Posts Tagged ‘Tony Parker’

Mills ready to fire away for Spurs

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heat’s margin of error has vanished

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: LeBron James did his usual work for the Miami Heat in a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – With the start of the playoffs just 10 days away, I never expected to be questioning the Miami Heat.

Normally, you’ve earned the benefit of all doubt when you smash your way to three straight Finals, win back-to-back titles and prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you are capable of handling any challenge thrown your way on the road to that sort of success.

And yet I cannot get the words of TNT’s Steve Kerr out of my head. He was the first to fire off a warning about the perils of the sort of journey the Heat are on, the taxing nature of not only chasing a three-peat, but the exhausting grind of playing to the final day of the NBA season four years in a row. It’s a grueling process that has worn down the best of the best before, so why shouldn’t it do the same to the Heat?

“There’s a reason these teams don’t do it,” Kerr said in September. “Emotionally, it’s just exhausting to keep doing it year after year, particularly when you have to deal with everything Miami has to deal with on a daily basis, just the constant critiquing and scrutiny on the team, and then you factor in the injuries with Wade and Bosh and their health. I don’t think Miami will get out of the East this year.”

Even if they get out of the East (which I think they will), their margin of error in The Finals — which was razor-thin last season — has vanished. They were on the ropes against the San Antonio Spurs, 30 seconds away from going down in Game 6 before they found the magic needed to survive that game and the energy to finish the Spurs off in Game 7.

It’s asking too much for the Heat to muster that sort of energy and effort again … especially after they’ve already spent a considerable amount of energy and effort dominating the way they have for four seasons running.

This Heat team, the one where LeBron James does the nightly heavy lifting while Chris Bosh does his part and Dwyane Wade helps (when he’s healthy and feeling good enough to suit up) reminds me of the 2011 group that lost to the Dallas Mavericks in The Finals.

It’s a game-to-game thing with the Heat now. Things appear to be fine after a win against a contender from the Eastern or Western Conference, while a loss to a contender starts the chorus of concern all over again. We’ll see it again in the next 48 hours. Losing to Memphis Wednesday night raised all the same red flags about the Heat’s ability to answer the bell against a desperate team. But a win Friday night (7:30 ET, NBA TV) in their fourth and final battle of this regular season against the Indiana Pacers will silence the cynics — at least for a few hours.

A year ago, the Heat were in the midst of a stunning finish to the regular season that saw them win 27 straight games as they chased the Lakers’ NBA-record 33-game win streak. No one had any doubts that they were ready for the playoffs, ready to handle the rigors of winning back-to-back titles and solidifying their status as the league’s preeminent force.

These days, each outing offers more and more signs of decay. It’s a natural erosion that comes with the Heat pounding the rock every night since James, Wade and Bosh joined forces. You don’t have to be a Heat hater to see it either. You simply have to watch, study and give an honest assessment of what we’re seeing out of Miami as the regular season ends.

The same way Heat coach Erik Spoelstra and Israel Gutierrez of ESPN.com did after that loss to the Grizzlies:

The other somewhat troubling sign Wednesday was how quickly the offense went from free-flowing with great ball movement in the first half to a stagnant, LeBron-or-nothing affair that played very much into Memphis’ hands.

James happened to keep Miami in the game because he had his jumper going. But the entire offense came to a standstill on several possessions, leading to forced drives into traffic and easily convertible turnovers.

“It’s something you always have to stay conscious of,” Spoelstra said. “Even as beautifully as we move the ball sometimes, it’s a game you have to work at. You have to do it under duress, when the defense steps up their pressure, which they did.”

LeBron says he would rather play the ball-movement game and keep his teammates involved. But when he’s got it going, he can also take the offense out of rhythm when calling his own number.

“That is a fine balance in this league,” Spoelstra said. “Because he, along with Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant, they’re the best end-of-possession, bail-you-out options for the offense.

“But that can’t be your offense, and we understand that.”

Ultimately, this comes down to Wade. Will he be able to navigate a healthy path and play at an elite level long enough during the postseason to give the Heat that extra playoff edge they’ve had their last two playoff runs?

Because asking LeBron to carry the load without that help this time around might not be feasible.

Flipping that Heat playoff switch is not an option, either. Not when the margin of error has vanished before the postseason has even started.


VIDEO: A desperate Grizzlies team was too much for LeBron James and the Heat

Morning Shootaround — April 7


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played April 7

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Frank Vogel under fire in Indy? | Durant passes MJ … Suns pop Thunder | Warriors Jackson knows winning cures all | Battier still intent on proving his worth after all these years | Trail Blazers bolster Olshey’s bid for Executive of the Year

No. 1: Pacers coach Vogel under fire as slide continues – The Indiana Pacers’ 20-18 record over the past three months has thrown not only their season into a tailspin but also raised questions about their future under head coach Frank Vogel, at least in the eyes of some. Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star raises some startling questions about Vogel’s future with the franchise after yet another disastrous performance, a drubbing at the hands of the Atlanta Hawks Sunday night on their home floor. Benching Roy Hibbert for all but nine minutes, and Hibbert’s bristling during and afterwards, certainly adds more fuel to the drama that has become the Pacers’ season … one that doesn’t appear to be headed for a positive finish:

We know the Indiana Pacers are in trouble, big trouble, BIG trouble, but the question must be asked: Is Frank Vogel in trouble?

That might sound absurd given the job he’s done since he took over as an interim coach. The feeling here is, he’s this team’s long-term coach and should be allowed to correct the many things that have gone wrong with his team the last two months.

But know this: Vogel is not Larry Bird‘s guy.

Bird was hesitant to fire Jim O’Brien in the first place, and even after Vogel turned the team around and got them to play competitively in the playoffs against the Chicago Bulls, it took a couple of months before Bird was willing to give Vogel the full-time job. If you remember, Bird wanted Vogel to hire a big-time, experienced assistant, specifically Brian Shaw, before giving him the job.

Remember, too, that in mid-March, Bird took a swipe at Vogel during a four-game losing streak, opining that Vogel wasn’t hard enough on his team at times. Vogel said the comments didn’t bother him; I’m not convinced that’s the truth.

Would Bird come down from the front office and take over for the post-season?

Would he put it in the hands of Nate McMillan, the former Seattle head coach who is a Vogel assistant?

Bird didn’t put this team together to watch it go into the tank. From the moment the season began, he said, “We’re all in” while saying anything short of the NBA Finals would be a disappointment.

It was interesting, then, that in the midst of the Pacers’ humiliating 107-88 home loss to the Atlanta Hawks – winners of eight of their previous 29 games, by the way – Vogel channeled his inner Bird. With the Pacers trailing 17-3 and 6:05 remaining in a brutal first quarter, Vogel benched the entire starting five.

Hallelujah.

“They’re not getting it done,” Vogel said. “They’re not getting it done, we have to go to someone else, see if someone else can get it done.”

Vogel then did another un-Vogel-like thing to start the second half: He benched Roy Hibbert. Hallelujah, again. Hibbert was terrible, going 0-for-5 without a single rebound in 9 ½ minutes.

