Prepare yourself for Kobe vs. Sefolosha

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Thumbnail image for Bryant_game2.jpgLast season, one of the reasons the Rockets were able to take the eventual champion Lakers to a seventh game was the defense Shane Battier played on Kobe Bryant. Kobe got his points, but Battier’s hounding defense forced Kobe to work for each and every one of them, and it was a thrilling battle to watch. 

In this year’s playoffs, Bryant and the Lakers have a first-round date with another very good defensive team featuring a defensive specialist on the perimeter. The Thunder were a top-10 team in defensive efficiency this season, in large part because Thabo Sefolosha has emerged as perhaps the league’s best perimeter defender. Thabo’s combination of tenacity, athleticism, and length have earned him the unofficial title of “the next Bruce Bowen,” although though Sefolosha can’t knock down open threes as well as Bowen could. 
On the other side, there’s Kobe Bryant. Not only is he one of the best offensive players of all time, but he’s one of the few perimeter players who can destroy a team without needing to blow by his initial defender. With his series of pull-ups and post moves, Kobe is capable of scoring 30 points without taking it hard to the basket once. That means more one-on-one battling then you’ll see in any other superstar vs. stopper matchup this playoffs. 
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Ballard has gone to the trouble of breaking down the Bryant vs. Sefolosha matchup, and there’s plenty of interesting stuff to take a look at. Here’s a teaser:
“The last time the Thunder played the Lakers, on March 26, Sefolosha had one. During the 22-plus minutes that Sefolosha guarded Bryant, Kobe made exactly one field goal, and that was an end-of-shot-clock special. For the game, which the Thunder won, Bryant finished with 11 points on 4 of 11 shooting and committed a career-high-tying nine turnovers. Afterward, he even admitted that Sefolosha had bothered him. Copping to weakness? Now this is not the Kobe we’ve come to know and (pick your choice) love/detest/grudgingly respect/name our firstborn after.
No doubt, Bryant will use that game as fuel for the playoffs. As you read this, he’s probably holed up somewhere, masochistically watching film of Sefolosha while chanting whatever mantra Kobe chants when he’s doing some serious self-improvement. And as a result Bryant will likely come out focused and dangerous, which in years past would have led to a ritual thrashing of his opponent.
This year, I’m not so sure.”
On paper, this certainly doesn’t look all that good for Kobe. His team is coming into the playoffs without any momentum to speak of. He hasn’t been fully healthy all year, and had one of the worst statistical seasons of his career. He’s not old yet, but he’s not getting younger either. Now he has to go up against an ultra-tough, ultra-hungry team of young guns who feature the best perimeter defender in the game. However, if there’s one thing NBA fans know, it’s that counting out Kobe is a very, very bad idea. As bad as this matchup looks for Kobe and the Lakers, I’d be shocked if Kobe didn’t end up going off for at least one or two signature performances before the series is over. 

Giannis Antetokounmpo called for 10-second violation on free throw (video)

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This Giannis Antetokounmpo 10-second violation was a year in the making.

Unfortunately for the Trail Blazers, it was too little, too late. Antetokounmpo still finished with 15 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists, four blocks and two steals in the Bucks’ 115-107 win.

Iman Shumpert injures hand while missing open dunk (video)

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Plenty went right for the Cavaliers in their 126-94 win over the Knicks last night, but there were a few snags.

LeBron James and his teammates repeatedly failed the water-bottle challenge in the closing moments (though Kyrie Irving eventually nailed it).

Kevin Love‘s nose malfunctioned.

And Iman Shumpert injured his hand while missing an open dunk.

If Shumpert was faking as an excuse for missing, he sold it hard. Defending 4-on-5 on the other end, Cleveland ceded a 3-pointer. Then, Shumpert remained hunched over while the Cavs brought the ball up-court. It seems Shumpert might have been popping back in a dislocated finger, which jibes with him staying in the game – and shows his toughness.

But it also doesn’t erase the shame of hurting yourself while missing an open dunk.

