Posts Tagged ‘Patty Mills’

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.”

Spurs get a scare; 3-team race tightens

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Spurs post ninth straight win against Mavs.

DALLAS – Gregg Popovich said it all happened so fast he didn’t have time to fear the worst. Manu Ginobili said the players looked at each other, gritted their teeth, and got a little worried. Patty Mills, the Spurs’ hero Thursday night, flat-out called seeing Tim Duncan on the floor clutching his right knee, a full-on panic.

“I panicked. I felt like my heart skipped a beat,” said Mills, who poured in a game-high 26 points that included six 3-pointers as injured starter Tony Parker‘s body double in the San Antonio Spurs’ 109-100 victory over the Dallas Mavericks. “I wanted to run back and see if he was all right, but then I was trying to foul someone so play could stop.”

The silence that surely enveloped the entire city of San Antonio could be sensed 270 miles to the north in Dallas. And why not? Even Duncan, who hyperextended the knee only to be just fine moments later after a brief stop to the training room, deemed it “very, very scary.”

“I was trying to get my bearings after it happened,” Duncan said. “The pain wasn’t that bad, but I knew it felt kind of weird; it went at kind of a weird angle. I just wanted to make sure everything was fine.”


VIDEO: Duncan admits he was scared by tweaked knee.

Was it ever. The ageless Duncan, two weeks removed from his 38th birthday, quickly returned and bludgeoned Dallas for 20 points and 15 rebounds in 39 minutes, 17 seconds — 51 seconds shy of his season high. Kawhi Leonard was brilliant with 16 points, 16 rebounds and five assists, and Mills and Danny Green combined for 11 of the Spurs’ 16 3-pointers as San Antonio kicked its one-time rival, and potential first-round playoff opponent, for a ninth consecutive time.

San Antonio (61-18) now virtually has the No. 1 seed locked up. One more win in the Spurs’ final three games or an Oklahoma City loss will do it.

“We want to end it as healthy as possible and we want to lock it up,” said Duncan, who described the regular season as dragging following last season’s heartbreak in the Finals. “We’ve come this far and we’ve worked this hard, we want to get it locked up, so another great step.”

Meanwhile for the Mavs (48-32), Thursday night continued a string of frustrating home losses. They went 4-4 on their recent franchise-long homestand, then followed it up with four straight road wins to seize the driver’s seat in the fight for the final two spots in the Western Conference with Phoenix and Memphis.

Now they’ve slipped back into eighth, behind Phoenix (47-31), while No. 9 Memphis stayed alive with Wednesday’s rousing home win over the Heat. The Mavs, Suns and Grizzlies all play each other starting Saturday night.

Thursday’s combo of the Mavs’ loss and Duncan’s massive minutes only increases the intrigue for Friday night when the rested Suns play at San Antonio before coming to Dallas for a Saturday night showdown.

Asked about playing against the Suns, Duncan said he’d go 45 minutes.

“At least 45,” he added, tongue firmly planted in cheek.

Popovich said he planned to enjoy the victory for a half-hour before delving into lineup possibilities against the Suns.

It would be highly surprising if Duncan suits up. Parker is also not expected to be back. Ginobili, who played Thursday despite a sore left calf, said he felt fine after the game and would wait to see what Popovich decides for Friday night. Whoever’s in or out shouldn’t enter the Suns’ minds. This is the Spurs. This is what they do.

Meanwhile, Memphis figures to stay in the hunt Friday with a home date against Philadelphia. The Grizzlies have won 12 in a row at the Grindhouse.

Dirk Nowitzki, who two nights ago celebrated moving into 10th place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, lamented another lost opportunity at home. He finished 8-for-14 from the floor for 19 points, but managed just two points on two shot attempts in the fourth quarter when Monta Ellis finally heated up after a ragged 5-for-16 shooting start through the first three quarters.

Nowitzki, a season-long League Pass subscriber, said he’ll be tuning in for Suns-Spurs.

“I’ll probably come back tomorrow night [to the arena] a little bit and shoot, get a little rhythm, but I’m definitely going to catch the second half,” Nowitzki said. “I’ll tune in, we’ll see what happens. San Antonio’s got No. 1 locked up as far as I know, so who knows what they’re going to do.”

Numbers reveal four strong MIP candidates

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The Kia Most Improved Player award is thought of as the most nebulous of the six major end-of-season awards and typically gets the widest range of votes. Last season, though Paul George finished with a vote total of more than twice that of any other player, 15 different players received at least one first-place vote and another 18 received at least one vote for second or third place.

But the award also lends itself to simple statistical analysis. It should be fairly simple to determine whose numbers have improved most from season to season.

If you want to get real simple, we can just compare the raw numbers, using the efficiency statistic.

Biggest increase, total efficiency

Player Season 2012-13 2013-14 Diff.
Kevin Love 6 372 2,060 1,688
Terrence Jones 2 147 1,048 901
Miles Plumlee 2 20 894 874
Andre Drummond 2 826 1,561 735
Andrew Bogut 9 418 1,103 685
Khris Middleton 2 167 836 669
Timofey Mozgov 4 174 837 663
Gerald Green 7 319 923 604
John Wall 4 949 1,511 562
James Anderson 4 180 740 560
DeAndre Jordan 6 1,079 1,638 559
Anthony Davis 2 1,167 1,705 538
Jordan Hill 5 275 810 535
Jeremy Lamb 2 48 579 531
Dirk Nowitzki 16 1,005 1,531 526
Jared Sullinger 2 454 975 521
Tony Wroten 2 84 601 517
Trevor Ariza 10 637 1,151 514
Reggie Jackson 3 465 955 490
Richard Jefferson 13 200 678 478

Efficiency = PTS + REB + AST + STL + BLK – TO – Missed FGA – Missed FTA

At this point, the big question has to be asked: Should second-year players be considered for the Most Improved Player award? If not, we can eliminate several guys on the list above, though both Terrence Jones and Miles Plumlee – two starters on Western Conference playoff teams — feel like strong candidates. Only two of the top 10 in last year’s voting — Nikola Vucevic (4th) and Chandler Parsons (10th) — were second-year players.