After the game, Vogel spun it by saying that he was thinking about resting Hibbert before the start of Sunday night’s game. Then, after watching Hibbert struggle – and watching somebody named Pero Antic light him up from the perimeter – Vogel pulled the plug.

Key word there being spun.

“I considered resting Roy before tonight’s game because he looks worn down,” Vogel said during a short, terse post-game press conference. “He’s a 7-2 player that’s played every game this year, which is very rare. He looks to me to be worn down. He’s giving good effort, but he looks to be to be worn down…I decided to play him, but when he got off to a slow start, I decided to rest him.”

Rest him? Now he’s just trying to spare Hibbert’s feelings. There’s no way Vogel would have rested Hibbert in a game that Pacers absolutely had to win in order to remain in the hunt for the No. 1 seed. No … way.


VIDEO: Paul George and the Pacers try to explain yet another humbling defeat

***

No. 2: Durant passes Jordan with 41st game of 25 or more but Thunder can’t stop Suns — What was supposed to be a night to celebrate Kevin Durant and his scoring streak — he passed Michael Jordan with his 41st consecutive game with 25 or more points — turned out to be yet another stellar performance from Goran Dragic, Gerald Green, P.J. Tucker and the stubborn Phoenix Suns team that refuses to exit the playoff chase in the Western Conference. The Suns win also highlighted a glaring deficiency the Thunder have been struggling to shore up with the playoffs just days away. Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman explains:

At a time when the Thunder is supposed to be fine-tuning for the playoffs, Oklahoma City still can’t seem to figure out how to be sharp defensively. Opposing guards are still slicing through the lane and opposing shooters are still left alone far too frequently.

Suns forward P.J. Tucker became the latest bit player to burn the Thunder, scoring 11 of his career-high 22 points in the fourth quarter. He made seven of nine shots, including four of five 3-point attempts. All four of Tucker’s 3s came from the corner, where Kevin Durant continuously got caught sagging off too far and closing out too slow.

The Suns sprayed in 11 of 23 3-pointers.

“We gave up too many open 3s in the corner,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “That’s a 40 percent shot, so we don’t want to come off on the corner. They roll hard. They penetrate so they get you in a position where you have to make sure you are stopping the ball first. And we didn’t get out to their shooters. But those are all correctable things, things that we’ve done well all year. We just had some bad moments tonight.”

Gerald Green, who erupted for a career-high 41 points in the Thunder’s last trip to the desert, finished with 24 points. He poured in 11 in the third quarter, nine of them coming on 3s.

When it wasn’t Tucker or Green taking it to the Thunder, it was Goran Dragic, the crafty point guard who gave Phoenix three 20-point scorers. He added a team-high 26 points, with 19 of them coming in a first half in which the Suns scored 62 points on 58.7 percent shooting.

Dragic was complemented in the backcourt by Eric Bledsoe, who missed the last meeting while recovering from injury. Bledsoe scored 18 points on 6-for-13 shooting.

“They give you trouble because they’re small, they attack, they get to the free throw line, they can make 3s and they’re desperate right now,” Brooks said. “They’re fighting for their playoff lives.”


VIDEO: Thunder star Kevin Durant surpasses Michael Jordan with his 41st straight game of 25 or more points

***

No. 3: Warriors Jackson knows he has to “just win baby” — Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson knows what he’s dealing with, and it’s a simple scenario. Win and all of the drama fades. It’s like the old Oakland Raiders saying goes, “just win baby.” (It certainly helps to have Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, the Splash Brothers, working overtime for you.) And for Jackson’s self-preservation on the job, the Warriors need to keep piling up the wins (now and into the postseason) to secure Jackson’s situation. At least that’s the way Jackson sees it. More from Tim Kawakami of the Mercury News:

“My job will be determined on winning,” Jackson said before an easy victory over Utah. “I’m fine with that …

“The talk about what these two (ex-assistants) have done, that has nothing to do with me.”

Actually, the dispatching last month of Brian Scalabrine after a philosophical dispute with Jackson followed by the mysterious firing last week of Darren Erman for a team violation has something to do with the head coach.

Jackson is responsible for everybody in that locker room, and if there are problems and failures, he is at some point accountable.

He also has been rightfully credited for re-establishing a sense of unity and defensive purpose on this team and for getting the Warriors into the second round of the playoffs last season.

But there has been grumbling about the team’s occasional lack of urgency and Jackson’s offensive system, which often bogs down in isolation sets with little movement.

Some of that grumbling has come from people in the Warriors front office, by the way.

At times, Jackson has reacted to the chatter indirectly by declaring that this franchise has a history of losing, is winning now and should act like it knows the difference.

On Sunday, when I asked how he’d describe his relationship with co-owner Joe Lacob, Jackson said there are no problems between them.

“You know it’s interesting, I’m reading ‘the dysfunction’ or whatever the term is for my relationship with this front office,” Jackson said. “That’s brand-new to me. And I’d be the first tell you if it wasn’t.”

Jackson then added that he and Lacob talked to each other for 15 minutes on the recent road trip.

Lacob told me in February that he was generally happy with Jackson’s performance but that he was disappointed by some of the home losses.

I also believe that Lacob would view a first-round loss as a sign that the team isn’t moving forward, which is death in the venture-capitalist universe.

“That’s not my call,” Jackson said when I asked him if a first-round loss this season should be considered a step backward.


VIDEO: Steph Curry and Klay Thompson run wild on the Jazz

***

No. 4: Battier proves his worth against Knicks – The Miami Heat’s win over the New York Knicks Sunday wasn’t a death-blow to the playoff hopes of Carmelo Anthony and his crew, but it was close to it. And as much as the Knicks can blame LeBron James (38 points), who outshined J.R. Smith on a night when the Knicks’ enigmatic shooting guard drained a franchise-record 10 shots from beyond the 3-point line,  they need to focus their attention on Shane Battier. The veteran forward’s defensive presence was a game changer for the Heat. Even after all of these years in the league, Battier remains intent on proving his worth to his teammates and coaches by playing the game the right way on both ends. David J. Neal of the Miami Herald explains:

The most eye-catching statistics from the Heat’s 102-91 win were from Smith, who attempted an NBA-record 22 three-pointers and made a franchise record 10 to finish with a team-high 32 points. The single-game record was previously held by Damon Stoudemire, who hoisted 21 three-pointers on April 15, 2005.

However, those numbers eventually meant little for the Knicks, whose playoff hopes were seriously damaged by the loss.

The Knicks trail the Atlanta Hawks by three games in the loss column with only four game left in the regular season for the Knicks.

Although Smith started the game sizzling, he went 0 for 5 from the field in the third quarter and 0 for 4 from three-point range. In that quarter, the Heat outscored the Knicks by that final 11-point margin, 25-14.

On the other hand, the Heat went ahead of Indiana by a game for first place in the Eastern Conference behind James, who finished with a game-high 38 points. Bosh added 14 and Allen 12 for the Heat.

