Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Jackson’

Coaching The NBA’s Hardheaded Players


VIDEO: Brent Barry and The Starters crew talk about J.R. Smith’s shoe antics

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – A sucker’s born every minute, or so they say. So maybe the Knicks can find one to dump their stupefying sixth man J.R. Smith upon. More likely, Knicks coach Mike Woodson is stuck with the shoelace bandit.

The NBA nailed Smith with a $50,000 fine Wednesday for “recurring instances of unsportsmanlike conduct.” One day after the league warned Smith after he untied the shoelaces of Mavericks forward Shawn Marion as the two stood side by side awaiting a free throw, he tried it again in the very next game to Pistons forward Greg Monroe.

The New York Daily News reported that Smith has now been fined $105,000 since joining the Knicks in 2012, not to mention his one-game suspension in the playoffs for throwing an elbow at Boston’s Jason Terry, and his five-game suspension to start this season for violating the league’s drug policy. Meanwhile, the Knicks awarded Smith a three-year, $18 million contract during the summer.

A fed-up Woodson on Wednesday lit into his juvenile shooting guard on New York radio station 98.7 ESPN:

“I don’t condone things that I know you shouldn’t do. No, I’m not happy about this. Because again, he was warned, he comes back and he makes the same mistake, and it’s not right. I just got the information, I’m going to address it tomorrow when he comes in here for work, because it’s unacceptable. It really is.

“It’s unprofessional. That’s the only word I can use. Or two words. You just can’t do that. You just cannot do it.”

And …

“There’s no question, he’s done a lot of things this year that has put him in a bad position and our team in a bad position. Somehow, we’ve got to clean that up. This is unacceptable…I keep saying this every time something pops up, but it’s got to stop.”

But really, what can a coach do when dealing with a volatile, hardheaded (but also a needed) player such as Smith? I was talking about this very topic recently with Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who has such a player on his roster in Matt Barnes and just released another in Stephen Jackson.

Barnes is more of a hot-tempered, playground bully/team-bodyguard type whereas Smith is more of a loose cannon and silly prankster. But both are emotional, off-the-cuff players who do inexplicable things at any given moment that can hurt their teams either by drawing a technical foul, an ejection and/or suspension.

Rivers’ answer to what a coach can do to reign in such behavior? Not a lot.

“I just let them explode and then move on,” Rivers said, laughing. “There’s not much you’ve got to do. I had Rasheed [Wallace]. He probably was the test market for any emotional player. Rasheed was a great teammate, he was a great guy, but when he lost it, he lost it, and listen, better coaches than me coached Rasheed. … I came to the conclusion if they couldn’t stop it I’m not going to try.”

Barnes has played in only 19 games this season due to various injuries, but has already been fined two times for $25,000 each for lingering on the court after being ejected. Last month, Barnes put a hard foul on Timberwolves forward Kevin Love in the third quarter, drawing a flagrant 1. The referees reviewed it on replay and upgraded it to a flagrant 2, resulting in automatic ejection. Barnes flipped. The upgrade proved to be more about Barnes’ reputation, a problem in itself. The league reviewed the foul and acknowledged it should have remained a flagrant 1.

“You never want to put your team in a position of vulnerability or giving away extra free throws or extra points, especially down the stretch of the season or if it’s the playoffs; everything has to be calculated,” Barnes told NBA.com last week. “It used to be a good, little game. Now it’s like a flag football-type game, so you really have to be smart about everything.”

His first ejection and subsequent fine came during a November game against the Thunder in which Barnes unnecessarily came to the defense of a teammate and got into an altercation with Thunder forward Serge Ibaka in the first half. Both players got tossed.

“My situation is I look at my teammates as my family, so it’s never really an altercation to me,” Barnes said. “It’s more if your teammates get into something, you get into something; that’s the way I was raised. I was raised to protect my brother and sister and my friends, so I look at my teammates as my family. I’m going to do whatever I can to help.”

How do you coach that?

“With Stephen and Matt, they are emotional and their emotions, for the most part, are in the right place; they want to help their team win,” Rivers said. “Yeah, you don’t want them to ever cross that line where it can hurt your team and when it does, it does, and you remind them of it and you just hope they get better. But that’s all you can do.

“I don’t know, it’s a tough one. I’d rather have it, I guess.”

Woodson and the Knicks aren’t so sure anymore in regard to Smith. The 10-year veteran had an excellent last season, earning Sixth Man of the Year honors, and many professed that he was a changed man, done with frivolous conduct and serious about taking care of business on the basketball court.

Going back to his playoff implosion and the multiple incidents since, that certainly does not appear to be the case. As Woodson said during his Wednesday radio appearance:

“If you look at what happened last year, everybody played a role on that team and J.R. was a big piece of the puzzle. Yeah, it can come from Carmelo [Anthony], it can come from his teammates, it can come from his coaching staff, it can come from me being there, it can come from the GM, the owner. At the end of the day, he’s got to grow up.”

