San Antonio Spurs Tim Duncan celebrates in the final seconds of Game 1 of the NBA Western Conference finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder in San Antonio

Popovich reaches into toolbox, makes adjustments, Spurs win Game 1

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There’s a reason the Spurs haven’t lost a game since before you sent your taxes in (19 in a row now) — they can adapt and take what you give them. Gregg Popovich is the master of adjustments and this roster is a huge toolbox of options for him to choose from.

He and the Spurs found the right combination in the fourth — they went small which led to an 18-3 run early in the quarter to take the lead. Follow that up with 11 points fourth quarter points from Manu Ginobili to lead the Spurs to 39 fourth quarter points, and the Spurs picked up a 101-98 win to take a 1-0 lead in the Western Conference Finals.

One game — especially the first game in a series — is not something fans should overreact to. Still, the way the Spurs have adjusted and adapted to teams over the course of playoff series, it has to be concerning for the Thunder that their opponent is only going to get better.

The first half of Game 1 felt like two boxers trying to feel each other out in the first round. Actually, that may be kind. It kind of felt more like Celtics/Sixers. The Spurs had 14 turnovers in the first half. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant combined to go 9-22 shooting, James Harden was 1-9. The whole game felt wrong.

Oklahoma City’s length and athleticism seemed to take a while for the Spurs to adjust to, especially in the first half when the Spurs seemed rushed trying to push the pace, but in the fourth quarter Popovich found a group that worked by going small (Boris Diaw never re-entered the game, Splitter played just a couple minutes at the start).

“We thought that (small) group gave us the best chance defensively and offensively at the other end for shooting, to get back in the game” Popovich said after the game. “We went down by nine, we thought we needed to generate a little bit of offense.”

That group did give them shooting — the Spurs shot 75 percent in the fourth quarter. More importantly, after the ugly first half the Spurs turned the ball over just three times in the second half. Part of those stats may have to do with Thunder coach Scott Brooks oddly sitting Thabo Sefolosha and Serge Ibaka — his two best defenders — for most of the fourth.

The Thunder would not roll over and when it got tight late San Antonio had Ginobili driving the lane and picking up key baskets.

“That’s Manu’s game, he’s a scorer, we depend on him to create and make things happen, whether it’s shooting or driving or assisting for somebody else,” Popovich said after the game. “It’s very important for us.”

The adjustments are on the Thunder now. San Antonio packed the paint when Westbrook or Durant drove the lane, the Thunder have to do what the Spurs do so well and it the open man on kickouts. Then knock down the shot. OKC didn’t play poorly and it’s easy to note all the good looks they seemed to miss. Oklahoma City got 27 points from Durant and 19 from Harden. Derek Fisher stepped up and added 13 points from the bench for the Thunder.

The Thunder only shot 42 percent as a team and didn’t finish well in the paint. They can play better.

But so can the Spurs. To a man they talked about it took them a while to find themselves, that they didn’t shoot well to open the game. And they will adjust. They will come back Tuesday with a better plan. Then they will see what works, Popovich will reach into his toolbox, and the Spurs will adjust.

And it will not be easy for the Thunder to keep up.

Karl-Anthony Towns beats out Isaiah Thomas to take Skills Challenge title

ATLANTA, GA - NOVEMBER 09:  Karl-Anthony Towns #32 of the Minnesota Timberwolves reacts after hitting a basket against the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on November 9, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia.  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 Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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TORONTO — In a new twist to the Taco Bell Skills Challenge, the NBA made the decision this year to add big men to a competition that has traditionally focused on point guards. The new wrinkle created new layers of intrigue, an unusual amount of controversy and, ultimately, a new champion: Timberwolves rookie center Karl-Anthony Towns.

C.J. McCollum beat out Jordan Clarkson in the first round, and Isaiah Thomas took care of Emmanuel Mudiay. In something of an upset, Towns handled Draymond Green, who is the NBA’s leader in triple-doubles.

The other matchup in the first round came with some controversy: DeMarcus Cousins missed all three attempts at the chest pass into the ring but moved on in the obstacle course and ultimately defeated Anthony Davis. This led to widespread criticism on social media for Cousins being allowed to advance without completing all the drills.

But Towns beat out Cousins in the semifinals, thereby preventing a nightmare scenario where a winner might have to have an asterisk next to his title.

Thomas beat McCollum in the guards’ semifinals. McCollum lost his dribble early on in the round and never really recovered.

The final round between Towns and Thomas went down to the wire, but Towns’ three-pointer went down first, giving him the title.