Haslem recorded 11 rebounds, including three offensive boards, which tied him with Alonzo Mourning for the most in Heat franchise history with 1,505. Allen’s four three-pointers answered those by Smith. And Battier battled New York scorer Carmelo Anthony into 4 of 17 from the field and 13 points.

“He’s going to have big moments for us in the playoffs,” coach Erik Spoelstra said of Battier, one of his favorite players. “Does that mean it’s necessarily a consistent night-in, night-out rotation role, I don’t know. I can’t even attempt to answer that right now.”

The witty, erudite Battier — who played one second Friday against Minnesota and 5:31 last Wednesday against Milwaukee — said he laughed to himself when Spoelstra told him James would start the game defending Anthony then hand the sometimes unstoppable New York scorer over to Battier.

As they normally do, Battier and Anthony, who was playing with a sore shoulder, dished out hip checks and torso thumps to each other at a rate that, Battier said afterward, would have had both fouled out in five minutes if the referees called the game by the book.

“A game like [Sunday], I’m trying to prove myself to myself, and prove myself to my teammates,” Battier said. “That’s what keeps us all going. We’ve all been in that spot here unless you’re name is ‘James,’ ‘Wade,’ or ‘Bosh.’ But [that’s] the reason guys fight to stay in shape is this locker room. We owe it to each other.”


VIDEO: J.R. Smith went crazy from deep, but LeBron James and the Heat got the win

***

No. 5: Olshey’s case for Executive of the Year gains momentum – His name hasn’t been mentioned among the favorites. He’s avoided the publicity many of his peers have enjoyed this season, perhaps on purpose, choosing to retool the Portland Trail Blazers’ guts and gears without any of the fanfare normally associated with a rebuilding project of this kind. But Neil Olshey belongs in that conversation for Executive of the Year, writes Jason Quick of the Oregonian:

The Trail Blazers received a well-earned ovation Sunday after clinching a playoff spot with a 100-94 victory over New Orleans, the team’s 50th win this season with four more games left to play.

But nowhere to be seen, nowhere to be found, was the man who perhaps deserves the biggest ovation: general manager Neil Olshey.

They should start bubble wrapping the Executive of the Year trophy and addressing the box to One Center Court, because nobody in the NBA did more with less last summer than Olshey.

Robin Lopez. Mo Williams. Dorell Wright. Thomas Robinson.

It’s not Buck Williams for Sam Bowie, which still stands as the greatest offseason move in franchise history, but the haul in the Summer of 2013 will long be remembered as one of the most influential offseasons around these parts.

The beauty of it all is, few if any, saw it while it was happening.

The Blazers had a modest $11.8 million in cap room last summer and badly needed a defensive minded center, a backup point guard and some scoring pop off the bench. Getting a center figured to cost the Blazers most, if not all of their cap space.

Instead, Olshey got creative, and found a team that wanted to make a financially motivated deal: New Orleans. He worked a deal to get Lopez in exchange for Jeff Withey, who was the Blazers’ second round pick, a future second round pick and cash considerations. New Orleans, in turn, saved paying Lopez’ $5.9 million salary this season.

Lopez, of course, has been awesome. Each time I watch him play, I appreciate him more. He rebounds, blocks shots, sets good screens, has a reliable jumper, and he’s durable, having played in all 78 games. He is averaging 10.9 points, 8.5 rebounds and has 137 blocks, the most by a Blazers player since Theo Ratliff had 158 in 2004-2005. And the guys in the locker room love him.

Olshey should win the Executive of the Year award on the Lopez acquisition itself.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Suns point guard Goran Dragic is a music video star … Clippers super sub Jamal Crawford might not see any action until the playoffs … The Spurs need Cory Joseph to step into the void for Tony Parker … The Hawks’ fast start helps boost their playoff cushion over the Knicks … Mavericks veteran Vince Carter bounces back in style … Oh, by the way, benched Pacers center Roy Hibbert‘s got “nothing for ya!”

ICYMI of the Night: Surely, you didn’t miss J.R. Smith’s 3-point barrage against the Heat Sunday …. but just in case you didn’t see all of his record 22 attempts, you need to see his makes … 


VIDEO: J.R. Smith goes off from deep in the Knicks’ loss to the Miami Heat

 

Streaking Spurs still manage minutes

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Blogtable: Believing in the Spurs

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Buying into the Spurs | Fixing Indiana | West 5-6-7-8



VIDEO: Sam Mitchell takes a look, through SportVU cameras, at how the Spurs share the ball

> What more is it going to take to convince you that the Spurs not only can win the West, but can win it all? Are you already convinced?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: All I needed was one close-up look Monday night. Granted, San Antonio was playing a lost group in Indiana, and holding the Pacers below 80 points has become all the rage throughout the NBA. But the Spurs also stuck them for 103 points, with the second unit inflicting damage well after the starters sat down. San Antonio is a well-oiled drill team. Every other contender has some flaw(s) by comparison. There’s no such entity as a “LeBron stopper” but Kawhi Leonard has as good a chance to slow him as anyone. Other than a horribly timed injury, I don’t see much stepping between the Spurs and the Larry O’Brien trophy. Other than that man from Miami doing something really memorable …

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: No need to convince me. They came within 28 seconds of winning the championship last June.  Now they are deeper, healthier, better.  At this point, the Spurs are the team to beat.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: Convinced. Have been. For a long time. I think the Spurs are better now than they were a year ago. The addition of Marco Belinelli was brilliant, and Manu Ginobili, who looked ready to buy the farm last June, is somehow rejuvenated. Everything you’d ever want in a basketball TEAM is right here.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: There’s any doubt? How can anyone not be convinced? They score, defend, shoot well, have experience, have closers, have coaching and limit chances for opponents by hitting the defensive boards. Offensive rebounding is a problem, but the Spurs could finish No. 1 in the league in field-goal percentage, so it’s actually not a problem. They make so many baskets that players are simply out of practice with what to do when the ball does not go in. I was convinced about San Antonio from the start of the season, even if the Clippers were my pick to win the West. This is just being more convinced.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: A win on Thursday would help, because they’ve lost nine of their last 11 meetings with Oklahoma City, having been scorched by OKC’s offense in a lot of those games. The Spurs are the best team in the league, but the Thunder, with their athleticism and that Kevin Durant guy, are obviously a bad matchup for them. The West is so good that a 1-2 matchup in the conference finals is far from a guarantee, but it’s hard to pick the Spurs when they’ve done so poorly against the next best team in the conference. So a win on Thursday, especially since they’ll be at a disadvantage in terms of both rest and location, would help convince me that San Antonio can win title No. 5. At this point, I’d be more likely to pick them in a series against Miami than in one against OKC.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball blog: When you really think about it, last season the Spurs were one measly rebound away from winning it all. But when they got to Game 7, they just didn’t have anything left in the tank. So I’m still not convinced the Spurs can win it all this season. Sure, Ginobili seems to be back to being GINOBILI!, and all the other guys just keep doing what they do. But they’ve had guys miss chunks of the season throughout the year dealing with injuries. And while Pop has always tried to manage his team’s minutes with an eye on the long haul, I’m still not convinced these Spurs can keep pounding that rock for 100-plus games.

