Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, DeJuan Blair, Gregg Popovich

NBA Playoff preview: San Antonio Spurs vs. Utah Jazz

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SEASON RECORDS


San Antonio 50-16 (1 seed)
Utah: 36-30 (8 seed)

SEASON SERIES


San Antonio won the season series 3-1 and Utah’s only win was against the Spurs on a night the Big 3 rested. Not exactly an encouraging sign for the Jazz.

KEY INJURIES

San Antonio: The Spurs are (gulp) healthy going into the playoffs.

Utah: Earl Watson is out for the year following knee surgery. Josh Howard is only one game back from a serious knee injury.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession)

San Antonio: offense 108.5 (1st); defense 100.6 (10th)
Utah: offense 103.7 (15th); defense 103.6 (13th)

THREE KEY SPURS:

Tony Parker: Parker should be able to have his way with the Jazz’ defense. By creating penetration and kicking to the Spurs array of shooters, their offense will hit its high gear and punish the slower rotations for Utah. His work in the pick and roll will be equally important.

DeJuan Blair: Blair has to at least make an impact to offset Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. Tim Duncan will do his part. Blair’s ability to contribute anything at either end will help the Spurs avoid a lengthy fight.

Matt Bonner: Bonner has been an absolute Jazz killer this season and the Jazz are 12 points better than the Spurs with him off the court, 27 points worse with him on. He murdered Utah this year and if he does that again, Utah can’t keep pace offensively.

THREE KEY JAZZ

Paul Millsap:  With Duncan likely on Al Jefferson, it’ll be up to Millsap and his range to keep the Spurs honest and punish them from mid-range. Millsap has to be the star who leads Utah against San Antonio.

Gordon Hayward: Hayward gets to enjoy being the Jazz’ best wing weapon while being matched up against Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Jackson. This is a time for heroes. Jazz fans better hope Hayward is ready to be one.

Alec Burks. The Jazz need someone to step up on the perimeter and hit huge shots. The rookie would be a good candidate. Despite a poor shooting percentage, Burks can light it up.

OUTLOOK

The Spurs are superior in just about every way. There’s just not an area in which the Spurs aren’t the phenomenally better team. That said, Utah’s homecourt should allow them to steal one. On the surface, you’re tempted to say the Jazz remind you of the Grizzlies last year, but the Jazz aren’t nearly as good defensively, and struggle with defending the pick and roll.

Good luck with that, chief. The Spurs are better than last year, the Jazz aren’t as good as Memphis. No upsets here, kids. Utah’s awesome home court avoids the sweep.

PREDICTION

San Antonio in a “Gentleman’s Sweep,” 4-1

Mike D’Antoni: “James Harden was the perfect superstar for how I would like to coach”

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 07: James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets looks on against the Washington Wizards during the first half at Verizon Center on November 7, 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 Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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It’s not exactly Seven Seconds or Less Part 2 in Houston, but it may be closer to Mike D’Antoni’s ultimate vision.

The Rockets are 32-12 with the third-best offense in the NBA (Toronto and Golden State), and it’s an analytics wet dream of threes and shots at the rim. It’s all come together because James Harden bought in. Steve Nash ran the offense brilliantly but differently — Harden is as good or better with his style (which gets him to the line more often).

The brilliant Howard Beck at Bleacher Report got everyone to talk about the Rockets rapid rise and how it all came together. It’s must read. Plus there are some brilliant quotes, starting with Harden about D’Antoni pitching the move to point guard:

“I thought he was crazy,” says Harden, who earned his stardom at shooting guard….

Or as D’Antoni put it, “James Harden was the perfect superstar for how I would like to coach.”

“People always ask, ‘You traded for him; did you know he was this good?'” (Rockets GM Daryl) Morey says. “I’m like, ‘F–k no!’ I mean, we thought he was extremely good and better than other teams probably did.”

But not top-five good or, say, top-three, which Morey would make the case for today.

Harden is MVP-level good. What’s more, the Rockets are knocking on the door of contender good. The pedestrian defense isn’t there yet (18th in the NBA for the season, 15th for the month of January), questions about depth and if young key cogs like Clint Capela can grow into the roles the Rockets need them to, and there are the health concerns considering the histories of Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson.

But the Rockets are dangerous right now and could reach the Western Conference Finals this season if healthy and things break right (their style and athleticism would be a tough test for the Spurs).  And the story of how it all came together is fascinating.

Carmelo Anthony on talk with Jackson: “We didn’t break bread….It was a short conversation”

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 25:  Carmelo Anthony #7 of the New York Knicks looks on during the game against the Boston Celtics at Madison Square Garden on December 25, 2016 in New York City. 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 Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
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It wasn’t long. It wasn’t outwardly contentious. But you can bet it was colder than the weather outside Madison Square Garden in January.

Phil Jackson and Carmelo Anthony sat down and talked about Anthony’s future with the Knicks Tuesday, with Anthony reiterating again he doesn’t want to be traded. And since he has a no-trade clause and two years on his deal after this one, he has the power.

Anthony seems done with the entire topic and is ready to move on. From Marc Berman of the New York Post.

“The conversation was not that long. We didn’t break bread,’’ Anthony said. “We didn’t have hours of conversation. It was a short conversation.”

This entire topic came up when Phil Rosen — a Phil Jackson confidant who swears he’s not a surrogate — penned an article saying Anthony was willing to accept a move to the Cavaliers or Clippers (or maybe the Lakers). The move felt like a classic Jackson mind game move where Anthony was forced to respond to it — and Anthony seems done with the drama.