Morning Shootaround — Dec. 10


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Dec. 10

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Kobe re-evaluates his season debut | Report: Clips, Jackson reach deal | Warriors trying to reclaim early-season magic | Jazz attendance dropping fast

No. 1: Kobe changes view on debut — The season debut for Kobe Bryant didn’t go as well as either he nor the Lakers had hoped. Bryant struggled through a 2-for-9 shooting performance that also included eight turnovers as the Lakers lost at home to the Raptors. After the defeat, Bryant was pretty hard on himself regarding his return and the reviews around the web were more about the emotional influx Bryant provided to the Lakers than his on-court contributions. A day after all that, though, Bryant has somewhat reversed field on his first game, telling ESPNLosAngeles.com’s Dave McMenamin that his debut wasn’t as bad as he first thought:

After thoroughly ripping apart his play following the Los Angeles Lakers’ 106-94 loss to the Toronto Raptors on Sunday, Kobe Bryant changed his tune after having a night to sleep on it.

“It wasn’t as bad as I thought it was,” Bryant said after going through a full practice Monday, a day after appearing in his first game in nearly eight months because of a torn Achilles in his left leg. “The turnovers and things like that, a lot of it was just mistiming. I made some pretty good reads, I got my guys some pretty good looks. In terms of a floor game, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was.”

After watching film from his debut until 2 a.m., Bryant even elevated the grade he gave himself from an “F” to a “D.”

Neither of those are passing grades, of course. But Bryant believes that his approach to his first game back will still pass muster going forward.

“Do the same thing I did in the first game, just do it better,” Bryant said of his goal his second game back Tuesday when the Lakers host the Phoenix Suns. “Just keep the turnovers under control and get my guys in position to be successful and see if I can’t make a couple shots of my own.”

Bryant said he felt better after practice Monday than he did even before the game Sunday, but Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni allowed that there are still steps for Bryant to complete.

“[We need to] get Kobe get back up to snuff,” D’Antoni said. “It’s a little bit of a process, but we’ll do it.”

Part of that process will be getting Bryant back in a position to close quarters and games out for L.A., something the Lakers struggled with in his absence.

“We know, and everybody knows, he’s got to be the closer,” D’Antoni said. “As soon as we can get him there, the more times he is in that position, he’ll get closer to doing it. I don’t think there’s any question about what we need to do. We just got to get better at it.”

Bryant scoffed at the idea of his presence being something that could hurt the team even in the short term, pointing out that the Lakers’ record without him (10-9) wasn’t much to write home about.

“The chemistry will be fine,” Bryant said. “It’s not like they haven’t watched me play for 17 years. It’s not rocket science. It’s not like we were gangbusters before. Guys know how to play with me, it will be fine. They got plenty of opportunities [Sunday] and we just got to capitalize on them.”


VIDEO: Kobe Bryant talks about his play in his season debut

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No. 2: Report: Clips agree to deal with swingman Jackson — Last season, as the Spurs were gearing up for what would become a run to The Finals, they cut swingman Stephen Jackson on April 12. Since then, Jackson, who has 13 NBA seasons to his name, has been waiting for his next opportunity in the league. It seems he’s got his chance again as the Clippers signed him yesterday and he is expected to officially join the team Tuesday in Boston, writes Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times:

After saying earlier Monday that the Clippers weren’t going to sign “anybody today or probably even tomorrow,” Coach Doc Rivers said later that the team was “close” to a deal with free-agent swingman Stephen Jackson.

“I just think he’s a veteran,” Rivers said. “We need him in a pinch and we need him like now. And that’s a guy that you can bring in and hopefully he can give you something right away with Reggie [Bullock] being out for at least this trip and maybe longer.”

The Clippers needed Jackson because rookie small forward Bullock suffered a sprained left ankle Saturday night against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Clippers already are without shooting guard J.J. Redick, who will be out at six to eight weeks because of a broken right hand.

Backup small forward Matt Barnes will be out even longer than expected because he had a second procedure on his left retina last week and is not expected to join the team on this trip that has four games left.

Jackson went on his social network accounts to announce his return to the NBA.

“I never lost faith,” Jackson said. “The wait is over.”

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No. 3: Warriors stunned after loss to Bobcats – Entering Monday night’s game against Charlotte, Golden State was off to a 3-1 start to December after an 8-7 mark in November that featured the loss of Andre Iguodala to injury. Taking on the Bobcats, who have one of the worst offenses in the NBA, the Warriors expected to keep control of Kemba Walker and the rest of Charlotte’s attack, but that wasn’t the case last night. Walker went for 31 points, including several big baskets down the stretch, that fueled Charlotte’s win. Afterward, the Warriors’ locker room was a somber place as the team tries to regain the rhythm that had it off to a 4-1 start, writes Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle:

The Warriors’ postgame locker room Monday night told the story of their 115-111 loss, the latest in a disappointing start to what was supposed to be a promising season.

After the loss to the Bobcats, barely a voice spoke above a level appropriate for a library. Some players quickly showered and darted. Others sat and stared in disbelief at a stat sheet that showed they had just allowed the NBA’s worst offense to score at least 26 points in every quarter. The Warriors’ record fell to 12-10.