There are also a handful of veterans on the list who missed large chunks of last season with injuries, though Kevin Love and Trevor Ariza are having the best seasons of their careers.

Timofey Mozgov and Gerald Green are interesting candidates, but were both out of their team’s rotations last season, so their improved raw numbers may also be about opportunity.

But Mozgov’s name comes up when we look at PIE improvement. PIE takes a player’s numbers (with weights added to each) as a percentage of the overall numbers that were accumulated while he was on the floor. So it adjusts for pace and there’s a team-success element to it, because if your opponent doesn’t score as many points or grab as many rebounds your individual number will be higher.

Biggest increase, PIE

2012-13 2013-14
Player Season MIN PIE MIN PIE Diff.
James Johnson 5 879 5.3% 836 11.5% 6.2%
DeMarcus Cousins 4 2,289 13.2% 1,978 18.3% 5.1%
Kevin Love 6 618 14.4% 2,438 19.4% 5.0%
Markieff Morris 3 1,837 7.5% 1,864 12.3% 4.8%
Lance Stephenson 4 2,278 8.8% 2,487 13.0% 4.2%
Kris Humphries 10 1,191 9.2% 1,272 13.3% 4.1%
Bismack Biyombo 3 2,186 6.3% 957 10.1% 3.8%
Kendall Marshall 2 702 5.8% 1,270 9.6% 3.8%
Draymond Green 2 1,061 5.1% 1,481 8.9% 3.8%
Timofey Mozgov 4 366 6.9% 1,479 10.5% 3.6%
Xavier Henry 4 625 3.9% 895 7.5% 3.6%
Patty Mills 5 656 8.2% 1,306 11.7% 3.4%
Marco Belinelli 7 1,882 7.0% 1,749 10.3% 3.3%
Avery Bradley 4 1,435 4.9% 1,602 8.1% 3.3%
Andrew Bogut 9 786 9.2% 1,661 12.5% 3.3%
Isaiah Thomas 3 2,121 10.6% 2,450 13.8% 3.2%
Anthony Davis 2 1,846 13.5% 2,248 16.6% 3.0%
Marcus Morris 3 1,524 6.7% 1,601 9.7% 3.0%
Brandon Knight 3 2,366 8.2% 2,051 11.2% 3.0%
Alec Burks 3 1,137 7.4% 1,909 10.4% 3.0%

Minimum 300 minutes in 2012-13 and 800 minutes in 2013-14

Love, Mozgov and Andrew Bogut are the only players on both lists. But Bogut had better seasons in Milwaukee and Love’s increase is just 1.0 percent over his third season in the league. Mozgov has taken a decent jump, but still isn’t a real impact player in the league.

Based on the above lists and deeper dives into the numbers, there are four non-second-year candidates that stand out.

Marco Belinelli, Spurs

Choosing between the Spurs’ two back-up guards is tough, because Patty Mills‘ play has been eye-opening. But Belinelli has had a bigger role on the league’s best team.

Belinelli’s points per game have increased from 9.6 season last season (with Chicago) only to 11.4 this year. And he averaged more than that (11.8) two seasons ago with New Orleans. But he’s having, by far, the best shooting and rebounding seasons of his career.

Among 168 players who have attempted at least 100 shots from the restricted area each of the last two seasons, Belinelli (51.9 percent last season, 70.2 percent this season) ranks second in improvement, behind only Love.

Among 139 players who have attempted at least 100 mid-range shots each of the last two seasons, Belinelli (35.9 percent, 44.0 percent) ranks sixth in improvement.

And among 126 players who have attempted at least 100 3-pointers each of the last two seasons, Belinelli (35.7 percent, 43.7 percent) ranks fifth in improvement.

No other player is in the top 25 of all three lists, and only one (Markieff Morris) is in the top 10 of more than one. It certainly helps (quite a bit, one could argue) that Belinelli has gone from a bottom-10 offensive team last season to a top-10 offensive team this year. But he also ranks 10th in improved rebounding percentage among players who have played at least 1,000 minutes each of the last two seasons.

DeMarcus Cousins, Kings

Boogie has seen a jump in both usage (USG%) and scoring efficiency (TS%). Though he’s still not a great shooter (his 49.3 effective field-goal percentage is below the league average), he has gone to the line a lot more than he ever has. He has also rebounded at a career-high rate.

Defensively, he’s not exactly Roy Hibbert or Kevin Garnett, and transition defense is a major problem. But the Kings have been almost six points per 100 possessions better defensively with Cousins on the floor. He’s a plus-62 for a team that’s 25-46.

Cousins’ teammate Isaiah Thomas seems like another good candidate and is 16th on the most-improved PIE list above. But his scoring effective field-goal percentage and true shooting percentage have barely budged (his 3-point percentage and free-throw percentage have gone down), and his numbers jump is mostly about an increased usage rate and a small jump in assist rate.

Markieff Morris, Suns

If you could vote for the Morris twins as one entity, that would be the clear favorite. You can’t, but Markieff (No. 11 in your programs) should be on the short list.

He’s been a much more efficient player this season, even though his usage rate has jumped quite a bit. And the Suns, who are an improved defensive team, have been better on that end of the floor with Markieff in the game.

As referenced above, he’s the ninth most improved mid-range shooter in the league and also ninth most improved in the restricted area. He’s played about the same number of minutes as he did last season and he’s gone to the line more than twice as many times.

With both Morris twins, Plumlee, Gerald Green and Goran Dragic all worthy of some consideration for Most Improved, it’s obvious that Jeff Hornacek should be in the running for Coach of the Year.

Lance Stephenson, Pacers

Like Cousins and Morris, Stephenson has seen a big jump in both usage rate and efficiency. But he’s also the most improved rebounder among 203 players who have logged at least 1,000 minutes each of the last two seasons, with his rebounding percentage jumping from 7.5 percent to 11.4 percent (best among guards).

Stephenson still has some improving to do. He’s a below-average shooter from outside the paint and his turnover rate has jumped as he’s been asked to handle the ball more. But overall, he’s taken a step forward this season.