“I’m done asking why,’’ Anthony said. “My focus is playing ball at this point. My focus is these guys. That’s all I care about at this point. Making sure these guys stay strong and positive and have their head on right and not be a distraction to them.

“I’m committed [to the Knicks]. I don’t have to prove that to anybody. I don’t have to keep saying that and keep talking about it. I know for a fact people know that and people see that.”

Anthony is ready to move on, is Jackson? Or do we see another mind game move coming?

Anthony isn’t going anywhere, not in the short term. Even if Anthony would entertain a trade to those mentioned, markets, you think the Cavaliers would like to give Kevin Love‘s minutes and some of LeBron James‘ touches to 33-year-old Anthony? You think Doc Rivers would swap 27-year-old Blake Griffin for ‘Melo? Anthony is expensive and while he can still score the other limitations in his game make it very hard to trade him.

Jackson is the master of convincing guys to do what he wants and think it’s their own idea, but I have a hard time seeing that happening with Anthony.

Kevin Durant reflects on “AAU basketball” of Durant/Westbrook/Harden Thunder

Derek Fisher, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, James Harden
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If MVP voting took place today, James Harden and Russell Westbrook would be in a photo finish for the win — they are the clear first and second choices in that race. Third could well be Kevin Durant, who is having a strong and efficient season in Golden State (it’s who Dan Feldman and I said we would pick third during the PBT Podcast, although certainly guys like LeBron James, Isaiah Thomas, Kawhi Leonard and others are in the mix).

Remember when Durant, Westbrook, and Harden were all on the same team? The NBA’s ultimate “what if?”

Anthony Slater of the San Jose Mercury News got Durant to reminisce about those days (the Warriors play the Thunder and Rockets this week).

“It’s easy to say we were supposed to be together for the rest of our careers, but it didn’t play out like that,” Durant said. “I think all three of us will have memorable careers. And it’ll be a journey we’ll always remember, something that’s different and unique, playing with two different guys who are doing incredible things in the league right now. But when you look back, think about the fun times instead of what could’ve been.”

Could they have ruled the NBA for a decade?

“No. We never looked at it that way, like we could be best of all-time,” Durant said. “It was really AAU basketball, man. We were just having fun. We weren’t listening to anyone on the outside, media, none of that. It was just pure fun. When we did hear something about the group, it was like, what is this? That was so foreign to us because we never paid attention to it.”

It was Harden that was traded — he wanted and deserved the max, the Thunder has spent on Durant, Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka. They weren’t willing to pay the costs — the luxury tax bill would have come calling — to keep all three. The other side of that debate: Could Harden have continued happily in his sixth man role? This guy dominates the ball now (he leads the league in time of possession this season), would he have stayed coming off the bench to win?

“I think he’d have stayed in that role. I think so,” Durant said. “He’d have still been a really great player. You look at it, a lot of people wouldn’t have looked at him as a Sixth Man. He’d have been better. I think he’d have been better. Obviously I’m sure he loves what he’s doing now, but if we would’ve won a championship, I think the perception of him would’ve just been as a great player. ‘He’s the heart, he’s what makes us go.’ That’s what his label would’ve been, instead of just Sixth Man. He would’ve probably been the best Sixth Man that ever was.”

Maybe, and maybe that would have been enough. It’s all moot now.

But what if?

 

European star point guard Milos Teodosic says he wants to play in NBA. Eventually.

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 12:  Milos Teodosic #4 of Serbia reacts in the second half while taking on the United States in the Men's Preliminary Round Group A match on Day 7 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Carioca Arena 1 on August 12, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Milos Teodosic is the best point guard not in the NBA. Unless you’re not a fan of CSKA Moscow and Euroleague Basketball, you most likely remember him as the point guard for the Serbian team that won the silver medal at the Rio Olympics last summer — they guy who torched Kyrie Irving for 18 points and six assists, plus ran the offense beautifully in a group stage game against the USA.

Next summer he is a free agent and there is a lot of speculation he is finally going to come to the NBA (there have been reports the Grizzlies and other NBA teams have already reached out). Speaking with Mozzartsport, Teodosic said he may come but nothing is set in stone. Via Sportando:

“2016 was my best year” Teodosic told Mozzartsport (he won EuroLeague, VTB League and a silver medal at Olympics). “I will go to the NBA for sure, but I still don’t know when, in which club and on what terms. We’ll see. CSKA Moscow certainly has an advantage in the negotiations of a new contract “ the point guard added. “Offers from Grizzlies, Jazz, Spurs or Rockets? I did not get any offers from them. I don’t know who said that”.

Teodosic was asked his thoughts about the young European players that are “rushing” to the NBA even if they know they won’t have playing time: “For me this is an error. I like to play and I don’t like to sit on the bench and I would not agree on any contract if I have to sit on the bench. This is my condition for going to the NBA.”

And it becomes the challenge for a team looking to sign him.

Teodosic is a good offensive player — smart passer and he can shoot the three. He certainly knows how to run an offense (especially one with ball and player movement). He’s also a defensive liability. Watching him at the Olympics, I was thinking he’d be a great sixth man and fill-in starter when needed. But if he doesn’t want that role, what team is willing to give him more? Not a good one, or one with an established NBA point guard.

Mike Krzyzewski called Teodosic “one of the all-time great players internationally” and said they did game plan for him in the Gold Medal game (where the USA athleticism overwhelmed Serbia). The guy can play, and as well paid as he may be with CSKA Moscow he could make more in the bloated NBA. The only question is can he find a fit?

The only question is can he find a fit?