NBA Playoffs: Thunder play well, but Spurs win while still seeming unstoppable

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The San Antonio Spurs have now played an even ten games in the NBA Playoffs and, amazingly, have won every one of them. The wins haven’t all been dominant — Tuesday night’s 120-111 victory ended up being one of their more difficult challenges this season — but it’s been astounding to watch the old, formerly boring ball players simply click on all cylinders for majority of the past few months.

While we all marvel at what the Spurs have been able to do en route to staying undefeated for 48 consecutive days, the most impressive thing is that the Spurs haven’t been playing any sort of “hero” ball … they’re just playing basketball the way it was meant to be played and, surprise(!), it works. Gregg Popovich has found out a way to put a fine-tuned machine out on the court, allowing the basketball purists among us 48 awesome minutes of watching wings cut to the bucket, guards move the ball around, slashers slash, passers pass and the big men doing what big men have been taught to do since the first time they picked up a basketball and their coach realized they were bigger than anyone else.

The Spurs are winning simply by playing fundamentally-sound basketball, really, so it shouldn’t be any sort of surprise that Mr. Fundamental himself — the ageless Tim Duncan — helped San Antonio earn a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference Finals following Tuesday night’s victory. Duncan wasn’t the most efficient player from the floor as the Thunder got a bit more physical with him than he would have liked, but his double-double while chasing down loose balls and picking up four big blocks were key for the Spurs as Oklahoma City employed the “Hack-A-Player” defense on backup Tiago Splitter (oh, and in case anyone missed it, he also did this to Serge Ibaka).

Most frustrating for the Thunder, though, is likely the fact that San Antonio was able to find another answer on the offensive end. Manu Ginobili was the star in Game 1, but Argentina’s favorite sixth man was bottled up early on Tuesday night and never really found his rhythm … at least not until hitting what might have been a dagger three-pointer late in the fourth quarter. No worries for the Spurs, though — Tony Parker simply decided to show once again why he belongs in the conversation as one of the top point guards in the league by accumulating 32 points, seven assists and turning the ball over a mere two times — all while hitting 15 of his 20 shot attempts in part of a near-perfect performance. The scariest part is that Thursday night’s Game 3 will likely end up belonging to someone entirely different if the Thunder are able to figure out  how to stop both of the Spurs perimeter playmakers (here’s hoping for Gary Neal and Matt Bonner three-pointers early and often).

If the fact that San Antonio continues to find contributors on the other end no matter what the Thunder do on defense — Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green combined for 25 points — it probably isn’t making Oklahoma City happy on offense that the Spurs are also quite adept at keeping them from getting into any sort of rhythm. Tuesday night’s game got grimy in the second half when a plethora of free-throws were shot and, even though the Thunder shot more from the charity stripe, it kept them trailing as they were unable to get into a rhythm and barely picked up even a modicum of momentum before San Antonio eventually elicited an answer for each run.

The worst part about Tuesday night’s game might have been that Oklahoma City’s stars all ended up having excellent games. Kevin Durant scored 31 points on 17 shots (though he was limited quite a bit in the fourth quarter), James Harden came off the bench to hit 10 of his 13 shot attempts and free-throw attempts to score an even 30 points while Russell Westbrook scored 27 points and dished eight assists and nary a turnover. Typically when one team’s top three players are able to score 88 points against an opponent that hadn’t given up triple-digit points in their previous nine outings, it’ll lead to a victory. That surprisingly wasn’t the case on Tuesday night, however, because San Antonio held the remaining six Thunder players to a total of just 23 points despite attempting 35 shots.

It’ll be interesting to see what the Thunder decide to change for Game 3 considering they did almost all they can be expected to do on Tuesday night before falling into a two-game deficit in the seven-game series. If they’re unable to win when their top three players combing for nearly 30 points apiece while shutting down the star from their series-opening loss, can there really be much hope left in the Oklahoma City locker room?

