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: Re-signing Nerlens Noel Mavericks’ top off-season priority

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This is a Mark Cuban owned team, you don’t think the Mavericks are going to make a serious run at a free agent come July 1? Pelicans’ point guard Jrue Holiday has long been known to be a target, but there will be others.

But keeping their new core together, including restricted free agent Nerlens Noel, is the top priority, reports Marc Stein of ESPN.

Rumors like this are out there in part from Dallas to hope to chill the market for Noel. While he could be a defensive force who provides some scoring around the rim, with Noel’s injury history they may be able to get him at less than max money — because if he’s at the max the Mavericks are flirting with the luxury tax (and Cuban isn’t going to want to pay the tax for a borderline playoff team at best).

What Dallas fears is what Brooklyn did last season to Allen Crabbe in Portland and Tyler Johnson in Miami — some team to come in with a max or near-max offer sheet that drives up the price. Dallas will match, they will keep the young core together, it just gets more expensive.

Next season in Dallas will be a deserved big farewell to Dirk Nowitzki. He will be the focus, but behind him Dallas will try to be building for the future. They made the trade deadline move to make sure Noel is a part of that, the only question now is how much it costs them.

Magic Johnson on drafting Lonzo Ball: “what I needed was a leader”

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Nobody, not even his critics with the Lakers, question that D'Angelo Russell had talent. What they questioned from the start was his work ethic and maturity. I was told by sources with the team he often was the last one to team meetings, often one of the first out of the gym, and the whole Nick Young thing spoke to the maturity question. Byron Scott took a lot of heat as Lakers’ coach for benching him, and Scott’s communication skills were lacking, but he had reasons. Russell also just 21 and maybe he finds his way, but the Lakers weren’t willing to wait anymore.

Which is why the Lakers were willing to move him to Brooklyn in the Brook Lopez trade, and why the Lakers went after Lonzo Ball in the draft, Magic Johnson said, via Baxter Holmes of ESPN.

Is Lonzo Ball a leader? Only time will tell, he has the potential.

Will players want to play with him? Yes, if the passing skills he showed in college transfer to the NBA. If guys know they will get the rock if they run/cut, then they will do just that. It’s some simple B. F. Skinner stuff here — if players are rewarded they will keep doing it. Get them the rock in transition and they will get out there every time.

Ball has flaws in his game, there are certainly questions about his defense, and how that awkward shot translates remains to be seen (it goes in but his time to get it off will decrease at the NBA level)? Will he be a scoring threat in the half-court? He’s got work to do. But answer those questions and the Lakers may have the key piece to help anchor a franchise he’s been looking for.

Sacramento Kings waive guard Arron Afflalo

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) The Sacramento Kings have waived guard Arron Afflalo one year after signing him as a free agent.

The Kings cut ties with Afflalo on Friday before his entire $12.5 million contract for 2017-18 would become guaranteed. Afflalo will get $1.5 million instead.

Afflalo averaged 8.4 points and 2 rebounds in 61 games this past season for Sacramento. He has averaged 11.3 points per game in his 10-year career.

 

Frustrated fan: John McEnroe says Knicks a ‘total train wreck’

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NEW YORK (AP) — John McEnroe had a ringside seat for the ugliest bout at Madison Square Garden last season.

He was sitting just feet away when former Knicks star Charles Oakley was surrounded by security officials at his seat, shoving them away before being handcuffed and arrested while watching a game in February.

Even before that, the tennis great had begun to lose patience with his favorite team.

“It’s like a total train wreck,” McEnroe said.

The low point during a miserable 2016-17 season came when Oakley was dragged out of MSG in the first quarter of a game against the Los Angeles Clippers. A fan favorite as a player, he had fallen out of favor with the organization in retirement after critical comments about the team and MSG chairman James Dolan.

McEnroe, who often travels for his tennis or other obligations, wasn’t aware of the history between Oakley and Dolan.

“I didn’t even realize at the time that Charles had said bad things about him,” McEnroe said. “I hadn’t been up on that, so it wasn’t awkward for me when he sort of poked me in my back, Charles, right before the incident happened. I was like, `Hey Charles, how are you? This is my son, Kevin.’ He was with me.

“So I didn’t put 2 and 2 together and I didn’t know what had happened or really what had transpired,” he said. “So maybe Jim was already uncomfortable because of past history or whatever and then when Charles and the security guys started to go at it, even before they started to come up to him I was like, `Uh oh, this is not going to go well, at all.”‘

McEnroe is clearly visible in replays of the skirmish that were shown that night and throughout the next day.

“To see Charles Oakley have handcuffs put on him was horrible. Like, I was sick to my stomach, as well as almost every other fan that was in there watching this as it took place,” McEnroe said. “I bet you Jim Dolan – this is just my opinion – had to feel terrible about what that was.”

McEnroe grew up in and still lives in New York, and considers MSG his home arena. The inside cover of his new book, “But Seriously,” is decorated with ticket stubs from games and concerts at the arena, including a Knicks playoff game. But like many Knicks fans, he’s getting fed up with what he sees.

“I mean I’ve been a Knicks fan since I was a kid, so this is just getting beyond belief,” he said.

McEnroe has owned a home in Malibu, California, for more than 30 years. He often trained in Los Angeles as one of the world’s top players during the early-to-mid 1980s, befriending Lakers executive Jeanie Buss and Linda Rambis, whose husband Kurt played for the great Lakers teams of that era that were led by Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

“Watching this was like, I’m sitting there going, why the hell am I a Knick fan again?” McEnroe said, “because this is just absolutely unbelievable, watching Showtime.”

Dolan hired Phil Jackson, who won five titles as Lakers coach, as Knicks president in 2014. But the team has missed the playoffs every season under Jackson, who feuded with Carmelo Anthony last season and didn’t speak to reporters at all while the team went 31-51.

“I mean, he’s known as the Zen Master, like a master talker, and then he’s not talking to anybody,” McEnroe said of Jackson. “So this whole thing seems to have gone completely off the rails.”

Jackson is still hoping to trade Anthony, who has a no-trade clause. McEnroe said he was never the biggest fan of Anthony’s game, but that the All-Star forward didn’t deserve the treatment he received last season.

“It’s crazy to treat a guy that way,” McEnroe said. “It seems like, even if it would be better for both guys if they weren’t there – the Knicks and him – the whole thing just seems, I can’t believe how bungled this has gotten.”