Posts Tagged ‘Spurs’

Hang Time one-on-one … with Giannis Antetokounmpo

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Giannis Antetokounmpo gives new meaning to the phrase “pleasant surprise” in a league where there are usually few surprises in terms of player personnel.

There hasn’t been a legitimate Draft stunner since Tony Parker went from a promising international prospect plucked near the end of the first round to perennial All-Star, Finals MVP for the San Antonio Spurs and future Hall of Famer.

It’s probably too soon to go predicting that sort of career arc for the youngest player in the league right now, but no one can deny that Antetokounmpo is a fast-rising star and the clear steal of the 2013 Draft class. The Milwaukee Bucks snatched a potential future superstar with the 15th pick.

The “Greek Freak” joined for the  latest installment of our Hang Time One-On-One series to talk about his game, his role, what he knew about Milwaukee before the Bucks drafted him and what he thinks of comparisons to current superstars like Oklahoma City Thunder MVP candidate Kevin Durant and much more:


VIDEO: The Greek Freak is truly a rising star for the Milwaukee Bucks

Suns hot pick in NBA March Madness

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

The selection committee has done its job, the field is complete and now the intrigue starts all around the NBA — filling out those March Madness brackets.

But for a different kind of insanity, we thought it might be fun to go into a few arenas and locker rooms to ask one question: If the NBA playoffs were set up like the NCAA Tournament, who would be your Butler, a below-the-radar team capable of making a deep run?

Ray Allen, Heat: “In an NCAA format, one game and advance, anything is possible. Charlotte’s a team that would be dangerous. They can get hot. They’ve developed confidence. They play hard. They’re running a new system. Atlanta is a team that’s running a San Antonio offensive system and they play good defense. Both of those can really play defense. So if you put them in win-or-you’re-out format, teams like those that always play hard and don’t care about who their opponent is, they’re gonna be capable. There would definitely be more drama in that kind of a playoff system. Obviously, it would never get to that because of all the money that’s at stake over the long playoff series. But as players, you would appreciate it. You’d have to leave it all out there on the line. And every night — with the best players in the NBA going at it — it would really be madness. There would be some true grudge matches. Oh, that would be interesting.”

Mario Chalmers, Heat: “Dallas. That’s a team with weapons and can score.”

Roy Hibbert, Pacers: “In the East, I could see Toronto and Charlotte doing that. Even Chicago. In the West, Phoenix has played great a surprise people all year. Phoenix has a style of play that’s fast-paced and they have guys that are built for that.”


VIDEO: The Beat crew discusses the Suns’ solid season to date

Jeff Van Gundy, ESPN analyst: “Memphis. Because of the style they play. Who else plays like Memphis? Who else has those two big guys like Z-Bo (Zach Randolph) and (Marc) Gasol to beat you up and wear you down. That’s a team that could walk into a tournament setting, get on a real roll and just start knocking people out. And in the East I’d say Chicago for a lot of the same reasons. They don’t have those two big bangers in the low post, but with Noah and the middle and the aggressiveness and the ferocity that they play with, the Bulls could make a tournament very interesting and tough on everyone.”

Chandler Parsons, Rockets: “I like Phoenix as my Butler in the West, because they’re so explosive offensively. In transition they’d get out and they’d beat a lot of good teams. In the East, I like Chicago. They’re playing really well. Joakim (Noah)has been unbelievable for them. He’s doing everything, getting triple-doubles. Plus they’re such a good defensive team. Those are definitely two teams you don’t want to see in the NBA playoffs and in an NCAA Tournament type scenario with sudden-death, no way. Even Memphis, if they sneak in at No 8 in the West. That’s a team that could do a lot of damage. Us? We’re above that Butler level. We’re Florida. We’re Duke.”

Matt Bonner, Spurs: “Phoenix. It’s about style of play. It’s about scoring points from a lot of different places. It’s about playing at a fast pace. Definitely Phoenix.”

Shane Battier, Heat: “Who is that dark horse team? Really, still no one is talking about Houston. They have played fantastic and the Rockets would be a buzz saw to play in any single game or even a seven-game series. You know they’re gonna shoot 30 3s. If they get hot, that’s an amazing number to try to match offensively. And no one is really talking about them. The hubbub is OKC and San Antonio and the Clippers to a large extent. People are talking about Golden State and the Splash Brothers more than they are about Houston. I think Houston is a legitimate team.”

Michael Beasley, Heat: “Miami. That’s the only team I’m worried about, the only team I think about. I don’t even want to imagine nobody else making a run, nobody else doing nothing.”