Morning Shootaround — March 27


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 26

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Pacers, Heat a true playoff atmosphere | Players noticing Jackson-front office discord? | Gasol (vertigo) will miss L.A.’s road trip | Popovich pinpoints Mills’ emergence

No. 1: Pacers, Heat provide a tasty playoff preview — If you somehow managed to miss last night’s Heat-Pacers showdown from Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indiana, do yourself a favor and catch the game on League Pass this morning. It’s OK, we’ll wait till you’re done … so, now that that’s out of the way, you had to leave that game feeling like most of us did — when can the playoffs start already? Our Steve Aschburner was on the scene last night in Indy and has more from the classic, modern-day rivalry we all saw last night:

Surely, Washington and Detroit would understand. Same with Cleveland and Milwaukee and the other teams on the Indiana Pacers’ and Miami Heat’s schedules over the short term.If the NHL could shut down for a few weeks to accommodate the Winter Olympics, the NBA and its member teams no doubt would oblige by staging the Eastern Conference finals now, wouldn’t they?

This one – Pacers 84, Heat 83 – was that special. And raggedy. And nasty. And hot.

There were grimaces and grumbles in the visitors’ dressing room afterward, smiles and a couple of exhales over on the home team’s side, and for a night – portending, soon enough, a fortnight – all was right with the NBA world.

Not all right in the sense that Miami lost and, with it, an opportunity to squeeze the Pacers a little harder in that chase for the East’s No. 1 seed. But all right in the way storm clouds over both teams got shoved aside by the sun burst of playoff-worthy basketball from all involved.

Emotions ran hot, as evidenced by the dueling technical fouls on Lance Stephenson and Dwyane Wade for barking close in the third quarter. Later, both were gone, done in by their respective fatal flaws: Stephenson’s immaturity and Wade’s assorted ailments.

Physically, this was May, not March. James, one of the league’s brawniest players, was in the thick of it. On one play, he got dragged down by Indiana big man Ian Mahinmi. It was reviewed as a flagrant foul but recast as a shooting foul. Next, he was whacked hard by Luis Scola, his recently broken nose taking impact. It too was reviewed as a flagrant but recast as a common foul.

How perfect was this stuff? There had been no handshakes before the game, no chit-chat or fraternity hugs. There certainly won’t be any next time, not now, not after the bodies spent sprawling and the blood spilled Wednesday.

But best of all, as West saw it, Indiana matched Miami in rugged play and giving as good as they got. With the game in their gym, they felt they had a solid chance to stay even on the whistles.

“They’re a tough team and psychologically, against most teams, they have the edge,” West said. “They have the best player in the game. Wade and Bosh are Hall of Fame guys. They’ve got that pedigree, their entire organization. You understand what you’re gonna get.”

Better than that, fans of both teams and the league in general understand what they’re gonna get when these two teams meet again. And, soon enough, again and again and again.


VIDEO: Hibbert, George power Indy’s big win over Miami

***

No. 2: Players noticing Warriors’ discord? — As we mentioned in this space yesterday, the Warriors were on the verge of reassigning assistant coach Brian Scalabrine at the behest of coach Mark Jackson. That move went through yesterday as Scalabrine was sent down to Golden State’s NBA D-League affiliate, but a bigger issue may be bubbling to the forefront. One point brought up in the Scalabrine demotion was the notion that Jackson clashed with his former assistant, current Kings coach Michael Malone, last season. Both Malone and Jackson denied that talk, but as Marcus Thompson of the Mercury News points out, players are noticing the rifts between Jackson and the front office:

Stephen Curry’s comments may not have been surprising. But I get the feeling they were calculated.

“I love coach and everything he’s about,” Curry told reporters after practice on Wednesday.

This new drama related to Mark Jackson demoting Brian Scalabrine is the latest example of a trend some players have noticed – management may not be so high on Jackson. Curry is clearly one of them, perhaps the most important. And his unabashed support of Jackson is undoubtedly a message.

Once again, Warriors management has decided not to publicly support Jackson. That trend isn’t lost on a few players who staunchly supports their coach. A few players expressed the dismay at the lack of favor Jackson has despite the success he’s enjoyed the last two seasons. They see that Jackson simply had the final of his year picked up and was not given his extension. They took note when co-owner Joe Lacob told Tim Kawakami he was disappointed and had some concerns about Jackson. And while Jackson has been constantly under attack, they’ve noticed no one has come out to Jackson’s defense.

Now that the Bay is abuzz about this Scalabrine news, and questioning Jackson, management has chosen to stay quiet.

Multiple players have told me they get the sense Jackson could end up leaving – whether it is by Jackson’s choice or management’s. Whether these divisive undercurrents are problematic remains to be seen. It may even help, if they play harder for him if they feel their coach is under appreciated. Or, what if the message from management starts to filter into the pysche of the players? Will they invest as much in a coach they might see is on his way out or that management doesn’t want around?


VIDEO: Steph Curry and Mark Jackson talk after Wednesday’s practice

***

No. 3: Lakers’ Gasol (vertigo) to miss two more gamesPau Gasol hasn’t suited up for the L.A. Lakers since he played 19 minutes in a 103-94 victory over the Orlando Magic on March 23. Since then, Gasol has been dealing with issues related to his bout with vertigo and will not be traveling with the team on their two-game road trip to Milwaukee and Minnesota, writes Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com:

Pau Gasol, still suffering from symptoms related to his bout of vertigo over the weekend, did not travel with the Los Angeles Lakers when they left for their two-game trip through Milwaukee and Minnesota on Wednesday, according to the team.

Gasol visited ear, nose and throat specialist Dr. John Rehm and it was determined to keep Gasol back in Los Angeles for rest and recovery. The 13-year veteran is not expected to meet the team by taking a commercial flight later in the week.

Gasol is officially being listed as day to day, although he has not been cleared for basketball activities after leaving Sunday’s 103-94 win over the Orlando Magic because of dizziness and nausea and spending the night in the hospital after receiving three liters of fluids through an IV.

Gasol is expected to visit Dr. Rehm on a daily basis to monitor his progress.

Chris Kaman, who started at center and put up 13 points and nine rebounds in the Lakers’ 127-96 rout of the New York Knicks on Tuesday, is expected to continue to fill in for Gasol with the first unit.