Stefanos Trianafyllos, NBA Greece: Excuse me, but I am one of the true believers — and that’s not only because I was a San Antonio fan before the Tim Duncan era. The story is getting older than the Spurs themselves. “They are too old, they cannot make it again, they will run out of gas.” No, no, no. The Spurs just keep pounding that rock, as the favorite motto of Greg Popovich applies. Before the playoffs it’s always the same: they can make it ’till the end, IF they stay healthy (that’s the tricky part with age). Especially when nobody expects them to do so. And you know why we wouldn’t be surprised? Because they have done it over and over again.

Aldo Avinante, NBA Philippines: I’m still convinced from last year. They were a missed free throw, 1-in-a-million 3-pointer or a rebound away from the 2013 NBA title. They have a complete lineup with a great coach and a system that works well. What they need though is a little bit of luck and most importantly health.

Simon Legg, NBA Australia: I don’t need any convincing! They were essentially moments away from winning it all last season and seem to have come back bigger and stronger this season. Couple that with their incredible coach and the experienced core players who have been there and done that, and this team deserve to be favorites. The only concern for these guys is health and managing their aging stars, but if they’re all there come the pointy end, this team has as good a chance as any.

Pacers, Spurs arrive at East-West showdown in very different spots

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: GameTime’s crew previews tonight’s Spurs-Pacers game

INDIANAPOLIS – Contender vs. (wince) pretender.

A marvelous 17-game winning streak vs. all sorts of horrible losing shrieks.

A mastermind boss and a core of proven veterans quick to remind themselves they don’t have all the answers vs. a coaching staff and players who desperately are searching for pretty much any anwers they can find.

This is not, in short, what anyone expected for Monday’s late-season meeting of the San Antonio Spurs and the Indiana Pacers (7 p.m. ET, NBA TV).

Oh, the Spurs have held up their end of things, more than that really, in what technically is a rematch of the Pacers’ 111-100 victory in December. But the Indiana team that dominated that night and left AT&T Center with an 18-2 record is nowhere to be found today. Even the comfort zone of the Bankers Life Fieldhouse, where the Pacers are 33-4 this season, offers little, as rattled as they are.

San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich is said to be aching for a loss, eager to wrap up the nicety of the streak and lock in on what’s barreling toward everyone in a few weeks. Frank Vogel, his counterpart, is aching from the losses — five in their past seven games, an 8-9 March so far and five consecutive road defeats (the Pacers haven’t beaten a legit playoff team here in about eight weeks).

After their latest failures at Washington and at Cleveland, Indiana’s reputation nationally is teetering on the brink of mockery, its feel-good result against Miami Wednesday ripped off like a mere Band-Aid over the hemorrhaging. But in losing to the Cavaliers, after scoring only 154 points over the weekend and missing 100 of 157 shots against the Wizards and the Cavs, there’s no teetering in the Pacers’ locker room. They are flat. Pancaked. At rock bottom. That’s how Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star portrayed it:

“Yeah, I would say,” [David] West answered. “For us to be playing like this just as a group, just to be so out of sync and out of sorts – we just got to find an answer. Something happened and all of us are sort of searching for what that is and why we’re playing the way we’re playing and why we’re looking the way we look when we’re out there on the floor.”

Indiana, now 52-22, has played on the offensive end as if it’s an agonizing ordeal to simply put the ball through the hoop. For the fourth consecutive road game, the team could not eclipse the 37-percent shooting clip.

“We had trouble catching passes and trouble knocking down open shots,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “Our guys are out of rhythm right now.”

In the best of times, Indiana’s offense is workmanlike; lately it has been goldbricking with an emphasis on the bricks. All-Stars Paul George and Roy Hibbert in particular have sputtered, shooting 35.4 percent and 40.0 percent respectively the past 10 games. George’s breakthrough season looks broken, sagging under defensive attention, the workload of being his team’s top offensive threat and perimeter defender and fits of trying to do too much.

Hibbert’s regressing offense is locked in a mutually confounding struggle with his teammates’ inability to deliver the ball where and when he needs it, and he’s a 7-foot-2 rim defender who is averaging 6.9 rebounds.

The Pacers lack any lights-out shooters, so even backup point guard C.J. Watson‘s nine-game absence has stressed their offensive system. And the chemistry questions about shedding Danny Granger and adding Evan Turner and Andrew Bynum won’t cease until Indiana’s players offer tangible proof that things are OK again.

Beyond a game to be won Monday – with no assurance it would have lasting effect anyway – the Pacers have an opportunity to take some notes from an opponent they want to emulate. Who doesn’t, right? The Spurs get called “the gold standard” just about every where they travel, except maybe to south Florida.

“This is a well-oiled machine,” said Denver coach Brian Shaw, whose team faced the Spurs twice in 72 hours last week. “It doesn’t matter who the personnel is. They play the game the way it’s supposed to be played. If you don’t have a shot, swing it over to your next open teammate and make the appropriate basketball play. They do that probably better than any team in the league, and that’s why they have success playing any style, whether it’s up and down or a grind-it-out halfcourt game.”

Sure, the Pacers don’t have three future Hall of Famers – Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker – anchoring their attack but they do have veterans in key roles and more continuity than most NBA teams. They have a defense that, at least until recently, was comparable to San Antonio’s during its run of 17 consecutive playoff appearances.

Then again, you rarely (if ever) heard the Spurs staking out their conference’s No. 1 seed as the be-all and end-all for postseason success. In their five trips to The Finals, the Spurs have been the West’s top seed twice.

And with the exception of the first one (1999), the Spurs have ranked no lower than eighth in team offensive rating in their other Finals seasons. Defense wins in the playoffs, but only for teams that score the least fewer points.

At this point, both the Spurs’ and the Pacers’ priorities have something in common: they want to shake off an overemphasis on the present and focus on the near future. They’re just trying to get there from 180 degrees of separation.

“We don’t care what the streak is,” Duncan said of the 17 in a row. “We’re not playing each game trying to continue the streak. We’re just trying to play the best that we can and have a good rhythm going into the playoffs. Whatever that may be, whatever that turns into — if we win a bunch or we lose — we just want to feel good going into the playoffs.”

One team can leave the gym after Monday’s game feeling fine even with a loss (well, one coach anyway). The other team is reeling so, losing to someone with pedigree might go down easier.

The Spurs, as they do night in and night out, essentially will be facing the Spurs, probing and measuring against their own lofty standards. The Pacers will be facing the Pacers, too, overdue to like what they see in the mirror.

Morning shootaround — March 29



VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 28

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Beverley tears miniscus | LeBron wowed by mega-baseball contract | Not just L.A. on Love’s mind | Curry buries the Grizzlies | Wolves eye Hoiberg

No. 1: Rockets point guard out indefinitely — Houston Rockets starting point guard Patrick Beverley, the man who collided with Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook and tore his meniscus in last year’s first-round playoff series, is out indefinitely after tearing the meniscus in his right knee Thursday against Philadelphia. The Rockets will now have to make do without their top perimeter defender. Our own Fran Blinebury details how Beverley’s absence will affect Houston’s title aspirations:

For a team that has ridden the All-Star exploits of James Harden and Dwight Howard to the No. 4 spot in the Western Conference playoff race, Beverley plays a critical role.