VIDEO: GameTime’s crew discusses the Bobcats and Al Jefferson’s play

LaMarcus Aldridge, Trail Blazers: “I think every team in the West is capable of being that Butler type team. It’s so close, so many good teams. It just depends which week or two you’re talking about. We’ve seen that all season long. Remember how Memphis came in and beat San Antonio in the playoffs a couple of years ago? Golden State over Dallas a few years earlier. I think everybody is close and there are so many good teams in any matchup that in the NCAA Tournament arrangement, you might be able to play it three or four times and get a different team out of the West every time.”

Paul George, Pacers: “I think Phoenix. I think the Suns could do it because that’s a consistent team. They don’t rely on just one or two players to get most of their offense. They really spread things around. They really get after you all the time. They always play hard and bring it to you. They always want to attack. And in a tournament setting, they’ve got enough guys to make shots and make plays. They would just have to get hot at the right time, which we’ve seen from them this season. They’ve taken down tough opponents. They beat us twice, OKC. So that’s a team that could be very dangerous if it was tournament time.”

Dwight Howard, Rockets: “The Rockets. Despite anything that we’ve done and any games that we’ve won, I think in general we’re still a team that nobody’s looked at as a real contender. But you know, I like being the underdog. We’d like to keep ourselves being overlooked as much as possible through the end of the season and going into the playoffs. In a tournament, in the playoffs, we’re that kind of team that I believe and rise up and surprise people.”

Dwyane Wade, Heat: “I guess if look at the West, I’d say Phoenix could be a bracket-busting Butler. That’s a team that could get hot. Lot of weapons, lot of different people and ways to score and they don’t seem to let up. That style they play, they’re always going. In the East maybe the Bobcats. They play very well together. They’ve got a big man in Al Jefferson that can go 1-on-1 and can score. That’s a team that’s also been playing hard all year, been really gaining in confidence. So if you tossed them into a tournament setting, I’d say, yeah, they could go on a run.”

Danny Green, Spurs: “Phoenix. I was watching them play and they’re very dangerous at home. You know they don’t back down from anybody. They beat Indiana and OKC. We’ve lost to them this season. They love to get out and run. They move the ball fast and they don’t ever let up. If they’re healthy, they’re gonna come after you nonstop and they could do something like go on a run through a tournament. That pace of play is tough to deal with. Another team you’d have to watch out for is Dallas. They’ve got weapons and you’d always have to watch out for Dirk getting on a roll.”

Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers: “Oh, I wouldn’t want to do that. But if you want a dangerous team that maybe nobody would pick, I’d say Sacramento. They got a lot of weapons — Isaiah Thomas, Rudy Gay, DeMarcus Cousins, now Reggie Evans over there with some experience. Derrick Williams. They got a lot of pieces they can throw out there. If they get going, they could beat some people and go far. That’s a capable team.”

Wesley Matthews, Trail Blazers: “In the West anybody can beat anybody. You’ve got four or five teams with over 40 wins at this point in the season. You’ve seen teams go on runs with different styles. Houston went on a run recently. We went on a run earlier. Pick a day of the week. Anybody could be Butler.”

Francisco Garcia, Rockets: “I would say Phoenix, because they score in so many ways. I think everybody would take them lightly at the beginning of a tournament since they’re young and they don’t have a team filled up with All-Stars. It’s easy from the outside to overlook them. It’s only when you get out there on the court and see how hard they play and see how they are so good at moving the ball around and getting offensive from a lot of different places that you find out how good they can be. So if you put them in that kind of situation, where you get to play them only once, they could have a lot of success and make a run.”


VIDEO: The Starters talk about teams primed to make noise in the playoffs

Spurs’ Big 3 top Showtime in stability

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

San Antonio's Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE)

San Antonio’s Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE)

SAN ANTONIO — Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.

For a dozen seasons, coach Gregg Popovich has been able to walk into the locker room and write those names into his lineup.

Earth, wind and fire. Like the fundamental elements, we just expect them to be there. The years have practically blended them together into one multi-syllabic name with a single identity.

TimTonyManu. Working, playing, synchronizing and simply moving on, the basketball version of a Swiss watch.

Tick, tick, tick.

In a sport where knees tear, tendons break, tempers snap and egos explode, only two other trios in NBA history have stayed bound at the hip for so long and experienced such success.

Gregg Popovich (Rocky Widner/NBAE)

Gregg Popovich (Rocky Widner/NBAE)

When Duncan, Parker and Ginobili take the court for tonight’s game at the AT&T Center against the Lakers (8:30, NBA TV) for their 664th game together, they’ll pass the “Showtime” Lakers trio of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Cooper as the second-mot durable trio in NBA history. Their 490 wins currently ties L.A. Holding down the No. 1 spot is the Celtics combination of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish.