***

No. 4: Popovich pinpoints Mills’ emergence – When San Antonio’s All-Star point guard Tony Parker was deemed out indefinitely in mid-February due to his myriad of injuries, some might have been concerned about the Spurs’ ability to win without him. But as has been the San Antonio way for years now, another player plugged into Parker’s spot and kept things humming along. That player? Backup guard Patty Mills, who played in 58 games last season, averaging 11.3 mpg, 5.1 ppg and 1.1 apg. This season, he’s emerged as Parker’s No. 1 backup and is averaging 9.8 ppg and 1.8 apg in 18.4 mpg. Dan McCarney of the San Antonio Express-News points out that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich credits Mills’ efforts to trim down for his rise in production:

Leave it to Gregg Popovich to sum up the reason for Patty Mills’ breakout season in crystal-clear terms. Or more specifically, why Mills struggled to secure a consistent role during his first four NBA seasons:

“He was a little fat ass. He had too much junk in the trunk. His decision making wasn’t great, and he wasn’t in great shape. He changed his entire body. He came back svelte and cut and understood you have to make better decisions, point-guard type decisions. He did all those things better and he earned it. He’s been real important to us, obviously.”

The difference in Mills’ physique was immediately noticeable at training camp. Mills has put his new-found abs and endurance to good use, averaging 9.8 points in a career-high 18.5 minutes. Coming on 40.8-percent accuracy, Mills has more than doubled his previous career high for 3-pointers to 111. For the stat geeks, his 18.4 Player Efficiency Rating — 15.0 is average — is also a career-high, while his plus 3.2 Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus ranks 21st in the entire NBA.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Rajon Rondo will serve as a guest TV analyst for the Celtics on March 31 … Wolves president Flip Saunders might be coach shopping at the NCAA TournamentThaddeus Young, aka “Grandfather” on the Sixers, has embraced his role as leader of the young, struggling squad … New Knicks boss Phil Jackson is apparently a fan of combo guard Iman ShumpertMike Brown got his 300th win as Cavaliers coach last night …

ICYMI of the Night: Cavaliers guard Dion Waiters had himself quite a game last night against the Raptors and nailed this pretty little layup, too …


VIDEO: Dion Waiters sinks the crafty reverse layup against Toronto

Spring and Spurs are back in the air

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Bill Land and Sean Elliott chat about the Spurs’ streak of 15 straight 50-win seasons.

It happens every year. After all the wind and sleet, the snow drifts and frozen highways, the crippling storms and blinding blizzards, spring arrives.

So do the Spurs.

The Heat cool off, the Pacers wobble and the Thunder roll in and out. But the Spurs simply hum. Electricity through a power line.

Every year they’re supposed to get older. Every season they seem only to get wiser. And better. About managing their minutes. About healing their aches and pains. About avoiding the lows and managing the highs.

The Spurs stepped on the necks of the Lakers on Wednesday night, for the second time inside of a week, pushing their win streak to 11 in a row, their longest of the season, heading into Friday night’s game at Sacramento (10 ET, League Pass).

Gregg Popovich (Rocky Widner/NBAE)

Gregg Popovich (Rocky Widner/NBAE)

They are 13-1 since the All-Star break and have extended their NBA-record streak of 50-win seasons to a mind-numbing 15 in a row. The Spurs even won 50 in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, finishing 50-16.That is the real March Madness.

So while Phil Jackson gobbles up the headlines in New York, the Spurs keep their heads down and chins up. And now look who’s sitting on top of the standings with the best overall record in the league, 1 1/2 games up on slumping Indiana.

All of which is as surprising to coach Gregg Popovich as gravity.

“That’s what we usually do, right?” Popovich told Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News. “Historically, we’ve always tried to play our best ball after the All-Star break. This year it also coincided with everybody getting healthy, but we’ve done that before. It doesn’t mean we’re going to be the last team standing, but it’s what we usually try to strive for.”

It’s been a habit for nearly a decade to write off the Spurs. That seemed valid after they let the 2013 championship slip through their fingers in those final 24 seconds of Game 6 in Miami. The players have acknowledged that it’s still kicking around in the back corners of their minds. Popovich admits that it rides like an 800-pound gorilla on his back every day. Yet they don’t let it chase them into dark corners each time they step out onto the court.

That ability to stay in the present has been constructed from those 15 consecutive years of 50-win excellence.

“It’s better than losing 50 I guess,” Popovich said, “but we are thinking about other things. We’ve just had a great group of guys for a long time, I guess, and that is the reason we have been able to win. Records and that sort of thing, streaks, aren’t really on anybody’s mind.”

What’s on their mind is getting back to The Finals, though not with a sense of vengeance or redemption. It’s the only goal that matters.

These Spurs are deeper, more balanced, just plain better than a year ago. They have nine different players averaging between 17.6 (Tony Parker) and 8.3 (Tiago Splitter) points per game. There are eight players with a Player Efficiency Rating — ranging from 21.3 (Tim Duncan) to 15.2 (Marco Belinelli) — above the weighted average of 15.0. They have a deep bench led by Manu Ginobili, who is back to his former Sixth Man of the Year level,  and a corporate knowledge that allows them to assimilate new pieces into the mix easily.

Belinelli has been a perfect addition, hitting career highs in shooting percentage, rebounding and, soon, assists. Patty Mills has stepped into Gary Neal’s old backcourt role off the bench and has been at times a distributor, a spark plug and a basket filler. Over the past month or so, Boris Diaw has virtually turned back the clock years to his old Phoenix days.

All that comes on top of the continued under-the-radar growth of Kawhi Leonard, who can attack the basket, pull up and stab in shots from the perimeter, completely disrupt passing lanes with his long arms on defense and barely bat an eye or show a twitch of emotion when he puts the wraps on the likes of LeBron James.

There was a time earlier this season when the Spurs were 1-10 against all of the top level playoff contenders and yet there were no team meetings (a la the Pacers) and no talk of being in “uncharted territory” (the Heat).