The 25-year-old Chicago native who was drafted and cut by Heat, then toiled overseas in Russia, puts significant bite into the face of the Rockets’ defense.

Jeremy Lin can step back into the starting lineup and give the Rockets offense, but he is not the tenacious, in-your-face type defender that the Rockets will need in the playoffs to go against elite level point guards such as Westbrook, Tony Parker, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, Stephen Curry and Mike Conley.

While Lin is flashy and creative and can fill up the basket with points when he gets on a roll, it is the just plain down-to-earth toughness of Beverley that often stands out, especially in a backcourt where Harden does not especially like to play defense.
Coach Kevin McHale said it would be 7-10 days before the Rockets would know a timetable for Beverley’s return.

Beverley has played in 53 of the Rockets’ 71 games, missing time with a hand injury. He has averaged 9.9 points in 31.3 minutes while taking over the starting role from Lin this season, but it’s that defensive bite and overall toughness that the Rockets would miss most. Sometimes it’s the littlest pieces of the puzzle that are hardest to replace.

***

No. 2: LeBron would take Cabrera deal — Major League Baseball does not have a salary cap and that means some mighty contracts never even imagined in the NBA become reality. Detroit Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera was the latest example Friday when he inked a contract that will pay him $292 million over the next 10 years. It makes LeBron James‘ $19 million this season seem like charitable donation. ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst puts it into context:

“I said ‘wow,’ ” James said before the Miami Heat played the Detroit Pistons on Friday. “I wish we (the NBA) didn’t have a salary cap.”

James will earn $19 million this season with the Heat, tied with teammate Chris Bosh for the ninth-highest in the NBA as part of a six-year, $109 million deal he signed in 2010.

“He’s the best player in baseball, and the best players in each sport should be rewarded,” James said. “It’d be nice to sign a 10-year deal worth $300 million.”

James earns about $40 million per year off the floor in endorsements, most of that coming from his deal with Nike, which reportedly is worth $19 million per year.

***

No. 3: Not only L.A. on Love’s mind? — If Timberwolves double-double machine Kevin Love, set to become a free agent in 2015, makes it clear to management he won’t re-sign, Minnesota president Flip Saunders might be forced to look for a trade. The former UCLA Bruin has long been rumored to be headed for the Lakers, but Los Angeles might not be the only big city suitable to arguably the game’s top stretch power forward. ESPNLA.com’s Dave McMenamin has more:

After the league endured the “Dwightmare” and “Melodrama,” get ready for “Lovesick.”

The six-year veteran, only 25 years old, is the apple of just about every team set to have cap space in the summer of 2015’s eye.

Timberwolves president Flip Saunders will do everything he can to keep Love, who is fourth in the league in scoring at 26.3 points per game and third in rebounding at 12.6 per game this season. And Minnesota will have the advantage of being able to offer a five-year extension, versus a four-year deal from any other team.

But if Love makes it clear that he has no intention to re-up with the Wolves, Saunders will be forced to shop Love or risk seeing him walk for nothing in return.

Which is where the Lakers come in.

Love’s ties to L.A. are undeniable. He went to college at UCLA. His father, Stan, played for the Lakers — and coincidentally was on the 1974-75 team, a.k.a. the worst team in Lakers history up until this season, so his son could help make up for that. And Love was born in Santa Monica, to boot.

“You know, my parents live there and they had me there,” Love said of L.A., after his Wolves beat the Lakers for the third time in four tries to win the season series Friday. “It’s not my fault. So, I don’t really care about that right now. I just go out there and play and don’t think about it.”

While Love downplayed his interest, the Lakers clearly could use a player of Love’s caliber to jump-start their rebuilding process. Especially with Kobe Bryant recently putting the screws to management to turn things around as soon as possible so he can contend for another championship in the twilight of his career.

ESPN.com’s Marc Stein reported Friday the Lakers would be willing to trade their upcoming pick in the heralded NBA draft — likely to be in the top half of the lottery — to land Love.

While Minnesota could certainly decide to go that route and hit the restart button, there is no assurance that the Lakers are truly Love’s most desired destination.

A source familiar with Love’s thinking told ESPNLosAngeles.com that it’s not just L.A. that is appealing to Love; he’s enamored with the idea of being “big time in a big city,” and that list of potential places he’d seek includes New York and Chicago, as well.

Love himself told GQ in February that his situation in Minnesota might be better than L.A. could offer anyway.

***

No. 4: Curry’s 33 fends off Grizzlies — The Golden State Warriors were minutes away from the No. 6 seed they’ve held for the majority of the season slipping away to the visiting and hard-charging Memphis Grizzlies. Then Stephen Curry came to the rescue yet again. The All-Star swished a 3-pointer and dropped in a scoop shot as the Warriors, playing without forward David Lee and center Andrew Bogut, who left the game in the first quarter, closed out the Grizzlies with a 14-0 run in the 109-103 win. It sent the Grizzlies from the verge of the 6-seed to No. 8. Diamond Leung of the Oakland Tribune was there:

“We’ll never quit and understand we have the weapons to pack a heavy punch at any given time,” Curry said.

Coach Mark Jackson demanded that Curry have the ball in crunch time, and the star guard delivered with the go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:21 left and a subsequent scoop shot to pad the lead. Memphis could not muster a response, missing its final seven shots.

Marreese Speights added 15 points and eight rebounds in his first start with the Warriors while replacing an injured David Lee (right hamstring strain). The Warriors were still able to grab a 43-33 rebounding edge without their top two rebounders for most of the game, pleasing Jackson with the way his team competed in difficult circumstances.

Bogut was injured after getting kneed and ran the court with an obvious limp before checking out of the game for good with 7:59 left in the first quarter. He did not return and was scheduled to undergo an MRI exam Saturday, according to Jackson.

Jermaine O’Neal had 10 points and six rebounds in 34 hard-fought minutes. Also off the bench, Draymond Green had 12 points and nine rebounds, hitting two 3-pointers in the fourth quarter and providing strong defense on Memphis leading scorer Zach Randolph.

“There’s a guy that came into this league, and people probably said, ‘Why is he shooting threes? He should stop shooting threes,’ ” Jackson said. “And he’s winning ballgames with us, knocking down shots and making huge plays on the defensive end. The guy is a tremendous warrior.”

The Warriors would have taken a tumble down the standings with a loss but instead kept pace with the rest of the Western Conference and remained 1½ games ahead of No. 7 seed Phoenix. The win also evened up the season series 2-2 with Memphis, which dropped to No. 8 with the loss.

***

No. 5: A return to the Timberwolves? — Speculation is growing that Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman will invoke his right to opt out of his contract this summer. If he does, the franchise is expected to go after one of its former executives and current Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg. ESPN.com’s Marc Stein provides the background:

If Adelman indeed walks away this time, at 67, there are two natural courses for the Wolves to pursue.