“Being a human, sure, one takes it for granted when you don’t stop and think about what those guys have done and how long they’ve been together and what they’ve gone through listening to me for all these years,” said Popovich. “One does have to stop and really think about what that’s meant to our program and how consistent those three guys have been. Because that doesn’t happen that often in the league. We all probably need to appreciate it more around here in San Antonio, for sure.”

When Ginobili was first learning to throw his body all over the hardwood in his hometown of Bahia Blanca, Argentina, the only way to see the high-flying act of Magic, Kareem and Coop was on snippets from highlight tapes. “We were not watching those games live,” he said. “It was not easy to watch the NBA then. You could get tapes and things like that.

“Of course, I remember. The Showtime thing — [James] Worthy flying for dunks, great defense and Magic flying to find open guys in the lane. Bryon Scott to Kareem. I never watched a full game. But I saw plenty of highlights and for sure they were an inspiration and those games against the Celtics were legendary.”

They are as disparate a trio as one might find and yet symbolic of the NBA’s globalization in the quarter-century since the Lakers were winning five championships from 1980-89. A lanky swimmer from the U.S. Virgin Islands, a Belgium-born Frenchman and an Argentinian whose games possesses all the hot passion of the native tango.

Most games played together
729 — Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish (Celtics)
711 — Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer, Vinnie Johnson (Pistons)
663 — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Michael Cooper (Lakers)

663 — Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili (Spurs)
632 — Bill Russell, Sam Jones, Satch Sanders (Celtics)

Most victories by an NBA trio
540 — Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish (Celtics)
490 — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Michael Cooper (Lakers)

490 — Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili (Spurs)
468 — Bill Russell, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones (Celtics)
463 — Bill Russell, Sam Jones, Satch Sanders (Celtics)

Duncan, Parker and Ginobili won a championship in their first season together in 2003 and added another in 2005 and one in 2007.

“A great run and it feels very special,” Parker said. “I feel very blessed to play with Timmy and Manu and I feel very lucky and privileged to be named next to Magic Johnson and Kareem and Michael Cooper. I grew up watching them and never thought in my wildest dreams that my name would be next to them. It’s crazy just to think about it. Once I retire, I can look at it and enjoy it. Now I try to stay focused on the season, but it’s unbelievable.

“Growing up in France, soccer’s the main sport and they’re changing all the time. You go and buy [players] and stuff like that. In basketball, it’s a little bit harder to trade guys. But it’s still rare to have the same guys, us three for all those years, and the same coach.”

Toss in Popovich as the only coach that any of them have ever played for in the NBA and the stability and constancy of the Spurs is a little more understandable, yet it remains unprecedented. The Lakers were coached by Jack McKinney, Paul Westhead and Pat Riley during their run in the ’80s. The Celtics were led to their three championships in that decade by Bill Fitch (1981) and K.C. Jones (1984 and 1986).

“It is remarkable,” Ginobili said. “I guess we’re going to win a few more [games]. But even if you didn’t tell me about that stat, we know we are in a very unique position and situation having played together for 12 seasons with the same coach.”

Parker plays without his teammates during summers for the French national team.

“So sometimes I’m used to it,” he said. “But in a Spurs jersey, they are both gonna retire before me, so it’s definitely going to be weird. Hopefully it’s not anytime soon.”

It takes durability, compatibility, a shrewd front office plan and just plain good luck for three players of All-Star caliber to last so long together. In this era of free agency, LeBron James and Chris Bosh can choose to bolt for Miami to chase titles, Carmelo Anthony can go from Denver to New York and maybe have his sights set elsewhere this summer. Even Shaquille O’Neal, the most physically dominating player of his era, bounced to six different teams.

Then there are the debilitating injuries that this year alone have taken down Derrick Rose, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash.

Duncan, Parker and Ginobili have never seriously looked to leave San Antonio.

The once-proud Lakers team staggering into San Antonio tonight, potentially the worst team in the Western Conference this season, demonstrates how long the Duncan-Parker-Ginobili combo has endured and prospered. It’s bad enough in L.A. that the Spurs have sympathy for their long-time rivals — especially Bryant.

“It’s very odd, very unusual after so many playoff games and a very tough, great rivalry,” Ginobili said. “They’ve had so many injuries and, of course, you have two of your best players — Nash and Kobe — out for so long. I’ve never been been through anything like that. Achilles is as bad as it gets.”

Said Parker: “I don’t wish that on anybody. I wish everybody was playing. I wish D-Rose was playing. I hope [LaMarcus] Aldridge is OK. I don’t like injuries. I wish everybody was healthy and we are competing against each other.