When they embarked on their annual Rodeo Road Trip, starting shooting guard Danny Green was just coming back from an injured wrist. During the trip, seven other players missed games due to injury or, in the case of Parker, overall aches and pains. Yet they still came home 6-3. Since then, they haven’t lost a game.

“We stuck with it,” said Duncan. “Through ups and downs, we try to play as steady as we can. It helps that we’re back to full strength. We have all the guys out there. We’re starting to, I think, turn that corner.”

An annual rite of spring.

Morning Shootaround — March 8


VIDEO: Daily Zap for games played March 7

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Pacers’ woes start from within | Other side to that coin was Rockets’ paybackPhil Jax rumors blow up in New York | Pierce sees Rondo as the next, well, him | Noah bored by whines about “tampering”

No. 1: Pacers’ woes start from within – To hear Indiana coach Frank Vogel, his team’s claim on the NBA’s best record this season put a target on the Pacers’ backs, turning them into every opponent’s favorite target. While that might be true to some extent, the slump in which Paul George, Roy Hibbert, David West & Co. find themselves now – after suffering their third consecutive loss in the 112-86 rout at Houston Friday – owes more to what Indiana isn’t doing at either end of the court the way it had through the schedule’s first four months. Only the Rockets and the Los Angeles Clippers have avoided a three-game losing streak now, with the Pacers turning to post-game meetings and some mirror-gazing to check theirs, as ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst wrote from Houston:

The Pacers have now lost three in a row for the first time all season and fallen back into a tie with the Heat in the loss column for the best record. But the chase for that top seed, which has been a Pacers priority all season, was not on their minds as midnight passed in that quiet locker room.

“We haven’t talked about the [No. 1 seed] in awhile,” Hibbert said. “We just need to win games at this point. Something has got to change. Something is going to be addressed.”

There were warning signs even when the Pacers were on a five-game winning streak recently as they had to work harder than expected to beat bottom-feeders like the Boston Celtics, Utah Jazz and Milwaukee Bucks.

“Every team we play is playing above themselves,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “Our guys can talk about being the hunted but it’s a different thing to feel it. These teams are coming at us with great force and we’re going to have to rise to the challenge.”

Teams running up the score against the Pacers is not normal. But over the last 10 games their league-best defense has not been league best.

They are allowing 46 percent shooting and 100 points per game in that span. In the first 40 games of the season when they distanced themselves from the rest of the league, they allowed just 41 percent shooting and just 88 points a game.

“We have to get back to what the Indiana Pacers used to be,” George said. “When teams came to play us, they knew it was going to be a long night.”

***

No. 2: Other side to that coin was Rockets’ payback – Twenty-six points isn’t 34, the number Houston’s players had in mind as a way to avenge their 33-point smackdown by Indiana in Indianapolis in December. The Rockets “only” pushed their lead to as many as 32 before settling for the final margin. But as Jonathan Feigen wrote in his Houston Chronicle blog, team and individual payback was very much in play, as the league’s hottest team in calendar year 2014 starts to sniff its potential:

“That’s all we talked about, every time out, every possession, how they blew us out,” Dwight Howard said. “We didn’t want that to happen. We wanted to get payback.”

Yet, as the Rockets put together a stretch [James] Harden would call their best on both ends of the floor, he could have been thinking of much more than just the third-quarter run to a 30-point lead.

“Always wanted to get back against them,” Harden said after scoring 16 of his 28 points in the knockout punch of a third quarter. “The third quarter was probably the best I’ve seen us play offense and defense in one quarter. We were rolling. These last weeks we’ve been rolling on both ends.”

At that moment, as the Pacers called time out the rout was certain, Harden could have been celebrating his own turnaround against the Pacers. When Harden was done for the night before the third quarter had ended, he had made 10 of 17 shots, including 4 of 7 3s. In his seven previous games against the Pacers, he had made 28.4 percent of his shots, just 24.6 percent in his three games against them with the Rockets.

He could have been thinking off the credibility the Rockets had added to their 2014 rise to a 22-6 record, the NBA’s best since New Year’s, a season-best seven-game home winning streak or their 12-2 record since the start of February when the only losses were in the second half of back-to-backs.

Had he thought of it with the pairing of a win against Heat to go with the blowout of the Pacers, he even could have been marking their season-long dominance of the Eastern Conference in Houston, with the Rockets 14-0 against Eastern Conference teams.

In many ways, however, he might have just enjoyed the clearer-than-ever signs of how much the Rockets have progressed in the months in between.

“We’ve been playing well since the beginning of the New Year,” Harden said. “We kind of got a feel for each other now. We’ve gotten better. We’ve gotten healthy.

“When we hold the ball and let them set up defensively, then they’re great. But if we play fast like we did and make plays for each other, it’s hard to beat.”

***

No. 3: Phil Jax rumors blow up in New York — The man had taken sabbaticals before. He roared off on his motorcycle after helping Chicago win its sixth NBA championship in eight years in 1998 and sat out the following season before acquiescing to coach Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant with the Los Angeles Lakers. He stepped away again in 2004-05 to recharge and get healthy, then came back for six more seasons and two more Lakers championships.

But Phil Jackson is going on three years now off the NBA stage and out of the daily sports spotlight, so it’s totally understandable that he might be getting a little restless. That restlessness might or might not – remember, we’re talking both rumors and Jackson weighing multiple options at this point in his life (age 68) – land him in New York, running or coaching the Knicks. Here’s some of what ESPN.com’s Ramona Shelburne wrote on the topic:

 Phil Jackson is “ready to go back to work,” a source with knowledge of his thinking told ESPN.com on Friday.

The former Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls coach has spent the last couple of years working to improve his health — which included several surgeries and a successful fight against prostate cancer — and writing a book. But the itch to return to the NBA in some capacity is strong.

While Jackson has made it clear to any team that has approached him that he prefers a front-office role that would allow him to shape and mold a franchise the way Miami Heat president Pat Riley has, he is open to the possibility of coaching for a short period of time if it was necessary in a transition period for a franchise with championship aspirations, the source said.

He would not consider any coaching position that did not have a significant guarantee of personnel power as well, sources said.