The obvious response is [Flip] Saunders, part-owner as well as team prez, heading downstairs to reclaim his old floor seat to see if he can be the guy who finally brings a halt to the league’s longest postseason drought, which dates to the Wolves’ 2004 Western Conference finals team coached by Saunders.

But that might be too obvious.

There have been no clear-cut signals that Saunders is prepared to leave the executive suite to return to coaching.

There is also another textbook candidate out there for Minnesota to chase with long-standing Wolves ties: Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg.

Widely regarded as the most NBA-ready college coach in the game, Hoiberg was a Wolves executive for four years before leaving the pros to coach the Cyclones. It should be noted that Saunders is close with Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, as well, but the rumbles out of Sota are getting louder that the Wolves are going to court Hoiberg hard if they, as expected, have an opening.

An opening, rather, that Saunders declines to fill himself.

And all of that makes Friday one of the more pertinent days left on the 2013-14 calendar for long-suffering Wolves fans.

That’s because Hoiberg will be coaching Iowa State against UConn in a Sweet 16 game at Madison Square Garden … and because Saunders will be there watching.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Lakers make (the wrong kind of) history again in epic loss … Anthony Davis leaves game in first quarter with a left ankle injuryVince Carter thinks he’s earned the right to re-sign with DallasKevin Durant scores 29 and streak creeps closer to overtaking Michael Jordan … TNT analyst Steve Kerr is the frontrunner to coach the Knicks under Phil JacksonShane Battier reiterates that he will retire after this seasonDirk Nowitzki‘s mentor and personal coach believes he has three or four high-level seasons left.

Blogtable: The NBA’s most dynamic duo

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Indy’s roster tweaks | Style police | Most dynamic duo



VIDEO: LeBron James and Chris Bosh combined to snuff out Portland’s chance at a win Monday

> Right now — taking health problems and everything else into consideration – who would you name the most formidable pair of teammates in the NBA?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: This reminds me of the trivia question about baseball’s all-time brother act among HR hitters. Of course it’s the Aarons, on the strength of Henry’s 755 and Tommie’s 13. To me, any pair of teammates that includes LeBron James as one of them is a serious contender as top tandem. Some might argue that Chris Bosh is Miami’s second-best player now, but I’ll stick with a rested and recuperating Dwyane Wade as wingman to the NBA’s best player (not necessarily the 2014 MVP), based on how well Wade and the team have managed his health and workload.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: Because there are questions going forward about how Russell Westbrook will hold up over the long haul of the playoffs and because there are constantly questions about Dwyane Wade’s knees, you have to go past the obvious.  I’ll put Chris Paul and Blake Griffin at the top of my 1-2 punch list.  Paul can run the break, get everybody a good shot at any time and Griffin has raised his all-around game to be part of the MVP conversation.  Formidable isn’t the word to describe Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, just incredibly efficient.  The pairing that could leap up and make an even bigger splash still in the playoffs is James Harden and Dwight Howard.

Blake Griffin, Chris Paul (Noah Graham/NBAE)

Blake Griffin, Chris Paul (Noah Graham/NBAE)

Jeff Caplan, NBA.comKevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. I know Westbrook’s been in and out of the lineup and might be a knee bump away from potentially being shelved again, but together this tandem of 25-year-olds is a two-way terror like none other. Durant is the best player in the game right now, simply unguardable. Put the strength and speed of Westbrook, practically unguardable in his own right, next to KD and say goodnight.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.comFour first names and two players equal one top tandem: Chris Paul, Blake Griffin. The best point guard in the world and one of the top, maybe the top, power forward gives the Clippers a dynamic inside-outside pairing with a season of Griffin’s commendable improvements and Paul coming back from the shoulder injury. James Harden-Dwight Howard and Paul George-Roy Hibbert (defense, defense) are in the conversation. Paul is not 100 percent, but the potential challengers of Westbrook-Durant, Lillard-Aldridge, Rose-Noah have larger health issues.

John Schuhmann, NBA.comLeBron James and Chris Bosh. James is the best player in the world and Bosh is the next most important player on the Heat, with his ability to defend the pick-and-roll and space the floor offensively. Dwyane Wade can create more offense when James is off the floor, but Bosh is the better complement. He’s bigger and a better perimeter shooter.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: The most lethal pair of teammates, injuries included, remains Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. There aren’t two guys working in tandem that can wreak more havoc or affect more change, on both ends of the floor, during the course of a game than the Oklahoma City Thunder’s dynamic duo and their Miami Heat counterparts. When they crank it into high-gear, who else can wade into that deep water and still stay true to what they do best? Sure, Westbrook and Wade have dealt with more than their fair share of injury issues this season. But the entire league knows what happens when they have it going. They are the obvious choices for the most obvious of reasons, we’ve seen them go to that next level so often over the past three or four years that there should really be no argument here.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball blog: I’m sure we’ll see nominations for Westbrook and Durant, Harden and Howard, maybe even LeBron and Bosh. But I think I’ll go with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. I don’t think CP3’s leadership or toughness have ever been questioned, and with CP3 missing time this year due to injury, I think we saw exactly how good and complete a player Blake has become. The thing I also like about these two is that they combine to form a terrific inside-out combination, or at least as much of an inside-out combination as exists these days in the NBA.

Davide Chinellato, NBA Italia: Right now it’s the Chris Paul-Blake Griffin duo. The smartest PG in the league paired with one of the most athletic big man gave us Lob City, but now that Griffin is evolving into something more than just a spectacular dunker, the Clippers have a spectacular duo who’s winning a ton of games. They can both win games by themselves, as a duo or involving their other teammates. I really like what Doc Rivers has turned them into. Without injuries, I’d go with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade over Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

Philipp Dornhegge, NBA Deutschland: I was thinking about Howard/Harden, Nowitzki/Ellis, Paul/Griffin and Westbrook/Durant. But right now I don’t believe that any duo is as good on both sides of the floor as LeBron James and Chris Bosh. In his fourth season with the Heat, Bosh is so much more than the third-best player of the team. You could argue that Miami would be going nowhere if they didn’t have the lefty big man. He takes and makes big shots with great regularity and is capable of a key defensive play anytime. And LeBron is just the best player on the planet. I really believe that if you have those two players working together, you’re guaranteed a shot at the title. And they’re the only duo I think about in those terms.

Defy the odds … the Spurs way?

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: The Spurs just keep on chugging along, 14 straight and counting …

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Trying to identify the specific reasons for the San Antonio Spurs’ sustained excellence for the better part of the past two decades requires vision clear enough to notice that living legend of a big man sitting quietly in whatever corner of the locker room he occupies on a given night.

Yes, Tim Duncan was, is and remains the secret to the Spurs’ success formula. You have to start with superstars in the NBA. Toss in a Hall of Fame coach (Gregg Popovich), a couple more superstar players (in their own right) and a steady cast of young and veteran role players willing to sacrifice for the greater good and it’s not hard to fathom a well-run franchise putting together years and years of quality, championship-caliber production.