Report: Spurs paying Pau Gasol about $16 million each of next two years

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The Spurs got Pau Gasol to decline his $16,197,500 player option, allowing them to chase major free agents. They didn’t take advantage of that flexibility, so they’re re-signing Gasol to make him whole – and then some.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Sources: Free agent Pau Gasol’s deal to return to Spurs: three years, $48M with a partial guarantee on final year

If Gasol’s 2018-19 salary is guaranteed – strongly implied by this report – this is a bad contract.

The 37-year-old Gasol, still a nice player, isn’t worth $16 million this season in a tight center market. It’s fine to pay him that much given the circumstances of his opt out. But to guarantee him a similar amount – salary-cap rules dictate his 2018-19 salary be within 5% of his 2017-18 salary – at age 38 is an awful choice.

Especially for San Antonio, which was shaping up to have massive flexibility next summer.

The Spurs can still have significant cap room if LaMarcus Aldridge, Danny Green and/or Rudy Gay opt out. But then they wouldn’t have Aldridge, Green or Gay. So, the more space to upgrade, the better. San Antonio just cut about $16 million from that maneuverability.

Kawhi Leonard is a 26-year-old superstar who has proven his ability to thrive deep into the playoffs. Instead of aggressively working to add talent to chase another championship, the Spurs are surrounding him with the status-quo declining-veteran supporting cast.

That was acceptable this year, once Chris Paul chose the Rockets. But to commit about $16 million toward a similar team in 2018 is a major mistake.

Giannis Antetokounmpo gives views on loyalty while explaining Kevin Durant’s move

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As questions swirled about his future with the Bucks, Giannis Antetokounmpo tweeted that loyalty was in his DNA.

But Kevin Durant also said he was loyal to the Thunder before leaving for the Warriors.

Durant explained the appearance of a contradiction by saying he showed his loyalty by signing a contract extension without options and playing hard every night. Durant was fully loyal to Oklahoma City while he was there. To him, it didn’t mean he pledged to stay forever.

What does loyalty mean to Antetokounmpo, who once said he wanted to play in Milwaukee forever? He provided insight when asked to compare his tweet to Durant’s sentiments.

Antetokounmpo:

A lot of people say they’re go to stay on a team, and they decide to move to a different team. But you guys always got to remember that a guy might want to stay on the team, but the team doesn’t do the right things and the right moves for the player to become great. Because K.D., the reason he wanted to stay in OKC was to be the champs, right? So, did they win a championship? That’s why he decided to leave. He did win a championship down in Golden State.

This is a very rational response, one that indicates his outlook is similar to Durant’s. Nobody would question Antetokounmpo’s devotion to Milwaukee right now. But that doesn’t mean he’ll feel this way indefinitely.

The Bucks have to reciprocate by doing well for Antetokounmpo.

So far, the results have been mixed. They’ve built a solid young nucleus that includes by Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, Thon Maker and Tony Snell. Jabari Parker would’ve counted if not for multiple ACL tears, which can derail a career. Luck can factor. So, it’s on Milwaukee to nail what it can control – like running the franchise without the disarray shown during its general-manager search.

Unlike the Thunder with Durant, the Bucks might be able to buy loyalty with a designated-veteran-player extension before Antetokounmpo’s contract expires in 2021. Those super-max deals didn’t exist under the previous Collective Bargaining Agreement, when Durant left for Golden State.

The salary cap is also stagnating, leaving it far less likely a team can duplicate the situation the Warriors’ presented Durant – a ready-made championship contender with max cap space. Relatively, the Bucks probably won’t have to look quite as appealing to be Antetokounmpo’s best option.

But they’ll still have to create some allure.

It sounds as if Antetokounmpo’s loyalty to the Bucks is, quite reasonably, conditional.

Gordon Hayward: My relationship with Brad Stevens ‘completely overstated and overhyped’

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Gordon Hayward is still trying to seize control of the narrative surrounding his free agency.

The Celtics – coached by Brad Stevens, Hayward’s coach at Butler – expressed interest in Hayward in 2014. Then, with Stevens still in Boston, they completed their highly anticipated pursuit of Hayward by signing him this year.

Just don’t pin that all on Stevens.

Hayward on The Woj Pod:

The relationship between Brad and I has been completely overstated and overhyped from everybody.