“We definitely miss the Lakers. When the Lakers are good, it’s great for the NBA and it’s great for everybody. I love that rivalry — Spurs-Lakers. I miss that a little bit. We definitely are gonna miss Kobe (tonight) and hopefully he’ll be back 100 percent next year.”

The fundamental elements — Duncan, Parker and Ginobili — will be waiting.

Beverley dirty? Not according to Pop

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Rick Fox and Chris Webber discuss Patrick Beverley’s defense

SAN ANTONIO — Dirty or aggressive?

Tom-AY-to, tom-AH-to.

Little Pat Beverley gets into a couple of dust-ups in back-to-back games with Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook and suddenly he’s a combination of Jack the Ripper and Hannibal Lecter in high-tops.

Oh, the horror!

Where are the days when the Bad Boys of Detroit roamed the earth? When John Stockton to Malone was two guys from Utah who used their elbows like meat axes? When the Washington Bullets front line included Jeff Ruland and Rick Mahorn, aka McFilthy and McNasty? You figure out which was which.

While social media buzzes and the entire state of Oklahoma gets apoplectic at the mere sight of Beverley stepping one foot onto a basketball court, it should be noted that not everyone who isn’t wearing a Rockets jersey doesn’t he’s crossed a line of decorum or fair play.

“I haven’t noticed him being dirty. I’ll say that,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.

“When the name Beverley comes up, the first thing that comes to my head is he’s a monster defender and really gets into people and does one helluva job. Maybe he’s done things that I haven’t seen. But I have never thought of him as dirty. I’ve always thought of him as physical and really good at it.”

When asked about the play in Game 2 of the Houston-OKC series last spring when Beverley’s lunge for a steal wound up taking Westbrook out of the playoffs, Popovich shrugged.

“I thought it just happened,” he said. “I don’t think that was purposeful from what I saw.”

According to Pop, it’s intent that makes the difference.

“I just think that probably shows itself in the necessity of the action as far as whether it’s a blatant movement,” he said. “Whether it’s an elbow or a kick or a head-butt or whatever, it might be for no reason whatsoever that doesn’t have anything to do with playing as opposed to physicality. You know, getting up into somebody, touching somebody, blocking out, making hard cuts and making great picks and that sort of thing. That’s an aggressive player. Or somebody who’s always trying to get to the rim. Or somebody who’s always ready to block out and put their body on you. That’s all aggressiveness.

“Dirty is cheap. Cheap stuff that doesn’t really have anything to do with the game. And you can tell the difference pretty easily.”

And before you hurt yourself shouting, the subject of Bruce Bowen did come up. The veteran of eight seasons and three championships with the Spurs was often labeled as dirty for all of the little “tricks” he used on defense.

“Brucie weighed about 83 pounds,” Popovich said. “The guys that guarded him weighed 220 or 200 or something like that. He was a like a gnat. But he was a persistent gnat that drove them crazy with what he could do. But it wasn’t because he was overly physical or anything like that. He had a great understanding of space and had good, quick feet and had a huge desire to be a pain in the neck. He’s still a pain in the neck.”

Perspective matters. Chicago fans didn’t think much of Bad Boy Dennis Rodman’s antics in the paint and under the basket until he switched sides and pulled on a Bulls jersey for those three championships.

Dirty or aggressive?

Tom-AY-to or tom-AH-to?

Bowen or Beverley?

“Hell, yeah,” Popovich said. “I hated Danny Ferry until he was on our team. Bill (Laimbeer) was easy for other fans to hate. But you’d love him on your team. He’d help you win.”

Which is, after all, the point.

Danger rears its head for OKC, Indy




VIDEO: The Beat crew talks about the concerns facing some of the league’s elite teams

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – That small market NBA Finals you were daydreaming about is in jeopardy based on what we’ve seen from the likes of the Indiana Pacers, Oklahoma City Thunder and even the Portland Trail Blazers recently.

Early-season visions of say the Pacers and Thunder squaring off in The Finals and restoring the faith of the fans in the hinterlands have faded since before All-Star weekend.

The Pacers’ struggles are real. You don’t lose four straight games, and five of your last 10, and allow 106 points in your past four games and maintain your aura as the defensive juggernaut that we assumed you were based on your work up until now. No matter how much coach Frank Vogel insists that his team is capable of navigating these bumps in the road, we have no idea how they will recover from this stretch because they’ve never been in this position before.

The Thunder’s issues are tangible as well. You don’t lose five of your past eight games, give up 121 points in consecutive games and get torched for 40-point games by the likes of Gerald Green and Jodie Meeks without two of your top defensive players (Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins) and expect us to just chalk it up to a temporary hiccup. Even if all that happens as Russell Westbrook is transitioning back into the mix after missing nine weeks recovering from knee surgery.

