or more and fourth of 30 points or more. Since, he’s made it five with 31 points in 35 minutes off the bench on March 26 at New Orleans.

“I don’t want to toot my own horn,” Crawford told NBA.com after that Thunder game. “I think I’ve been a professional, honestly. Starting, coming off the bench, being ready at all times, I pride myself on that.”

Crawford certainly faces stiff competition. Candidates include San Antonio’s resurgent Manu Ginobili, Chicago’s rugged Taj Gibson, Phoenix’s Markieff Morris, the Los Angeles Lakers’ Nick Young, Oklahoma City’s Reggie Jackson and even Dallas’ Vince Carter.

Yet none electrify a game and their team with scoring outbursts quite the way Crawford can. Boasting one of the game’s great handles, the 14th-year guard can still live up to his nickname and Twitter handle, @JCrossover, defying foes with tremendous moves off the bounce to get to the rim. He splashes 3-pointers with a rainbow release from virtually any distance, connecting on the 3-ball at a 36.2 percent clip.

His 18.4 scoring average, significantly higher than any of the other candidates, would rank as the third-highest by a Sixth Man of the Year Award winner in the last 20 years behind only Jason Terry (19.6 in 2009 with Dallas) and Ginobili (19.5 in 2008). Crawford would become the oldest player to win the award and he’d join Kevin McHale, Ricky Pierce and Detlef Schrempf as two-time winners.

“Growing up, it wasn’t like I wanted to be a sixth man,” Crawford recently told Ramona Shelbourne of ESPN Los Angeles. “It only happened because I got to this point where I just wanted to win more than anything. When you bring one of your top scorers, your top players off the bench, it really gives your team balance.”

The contenders

Manu Ginobili, Spurs – A year ago it seemed the Argentine might have come to the end of his rope after a glorious NBA and international run. He looked slow and out of sorts, particularly in the NBA Finals. But he came back to the Spurs, 36 years of age, and put together an inspiring bounce-back season, averaging 12.4 ppg, 4.3 apg and 3.0 mpg in 22.8 mpg.

Taj Gibson, Bulls – There should be an award for the entire Bulls team, maybe the Perseverance Award or something. Gibson continues to get better and often pushed Carlos Boozer off the floor in the fourth quarter. His larger role pushed his minutes per game up by five and he responded with 13.1 ppg, a five-point increase from last season, and 6.8 rpg, up 1.5.

Markieff Morris, Suns – Also a Most Improved Player of the Year candidate, averaging career-highs by a wide margin with 13.8 ppg and 6.0 rpg. He’s transformed himself into a dangerous mid-range shooter, making 48.6 percent of his shots, up from 40.7 percent last season and 39.9 percent as a rookie. Morris was vital to the Suns’ 47 wins with one game to go.

Reggie Jackson, Thunder – He got his training on the fly during the 2013 postseason. Since then, he’s provided the Thunder with stability and scoring off the bench as well as in the starting lineup during Russell Westbrook‘s absences. Jackson is averaging 13.1 ppg, fourth on the Thunder, 4.2 apg and 3.9 rpg in 28.5 mpg. He averaged 5.3 ppg and 14.2 mpg last season.

Vince Carter, Mavericks – Carter has kept himself in tip-top physical condition and, at 39.5 percent, has transformed himself into a dangerous 3-pointer shooter. No player in the league has come off the bench and dropped more than Carter’s 145. He’s played in all but one game this season, averaging 12.0 ppg, 3.5 rpg and 2.7 apg in 24.3 mpg.

Nick Young, Lakers – Swaggy P had his swaggy moments, like celebrating a 3-pointer that didn’t drop, but the L.A.-born sixth man was mostly money for the injury-riddled Lakers. He led the team in scoring with a career-high 17.9 ppg while hitting 38.6 percent of his 3-point attempts, his highest percentage since 2010-11.

Mills ready to fire away for Spurs

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Patty Mills hangs 26 points and six assists on the Mavs on April 10

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Meet Patty Mills, the latest once-anonymous, low-minute man to thrive as a meaningful member of the San Antonio Spurs.

In a game last week at Dallas, a bad back sidelined All-Star point guard Tony Parker. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has typically started Cory Joseph in these instances to keep Mills firing off the bench. On this night, with the Mavericks desperate for a win as they chased a playoff spot, Popovich surprised the 6-foot Mills by starting him at point guard for just the second time this season.

Mills responded by destroying Dallas’ backcourt with six 3-pointers and a game-high 26 points, six assists, a couple steals and not a single turnover in 36 minutes. If you squinted, it almost looked like the jitterbug wearing No. 8 was really Parker’s No. 9. The Spurs won the game, going on to sweep the regular-season series 4-0 against a Mavs team they might see again this weekend when the playoffs begin.

The first-round matchup will be determined Wednesday when Dallas plays at Memphis (8 p.m. ET, ESPN). The loser will assume the eighth seed and head for San Antonio. The Grizzlies are also 0-4 against the Spurs.

After the big victory over Dallas, Mills was asked if he finds himself looking ahead to the playoffs considering he’s headed for his first postseason as an integral part of a rotation.

“No, no, and obviously it’s not easy to do,” Mills said in a softly spoken Australian accent. “You really need to focus on the job at hand and we’ve got games like tonight we’ve still got to play which are going to develop us and give us a good opportunity to get better against playoff teams.”

He quickly added: “I think whether we won or lost tonight’s game, I think it was a matter of how well we played that we came out of this game, you know, better.”

It reminded of the line Popovich delivered earlier this month to his club during TNT’s timeout peek into the Spurs’ huddle at Oklahoma City:

“I could care less whether we win or lose this game. I’d rather win but I want to win the right way.”