No one, not even the Los Angeles Lakers, have been as consistently good (and some folks would insist “great”) as the Spurs have been during the Duncan era. And yet, they have never been to The Finals in back-to-back years. Might this be the year that the Spurs defy those odds?

I say why not? This has been a strange season all around, what with the Eastern Conference depression in the standings and musical chairs being played by contenders by the supposed contenders all year-long. My sparring partner on almost every debatable topic, NBA TV research ace Kevin Cottrell, has his own theory and weighs in on the Spurs and the “Spurs’ Way” …

Since Tim Duncan was introduced to the NBA (1997-98), the San Antonio Spurs have compiled a 959-439 record (68.6%), best in the league over that span. It should come as no surprise that Monday night the Spurs extended the Philadelphia 76ers franchise worst losing record to 25 games. If the defending Western Conference Champs can continue their winning ways, they too will establish a franchise first, reaching the NBA Finals in consecutive seasons.

​At 54-16, the Spurs have eclipsed the 50-win plateau for the 15th consecutive season, but their current 14-game win streak is the longest in the Duncan era. Coincidence? Possibly, but the difference between this season and the previous four following a finals appearance was the painful defeat the Spurs suffered last June. As a result, there seems to be a “3-M” plan put in place: Motivation, Maintenance and Man Power. As shown below, the Spurs are really good following a Finals appearance. But the Game 7 loss may serve as added motivation separating this season from others.

Season Following Finals​Longest Winning Streak
​1999-2000​ — 7
​2003-2004​ — 13
​2005-2006​ — 9
​2007-2008​ ​ — 11
​2013-2014​ — 14 (and counting)

​It’s commonplace to turn on a Spurs game and identify a San Antonio reserve being placed in the starting lineup due to their internal maintenance plan. Many teams implore this practice to monitor the health and recovery of star players battling injuries, the Spurs are simply keeping players fresh for a deep postseason run. Regardless of the opponent or venue, when Popovich decides to rest one of his future Hall-of-Famers, the next man is expected to step in and perform at a high level.


VIDEO: Spurs coach Gregg Popovich talks after his team’s 14th straight win

The youngest of the team’s “Big 3″, Tony Parker, leads the Spurs in minutes per game with a mere 30.3 minutes. Parker’s average is the fewest by any player in the NBA to lead his team in minutes. Last season many believed Manu Ginobili‘s proverbial tank ran low during the Finals, but as the table reads that shouldn’t be an issue this time around.

Spurs Minute-Men (mpg)
Tony Parker ​(30.3)
Tim Duncan ​(29.4)
Kawhi Leonard ​(29.1)
Marco Belinelli ​(25.1)
Boris Diaw ​ (25.1)
Danny Green ​ (24.2)
Manu Ginobili ​ (23.0)

​Another striking difference for this Spurs team is that they are hunters following a Finals appearance as opposed to being the hunted. The league has been controlled by the Miami Heat since LeBron James‘s big decision and with the last two titles comfortably resting in South Florida. In short, the Heatles are still the leagues measuring stick.

Since the All-star break, though, San Antonio has been a team on a mission, boasting a 16-1 record and winning their last 14 games by an average of 15.7 points. Again that’s a sign of motivation because the Spurs are not only defeating the Sixers of the NBA world, but they’ve defeated the Clippers and Heat in the midst of this historic win streak. The credit can’t be placed solely on a maintenance plan and motivation but the added man power supplied by their front office.

The Spurs most notable addition being Marco Belinelli (2014 Three-Point Contest Winner) who’s currently fourth in the league in 3-point percentage (43.8 %). Along with Belinelli, the Spurs second unit is loaded with Jeff Ayres who’s added quality depth in the front court along with Patty Mills that has scored in bunches throughout the year in Parker’s absence. Even NBA journeyman Austin Daye has shown flashes leading the team with 22 point (6-for-10 from deep) against the 76ers Monday night.

​The Spurs are on pace to surpass their win total (58) from last season. Yet, they won’t garner the national attention due to their 15 consecutive 50-win seasons. Some complain about their style of play, others claim they’re getting old but in the end they find a way to win games. Go ahead, call it boring, black and white or even the “Spurs way” but after coming up short in Miami during last year’s Finals, San Antonio seems motivated to be called NBA Champions for a fifth time.

All that said, I maintain the one other underlying factor working in the Spurs’ favor for back-to-back trips to The Finals is that they weren’t expected to get their last season. Before Oklahoma City Thunder All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook went down with that knee injury against the Houston Rockets, that was the crew picked by most pundits to win the West.

The Spurs making the 2013 Finals was a surprise, to most folks, and the Spurs don’t do surprises.

There is no guarantee they make it this time around. There are no guarantees for the Spurs, Heat, Thunder, Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Clippers or anyone else deemed a contender at this stage of the season. But of all of the teams of that ilk, the Spurs are the only ones heading into the playoffs that actually look the part of a true champion on a nightly basis.

That alone leads me to believe that they just might have a chance to defy the odds … doing it the Spurs Way!


VIDEO: Tim Duncan waxes on the Spurs and their streak

Morning shootaround — March 22

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Westbrook bangs knee; Durant scores 51 | Gasol leaves in walking boot | Knicks make it eight straight | Nash dishes 11 dimes | Bynum out indefinitely


VIDEO: Closer look at Durant’s 51-point performance

No. 1: Westbrook gets scare, Durant scores 51 — In a wild game at Toronto, Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook left in the third quarter after banging knees with Toronto’s Kyle Lowry. It was Westbrook’s right knee, the one he’s had three surgeries on since initially tearing the meniscus in the first round of last year’s playoffs. He immediately reacted to the pain and slammed his palm on the floor. He was assisted off the floor as the Thunder held their breath. More will be known as Westbrook is re-evaluated in Oklahoma City today. The Thunder won the game in dramatic fashion, 119-118, in double overtime. Kevin Durant capped a remarkable night with his seventh 3-pointer with 1.7 seconds to go, giving him 51 points. Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman has the details:

The official word is a right knee sprain, and the plan is to re-evaluate him Saturday in Oklahoma City.

Although Westbrook didn’t return to the Thunder’s thrilling 119-118 double-overtime victory over the Raptors, he was in great spirits after the game and said he doesn’t expect to miss any time. He left the Air Canada Centre walking just fine, without crutches or even a knee brace, just a routine black sleeve hidden under his pants.

And judging by Westbrook’s demeanor and that of his teammates and coach Scott Brooks, the injury didn’t appear to be serious.

“I feel good, man,” Westbrook said. “I’m pain-free. I’m just going to, (Saturday), get it looked at and go from there.”

The injury occurred with 7:37 remaining in the third quarter.

Westbrook made a slight jab-step beyond the 3-point line on the left wing. As Westbrook held his left foot in place as his pivot, Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry inadvertently bumped into Westbrook’s right knee while closing out.

Westbrook’s knee bent inward, and he immediately called a timeout, slamming the ball to the court upon doing so.

“You’ve been hurt before, you kind of get nervous like I did,” Westbrook said of his reaction.