And you mentioned it. There was always rumors about going to Boston, and those, to me, were always just rumors. I didn’t really ever think about it, because I wasn’t a free agent, wasn’t really concerned with the Boston thing. But everybody else was saying, “Oh, he’s going to go to Boston because of Brad.” And we had a great relationship, but it wasn’t like we were constantly texting each other or calling each other. He’s the head coach of the Boston Celtics. He’s got things to worry about.

I played for Brad for two years. And so it wasn’t like everybody kind of made it seem, like we were besties or something.

That was something I kind of was – “what’s this going to be like? It’s been seven years since he coached me.” And immediately though, he called me July 1. And after that phone call, I thought like, “Oh, no. This isn’t going be any different.” It was one of those things where he made me feel like, even if I don’t go to Boston, it’ll be fine, and we’ll still have that great relationship, and he’ll still be in my corner, and he’ll still be rooting for me and supporting me.

Hayward was in control, and he chose Boston. Stevens didn’t do it for him. Hayward did it – and he did it the evening of July 4, not before.

Got it?

That darned fake news, always talking up the Hayward-Stevens relationship. Take this article in The Players Tribune, in which the author contends Hayward viewed Stevens as “the person I knew I could count on the most.”

Look, NBA players generally like the trappings of being recruited. They generally dislike the perception that they were recruited and weren’t in complete control. That’s why Kevin Durant keeps denying Draymond Green‘s stories of recruiting the superstar to the Warriors.

Elements of Hayward’s relationship with Stevens were probably perceived incorrectly by some. I doubt the Celtics’ coach was in frequent contact with a Jazz player. But the underlying idea – that Stevens made Boston more likely to pursue and get Hayward – was also probably correct.

Report: Cavaliers prioritizing youth in Kyrie Irving trade

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In the wake of Kyrie Irving‘s trade request, the Cavaliers have three fundamental options:

  • Trade Irving for immediate help to continue a championship chase around LeBron James
  • Trade Irving for younger players and/or draft picks to kick start a rebuild in case LeBron leaves next summer
  • Don’t trade Irving

It seems Cleveland is taking the second route.

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

The Cavaliers are projecting confidence they can snare a king’s ransom for Kyrie Irving, and more than that, they are acting — for now — as if a trade is almost inevitable, and that there is little chance of salvaging their relationship with him, according to several sources familiar with the situation.

Cleveland is seeking a bundle of assets, but the highest priority right now is snagging a blue-chip young player, according to sources across the league. That is not necessarily a signal they think James is leaving. They would like to get everything: one or two veterans who can help LeBron dethrone Golden State, that blue-chipper, and picks. They want to prepare for a worst-case scenario of LeBron leaving without shoving him out the door by acquiring players he deems unready. Even so, the blue-chipper appears to be their guidepost, sources say.

Barring a misevaluation by another team, Cleveland can’t trade Irving for better players now and significant long-term assets. The Cavaliers could try to straddle both paths, but the more they prioritize the future, the less they’ll get for the present (and vice versa).

I’m a little surprised the Cavs aren’t posturing about not trading Irving to drive up his value – especially after the leak – and I’m surprised they’re not pushing in for next year. A championship lasts forever, and they’re still contending.

But it seems they’ve chosen their course. The big danger: It reduces their ability to win this year and pushes LeBron further out the door.

Reading that description of Cleveland’s target, does anyone fit better than Andrew Wiggins – whom, in a strange twist, the Cavaliers drafted then traded for Kevin Love? The 22-year-old is seen by many as a rising star, and his value is in Irving’s general range. Plus, not only did Irving list the Timberwolves among his preferred teams, Jimmy Butler (a friend) and Karl-Anthony Towns are urging Minnesota management to deal for Irving.

The Wiggins we’ve seen so far – an underwhelming defender and 3-point shooter – would fit poorly with LeBron. Wiggins is young enough to develop and adjust, but LeBron’s free agency is only a year away. It’s a dangerous time to take a step back.

But if the Cavs are going to trade Irving for a young player, that’s almost certainly what they must do.