Mills, told he sounded much like Pop, said with a grin: “I’ve been around him for a while now, so…”

Hailing from Canberra, Australia, Mills, 25, played two seasons at Saint Mary’s in Northern California and was the 55th pick of the Portland Trail Blazers in 2009. During the 2011 lockout he returned to Australia and went to China briefly. San Antonio signed him in March 2012 and re-signed him the ensuing summer. In his first full season with the Spurs, Mills averaged 11.3 mpg and 5.1 ppg in 58 games.

When the Spurs didn’t re-sign long-distance shooting guard Gary Neal  last summer, the 180-pound, quick-footed Mills ascended into the rotation.

“He can score,” Popovich said. “He’s not afraid to shoot it, that’s for sure. That’s how he plays, he’s always aggressive, that’s what he does. He’s not going to get a whole lot of rebounds or stop a whole lot of people, but he’s going to shoot it, that’s what his skill is.”

Logging a career-high 18.3 mpg in 80 games this season, Mills, making $1.1 million in his final season under contract, is averaging 10.2 ppg and converting 42.5 percent of his 3-point attempts (134-for-315) — both better marks than Neal produced last season.

Mills’ effective field-goal percentage (eFG%, adjusted for 3-pointers being more valuable than 2-pointers) is 59.4 percent, the highest in the league among reserve guards who average at least 15.0 mpg.

However, he’s entering an all new ballgame now. His postseason experience consists of scarce minutes, a total of 79 in his career. Is he prepared to produce as he has during the regular season in his first playoff pressure-cooker?

“I don’t doubt him,” Manu Ginobili said. “He’s very young and doesn’t have that much experience, but he’s played big games for Australia, and in the Olympics. The guy can score. The guy is a scorer and I don’t see a scenario where pressure can really bother him. We trust him and rely on him, too.”

Mills is fully indoctrinated in the San Antonio way. Popovich last week provided his seal of approval.

“He’s ready,” Popovich said. “He’s not a 21-year-old rookie. He’s played all over the world in all kinds of situations. He’ll be fine. I’m not worried about him.”

Streaking Spurs still manage minutes

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: GameTime’s crew discusses the Spurs’ chances at another Finals run

It’s not about streaks, even for a team that has now won 19 games in a row.

Streaks get you headlines and shout-outs on SportsCenter. The Spurs don’t care about headlines or SportsCenter.

It’s not about records, even for a team that has managed to put together an amazing string of 15 consecutive seasons where they have won at least 50 games.

Records get you mentioned in bar bets and trivia contests. The Spurs don’t care about bar bets or trivia contests.

It’s not about nationally televised, so-called statement games, even if it’s against your top rival in the Western Conference and your potential biggest roadblock on a return drive to The Finals.

Statements only matter when they come from the last team standing. The Spurs don’t care about statements until June.

Through all of the hype and noise that will surround tonight’s clash with the Thunder in Oklahoma City (8 ET, TNT), the Spurs shrug and keep an eye on just one number — minutes played.

“We’ve never had any numerical or positioning goals, ever. Not one time,” coach Gregg Popovich told Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News. “We’ve never talked about it one time the entire time I’ve been here. The only thing we’ve talked about is trying to be the best team we can be come playoff time. That’s what we harp on, period.”

The Spurs are four games up on the Thunder and another win might put the No. 1 seed in the West and the NBA’s best overall record on ice.

In a bit of poetic coincidence, the Spurs will try to push their streak to 20 against the team that stopped them the last time they were on such a run. San Antonio won the final 10 games of the 2011-12 regular season and the first 10 games in the playoffs to build a 2-0 lead on OKC in the conference finals. But the Thunder then did a complete reversal, winning four straight to bounce the Spurs.

However, this will also be the Spurs’ fifth game in seven nights, the kind of meat grinder stretch of the schedule that has often meant a night of rest and relaxation for the team’s older stars — soon-to-be 38-year-old Tim Duncan, 36-year-old Manu Ginobili and even 31-year-old Tony Parker.

If there is a “Pop Principle,” it is managing minutes and keeping legs fresh for the playoffs. Of course, he spent $250,000 of the franchise’s money as the result of a fine from Commissoner David Stern last season to stand on that principle when he sent several veterans home from a ballyhooed TNT game at Miami.

The Spurs are one of only two teams in the league with just a single player playing more than 30 minutes per game this season. The other is the Bucks, who have the NBA’s worst record.

The 30.1 minutes averaged by Parker is the lowest since his rookie year. That cutback was necessitated after the Spurs went to Game 7 of The Finals last year and then, Parker played competitively into September for the French national team that won the EuroBasket title.

“I know what Pop’s trying to do,” Parker said. “You have to look at the big picture and the playoffs. I’m going to trust his judgment and try my best to stay in rhythm. Sometimes it’s tough, but we’re winning, that’s the main thing. If I can be fresh for the playoffs, that’s my main goal.”

Ordinarily, it might be hard to hold Parker back from himself. But he has seen Popovich do it again and again to protect Duncan and Ginobili from their competitive instincts and the result since the All-Star break has been a Spurs team that is as healthy, in rhythm and confident.

This is the kind of game that outside forces — fans, media — tend to think means a lot. After all, the Spurs are 0-3 against the Thunder this season and have lost nine of the 11 times they’ve played. It’s time to prove a point, they’ll say.

The Spurs don’t care about proving points, just saving legs. For two more weeks until the playoffs start.


VIDEO: The Thunder talk about tonight’s big showdown with the Spurs