After briefly attempting to walk off whatever pain or discomfort he was feeling, Westbrook was helped to the locker room by Thunder center Hasheem Thabeet and trainer Joe Sharpe. He remained in the dressing room for the duration of the game as the Thunder battled back from an eight-point deficit inside the final minute of double overtime.

Kevin Durant hit the game-winner, a 3-pointer from 31 feet with 1.7 seconds remaining. He then forced Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan into contested fadeaway from the right baseline. It fell short as the clock hit zero.

Durant finished with a game-high 51 points, his second 50-point game this season, and added 12 rebounds and seven assists.

“We couldn’t go another overtime,” Durant said. “So I had to live with whatever happened.”

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VIDEO: Gasol injured in Grizzlies’ loss in Miami

No. 2: Gasol sprains left ankle — Midway through the third quarter, Grizzlies center Marc Gasol hobbled off the floor with a sprained left ankle and left the American Airlines Arena floor in a walking boot. It was a double whammy for the Grizzlies, one of the hottest teams in the NBA since Jan. 1. Not only must they wait and wonder about the health of the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, they lost a lead they had held for most of the game as the Heat pulled out the victory. More will be known on the severity of Gasol’s injury, but one thing is certain — Memphis needs its big man in the final month of the regular season to ensure it makes the playoffs, let alone have a chance to return to the Western Conference finals. Ronald Tillery of the Memphis Commercial Appeal has more:

Memphis’ bigger issue seemed to be executing without Gasol.

The 7-footer left with 6:34 left in the third period. He was hurt earlier on a non-contact play. Gasol appeared to roll his ankle as he turned to run. Gasol left the arena wearing a walking boot and he’ll be re-evaluated Saturday before the Griz face the Indiana Pacers for the second game of a back-to-back.

“It made it tough, but we tried to play small and stretch them out,” Griz coach Dave Joerger said. “I thought we did a good job of getting it to Zach. He had a heck of a game.”

Gasol had been a force, too, and not just because of his 14 points and six rebounds.

“We were using him to make the second and third pass,” [Mike] Conley said. “He was playing point forward. The whole scheme went through him.”

The game was knotted at 68 entering the fourth quarter after both teams exchanged large scoring runs in the third. Memphis allowed a 12-point advantage to disappear in the final few minutes of the third.

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No. 3: Knicks keep playoff push alive — The Knicks handed the Philadelphia 76ers their 23rd consecutive loss, but the bigger news was that New York kept its playoff hopes alive despite already having 40 losses as the calendar turns to spring. But that’s the beauty of the Eastern Conference, folks. And with the Atlanta Hawks losing, the Knicks moved within three games of the eighth and final playoff spot. And guess what? New York’s upcoming schedule offers even more hope with games against the hobbled Cavaliers and Lakers followed by the Kings. Peter Botte of the New York Daily News has the story:

With new team president Phil Jackson returning to his California home following his triumphant Garden return two nights earlier, the bench nearly coughed up a 17-point lead in a game the Knicks had controlled with five minutes left. But [Mike] Woodson turned back to his first unit in the final 30 seconds, and the Knicks just barely did what they had to do to survive and advance Friday night against a team that now has dropped 23 straight games, holding on for their season-best eighth straight win, 93-92, over the dreadful Sixers at Wells Fargo Center.

“We didn’t have no choice at that point. I felt like we had a very comfortable lead. It happened. Them guys never quit,” [Carmelo] Anthony said about having to return to the game after it looked like his night was finished. “You could just see the lead dwindling, possession by possession. You go from up (17) and you look up and we’re only up two with a couple of seconds on the clock, so hopefully we didn’t have to come up with a prayer.”

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No. 4: Nash shines in return — Maybe 40-year-old Steve Nash has something left after all. Fighting injuries all season, the two-time MVP made yet another return Friday night just a week after being declared done for the season. The Los Angeles Lakers still lost to the Washington Wizards, but the aging wizard for L.A. put on quite a show, dishing out a season-high 11 assists to go with five points, four rebounds and three steals in 19 minutes. He came off the bench for the first time since March 9, 2000 with Dallas, snapping a stretch of 975 consecutive starts, reports Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times:

“Just to feel good and feel like you can make a play for your teammates and put pressure on the other team and move freely,” Nash said. “It’s why I love this game and that’s why I’ve kept fighting and trying to work in case I got another opportunity.”

Nash said he came out of the game in the fourth quarter after tweaking his back but remained hopeful he could play Sunday against the Orlando Magic. Lakers guard Xavier Henry also hurt his left wrist and said he would have an MRI exam on Saturday after X-rays were negative.

Nash made his first appearance since Feb. 11, when he suffered a recurrence of the nerve irritation in his back that has limited him to 11 games this season. There was concern in that Nash might never play another NBA game.

Lakers Coach Mike D’Antoni told reporters March 13 that Nash would not return this season because it didn’t make sense for him to push his 40-year-old body with so few games left.

Then Jordan Farmar strained his right groin in practice Monday, opening the door for Nash.
After entering the game to warm applause late in the first quarter, Nash quickly found Hill for a jump hook and made a couple of behind-the-back passes on the way to collecting five assists in his first six minutes.

D’Antoni said Nash probably would continue to come off the bench unless he “gets to a certain point and gets that good” because of limited practice time and the Lakers wanting to be cautious with his body.

Nash has one more season and $9.7 million left on his contract but could be waived by Sept. 1, allowing the Lakers to spread out his salary over three seasons.

He would prefer to prove over the next month that he’s ready to play one more.

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No. 5:  Swelling puts Bynum on ice — If the Indiana Pacers truly signed big man Andrew Bynum to keep him away from the Miami Heat, well the Heat’s training staff will probably be sending a thank-you card. Experiencing continued swelling and soreness in his right knee, Bynum will be out indefinitely, the team announced Friday. Bynum signed with the Pacers on Feb. 1, but has played in just two games. On a strange note, although not so much when it comes to Bynum, he reportedly got his hair cut at halftime of Friday’s game against Chicago. Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star has more on Bynum’s injury status:

Bynum has played in two games with the Pacers, averaging 11.5 points and 9.5 rebounds in just under 18 minutes per game.

Though the Pacers expected to play Bynum in short spurts, last Saturday he reached 20 minutes against the Detroit Pistons. Since then, Bynum has been on the inactive list.

On Tuesday, Bynum, who did not participate in practice, said after the session that his swollen right knee needed to be drained.

“This one is a lot more concerning for me because it caused me a lot more fluid,” Bynum said.

Now days later, Pacers coach Frank Vogel answered “no” when asked if there had been any progress with Bynum’s knee since the return from Detroit.

“There’s still swelling,” Vogel said on Friday. “I really don’t have anything new. Other than it’s swollen right now, we’ll give you an update when we’re ready to.”

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Heat present Mike Miller his 2013 championship ring as Grizzlies visit Miami … Tony Parker says he will play five or six more years with Spurs then play for French team he owns … Andre Miller says Nuggets made him out to be the bad guyKevin Garnett is unsure of return from back spasms … Bobcats ask Charlotte for $34.1 million to improve arena.