Spurs, Celtics slouching towards playoffs; count them out at your own peril

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Back at the All-Star break, a Celtics vs. Spurs finals seemed like a good bet. Sure, it made the guys who count the profits at ABC/Disney nervous — you know they want Lakers/Heat, and they really don’t want the Spurs — but the Celtics and Spurs were playing the best basketball by far. That matchup promised execution and smart basketball.

Today, not so much.

The Spurs have lost four in a row and have Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili banged up. Then Gregg Popovich sat Tony Parker because he might get injured at some point. They’re old and it’s showing say the doubters.

The Celtics are 5-5 in their last 10, still don’t have Shaquille O’Neal back while Kendrick Perkins is banging bodies next to Kevin Durant. Ray Allen can’t even get his hands on the rock. Celtics fans are giving lip service to last season — when Boston limped into the playoffs then turned it on — but they don’t believe it. You can hear it in their voices.

Spurs and Celtics fans are right to be worried.

But not about the recent slumps.

Those will pass. Those are the things that come with veteran teams and smart veteran coaches getting guys healthy, resting teams for the playoffs. Come the playoffs, those slumps and what has caused them will disappear faster than Chris Brown’s career.

The things to worry about are bigger issues, ones there before the slumps.

For the Spurs, right now it’s all about being healthy. Which is what it’s been about for the past few years but they just never were in the playoffs, Parker or Ginobili were not right and the supporting cast was not there. This season everything is in place. The current injuries are not that serious — Parker will be back Thursday against Boston, and both Duncan and Gimobili might be. The fact they are close shows concerns these may linger into the postseason are overstated.

The Spurs just need to hold off the Lakers and Bulls for the best record overall — they have a three-game cushion in the loss column over both with just two weeks left. Popovich knows what he is doing. The Spurs will play their stars just enough to keep that lead. Aside that it’s about rest – fresh and healthy legs that allow big postseason minutes.

What should worry Spurs fans is simply the Lakers. They are healthy, they are defending, they are running the offense (for a change) and they look like defending champions. Can a healthy Spurs team beat the Lakers? That’s the question that should keep Popovich up at night.

In Boston, the concerns with this slump run deeper.

What is costing Boston games now was a strength earlier — end of game execution, as our man A. Sherrod Blakely notes at CSN Boston (in an article enumerating Boston worries). But come the playoffs, do you really think Paul Pierce is not going to drain the step-back jumper, that Ray Allen will not hit the three, that Kevin Garnett will not outwork everybody for the key rebound? Exactly.

Rajon Rondo still does not seem right, still seems to be battling a finger issue. But he can get some rest once the seedings are more set — Delonte West should help lift the pressure off him — and once the playoffs come he’ll be fine.

What should worry Celtics fans is Shaquille O’Neal: Will he be healthy enough, in good enough condition to really anchor the paint in the playoffs? He did it early in the season, but on a team with issues of age everywhere Shaq has the biggest question mark after his name. In the best of times his conditioning was an issue, in the best of times he got exposed on the pick-and-roll in the playoffs. What will Dwyane and LeBron, or Rose and Noah do to him? Shaq isn’t simply backing up Perkins now (as we thought when he was brought in last summer); he is the man in the middle. That should worry Celtics fans. It should worry Danny Ainge.

But the slumps Boston and San Antonio are going through now, those are not worth worrying about. These are veteran teams that understand what it takes to be ready for the playoffs. They will leave it all on the floor when it matters.

The real question is will that be enough?

Carmelo Anthony’s foot on line on game-tying shot, Spurs comeback to beat Thunder

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — LaMarcus Aldridge had 26 points and the San Antonio Spurs overcame a 23-point deficit to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 104-101 on Friday night.

An Aldridge putback of Danny Green‘s missed 3-pointer gave the Spurs a 102-99 lead with 24.2 seconds remaining.

The Thunder missed two 3-pointers on the ensuing possession, but Carmelo Anthony tracked down a second offensive rebound and made a 25-footer with his foot on the 3-point line to cut the lead to 102-101.