Contenders tend to show their teeth this time of year, embrace statement games and remind the competition that what they see now is merely a glimpse of the fury to come in the postseason. But these current struggles, particularly for the Pacers and Thunder, constitute a clear-and-present danger to their big-picture plans.

We are nit-picking at the highest level here, I understand that. But vetting championship contenders is a tedious, season-long process that requires us to examine each and every little tidbit of information gathered. While I don’t agree with the wilder sentiments like this one (of course, the Thunder aren’t trying to get Scott Brooks fired), I do think a contender’s February and March performance is a much better indicator of what’s to come in the playoffs than anything accomplished before then.

And the Pacers and Thunder, two teams that would appear to have as good a chance as any to unseat the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs, respectively, have both shown signs of vulnerability in the past few days and weeks.

In addition to locating their defensive punch, the Pacers need Paul George to regain the form he showed earlier in the season, when he was being mentioned in the MVP conversation with Kevin Durant and LeBron James. The playoffs are looming and a quality team like the Chicago Bulls will identify your weakness and attack it in a best-of-7 series … the same way the Pacers did to the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals last year.

UPDATE:



VIDEO: Pacers coach Frank Vovel talks about Andrew Bynum maing his debut against the Celtics

The Thunder have to worry as much about getting their own house in order as they have to worry about the neighbors. The Spurs, Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers all appear to be as up to the task of winning the Western Conference crown and representing their side in The Finals.

The Spurs have enough corporate knowledge to navigate these rough waters for a second straight season. The Rockets have two stars in James Harden and Dwight Howard, who have just as much experience in The Finals as Durant and Westbrook. And the Clippers, when healthy, have what is arguably the deepest and most balanced roster in the league with one of the game’s best button-pushers (coach Doc Rivers), especially at playoff time, leading their charge.

Momentary hiccups are one thing. All teams, even the great ones, deal with them at one time or another.

Cracks in the foundation, though, require more and immediate attention.

Time will tell which of these the Pacers and Thunder are dealing with …

Spurs, Leonard unmask LeBron and Miami

VIDEO: Spurs dominate Heat

SAN ANTONIO — Maybe it was the mask that is supposed to be protecting his broken nose. LeBron James ripped it off early in the first quarter and tossed it disdainfully toward the Miami bench.

Originally, it was a black mask that made him look like Batman with more hang time. That is, until commissioner Adam Silver decided to also become the fashion police. James had said before the game that he didn’t think the clear replacement was going to be around much longer and perhaps a couple of missed 16-footers moved up the schedule.

“I got a message from my wife at halftime,” he said. “She told me to put the mask back on, so I guess I’m gonna be in trouble when I get home.”

Maybe it was the tight-fitting short sleeve jersey that he and all the rest of the players had to wear as part of the NBA Noche Latina celebration.

“I’m not making excuses,” James said, “but I’m not a big fan of the jerseys. Not a big fan of them. So I have to figure something out the next time I have to wear the short-sleeved jerseys. Every time I shoot it feels like it’s pulling up right underneath my arm. I don’t have much room for error on my jump shot anyways, so it’s definitely not a good thing.”

Hitting the runway in his league-mandated attire, James clanked open jumpers, had layups roll off the rim and missed a dozen of the 18 shots he attempted.

Or just maybe it was the 6-foot-7, 230-pound Kawhi Leonard that he had to wear like an annoying hair shirt up and down the AT&T Center court all night long.

“He’s a good young player,” James said.

Yes, and Kate Upton would make an acceptable prom date.

Long, larcenous and learning how to assert himself in an orbit just outside the Tim Duncan-Tony Parker-Manu Ginobili triangle, Leonard is exactly the kind of disruptive force that would fit perfectly into the Heat’s attacking, pressuring, blitzing defense.

These finally are the Spurs as they hoped they’d be back when training camp opened with the scars still fresh from the painful seven-game loss to Miami in The Finals last June.

The Spurs are at last healthy and whole, their full contingent available now for just the past three games and yet they looked like a thresher going through a wheat field. They owned the first quarter, played keep away for the rest of the game and with a 111-87 stamp handed the Heat their biggest loss of the season and their worst thumping since a 36-point smack down right here in Game 3 of The Finals.

Of course, for all the celebratory din that happily bounced off the walls of the arena, it came about nine months and 24 seconds too late.

That’s the thing, timing does matter. There will be much made in the two off days before Miami steps back onto the court in Chicago on Sunday afternoon of the first back-to-back, wire-to-wire losses in the Big Three Era of the Heat. But remember it was just earlier this week when James dropped in 61 points on the Bobcats and the “three-peat” parade floats were starting to warm up their engines.