Gregg Popovich calls coaching Tim Duncan-less Spurs a ‘refreshing’ and ‘fun’ challenge

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 26: Head coach Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs argues a call against the Washington Wizards at Verizon Center on November 26, 2016 in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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MINNEAPOLIS (AP)–  For so many years, the San Antonio Spurs have been defined by their consistency, an unprecedented level of stability that has brought five championships and established the organization as a model franchise in professional sports.

The colors don’t change. The coach doesn’t change. The core never changed.

After 20 years and those five titles, change has finally come to San Antonio.

Tim Duncan, the tone setter from the moment he was drafted in 1997, retired last summer. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have taken reduced roles this season, and the Spurs brought in seven new faces as part of a rare roster shuffle as they try to retool around Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge.

“It’s been at the same time a challenge and a refreshing sort of situation,” coach Gregg Popovich said. “The team is changing personnel-wise and where the ball goes and a few different players so we have to do things a little bit differently. There’s a give and take, strategy wise, to fit the group. It’s been a lot of fun. Watching some of the young guys get minutes and develop has been fun.”

Fun because while the faces have changed, the results have not. The Spurs (18-4) have navigated the bumps in the road that come with unfamiliarity and have the second-best record in the league, tied the star-studded Golden State Warriors (18-3) in the win column. They have started the season 13-0 on the road and can match last year’s Warriors for the best road start in league history with a win in Chicago on Thursday night.

It hasn’t always been pretty for these Spurs. They’re not the same ruthless, precise machine that steamrolled the league during championship runs. They have had to muddle through things, overcome mistakes and struggle while they get acclimated to one another.

Newcomers like six-time All-Star Pau Gasol, steady veteran David Lee, Argentinian point guard Nico Laprovittola and shot-blocking center Dewayne Dedmon have had to work hard to integrate into a culture that is as enduring as any.

“You could see it in our games. Sometimes our offense is stagnant, our defense isn’t moving well or in our help positions,” Leonard said. “We have a big playbook on the offensive end. It’s just hard to learn it. It was hard for me to learn it. I didn’t get it down until probably my second or third year. We’ve just got to keep giving a consistent effort and being into the game and into our playbook and just keep moving from there.”

The result has been a team that tends to start slow, fall behind and then gradually digs its heels in. They are 5-4 at home, where they only lost once all of last season. They’ve lost to the Magic at home, were thumped by the Clippers and have not recaptured the breathtaking form they showed in a 29-point win at Golden State on opening night. But the wins keep coming.

“I think the first eight to 10 games was the coaching staff trying to figure out what lineups we’re going to play and there were a lot of changes, a lot of trying what works best,” said Gasol, who signed as a free agent this summer. “But now I think there’s more consistency, there’s more defined lineups. Guys know when to come in, when they’re going to play and what’s expected of them.”

The Spurs have won 13 of their last 14 games, and Popovich has leaned on his core more than he has in years to get them off to a good start. Leonard and Aldridge both average more than 33 minutes per game, the first time San Antonio has had two players averaging that much playing time since 2008-09.

“It’s been interesting to see how the team develops and comes together and who the leaders will be without Timmy being that overriding factor for so long,” Popovich said.

Leonard, for years the ultra-quiet storm trooper of the Spurs army, has been much more vocal this season. Gasol’s personality and approach have been a perfect fit as most expected and Ginobili and Parker are still there to help filled the void left by Duncan’s retirement.

And little by little, the new guys are getting up to speed.

“They’ve done a great job of making it easy for us and for Pop to throw them into the fire and trust them to know the system,” Green said. “We’ll continue to help them and they will continue to be sponges and absorb it.”

Kyrie Irving sticks water-bottle challenge before Cavaliers-Knicks buzzer (video)

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The Cavaliers were trying the water-bottle challenge on the bench late in their 126-94 win over the Knicks last night, but the national telecast showed Cleveland players only failing to flip a water bottle and have it land upright on the floor – including an erratic attempt from LeBron James that bounced onto the court.

Thankfully, the local post-game show had an angle of Kyrie Irving nailing the bottle flip just before the game ended, his toss just leaving his hands before the final buzzer. Count it!