Gasol made two free throws, and Russell Westbrook stumbled to the court and threw up an airball on a 3-point attempt.

Danny Green added 17 points, and Pau Gasol had 14 points to help San Antonio end Oklahoma City’s three-game winning streak.

Anthony had 20 points to lead the Thunder. Westbrook was held to 15 points after scoring 10 in the opening period. He was 5 for 22 from the field.

The Spurs rallied behind their usual formula of hounding defense and 3-point shooting.

Davis Bertans hit three consecutive 3-pointers in the third quarter, tying it at 78 with 38 seconds remaining with his final 3 of the run. The 3-pointer also closed a 58-35 run after the Spurs trailed 43-20.

The Thunder closed the first quarter on an 18-2 run. The Spurs had a season-low 15 points in the opening period.

 

Thompson’s playmaking a steadying force for defending champs

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Klay Thompson danced unabashedly in China after winning another NBA championship, and it got shared all over social media. He smoked a stogie on the rooftop, letting loose to reveal another side of himself.

“I didn’t plan for that video to go viral,” Thompson said matter-of-factly. “I was just having fun. I’ve always been myself and having fun while doing it and learning to enjoy every day, because it goes by so fast.”

Coming to that mindset, however, has been a process for the seventh-year Golden State guard, who acknowledges for so long he put extreme pressure on himself to be the best.

The quiet, more under-the-radar Warriors All-Star of the bunch, Thompson has provided a steadying hand early on for the reigning NBA champions who are favored to capture a third title in four years.

“I used to stress a lot more at the beginning of my career about my performance,” Thompson recalled. “Now, it’s not like I don’t stress, but I play more carefree and I’m more able, if I play as hard as I can I’m satisfied with the results. … I used to compare myself with all players and want to be the best so badly, but now it’s all about winning and having fun and realizing basketball is more of a team sport than anything.”

After a recent practice, Thompson dazzled right alongside a couple of visiting Harlem Globetrotters, spinning the ball on his finger, rolling it up and down his arms, off his knee and then a foot soccer-style before swishing a short jumper.

“I should’ve been a Globetrotter!” he yelled.

It’s a new look for this hang-loose, beach-loving Splash Brother.

The approach is working for the Warriors.

“He still carries the threat. You have to honor him,” Orlando coach Frank Vogel said. “He’s great at making the right play. Their whole team is. I think he’s trying to fit in with their whole buy-in that ball movement and passing is greater than any one man carrying the bulk of it.”

Still, his numbers are stellar. Thompson has had a fast start this season, which previously hasn’t been the case.

Thompson credits the familiarity with teammates and a comfort in coach Steve Kerr’s offense.

“He’s taken another step in his game. Just the experience that he’s had in his career, every year he’s gotten better and I think this year he’s shown how at the end of the season he carried it over to the beginning of this year,” backcourt mate Stephen Curry said. “Historically he hadn’t started seasons well but this year he’s locked in. He’s obviously shooting the ball well and playing great defense, but I think the biggest thing is his playmaking in situations where he’s drawing a crowd. He’s making great decisions setting guys up and just playing under control for the most part this entire season.”

Life off the court is great for Thompson, too, and that helps him be stress-free on it.

Look closely, and it’s easy to see he has come out of his shell.

On a day off last week, he golfed a popular public course close to Oracle Arena. Thompson signed someone’s toaster last spring, and it became a superstition.

In July, he threw out the ceremonial first pitch at an Oakland Athletics game, then drove an IndyCar in September while serving as Grand Marshal of a series stop in Sonoma.

Thompson shares his training tricks on social media and posts photos with his bulldog, Rocco.

He recently donated $75,000 to relief efforts in the aftermath of the devastating Northern California wildfires, committing $1,000 per point for a three-game stretch during which he scored 69 points – but added to that total.

He is a spokesman for chocolate milk and an obscure – in the U.S. anyway – Chinese shoe company. He signed an $80 million, 10-year extension to wear the sneakers.