“It’s still early in the season, but this one stings pretty much worse than one has stung in a while,” said Stephen Curry, who had a season-high 43 points to go with nine assists, six rebounds and two blocked shots.

“We showed a lot of fight. There’s no question about that,” Warriors head coach Mark Jackson said. “But that’s the type of energy and effort that you need to give before you get down.”

Jackson said it’s time to stop talking about slow starts, missed defensive assignments, grueling road trips and injuries. It’s time to start fixing it.

The Warriors’ game plan was to switch on small-small pick-and-roll plays, but they didn’t. The players were told not to jump on Josh McRoberts‘ pump fake at the three-point line, but they did. They watched video of Al Jefferson spinning away from the double-teaming defender and then let him do it live.

“Each (of our) guys makes a mistake, and before you know it, they’ve got five guys on the court with a rhythm,” Jackson said. “I mean, we’re a defensive team. To give up 115 points to anybody, it’s unacceptable.”

“I mean, it can’t get much worse,” said Klay Thompson, who had 22 points and five assists. “I think we’ll naturally get better. It’s good to get these road games out of the way early in the season. That’s the best way to look at it, but it’s still not an excuse. Great teams win on the road, and that’s what we want to be.”

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No. 4: Jazz attendance hitting skids — For many seasons in the NBA, one of the most loyal and devoted fan bases could be found at every Jazz home game at EnergySolutions Arena. But with Utah in a neck-and-neck race with the Milwaukee Bucks for the league’s worst record, attendance is falling in Salt Lake City. Utah is currently 17th in average home attendance in the NBA, according to ESPN, and Salt Lake Tribune columnist Kurt Kragthorpe won’t be surprised if the numbers stay down all season:

But what are we really supposed to think of this team, 23 games into the season? My only concrete conclusion is any outcome makes a sizable number of fans happy. Either the Jazz win, or they improve their NBA draft-lottery odds.

As for the theory that fans would eagerly embrace and support this version of the Jazz, regardless? Uh, no. Monday’s crowd was announced as 17,555, but entire rows of lower-bowl seats were empty. Even with a potential sellout Jan. 31 when former coach Jerry Sloan’s honorary banner is unveiled and some visits from elite opponents, the team’s attendance average is sure to be lower than 18,000 for the first time in the building’s 23 seasons.

Personally, I should have taken my own preseason advice to just check back in April and see how it all turned out.

Should I compare this Jazz team to the expansion New Orleans Jazz (2-21) of 1974-75, or to the 2003-04 team (13-10) that followed the departures of Karl Malone and John Stockton? Should I evaluate coach Tyrone Corbin in regard to what Boston’s Brad Stevens (10-12) and Phoenix’s Jeff Hornacek (11-9) are doing with their rebuilds, or to the embarrassing results of New York’s Mike Woodson (5-14) and Brooklyn’s Jason Kidd (6-14)?

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: A great look at Nikola Mirotic, a player whom the Bulls drafted in the first round of 2011 and may help the team next season … Rookie big man Kelly Olynyk is back at Celtics practiceD.J. Augustin, the ninth overall pick of the 2008 Draft, was waived by the Raptors … Wizards forward Al Harrington (knee surgery) will be out a monthLaMarcus Aldridge hears some MVP chants on the road in Salt Lake City

ICYMI Of The Night: Bobcats combo guard Gerald Henderson tracks down Harrison Barnes in transition and comes up with the monster swat …


VIDEO: Gerald Henderson hustles in transition and swats Harrison Barnes

http://www.nba.com/lakers/video/2013/12/09/131209Bryantmov-3070724/

Beasley, Lakers A Desperate Match?

HANG TIME, Texas – To paraphrase the line from the classic filmIt’s A Wonderful Life“, every time Michael Beasley rings an exit bell, Darko Milicic gets another set of wings.

How much longer will Millicic wear the infamous yoke of worst No. 2 pick of the past 10 years now that Beasley’s been bounced from his third NBA team in five seasons?

As well, what is Beasley’s next stop after being waived by the Suns barely 14 months after signing a three-year, $18-million contract?

Nobody’s ever doubted Beasley’s ability to score or rebound when motivated. The trouble is a penchant for trouble that comes from an attention span shorter than the 24-second shot clock, his arrest in August for marijuana possession only the most recent example.

The fact that a Phoenix franchise that won only 25 games last season and did not sell out a single date at home at US Airways Center would spend $7 million to kiss off a 6-foot-10, 24-year-old forward practically shouts warnings from the rooftop.

And yet.

This is the NBA, where there are more second-, third- and fourth-chance believers than the lottery machine at the corner convenience store.

Enter the Lakers.

They are, after all, a team that has pursued Beasley hungrily in the past, thinking a couple of times during the 2011-12 season that they might have had deals to pry him out of Minnesota.

The Lakers, too, in the wake of Dwight Howard’s departure, are a franchise wearing the whiff of new cologne — Eau de Desperation — as they pray for an improbable Hollywood script mending of Kobe Bryant’s torn Achilles’ tendon and bide time until the next free agent auction in the summer of 2014.