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No. 4: Pierce sees Rondo as the next, well, himPaul Pierce, the beloved forward who returned to Boston again Friday in the jarring black-and-white of the Brooklyn Nets, has seen this Celtics movie before. He knows what it must be like for former teammate Rajon Rondo, who is used to better times and has to endure the losing and no longer sees respect or fear in foes’ faces. But Pierce doesn’t worry about the feisty Celtics playmaker because he sees better days ahead, per A. Sherrod Blakely of CSNNE.com:

“They’re a young team,” Pierce said. “They got a mix of some veterans, some young guys developing. They’re only going to get better.”

And a significant part of that improvement in Pierce’s eyes, is point guard Rajon Rondo.

Rondo continues to look more and more like the four time All-Star that he is, and not the player on the mend from a torn right ACL injury in January of last year.

On Friday, he had a team-high 20 points to go with nine assists and seven rebounds.

“Rondo is ready to lead,” Pierce said. “He’s leading them right now, moving them into the next generation of Celtics. Their future is going to be very bright.”

But in order to fully appreciate what awaits them at the end of the journey, first they must navigate a path that, for now, will be difficult when it comes to winning games.

Seeing the big picture when he was a young player in Boston wasn’t easy for Pierce who admits Rondo’s better prepared for what lies ahead than he was.

“Rondo understands,” said Pierce, adding “He understands a little more than I did at the time. When I first got here (in Boston), I was in rebuild mode, made the playoffs and went back to rebuild mode. Same with him (Rondo). He came in, we were rebuilding. We went through a phase where we were winning. Now he’s back in rebuild mode, but he’s still young enough to see it out to still be in his prime. I know the Celtics are going to do whatever it takes, to get back to that top level again.”

***

No. 5: Noah bored by whines of “tampering” – So what if it was true that, at some point during All-Star weekend, Chicago center Joakim Noah teased, suggested or even downright pleaded with New York’s Carmelo Anthony to consider signing with the Bulls this summer rather than the Knicks or the Lakers? If that’s “tampering,” the SEC needs to throw a net over the entire NBA for insider trading violations. After the summer of 2010, when Miami’s Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh came together after huddles and strategy sessions great and small … after the Rockets’ Chandler Parsons inundated Dwight Howard with text messages daily leading up to his choice of Houston over the Lakers … the reports that Noah told Anthony he’d be best off by choosing Chicago seem like so much trash-talking or idle banter. Knicks coach Mike Woodson needs to focus on Xs, Os, Ws and Ls, too, more than on some alleged he-said, he-said distraction. Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times addressed some of what seems much ado about nothing:

Noah was asked about the Anthony rumor after the morning shootaround and never denied it, but he chalked it up as nothing more than March gossip.

“What are you talking about, the gossip going on?’’ Noah said.

“You want me to address that? I don’t feel like addressing it. I really have nothing to say.’’

When asked if the story was accurate, Noah said, “Doesn’t matter. What does that have to do with our team now? It doesn’t matter.’’

[Coach Tom] Thibodeau did take exception to Knicks coach Mike Woodson telling a radio station that Noah broke league rules and was tampering.

“You know, legally, nobody can recruit anyone,’’ Woodson said.

“To me, it’s just a bunch of nonsense,’’ Thibodeau said. “We don’t pay any attention to it, just get ready for [the next game]. . . . It’s all nonsense. We’re just concentrating on our next opponent.’’

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Whew! They must be breathing easier in Milwaukee now, knowing that veteran Drew Gooden, on his second 10-day contract with Washington, won’t have vengeance on his mind when the Wizards visit Saturday night for the way the Bucks warehoused him last season (while paying him a whole lot of cash). … If Sam Malone could do it, maybe Paul Pierce could too: Open a bar or restaurant back in Boston when his playing days are over. Pierce was pondering the future Friday night. … Will Saturday’s clash with UNC be Jabari Parker‘s final home game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, or might he return for his sophomore year rather than enter the NBA Draft pool? OK, we’ll play along. … Knicks center Tyson Chandler didn’t really mean to mock Kevin Love‘s defense, Chandler said via Twitter a day later. … Patty Mills listened to Spurs coach Gregg Popovich — wise move, Patty — and grabbed 10 rebounds.

Banged-Up Spurs Find Footing After (Another) Solid Rodeo Road Trip


VIDEO: Spurs coach Gregg Popovich talks about Kawhi Leonard’s expected return to the lineup

OK, so maybe Tim Duncan wasn’t just a frisky young colt the last time the Spurs played a game at the AT&T Center. It could be that Manu Ginobili didn’t have his long, flowing hair that flopped in the wind when he flopped on the court or that Tony Parker was still coach Gregg Popovich’s favorite teenaged whipping boy.

It just seems that long ago.

When Rudy Gay’s last ditch 3-pointer missed on Feb. 1, the Spurs were able to claw past the Kings to end a three-game losing streak, hoping to crawl out of town in search of recuperation and recovery.

That’s exactly what the Spurs found on their annual rodeo road trip that might once more have saved their season. The Spurs have been forced to vacate their arena for the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo for an extended stretch each season since 2003 and have never brought home a losing record in their luggage.

This time, the Spurs traveled 8,989 miles through four time zones and left with a broken lineup that had been missing three starters — Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green — and before the journey left the East Coast in Boston, Parker and Tiago Splitter had to take their turns on the shelf.

Yet they returned with an unlikely 6-3 mark that keeps them No. 2 in the Western Conference entering their first home game in 25 nights against the Pistons (8:30 p.m. ET, League Pass). It was an experience that while testing their depth, resolve and supply of bandages in their medical kit could once again give the Spurs the faith in the full roster and the necessary belief in themselves again down the stretch toward the playoffs.

“We’ve been looking for some consistency, and I saw more of that on the trip,” Duncan told Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News. “I saw the effort and execution. We’re still making a lot of mistakes, but that might just be me being around Pop too long and trying to be a perfectionist.

“We’ve improved, our confidence is there, and to see we’re operating with our 10th, 11th and 12th guys just like we are with the first guys will be huge for us and pay dividends down the stretch.”

