Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker

Five reasons these are not last year’s Spurs, they are contenders


Last season, the Spurs won 61 games, went into the playoffs as the top seed thought of as contenders, then got unceremoniously bounced in the first round because they could not handle the big, athletic front line of the Memphis Grizzlies.

This season, the Spurs are again entering the playoffs as the top seed and are talked about as contenders. They again face a first-round opponent with a big front line — the Utah Jazz — and some think the same thing will happen again.

The Spurs may not make the NBA finals, but they are real contenders this year. Here are five reasons this year is different than last.

1) Manu Ginobili is healthy. Ginobili is what turns the Spurs offense from “good” to “best in the NBA” and he was out last season but is back healthy this season. (The entire city of San Antonio just knocked on wood.) What makes him so dangerous is that can take whatever the defense gives — he can knock down threes, drive the lane (left or right), is solid from the midrange, plays well in transition and… you get the point. He also shoots well in the clutch. This is the guy that makes the Spurs special and he is back this year.

2) Tony Parker is playing the best ball of his career. He should be in the MVP discussion this year. Not saying he should win it (that’s LeBron James) but Parker should be in the conversation. Parker leads the Spurs in scoring (18.3 points per game, a number he stepped up when Ginobili was out) and is also at a career high in assists — when he is on the floor he assists on 40 percent of his teammates baskets. Parker gets an offense based on cuts and off-ball movement going, he is at the heart of their rapid ball movement side to side. He simply is better this season than last.

3) San Antonio depth and athleticism — this is a team. This was the knock on them since 2004 — they were old and no longer athletic enough to play with the elite teams in the league. But that’s not the case anymore, they have rookie Kawhi Leonard, they bring in youth with DeJuan Blair, Danny Green and Gary Neal, plus Tiago Splitter has taken a step forward and given them a solid big man to put in the middle. Combine that with a shooter like Matt Bonner (plus they have Stephen Jackson now) and they can throw a lot of different matchups at you. The amazing part is how little drop off there is in execution from the first to second unit.

The turning point for the Spurs may have come at the end of January this season when the starters were getting smoked by Dallas and when the bench made a comeback Popovich rode them all the way through into the overtime. And lost. But since then this team has rallied as a unit and the depth has been part of that.

4) Tim Duncan found the fountain of youth down by the Riverwalk. Tim Duncan never has been bad, but he had seemed to take a step back in recent years from great to solid. He was always fundamentally sound, but he seemed older and a step slow. Since the All-Star break he has seemed a threat again. Maybe that is him getting better looks thanks to the Spurs fantastic ball movement, but whatever it is it is working. And if Duncan is on the Spurs are on.

5) These Jazz are not those Grizzlies. This Utah team is playing well and we’ve all fallen in love around the NBA blogosphere with their big lineup of Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Derrick Favors together. No doubt, that lineup is good — but it is not as good as the level the Grizzlies were playing at last year. Zach Randolph was probably the best single player in the first round last year, he was a force of nature. I like Jefferson, but his ceiling is not that high. These Jazz also don’t defend like those Grizzlies did.

It is possible the Spurs will see the Grizzlies again in the second round. And that would be a fun matchup. But the Grizzlies are going to find out these Spurs are a lot better now than those ones they knocked off last year. These Spurs are legitimate contenders.

Watch Stephen Curry drop 35 in final preseason game

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It’s just preseason, it matters as much public pay phones do now, but still.

The Warriors just went 6-1 in the preseason, and they capped it off with Stephen Curry dropping 35. He was hitting three, driving to the rim, hitting shots falling out-of-bounds, and all the rest of the Stephen Curry highlight reel specials.

The guy is just fun to watch play basketball.

Clippers seeking deep playoff run to erase past failures

PLAYA VISTA, CA - SEPTEMBER 26:  L-R; Paul Pierce #34, Austin Rivers #25, DeAndre Jordan #6, J.J. Redick #4, head coach Doc Rivers, Blake Griffin #32, Jamal Crawford #11, Luc Mbah A Moute #12 and Chris Paul #3 of the Los Angeles Clippers pose for a photo during media day at the Los Angeles Clippers Training Center on September 26, 2016 in Playa Vista, California. 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. Mandatory copyright notice.  (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)
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LOS ANGELES (AP) — The Clippers’ regular-season record of 166-80 in Doc Rivers’ first three years as coach proves they’re one of the better teams in the NBA.

Their postseason results, however, suggest something else.

They’ve never gotten past the second round of the playoffs in pursuit of the franchise’s first-ever NBA championship.

Now, time is ticking on Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan, who enter their sixth year together. Griffin and Paul will be free agents at season’s end, while J.J. Redick is also in the final year of his contract.

If the Clippers don’t at least make the Western Conference finals, speculation is rife that the team could be broken up and rebuilt.

“We have the talent, leadership, tangibles and coaches,” Griffin said, “we just have to put it together.”

The Clippers went 53-29 in the regular season and lost to Portland in the first round of the playoffs, when Paul broke his right hand and Griffin reinjured his left quadriceps tendon, forcing both to miss the last two games of the series, which the Clippers lost in six.

It was the latest in a series of playoff failures for a team whose potential has yet to be fully realized.