 

Russell Westbrook on Lakers speculation: “Nah, I like where I am now”

PHOENIX, AZ - FEBRUARY 08:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during the NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena on February 8, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona.  The Thunder defeated the Suns 122-106.  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 Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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TORONTO — No matter what Russell Westbrook does, he cannot escape the rumors that have followed him for years. He grew up in Los Angeles and played college basketball at UCLA—so, it’s only logical that when he hits free agency in the summer of 2017, he’ll look to sign with the Lakers, right?

Westbrook did his best to shut that down on Saturday after practice with the Western Conference All-Stars.

“Nah,” Westbrook said. “I like where I am now. Oklahoma City is a great place for me.”

Westbrook admitted that he grew up a Lakers fan, but said he never thought of playing there as a kid.

“I never thought I’d play in the NBA,” he said. “I was just watching them.”

Westbrook has another full season to go before his contract with the Thunder is up, so it’s going to be a while before there’s any resolution here. A lot, of course, will depend on what Kevin Durant does this summer.

If Durant sticks around and the Thunder make another deep playoff run next season, it becomes more likely that Westbrook will stay. But if Durant goes somewhere else, there’s a good chance Westbrook follows suit. For now, all they can do is deflect the speculation that will be there no matter what they say.

Gregg Popovich says he thinks more about Warriors than any team he ever faced

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Gregg Popovich and his Spurs have gone up against some powerhouse teams in the past 17 years. There were the Shaq/Kobe Bryant Lakers, Steve Nash and the seven-seconds-or-less Suns, The Kobe/Pau Gasol Lakers, LeBron James‘ Miami Heat teams, and the list goes on.

But nobody has given him more to think about than Stephen Curry and the Warriors.

That’s what he said on ESPN Radio Friday, as reported by Marc Stein of ESPN.

“I’ve spent more time thinking about Golden State than I have any other team I’ve ever thought about in my whole career,” Popovich told ESPN Radio on Friday. “Because they are really fun. I’d go buy a ticket and go watch them play. And when I see them move the ball, I get very envious. When I see them shoot uncontested shots more than anybody else in the league, it’s inspiring. It’s just great basketball.

“So I’m actually enjoying them very much. You try to solve them, but they’re in a sense unsolvable because it’s a particular mix of talent that they have. It’s not just that Steph [Curry] can make shots or that Klay can make shots or that Draymond Green is versatile. Everybody on the court can pass, catch and shoot. And they all get it.”

When you think about those legendary teams Popovich faced, they may have been a little less mentally taxing to gameplan for. The Shaq/Kobe Lakers ran the triangle (an offense Popovich was familiar with), but most of what made them great was exceptional talent — two future Hall of Famers at their peaks. The Spurs tried to bully the Suns, and then they developed a motion offense that eventually shredded the Heat.

The Warriors are different, and Popovich gets to a fundamental problem in defeating them:

“They’re talented. But they’re also very, very smart.”

That’s what’s hard to plan for — smart players and smart teams adjust, and the Warriors by design loaded their roster with high IQ guys. If you adjust, they counter. And for the last season-and-a-half, that has worked brilliantly.

LeBron James on Kevin Love trade rumors: “They’re false”

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TORONTO — The rumors were out there: the Boston Celtics were interested in Kevin Love and were talking trade with Cleveland.

LeBron James would have none of that.

“It’s false,” LeBron said of the rumors when speaking to the media after the Eastern Conference’s All-Star Game practice Saturday. “It’s the only thing I can look at it and say it’s false. That’s the last thing guys are worried about right now are trade talks from our team.”

That echoed what Carmelo Anthony said. The buzz around Toronto (where the NBA has gathered for All-Star Weekend) that there wasn’t a lot of to the talks and if there was any momentum has stalled out.

Still, there will be talks, and there will be plenty of Cavaliers trade rumors in the run-up to the Feb. 18 trade deadline. Cleveland could use some shooting from the wing and quality depth to provide versatility going up against Golden State or San Antonio in the Finals.

LeBron just wants to make sure the talks don’t impact the locker room.

“One thing about this business is you can only control what you can control. Things that you can’t control, you can’t let it bother you, and I’ve learned that over the years,” LeBron said. “There is so much that goes on in professional sports that if you just focus on what you can control, everything else will take care of itself.”

The Love rumors likely will continue to flare up this week, but they are not going to move him unless another team makes a Godfather offer.

The Cavaliers have been 10.1 points per 100 possessions better this season when Love is on the court compared to off it (and their defense does get marginally better when he plays). When Love, LeBron, and Kyrie Irving are on the court together the Cavaliers outscore opponents by 11.7 points per 100 possessions. Those are massive numbers.

The Cavaliers are a win-now team, if you’re going to break up part of that trio it has to be for something that makes the team demonstrably better. And that kind of superstar trade is rare at the February deadline anymore.