As pointed out by Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com, if the Lakers could sign Beasley for the veteran’s minimum of roughly $1 million for the upcoming season, it would allow them to keep salary cap space open for next summer and give a boost to an offense that needs help.

This is a guy who has a career high of 42 points, a guy who once put up 22 points and 15 rebounds in a playoff game, a guy who has a 34.5 percent career mark from 3, but has shot 36.6 percent or better from deep in three out of his five career seasons.

Don’t discount the appeal of Beasley’s ability to shoot it, either. The Lakers drafted Ryan Kelly in the second round primarily for his ability to stretch the floor with his long-range accuracy, but the team has been discouraged by the rookie’s progress during the summer, according to multiple league sources. The Lakers doubt that Kelly, who missed summer league while recovering from multiple foot procedures, will be ready for the start of training camp.

There are certainly financial reasons for Beasley to choose to play someplace else, the $7 million buyout he received from the Suns notwithstanding. Teams such as Milwaukee or Philadelphia could sign him to get close to the mandatory payroll minimum. Could you see him getting thrown a rope by an unlikely savior such as Gregg Popovich in San Antonio, figuring the stable, solid, no-nonsense Spurs locker room kept one knucklehead — i.e. Stephen Jackson — in line and could do it again?

At this point, Beasley comes with his own loud warning siren and flashing red lights. Yet there are those 42 points he scored one night against the Kings, those 19.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg and 2.2 apg he averaged in the only NBA season he played more than 30 minutes a game. And for the Lakers, well, desperation has made stranger bedfellows.

Because of all the things he can do with the ball in his hands, it’s probably premature to say Beasley is down to his last chance, but Darko is over there in the corner flapping his wings.

Spurs’ Leonard Making Own Splash


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SAN ANTONIO – Sometimes young players make a splash in the playoffs.

That was Stephen Curry and Klay Thompsonthe Splash Brothers — in their postseason baptism, doing jack knives, double flips and triple twists off the high board.

It was the kind of how-did-they-do-that act that left you shaking your head when you weren’t picking your jaw up off the floor as you figured you were maybe getting a glimpse of the way basketball should be played in the 21st century.

Sometimes young players have to wade into the deep end of the pool.

That was Kawhi Leonard, whose next splash will be his first, easing into the water from his ankles up to his knees up to his hips, the old-fashioned way.

A year ago, Leonard wasn’t ready. Not when the Spurs reached the Western Conference finals against the Thunder and suddenly he was swimming with the sharks. There were critical plays that he was physically capable of making, but the rookie who did not have the benefit of a training camp in the abbreviated lockout season, wasn’t sure enough to assert himself on a veteran-laden roster.

Warriors coach Mark Jackson has called Curry and Thompson “the best shooting backcourt in the history of the game” and anyone who saw them practically set fire to the AT&T Center in the first two games of this series had little ammunition to argue otherwise.

However, since Game 1, neither Curry or Thompson has made better than 50 percent of his shots. In the past four games, Curry has shot 7-20, 5-17, 7-15 and 4-14, while Thompson has hit on 13-26, 7-20, 5-13 and 2-8. That’s a combined 50-for-133 (.375), as the Splash Brothers haven’t been able to throw it in the ocean.

San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich raised a few eyebrows last summer when he said that Leonard would eventually be “the face of the Spurs.”

That would seem to be a heavy lift on a roster that still includes three likely Hall of Famers in Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. Yet here are the Spurs holding a 3-2 series lead after a 109-91 thumping of the Warriors on Tuesday night and there was Leonard up to his neck in all of it.

At one end of the floor, Leonard is as efficient and deadly as a shark, connecting on 7 of 8 shots — 3-for-4 on deep balls — to ring up 17 points to go with his seven rebounds. He can hit impossible-looking corner 3s from behind the backboard and finish with a thunderbolt dunk over Harrison Barnes. At the other end, his defense on Thompson (and occasionally Curry) couldn’t be more smothering if he used a wet blanket.

“He made some big shots for us,” Duncan said. “When they made runs, he made some huge 3s for us. Defensively, he was great. His length is just huge for us and being able to contest from the side and from behind those, it makes them uncomfortable.”

Leonard fits in so comfortably on the floor and in the locker room that there are times when it’s easy not to notice him. He usually dresses and bolts after games before the media even arrives at his locker. On the occasions when he is hemmed in by the notebooks and cameras, he squeezes out words as if he is expected to pay for each one.

But there was a reason why Popovich was able and willing to cut veteran Stephen Jackson from the team just a week before the regular season’s end. Yes, Jackson’s play had taken a dive. He was shooting just 28 percent on 3s, which did not gibe with Capt. Jack’s opinion of himself.

The question was whether Popovich and the Spurs would miss Jackson defensively when they ran into a red hot scorer or two, the kind that needs to be jostled, rattled and knocked off his rhythm.

This time last spring, Popovich was hoping that Leonard could one day grow into that dependable game-changer. Now he is there. Leonard might not yet be “the face of the Spurs,” but he’s a got a nose for the ball. On a team where managing the playing time of the thirtysomething crowd is as much a part of the game as dribbling and shooting, it is no coincidence that Leonard topped out in minutes on the Spurs’ box score with 37 in Game 5 and is averaging more (38.2) than anyone on the roster. He is also the legs of the Spurs.