“The league is fragile, things can change very quickly,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra.

In the two games since the 61-point bomb, James has shot just 15-for-36 from the field, 0-for-6 from behind the arc and scored a total of just 41 points. He looked flat worn-out and exhausted in Houston, but exasperated over an inability to get himself out of the reach and the clutches of Leonard, who tosses around words as if they were manhole covers.

“I’m just playing, man,” he said.

This is the Leonard that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich once labeled “the future face of the franchise” and yet the same Leonard that Popovich says still defers too much at times to the three veterans that anchor the lineup.

“I tell him, ‘The hell with those other guys. Just play your own game and forget about them,’ “ Popovich said. “He is just growing day by day. He is starting to feel confident in his role and taking pride in being a defender and a rebounder first. Then, [he needs to work on] letting his offense come naturally and not thinking about it too much.”

Leonard missed 14 games with a broken bone in his right hand before returning to the lineup a little more than a week ago and it’s since then — with improved health of the entire roster — that the Spurs have begun to look like a team that not only has an ax to grind, but is capable of swinging it deep into another playoff run. He officially got credit for five steals, but there were so many other times when he changed shots, altered passes, forced the Heat to try to go around him, effectively disrupting their rhythm.

“He was a pest,” said Duncan. “That’s what we need him to be. He stuck his hand in there, knocked some balls away, got some steals. He contested shots…So we need him to be that kind of guy.”

The guy who makes LeBron James rip off his uncomfortable mask in frustration and point a finger of blame at those form-fitting short sleeves on his jersey.

A tailor-made hair shirt for the occasion.

Even Heat feel the heat in San Antonio

LeBron James is just 1-4 in his career in San Antonio (Noah Graham/NBAE)

LeBron James is just 1-4 in his career in Finals games in San Antonio (Noah Graham/NBAE)

SAN ANTONIO — There are nights on the long NBA regular season grind that you circle on the calendar the day the schedule comes out.

Sunbelt climes during a long, cold, snowy winter. Cities with family and friends. Places like Staples Center in Los Angeles and Madison Square Garden in New York, where the spotlight is extra bright and the courtside seats are filled with A list celebrities.

Then there’s San Antonio, where it might be nice to sip a tasty margarita on the Riverwalk. But the hangover from a visit with the Spurs can feel like a mule kick to the head for the Miami Heat, which is why their first trip back to the AT&T Center (Thursday night at 8 ET on TNT) since The Finals last June is more apt to make most of them flinch than celebrate.

While they eventually wrapped up back-to-back championships by beating the Spurs in seven games, Miami won just once in the three games played in San Antonio in The Finals last season. LeBron James is just 1-4 all time in Finals games played in the Alamo City, having been swept by the Spurs when he was in Cleveland in 2007.

“There’s memories, of course,” said James. “We just played them in The Finals and obviously just going, there is always a place of horror. I haven’t had a lot of success there in my career. But it’s always fun going against a very, very well coached, very well-machined organization and team with so many great players. It will be fun.”

Dwyane Wade tries to score against Tim Duncan (left) and Kawhi Leonard last June (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE)

Dwyane Wade tries to score against Tim Duncan (left) and Kawhi Leonard last June (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE)

This has been another season when the Spurs, led by a 37-year-old Tim Duncan, 36-year-old Manu Ginobili and 31-year-old Tony Parker , were supposed to be too old to contend. Yet in spite of a rash of nagging injuries, San Antonio is 44-16, just 1 1/2 games behind the Thunder for the best record in the Western Conference.

“I never buy into that,” James said. “I always been asked about that. I never bought into that. I never bought into the Celtic team with Ray [Allen] and KG [Kevin Garnett] and those guys that they talked about was too old, and the next thing you know, they’re in the Finals again. So I never bought into it.”

Dwyane Wade shrugged.

“It’s another tough game for us,” he said. “We have to step up to the challenge. We lost the first one on the road trip [Tuesday in Houston], and that’s a place where obviously everyone has a tough time playing. But we’ve shown that we can win there, so we got to go in there and play a great game for 48 minutes to win it.”

It did take about all the Heat could summon to squeeze out the one win they needed at the AT&T Center last June. They got a 109-93 win in Game 4 that was sandwiched between a couple of their most dismal games of the entire playoff run. They were hammered 113-77 in Game 3 when the Spurs bombed them with 16 3-pointers and then lost 114-104 in Game 5. Those are the kinds of performances that stick with a coach much longer than the wins.