Popovich for years has monitored and kept a lid on the minutes of his core players while maximizing virtually every man on his roster. But this Rodeo Trip might have been his best work yet. Green returned for the first game of the trip, but Leonard (nine), Ginobili (six), Splitter (four), Duncan (one) Boris Diaw (one) and Aron Baynes (one) each missed games during the trip. Parker missed the last three games because of assorted aches and pains and Popovich said he will continue to rest “for the foreseeable future.”

The Spurs even got a big win at Portland on a night when they played without the starting trio of Duncan, Parker and Leonard.

“Good trip for us,” Duncan said. “We would love to have played better (in Phoenix), but we’ve got a couple days to rest now, and hopefully we can continue to add people back to the squad and get ready for some home games finally.”

After a solid 35-6 record a year ago, the Spurs have already lost eight home games this season. They were staggering and lacked sharp execution, which made rediscovering their cohesiveness and how they play more important than where they play.

Returning home doesn’t necessarily mean a return to the lineup for Parker. After playing so deep into June in The Finals with the Spurs, Parker spent last summer playing for the French national team and led an unprecedented charge for a first-ever championship. Though the summer play kept him sharp for 2013-14, it also clearly sapped his energy and might have led to his nagging injuries. That’s why Popovich is sitting Parker now and remains determined not to put him back into the lineup until Parker is fully recovered, rested and playoff-ready.

It means Parker’s teammates will have to keep the rodeo trip attitude rolling, especially backup point guard Patty Mills.

“I think as long as the emotion, the passion, is always there, you can get it done,” Popovich said. “Look at (Russell) Westbrook, how long he was out. Look at Chris (Paul), what the Clippers did when he was out.

“When you’re on a team with a bunch of guys who care and want to be the last team standing, it’s not so much turning it on and off. It’s just the team rolls without you, just keeps going. Then you plug yourself back in. That’s what good teams do.”

Once again, the long road of the rodeo trip has brought the Spurs home with a deeper sense of who they can be.


VIDEO: Patty Mills discusses the Spurs’ big win over the L.A. Clippers

Belinelli, Most Improved Shooter

Marco Belinelli is shooting 57 percent from 3-point range (D. Clarke Evans/NBAE )

Marco Belinelli is shooting 57 percent from 3-point range. (D. Clarke Evans/NBAE )

The List

Biggest improvement, effective field-goal percentage

2012-13 2013-14
Player FGA eFG% FGA eFG% Diff.
Marco Belinelli 610 46.0% 140 63.6% 17.6%
Michael Beasley 766 43.4% 119 58.4% 15.0%
Andre Iguodala 879 50.2% 110 65.0% 14.8%
Jodie Meeks 530 50.2% 198 61.9% 11.7%
Wesley Matthews 808 54.0% 238 64.9% 10.9%
Tony Allen 638 44.8% 128 55.1% 10.3%
Jeremy Lin 897 49.0% 155 57.7% 8.7%
Spencer Hawes 811 48.3% 236 57.0% 8.7%
Markieff Morris 653 44.2% 196 52.0% 7.9%
Klay Thompson 1,205 50.9% 352 58.7% 7.8%

Minimum 500 FGA in 2012-13 and 100 FGA in 2013-14
EFG% = (FGM + (0.5 * 3PM)) / FGA

The Context

It’s interesting how a different team can make a player better. The top two guys on this list went from bottom-10 offensive teams last season to top-10 offensive teams this season. Marco Belinelli went from the Rose-less Bulls to the Spurs, while Michael Beasley went from the Suns to the Heat. Andre Iguodala was part of a top-five offense last season, but the Warriors certainly space the floor a lot better than the Nuggets did.

Speaking of floor spacing, Belinelli is shooting a ridiculous 30-for-53 (57 percent) from 3-point range after going 2-for-3 in Tuesday’s win in Toronto. He’s also shooting 51 percent from inside the arc.

Is it a product of the system? Do Tony Parker‘s pick-and-roll brilliance and the Spurs’ ball movement produce more open shots for Belinelli?

First of all, only 54 of Belinelli’s 140 shots have come with Parker on the floor. He actually has shot better with Parker on the bench. He’s played more minutes with Patty Mills as his point guard and has been assisted 22 times by Manu Ginobili. Mills’ improvement, Ginobili’s resurrection and Belinelli’s shooting are big reasons why the Spurs are 16-4 despite an underperforming starting lineup.

According to SportVU, 61 percent of Belinelli’s shots have been uncontested* this season, a jump from 56 percent last season. But the jump is all in his 2-point attempts. In the 20 Bulls games that were tracked by SportVU last season, none of Belinelli’s 47 2-point attempts were uncontested. This season, 42 of his 87 2-point attempts have been uncontested.

*Uncontested: The nearest defender is at least four feet away.

Both years, most of his 3-point attempts (87 percent last season and 83 percent this season) have been uncontested. But he’s shooting them much better with the Spurs. He’s also 6-for-9 on contested threes this year.

So it’s very possible that this is just a fluky start to the season for Belinelli. Or maybe there’s something in the Riverwalk water.

There is one more aspect to Belinelli’s shooting that SportVU can clue us in on: whether he’s shooting more off the catch or off the dribble.

In games tracked by SportVU last season, 60 percent of Belinelli’s shots were catch-and-shoot. This season, that number is up to 75 percent. But again, he’s shooting much better on those catch-and-shoot jumpers this year.

While the Spurs run the most beautiful offense in the league and that offense certainly makes players look better than they would elsewhere, it’s hard to believe that Belinelli’s shooting numbers are very sustainable.

The Video

Here’s video of Belinelli’s six 3-point attempts against the Rockets on Nov. 30. One was a half-court heave, three were wide-open looks on feeds from Ginobili, one was a semi-heat-check, and the last was a rushed shot with the Spurs down four in the closing seconds. If you’re a Spurs fan, you have to love the way Ginobili has been playing.

And if you really like your meatballs spicy, here are all 30 of Belinelli’s made 3-pointers this season.