Jackson, of course, concedes nothing has thrown the Splash Brothers off their game.

On Curry: “Didn’t play well.”

On Thompson: “Didn’t play well.”

Since the first two games of the series, the Spurs have been getting up in the face and the space of the Warriors’ shooters. They have been running them off the 3-point line. They have been doing it with double-teams that come at different times and from different angles.

They have been doing it by turning more responsibility over to the taciturn Leonard, who has grown into the role and grown comfortable in the deep water of the playoffs.

Seems there is more than one way to make a splash.

Ageless Duncan Has Spurs Primed For Deep Run

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LOS ANGELES – Gregg Popovich still maintains that as soon as Tim Duncan decides to walk away he’ll be right behind him and happily disappear into the San Antonio sunset.

The good news for Spurs fans who have grown up or grown old with the most successful coach-player duo in NBA history, now in their 16th season together, is they aren’t going anywhere soon.

“He plays like he’s six or seven or eight years younger than he is,” Popovich said. “He’s really just a miracle in my mind.”

That’s what some thought it would take just a few seasons ago for the Spurs with an aging Big Three of Duncan, 37, Tony Parker, 30, and Manu Ginobili, 35, to again be title contenders. They were swept out of the second round by Phoenix in 2010 and then unceremoniously ushered out the next season as the top seed in a first-round upset against Memphis.

Parker openly pondered the direction of the franchise at that point just as rumors persisted that he could be traded. He questioned if the team’s age and makeup could still allow it to compete in a Western Conference transitioning to younger, faster and more athletic, headed by two rising stars in Oklahoma City.

Duncan didn’t need to hear concern from Parker to know that the times were changing, and he needed to change with them.

After averaging just 12.7 points in that 2011 first-round loss, Duncan immersed himself in self-evaluation, analyzing everything from where he’s most effective on the floor, to his conditioning, to his weight and nutrition.

He said the lockout, while it hindered many players’ workout routines and stunted their seasons, actually worked in his favor: “Just having that extra time to really focus on getting my game back and getting my body in the right shape that I wanted it to be.

“I changed a lot,” Duncan said following Sunday’s completion of a first-round sweep of a frustrated Dwight Howard and the depleted Los Angeles Lakers. “I understand that my game was changing, trying to extend my game on the floor, understanding where I’m going to be getting my shots, understand that I needed to get some weight off my body so that I could take some of the pressure off my knee. And it worked well for me.”

This season Duncan produced his highest scoring average (17.8), field-goal percentage (50.2), rebounding average (9.9) and minutes (30.1) in three seasons. His 2.7 blocks per game were a career-best, as was his 81.7 percent free throw shoooting, a remarkable leap for a career 69.3-percent foul shooter.

Against L.A. he delivered an array of post moves, spins, jumpers and one mighty alley-oop jam that caught his teammates by surprise.

“I thought he was going to be done after that play,” Parker said, smiling. “His back or something like that would give out on him.”

And so here are the Spurs once again, following up on last season’s run to the West finals, a six-game loss in what always seems to be Duncan’s last, best shot at a fifth title. They’ll be well-rested and favored in the second round against either a young and energetic Golden State squad or a Denver team that will have gone the distance to dig out of a 3-1 hole.

With the top-seeded Thunder wounded, the second-seeded Spurs must now be considered the favorite to emerge from the West.

“We’re getting there,” Duncan said after averaging 17.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and shooting 51.7 percent from the floor against the Lakers. “Obviously this series went well for us. We didn’t end the year well, but the bottom line is it really doesn’t matter how you end the year. This is a good start for us. We like the pace we’re at now, we like the rhythm we’re at now, we like how healthy we are right now and hopefully we can stay that way.”

Only a few weeks ago Duncan and Popovich expressed concern about its own health after a loss at OKC. Old questions of age and durability were cropping up again as Ginobili sat out hurt. Parker was dealing with multiple ailments and had to be removed from that game and faced an uncertain return. Boris Diaw needed back surgery. The team surprisingly released Stephen Jackson.

Yet, there was Duncan, spry and free of physical distress, averaging more minutes this season when Popovich’s desire over the last several has been to limit him more, an All-Star again for the 14th time.

“He’s a really gifted individual as far as his mental capacity is concerned,” Popovich said. “He really has a mature outlook in the sense that he knows what it takes to play at that age. He enjoys the responsibility and takes it seriously 12 months a year and that’s why he’s able to do what he does at this point in his career. His maturity level and commitment are both very unique.”

As Duncan altered his approach the last two seasons, becoming leaner and quicker, especially evident in his defense and 9.9 rebounds a game, his best mark in three seasons, Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford went about reconstructing the team.

The stodgy defensive model complemented by a methodical offense that ran through Duncan was ditched. Young sharpshooters and scrappy, unheralded role players were acquired to form a precision-based, team-oriented and highly efficient offensive attack that surged to became one of the highest-scoring in the league.