“We don’t necessarily have really good memories of there,” said Erik Spoelstra. “We did drop two out of the three. The last game that we had there was a tough one. It was probably the worst game that we had over there. We had to really collect ourselves to go and have that energy to go and win two games at home.

“But you know, the train goes on. We’ve got to collect ourselves. We’ve got to get some rest. We’re not making any excuses … They’ve dealt with a lot of adversity this season and yet you look at their record and they’re right there in the mix. It’s amazing.”

What might be more amazing is that Shane Battier is actually looking forward to getting back into the teeth of the Spurs vise.

“I always enjoy playing the Spurs,” Battier said. “It goes back to my Memphis days, my Rockets days, when I played a lot of games in San Antonio. Just because there’s no better mental challenge than playing the Spurs. Because they’re gonna put you in tough situations. It’s a thinking man’s game when you play the Spurs and that’s my kind of game.

“Ooooh, we knew last year it was going to be a very, very, very, very close series. That’s four ‘verys’ and it was probably closer than that. They’ve been the gold standard for a long time. It’s not so much physical with them. It’s the mental duress they put you under. To go through a series like that, when you come out you’re just exhausted, win or lose.”

The question is whether even NBA players and coaches and front office people ask the same question as the general public: When will the Spurs finally be too old?

“No question,” Battier said. “Yeah, you ask that all the time, every year. What’s in the water in San Antonio? The fact that they’ve done it for so long and everyone is just waiting for them to fall off and they haven’t — not that they care what everyone else thinks — it’s awesome. And I don’t have any answers.”

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

Rockets Trading On Patience This Time


VIDEO: Brent Barry breaks down the Rockets’ recent success in this version of ‘Breaking Bones’

HOUSTON — Birds fly. Fish swim.

Daryl Morey trades.

Underneath all the talk of the Rockets adding a wing shooter and perimeter defender at the deadline — they landed Jordan Hamilton from the Nuggets – was a huge, hard-wired part of Morey’s DNA that said: Do something. Something big.

Surely, Morey would have leaped at the chance to, say, reel in Rajon Rondo from his old Boston stomping grounds, if Danny Ainge had been so inclined. But the truth was the Rockets never really had the chips to the put onto the table — a premium first round draft choice or two — to even get the Celtics thinking seriously.

Daryl Morey, James Harden (Bill Baptist/NBAE)

Daryl Morey, James Harden
(Bill Baptist/NBAE)

There was the one rumor that Boston would have very much been interested in Chandler Parsons. But who wouldn’t be? Parsons is young, athletic, talented and still plays on a rookie, second-round pick contract. That’s the kind of real value that is very much at a premium in today’s NBA.

Morey’s jumping-the-checkers-all-over-the-board approach has been on display for more than a half-decade now. He landed the All-Star pair of James Harden and Dwight Howard with it. So, if he couldn’t wallop another another home run this time around, it surely wasn’t because he didn’t wear out his beloved Blackberry trying. You can’t hit the pitches you don’t swing at.

Yet for the first time since he began calling the shots in the front office in 2007, the Rockets’ general manager didn’t feel the same sense of urgency.

“We feel like as a team as we are coming together at the right time,” Morey said. “We had a lot of opportunities to mix things up. But we feel like we have a core with stars in Dwight and James and we have a good group around them that we feel good about, and we feel like when you have that core you want to keep the guys around them.”

A seemingly endless of string of nagging injuries since the start of the season had prevented the Rockets from developing any cohesion or consistency. Even with Howard back close to his pre-back surgery, pre-shoulder injury level of fitness, there was also the matter of trying to blend his low post game with Harden’s one-on-one skills.

While the two of them can sometimes look like would-be dancers with no sense of rhythm, there is a feeling that the pieces are growing together. And the Rockets’ record is showing it.

As they close out a five-game road trip with a back-to-back at the Kings and Clippers that starts Tuesday night, the Rockets are now an NBA-best 17-5 since Jan. 1. They have climbed solidly into the No. 3 spot in the Western Conference and now set their sights on the No. 2 Spurs, whom they have already whipped three times this season.

It is a wholly different attitude for Morey, to let the pot he’s filled come to a slow boil rather than just keep grabbing for new ingredients. Inside he believes his team still needs that third All-Star level player to stand toe-to-toe with Miami, Indiana and Oklahoma City. But with Howard and Harden contented in their roles on the team, their place in Houston and locked into max-level contracts, patience is probably the most prudent path.