The bottom of the list

Kosta Koufos is the anti-Belinelli, with a regression of 13.6 percent. That mark edges out Kevin Garnett (-12.7 percent), Jerryd Bayless (-11.4 percent), Patrick Patterson (-10.6 percent) and Tyreke Evans (-9.4 percent). Koufos had an effective field-goal percentage of 58.1 percent on 508 shots with Denver last season and is at 44.5 percent on 146 shots with Memphis this season.

Trivia question

To qualify for the above list, you had to have attempted at least 500 shots last season. There are five players who had at least 500 field-goal attempts last season and have not played a game this season. Four of them are on rosters and are injured: Carlos Delfino, Danilo Gallinari, Carl Landry and Emeka Okafor. Can you name the fifth?

Random notes

  • Chris Paul has 84 assists to Blake Griffin this season and no other combination has nearly that number. Next on the list of teammate-to-teammate assists is Jeff Teague and Al Horford, who have hooked up for 62 of Horford’s buckets.
  • Paul, Griffin and the Clippers have the No. 1 home offense, scoring 111.2 points per 100 possessions in 10 home games. But they have just the 17th best road offense, scoring only 100.9 points per 100 possessions in 12 road games. Their differential of 10.3 isn’t the biggest in the league. That belongs to the Mavs, who have scored 10.9 more points per 100 possessions at home than they have on the road.
  • The biggest defensive differential belongs to the Rockets, who have allowed 14.9 fewer points per 100 possessions at home. Houston ranks third defensively at home and 28th on the road. The good news is that they have the No. 1 road offense.
  • Deron Williams returned to the Nets’ lineup against Boston on Tuesday and Brooklyn played its best offensive game of the season, scoring about 116 points per 100 possessions against what was a top-10 defense. Point guards are important.

Trivia answer

Shannon Brown, who attempted 571 shots for the Suns last season. He was sent to the Wizards in the Marcin Gortat trade and was waived before the season.

Canada Market Booms as NBA Takes On World; ‘Down Under’ Next?

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HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Chances are good next June that for the second consecutive year, the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft will have honed his skills and built his street cred on the asphalt courts of … Toronto, Ontario. And with Kansas forward Andrew Wiggins as a favourite to take the maple-leaf baton from UNLV’s Anthony Bennett, we might want to refer to the heated jockeying for position among likely lottery teams as tanquing, for this season anyway.

A rising interest in Canada in the NBA is the primary reason behind tonight’s game in Montreal, when the Boston Celtics (with first-round pick Kelly Olynyk, a 7-footer from Kamloops by way of Gonzaga) face the Minnesota Timberwolves at the Bell Centre. A year ago, the NBA staged its first-ever NBA Canada Series preseason games in that country (Knicks-Raptors in Montreal, Pistons-Timberwolves in Winnipeg) and the only thing surprising about that was that it took so long.

The Raptors, obviously, have been playing preseason games there since they entered the league via expansion in 1995. So did their newbie cohort Vancouver Grizzlies for six seasons, until their move to Memphis in 2001.

The NBA’s and basketball’s roots in the nation are undeniable. The man who invented the game in 1891, Dr. James Naismith, was a Canadian, after all. And what is accepted as the NBA’s inaugural game was played at Maple Leaf Gardens between the New York Knicks and the Toronto Huskies, who lasted one season in the precursor BAA.

Sixty-seven years later, the NBA has just the Raptors’ as its single toehold in Canada, and it stages its preseason games there much as it does in exotic lands like Taiwan and Brazil, with a missionary zeal that creates festivals of NBA basketball, stirring casual interest rather than relying on hardcore devotees of the league. The Grizzlies are gone, and expansion even in U.S. cities appears to be low on commissioner David Stern‘s or presumptive replacement Adam Silver‘s lists of priorities.

Beneath the surface, however, there may be something building.

(more…)

Z-Bo’s Play Leaves Grizzlies Feeling Empty

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SAN ANTONIO — It was early in the third quarter when Zach Randolph simply did the kind of thing that he does.

Mike Conley had driven into the teeth of the Spurs defense and had his layup attempt pop out. So there was Randolph, all 260 pounds and city-block wide of him of him, rising up out of the crowd in the paint to tap the ball back into the basket. It was notable only because Randolph had taken seven previous shots and not made a single one.

Z-Bo had been Z-B000000.

When itwas  finally over, Randolph had just those two points to his name, which meant that he was outscored by all but two players on the Spurs’ 12-man active roster  — and that’s using the term quite loosely, since Tracy McGrady hasn’t truly been relevant in half a decade. It took Aussie Patty Mills, cuddly as a koala, just 66 seconds off the bench to pop in a 3-pointer and move ahead of Randolph on the day’s scoring list.

All of which goes a long way toward explaining the ugly 105-83 thumping the Grizzlies took from the Spurs and why Randolph chose to enter the post-game locker room and express regrets to his teammates.

“He tried to apologize first off, and we wouldn’t accept that,” said the point guard Conley. “We said, it’s not you, it’s all of us.”

There were so many things wrong with how the Grizzlies came out and played the opener of the first Western Conference finals game in franchise history that Z-Bo might as well have been holding a bucket to catch the water when the dam broke.

Tony Parker merely took the ball almost from the opening tip and drove it anyplace he wanted toward the Memphis basket, finishing at the rim and stabbing in mid-range jumpers. The Spurs’ wing men set up residence in either corner and all they had to do was wait for the ball to find them for open shots. The Spurs finished the day making 14 of their 29 attempts from deep, setting a franchise playoff record for 3-pointers. It was hardly the kind of performance you might have expected from the No. 1-rated defense in the NBA during regular season and more like playing a game of keep-away with a class of kindergartners.

“We didn’t play well,” said Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins. “I mean, it’s not anything specific.”

However, it can specifically be said that Grizzlies will be done if Randolph doesn’t even bother to show up. Z-Bo and his partner Marc Gasol punished the Spurs with their inside game two years ago when the Grizzlies became just the second No. 8 seed in history to knock off a No. 1 seed.

But that was a different Spurs team, one that was not as healthy, not nearly as deep and not as remotely capable of coming at Randolph with the overwhelming force of a tsunami.

“They were disrupting my rhythm,” Randolph said. “It was just one of those nights. I played like I did against the Clippers in L.A.” (more…)