Additions like second-year forward Kawhi Leonard helped improve a faltering defense, making San Antonio an all-around threat to run through the West and arguably the best equipped to challenge the Miami Heat in a seven-game series.

Still, the key remains the ever-present Duncan, even as the Spurs’ strategy altered emphasis on him.

In the opening minutes of Game 3, Duncan set the tone for the two games in L.A. that the Spurs would win by 52 points. A 3.2 earthquake was registered just as Duncan snared an alley-oop pass from Danny Green with his fully outstretched right arm rising well above the rim and then he emphatically dunked it.

“That makes sense now,” the self-deprecating Duncan said when told of the simultaneous earthquake. “It lowered the rim.”

Green instinctively launched the pass to the open man, but then quickly grew concerned as he realized the recipient was an old man with bad knees.

“I threw it and when I saw that it was Tim, I was like hopefully he can catch it and come down with it and make a play,” Green said. “But he caught it and threw that thing down.”

For the Big Fundamental, it was no big thing.

“I used to do it a lot, back in the day,” Duncan said. “Fifteen, 20 years ago.”

Spurs Make A Reach on McGrady

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HANG TIME, Texas — Apparently George Gervin had a golf date. So the Spurs picked up Tracy McGrady for their playoff run.

While T-Mac is only 33 years old, it’s been a long time since he gave coach Gregg Popovich nightmares with that amazing 13-points-in-35-seconds flash fire in Houston. Dec. 12, 2004, to be exact, back in the days when the 6-foot-8 McGrady was athletic, graceful, high-flying and could do virtually anything he wanted on a basketball court.

But since averaging 21.6 points for the Rockets in the 2007-08 season, McGrady has undergone microfracture surgery on his left knee, come back to earth with his game and was out of the NBA after sitting on the bench in Atlanta last season. Coach Gregg Popovich will likely use him in limited minutes to back up Kawhi Leonard at small forward after waiving veteran Stephen Jackson last week.

McGrady is eligible for the playoffs because he was not on an NBA roster at any time this season. His size can pick up a few rebounds and he’s always been a willing and adept passer. But the explosiveness that used to get him to the basket is gone and now he’s merely a jump-shooter.

McGrady averaged 25 points, 7.2 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 1.6 steals in 29 games this season in the Chinese Basketball Association, but was not able to lift the Qingdao Double Star Eagles, who finished 8-24 and in last place in the 17-team league.

Joining the Spurs would seem to give McGrady the chance to fill that one glaring hole in his resume. He is currently the only NBA scoring champ in history to never win a single series and advance to the second round of the playoffs.

“I’m just glad to be part of this environment,” McGrady told Chris Broussard of ESPN via text. “Something I never experienced while being my best.”

San Antonio always been a no-nonsense organization that rarely makes excuses and McGrady’s has been a career full of them, leaving a trail of recrimination in his wake from Orlando to Houston to New York to Detroit to Atlanta.

With Manu Ginobili trying to make a playoff comeback from a bad hamstring, Tony Parker not up to form since he suffered a severely sprained left ankle in early March and Jackson now banished, the Spurs search for an offensive boost going into the playoffs is bordering on desperate.

And, well, Gervin is 60.

Jackson’s Boot Could Kick The Spurs

HANG TIME, TexasStephen Jackson has always brought a dash of the unexpected to every team he’s ever played on and last season that nonconforming flair helped get the Spurs to the Western Conference finals.

This time around, it got Capt. Jack booted off the team.

Just over two hours before opening tip Friday night against Sacramento, the Spurs announced that they had waived the 34-year-old swingman.

It was reported by Yahoo! Sports Adrian Wojnarowski that Jackson had been “sparring” with coach Gregg Popovich over playing time for much of the season and the situation had deteriorated in recent days.

Jackson averaged 6.2 points in 19.5 minutes while playing in 55 games this season. But his unhappiness with his role is believed to stem from a desire for a next contract. He was in the final year of a deal that paid him $10.059 million this season.

According to sources, the feeling was that Jackson’s discontent was becoming a distraction in the locker room and Popovich’s feeling was that it could affect the younger players on the team as the Spurs enter the playoffs. It was simply time to cut out — or lop off — a brewing problem.

Jackson could sign on with another NBA team, but would not be eligible to take part in the playoffs, which open in eight days.

The mercurial veteran was hardly devastated by the Spurs decision to release him, based on his Twitter account. In a Tweet posted in the afternoon @DaTrillStak5, Jackson said: This how I get over the BS life brings. Haha #pinklemonadejumbochanel#spoilmywife #makesmehappy. It was accompanied by a photo showing a pink Chanel purse and five stacks of $100 bills.

It seems he was not appealing for the sympathy vote.

But so much for the Spurs’ depth.

The way things are going, if the regular season lasted any longer, they might not have enough players.

The Spurs had earlier announced that backup center Boris Diaw underwent surgery Thursday for the removal of a lumbar cyst on his spine and would miss 3-4 weeks, meaning he is unavailable for the start of the playoffs. The team was already playing without guard Manu Ginobili, who is sidelined with a hamstring injury and also expected to be unavailable for the beginning of a first round series. In addition, point guard Tony Parker, had sat out three of the four previous games with a sore neck and is also bothered by an assortment of other injuries.