“Life’s good,” Thompson said. “I never thought I’d get paid millions of dollars to wear shoes and apparel. I’m very proud to be a part of Anta. … It’s so cool that I’m big in China. I never thought I’d be on billboards and posters in China.”

Thompson has found a balance during the offseason to stay sharp, mixing up his workouts with outdoor activities he enjoys.

“It took years for me to figure out how to prepare the best I can for the season. I finally learned in my sixth year,” he said. “You’ve got to stay in shape almost year-round because as you get older it’s harder to get back into shape. It’s easier to get out of shape than it is to get back into shape. I do other things besides basketball to stay in shape in the offseason. I think that just keeps my mind fresh.”

He hopes to do a formal swim from Alcatraz, or even a triathlon. He swims in the ocean – “my favorite place in the world” – whenever he can. Freestyle is his strength, butterfly not so much. He plays hours of beach volleyball or just throws the football around and runs routes through the sand.

At work, he has been a model of consistency. Thompson is determined to be a better passer, creating for teammates whenever possible. He also usually guards the opponent’s top perimeter scorer.

Thompson is off to his best shooting season ever, with career highs of 49.4 percent shooting from the field and 45.6 percent on 3-pointers.

“I think his playmaking has been the best it’s been in his career,” Kerr said. “He’s really doing a good job of putting the ball on the floor and moving it on, drive and kick game, finding the centers in the pocket for little floaters. … It’s been his best passing season so far.”

Thompson used to get teased for his lack of assists, and it remains a running joke.

“I got thick skin,” Thompson quipped, “honestly I don’t really care.”

That carefree approach has taken time, and the Warriors are better for it.

 

Report: Mark Cuban in process to buy Mavericks’ G-League team

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There will come a day, in the not too distant future, when every NBA team will have an owned and affiliated G-League team. It will be a place for them to develop young players — guys they drafted but need more run than they’d get in the NBA, guys on two-way contracts, and just players they like and want to give a chance. The NBA is more and more becoming a development league — and if the one-and-done rule is replaced with something akin to the baseball rule for players going to college, having a strong G-League team will matter even more.

Which is why the news that Mark Cuban is about to buy the G-League team already affiliated with the Mavericks makes sense. Marc Stein of The New York Times broke the news.

While the name of the guys signing the checks will change with the Texas Legends, little else will.

It’s just another sign of the future in the NBA.

Isaiah Thomas is up for a Cavaliers vs. Celtics playoff clash

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Isaiah Thomas says he has moved on from the trade this summer that caught him off guard, shipping him from Boston — where he was a fan favorite — to Cleveland.

Sort of. Like a lot of sudden relationship ends, Thomas says he’s moved on, but it doesn’t sound like he totally has yet. Look at what he told Sam Amick of the USA Today in an interesting Q&A.

“I’ve put it behind me, and I’ve continued to try to do that… But other than that, every day that I’m in the gym or that I’m on the court or in the weight room or doing whatever I have to do to get back to who I was, and get back to being 100 percent healthy, yes I do use it as motivation.”

Thomas has yet to set foot on the court as a Cavalier, spending the start of the season rehabbing a hip injury. He’s expected back next month.

It’s very early in the NBA season, we’re not at 20 games or even Thanksgiving yet, but it has become evident that the Cavaliers have some legitimate defensive concerns, and that the Boston Celtics are a legitimate threat to them.

That would set up a series between Thomas’ old team that he’s still a little angry at, and his new team in Cleveland. And Thomas is good with that.

“Oh, that would be lovely. That would be the story that God made, and it probably will work that way. It always does. It always works – I’m not going to say in my favor, but it seems to always work out no matter what the circumstance is. That would be a special moment. If they make it there, and we make it there, and then we clash, and then you never know what’s going to happen. But I’ll be ready for whatever happens.”

Not enough NBA players use the word “lovely” anymore.

But I’m with Thomas, I want to see that series, too.