The Rockets were able to trade veteran guard Aaron Brooks, a fan favorite, to Denver because they feel they have enough talent in the pipeline. Last year’s draft pick, Isaiah Canaan, plucked in the second round, has been simmering in the NBA D-League and earned his chance to contribute significant minutes with the Rockets. Hamilton is another below-the-radar talent that the Rockets believe can flourish if give the opportunity to play. And it is that cycling through of young players that has kept the Rockets both moving forward steadily in terms of overall progress and flexible enough with their payroll to remain open and available to make that next big deal. As sure as summer follows spring, they’ll be standing on the high dive looking to make another big splash in the talent pool in July.

The Rockets would likely be a tough out in any best-of-seven playoff series in the rugged Western Conference, the Thunder included. But with an offense that relies so heavily on the 3-point shot, the question is whether they can perform consistently enough over eight weeks of the playoffs — or even two rounds — to be taken seriously yet.

We’ll find out. Sometimes, the answers do come when you sit and wait.


VIDEO: Daryl Morey discusses the Rockets’ trade for Jordan Hamilton

Duncan Not Publicly Planning His Exit


VIDEO: Tim Duncan and the Spurs pick up a big win vs. the Clippers in L.A.

During his news conference with the world’s media just a few minutes before Sunday night’s All-Star Game in New Orleans, Kobe Bryant said he hadn’t given any real thought to when he might finally retire.

“I don’t really want the rocking chair before the game,” he said.

Neither would Tim Duncan.

For 17 NBA seasons now, he’s been about the game and not the showmanship. In winning four championships and two MVP awards, Duncan has been as inscrutable as the Sphinx, keeping his personality walled up within the Spurs locker room, rarely even smiling in public. Except, of course, for that time he supposedly laughed at referee Joey Crawford.

One could more readily imagine Duncan slipping into a shirt of thorns rather than a comfortable public embrace from all corners of the NBA.

That’s why it would be unwise immediately to dismiss the comment made by former NBA coach George Karl, now an ESPN analyst, on SportsCenter:

“You know over the weekend, that was the whispers that I got. I got a couple of phone calls, one from San Antonio that said that Tim Duncan’s thinking this is going to be his last year. The best, most fundamental big guy ever to play in the NBA, and he leaving would make me very, very sad. The San Antonio Spurs without Tim Duncan would be very difficult for me to watch.”

Even as he approaches his 38th birthday in April, it is not at all difficult to watch Duncan play near the incredibly high standard that he has always set for himself. He’s averaging 15.6 points and 10 rebounds per game and has a true shooting percentage of 53.6. His PER of 22.09 ranks 18th in the league, even though he is playing an average of just 29.6 minutes.

In the last game before the All-Star break, Duncan scored 23 of his 25 points in the second half, leading a Spurs lineup that was without Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter to a win at Boston. He has been as sturdy as an oak, starting more games (49) than any other member of the lineup to push San Antonio to the No. 2 seed in the West. In other words, Duncan is still an elite player and likely could have appeared in his 15th All-Star Game if Gregg Popovich hadn’t likely spread the word to his coaching peers that his big man needed a weekend off.

There was a time after the 2011 playoffs, when the No. 1 seeded Spurs were upset by the No. 8 Grizzlies in the first round, that it seemed unfathomable that Duncan would still be playing now. He was slow, worn out, injured and overwhelmed by the inside Memphis tandem of bruising Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph.

But Duncan used that humbling experience as a reason to spend the summer changing his diet, changing his workout regimen and ultimately changing his body so that he’s returned to the court lighter, healthier and able to have fun and dominate again. The result was the Spurs going to the Western Conference finals in 2012 and pushing the Heat to the Game 7 limit before losing in the NBA Finals last June.

Duncan signed a three-year, $30-million contract in 2012, the final season a player option and there was talk at the time that he might very well take a pass on that. But since then the Spurs signed Parker and Ginobili to new deals, all of them set to expire at the end of 2014-15, the assumption that the Big Three would take two more cracks at winning the the fifth title in franchise history.

So would Tim walk out the door prematurely on Tony and Manu and Pop?

Only if he feels like the spark and the joy are no longer out there on the court every night. Only if he decides the physical and mental sacrifices to keep himself pushing forward at his high and exacting standards are too much. Which, creeping up on 38, that could happen any day.

So much will depend on how the Spurs and Duncan handle another playoff grind. You can certainly see the championship that slipped through their fingers as a motivational force this time around. But what if the injury-plagued Spurs don’t get back to The Finals for another try at the ring? Or even out of the first or second round?

Even if he’s thinking it, Duncan won’t crack and let us know or share his feelings or an itinerary. He’ll just keep shooting and rebounding and setting screens and doing all those things that make him the Big Fundamental until he doesn’t.

He won’t hit the rocking chair, just the exit door.


VIDEO: Tim Duncan talks about the Spurs’ win against the Clippers