The Spurs entered Friday night a half-game behind the Thunder in the chase for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, but now have more pressing matters at hand.

Jackson’s absence from the rotation will only amplify the absence of Ginobili from the second unit and makes a team with the third-best record in the entire league suddenly vulnerable in the postseason.

Is There Skepticism Despite OKC’s Monster Season?

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OKLAHOMA CITY –
So just how good are the Oklahoma City Thunder and will it be good enough?

By the numbers, OKC is producing a season for the ages. Yet there seems to be doubt as to whether the superstar duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, minus third amigo James Harden, can get out of the West, let alone beat the Heat. Charles Barkley, for one, has already buried the Thunder in a potential Finals rematch.

There have been suggestions that the Thunder have long grown bored with the regular season, antsy to start the only season that really matters now for a franchise that’s all grown up. Others have claimed that individual selfishness has seeped into the team concept.

The Thunder, of course, aren’t buying it.

“Of course we all want the opportunity to go back and try to fight again for a championship,” Durant said. “After losing last year we wanted to get back as quick as possible. But we know throughout the year it’s a process and we want to get better each and every game. We’re going to have some games where, of course, we’re going to slip up and we’re going to have some bad games, but that’s all part of the journey. The time is almost here so we’ve got to be ready.”

Let’s start with what truly has been a jaw-dropping season for OKC yet is lost amid Miami’s 27-game winning streak and LeBron James‘ MVP brilliance.

At 55-20 after Thursday’s 100-88 win over the San Antonio Spurs, the Thunder have the inside track to the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. With five wins in their final seven games (starting tonight at Indiana, 8 p.m. ET, League Pass) they can reach 60 for the first time since 1997-98 as the Seattle SuperSonics.

And they’re amassing those wins with incredible efficiency, tied for the league lead in scoring (106.0 ppg) while ranking second in field-goal percentage defense (42.5). Their plus-9.2 point-differential dwarfs Miami’s 7.7 while playing in the tougher conference, and it stands to be the largest point-differential since the 2007-08 champion Boston Celtics posted a plus-10.2.

In that season, the Sonics were making their swan song and opened 3-29. They finished 20-62. Every season since in OKC, the Thunder have increased their winning percentage. Currently at .733, they’re riding a better clip than last season’s .712 mark, and assuming they finish the season with a .700 or better winning percentage, they’ll join the Celtics teams from 1955-60 as the only teams to increase their winning percentage for five consecutive seasons while maintaining a .700 or better winning percentage in two of those seasons.

Then there’s the individual dominance of Durant, who is considered a distant second to James in the MVP race. If Durant can hold off Carmelo Anthony‘s late charge (and they meet at OKC on Sunday afternoon), he will win his fourth consecutive scoring title. He’s still on pace to become the sixth player in NBA history to shoot 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3-point range and 90 percent from the free throw line. No player has ever done both in the same season.

On top of that, Westbrook is compiling his best all-around season. Thabo Sefolosha and Serge Ibaka are posting their best offensive seasons, and new sixth man Kevin Martin, despite some lulls, is averaging 14.0 ppg and shooting a career-best 41.9 percent from beyond the arc.

Sounds like they might be better than last season.

“I’m not going to evaluate and say whether they’re as good, better or worse [than last season] or anything like that,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “They’re a championship-caliber team and they’re capable of winning the championship. And that’s what’s important.”

So why is there at least some apprehension to declare the Thunder the outright favorite to defend their West crown? A lot has to do with their surprising record against the other top teams in the West. The Nuggets, suddenly hit hard by injuries to Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari, took three of four from OKC. Memphis won two of three, including 90-89 Monday night.

And Thursday night a Spurs team that was without Manu Ginobili and Stephen Jackson, plus a gimpy Tony Parker who was finally shut down in the fourth quarter with two points due to a leg injury, trailed just 87-84 with five minutes to play after rallying from three separate double-digit deficits. OKC held on to tie the series, 2-2.

The Lakers, a very real possibility for an intriguing first-round showdown, nearly pulled off a similar comeback one month ago that would have given them the season series, 2-1. The Heat won both regular-season matchups including a wire-to-wire stomping on OKC’s home floor in February. Thursday’s win against San Antonio was OKC’s first against a current West playoff team in four tries, and they’re 4-5 in their last nine against West playoff clubs.

When OKC is at its best, playing at a frenetic pace, swarming defensively and running the floor, it seems impossible for a team like the Spurs with three high-mileage stars — two of which aren’t currently healthy — surrounded by young, talented role players, to keep up in a seven-game series. They didn’t last season, losing four straight after taking a 2-0 lead at home in the West finals. Without homecourt advantage, the Spurs’ chances would seem even more bleak.

Injuries to their two leading scorers have likely made the Nuggets, convincing winners at OKC two weeks ago, vulnerable. The Clippers have looked incoherent in recent weeks. Rugged Memphis? As good a shot as anybody.