In 2015, the Clippers lost to Houston in seven games in the Western Conference semifinals after blowing a 3-1 lead. In 2014, they bowed out in six games to Oklahoma City in the second round.

“This is the deepest, most talented group we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Rivers said. “That’s why this year should be great.”

Los Angeles opens the season on Oct. 27 at Portland in a rematch of last season’s playoff series and opens at home against Utah three days later.

Some things to watch for this season with the Clippers:

HOW GRIFFIN GOES: After missing much of last season because of a broken hand and the quad injury, he figures to have extra motivation. Griffin averaged 21.4 points, 8.4 rebounds and 4.9 assists while limited to 35 regular-season games. His hand injury was the result of a fight with a former staff member and landed him a four-game suspension and a loss of pay. Besides demonstrating greater maturity, Griffin needs to stay injury-free and boost a shooting percentage that has declined five consecutive seasons.

FIFTH STARTER: Who will join Griffin, Paul, big man Jordan and shooting guard J.J. Redick as a reliable fifth starter? The small forward options are Luc Mbah a Moute, Wesley Johnson, veteran Alan Anderson and Austin Rivers. The elder Rivers may pick one or rotate depending on the need in a particular game. Mbah a Moute started 61 games last season, Johnson shot 33 percent from 3-point range last season, and the younger Rivers can guard an opposing team’s top guard, giving Paul a chance to focus on offense.

ADDING VETERANS: Rivers, who also serves as director of basketball operations, went after veterans during the offseason to add depth. He brought in 12-year pro Dorell Wright, 11-year pros Brandon Bass and Raymond Felton, eight-year pro Marreese Speights, who left Golden State, and seven-year pro Anderson. Along with three-time sixth man of the year Jamal Crawford, they’ll comprise a talented bench. “We all understand what we’re playing for,” Crawford said. Starting the season, they all appear to have bought into the vision of Rivers, who will have to juggle minutes among veterans who might have found more playing time had they gone elsewhere.

PIERCE’S FINALE: Paul Pierce is playing his 19th and final season before retiring at season’s end. He turned 39 earlier this month and is the NBA’s only active player with 25,000-plus points, 7,000-plus rebounds and 4,500-plus assists. He and Doc Rivers won the 2008 NBA Finals together in Boston, and Rivers enjoys having him around as a veteran presence in addition to the Big Three of Griffin, Paul and Jordan. Pierce started 38 of 68 games last season and he’d like to improve his averages of 6.1 points, 2.7 rebounds and 1.0 assists before calling it a career.

D’Antoni says Rockets’ Patrick Beverley to miss about 20 games

HOUSTON, TX - MARCH 18:  Patrick Beverley #2 of the Houston Rockets walks to the bench during their game against the Minnesota Timberwolves at the Toyota Center on March 18, 2016 in Houston, Texas.  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 Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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Patrick Beverley is going to have a key role with the Rockets — he is their best defending guard. And it’s not close. He can help space the floor as a three-point shooter, he can work off the ball on offense and serve as a backup playmaker, but mostly what he brings is fearless, physical defense.

Except he’s not going to bring it for a while.

Following rumors he might knee surgery comes this from Houston coach Mike D’Antoni, via Calvin Watkins of ESPN.

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said he expects guard Pat Beverley to miss at least 20 games with a left knee injury. His absence “complicates” some roster spots.

Beverley is going to have surgery but may only miss three weeks or so, which is less than D’Antoni’s predicting, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

The Rockets are going to have one of the best offenses in the NBA but whether they finish fourth or seventh or out of the playoffs completely in the West will come down to a combination of health and how well they defend. This is a setback on both counts.

Expect to see more Eric Gordon, Tyler Ennis, and P.J. Hairston. Gordon has a real chance here. This is going to be an interesting year in Houston.

Jimmy Butler shrugs off idea he’s a “diva”

Chicago Bulls' Jimmy Butler goes up for a dunk past Charlotte Hornets' Marvin Williams during the first half of an NBA preseason basketball game Monday, Oct. 17, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
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The Chicago Bulls traded Derrick Rose to New York, in hopes that the locker room, “whose team is this?” drama would head East with him. This is Jimmy Butler‘s team, with Dwyane Wade now assisting.

But the drama isn’t gone yet.

On their way out the door, the camps around Rose and Joakim Noah tried to paint Butler as a Diva who was the real problem. When Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times asked Butler about it, he basically laughed off the idea.

“Am I a diva? I don’t call it that,’’ Butler said before Thursday’s 97-81 loss to Atlanta in their final preseason game. “My will to win rubs people the wrong way sometimes. I can blame it on that, but won’t apologize for it. Never will.

“As far as that talk goes, I don’t care. I’m going to keep working and if people don’t like it, people want to say what they want to say, that’s fine. I know, and I think these guys know, where my heart is and how I want to do right by everybody.’’

Rose and Noah thought Butler tried to jump the line to be the leader of the team, which they saw as still their right as the veterans. Butler didn’t care what they thought then, he certainly doesn’t now.

What matters more, Nicola Mirotic and Doug McDermott and Bobby Portis don’t care, and they are the guys still there.

Who will finish with the better record, Bulls or Knicks, is one of my favorite subplots of the NBA season.