“We’re in a good spot,” Westbrook said. “There’s always room for improvement, but we’re in a good position.”

Only the playoffs will tell us if good is good enough.

Uncertainty Of New Parker Injury Hangs Over Spurs

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OKLAHOMA CITY – The San Antonio Spurs lost their grip on the West’s top seed Thursday night and potentially much more.

All-Star point guard Tony Parker couldn’t continue in the Spurs’ 100-88 loss to the Thunder due to an unspecified injury to his leg. Limping on his left leg in the locker room, Parker, playing well since recently coming back from a sprained left ankle, wouldn’t expound on this new injury, although a solemn coach Gregg Popovich seemed to be bracing for the worst.

“I’m really concerned about Tony right now after seeing his situation tonight where he just had to stop,” Popovich said. “My feeling is tendinitis, something in his shins or whatever, from the way it looked on the court. But I don’t know.

“I got to see what’s going on. I got to see what the deal is. We thought he had just kind of recovered from his ankle, so this was something new tonight with his leg. I just don’t know what it is right now.”

Popovich yanked the sluggish Parker for good after he noticed him limping through a two-plus-minute stint early in the fourth quarter, leaving crunch-time duty to rookie Nando De Colo. Parker played 26 total minutes, just 10 in the second half, and finished 1-for-6 from the floor for a season-low two points that snapped a 56-game streak of scoring in double figures.

Thursday’s game was just his seventh back from the sprained ankle and he’s been playing through the remnants of a bone bruise in the ankle among other nagging injuries. He scored 25 points with five assists Monday night at Memphis and sat out Wednesday’s game against Orlando, listed on the injury report with a sore left ankle.

“I just have to get healthy,” Parker said. “I’m not going to talk about all my stuff. I’ve got a lot of stuff going on. I just have to get healthy. OKC, give them a lot of credit. They just beat us tonight.” (more…)

Heat, Spurs Still Virtual Strangers

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Both conference’s No. 1 teams made significant statements over the last two days.

It wasn’t just that the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs both convincingly knocked off their closest challengers. The greater message to the Indiana Pacers and Oklahoma City Thunder — and the rest of the league — is how they did it.

LeBron James is the runaway MVP candidate. He had an amazing streak of scoring at least 3o points and shooting 60 percent in six consecutive games. Yet, the Heat only needed 13 points (5-for-10 shooting), seven assists and six rebounds from him in trouncing the Pacers 105-91 on Sunday.

It can be argued that James creates such headaches for opposing defenses that it allows his teammates to run free. Sure, OK, but it had to be demoralizing to the Pacers, the NBA’s top-ranked field-goal percentage defense, to hold James to a baker’s dozen yet surrender 55.9 percent shooting from the field.

San Antonio earned its 105-93 victory Monday over the Thunder by having its two healthy members of the the Big Three — Tim Duncan (13 points, eight rebounds) and Manu Ginobili (12 points, four assists, 24 minutes) — make way for this big three: Tiago Splitter (21 points, 10 rebounds), Kawhi Leonard (17 points, three steals) and Danny Green (16 points, 4-for-4 on 3s).

The precision, depth and discipline of the Spurs was on full display in shooting 52.4 percent against the Thunder’s second-ranked field-goal percentage defense. San Antonio’s improving defense also cranked up, making it difficult on NBA scoring leader Kevin Durant (26 points, 7-for-13 FGs) and Russell Westbrook (25 points, 11-for-27), the leaders of the West’s second-highest scoring offense at more than 106 points a game.

Does this mean we’re headed for a Spurs-Heat Finals come June? Not necessarily. But what if? Which team would hold the advantage?

How can anyone really know? These two teams are virtual strangers.

Since James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh joined forces in the 2010-11 season, the Heat and Spurs have played four times and none of those games featured lineups that would go head-to-head in a Finals series.

The fourth and most recent meeting was the infamous go-home game on Nov. 31 at Miami when Spurs coach Gregg Popovich sent his Big Three plus Green home. A steamed David Stern slapped San Antonio for $250,000 for pitting its reserves against the defending champs on national TV. The Heat won an entertaining game with a late comeback.

The three previous games were all blowouts (2-1 in favor of Miami) with a head-scratching average margin of defeat of 27.1 points. Two of those were played in the span of 10 days in March 2011, and the third was their lone meeting in last season’s lockout-shortened schedule, a 120-98 Heat win on Jan. 20, with Ginobili injured and Richard Jefferson and DeJuan Blair in the Spurs’ starting lineup.

Miami has yet to see the remodeled Spurs after they dealt Jefferson to Golden State for Stephen Jackson and added Boris Diaw. The Heat barely know Green, San Antonio’s leading 3-point bomber (although he did score 20 points off the bench on 6-for-7 3-point shooting in that game nearly 14 months ago).

Fortunately, the Spurs and Heat do meet again on March 31 at San Antonio. It might be our first real chance to assess how these two clubs match up.

Even then, Tony Parker might still be out with a sprained ankle. Either way, there will be plenty of intrigue if the Spurs and Heat, two virtual strangers, get together in June.