NBA season preview: San Antonio Spurs

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Last Season: A classic, and what we’ve largely come to expect from these Spurs over the last five years — achieving regular season success, making a dent in the playoffs, but ultimately falling short of a title.

San Antonio finished tied for the league’s best record, then swept its way through the first two rounds of the playoffs — building an 18-game winning streak in the process — before being dropped by the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals.

Key Departures: None.

Key Additions: The Spurs continue to be the model franchise in terms of bringing in international players, and French guard Nando de Colo — who the team actually drafted back in 2009 — is already paying dividends in the preseason.

Three keys to the Spurs season: 

1) The San Antonio Spurs are now known for their offense: It’s true. The Spurs led the league in offensive efficiency last season at a blistering 108.5 points per 100 possessions — and 1.4 points ahead of the team in second in that category, the explosive Oklahoma City Thunder. Even more surprising was how they did it — without a 20 points per game scorer, and with just four players averaging in double figures. No regression can be tolerated if the expectation is to remain in the top tier of the Western Conference.

2) Is Kawhi Leonard as good as Gregg Popovich thinks he is? Popovich is one of the best coaches in the league, but one with a hard-nosed reputation that doesn’t include a history of heaping undeserved praise on his players. When it comes to Leonard, however, Pop had no problem telling the world he believes that the player entering just his second NBA season will be the face of the team and a star in the future.

Leonard played well for the Spurs in his rookie season, but did his damage on the defensive end of the floor; 10 of his teammates posted higher points-per-game scoring averages than Leonard’s 7.9, in a balanced San Antonio offense that was the league’s best. If Leonard progresses toward showing the rest of us the star potential that Popovich already sees in him, the Spurs could be even better than last year.

3) Championship or bust: This may seem like an unfair expectation to place on San Antonio, especially when you consider they’re playing in a conference that features a newly-stacked Lakers team, along with a Thunder squad that had little trouble with them in the playoffs a season ago. But when you look at just how consistently Gregg Popovich is able to put together a team that competes near the top of the standings, it’s only natural to want to see them progress to the next level.

What Spurs fans should fear: That the team is already squeezing as much as it can out of its existing roster of talent. If that’s the case, that’s fine — there’s nothing wrong with being one of the top four teams in the entire league. But if the ceiling has been hit, there’s no room there for the team to make that leap back into the championship conversation.

Prediction: It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Spurs at or very near the top of the regular season standings once again. All the key rotation players are back, and Popovich should have them playing to potential earlier than a Lakers team with large new pieces to try to fit together. San Antonio is going to be very tough to deal with all year long, and if there’s something left once the postseason begins — along with a renewed commitment to defense — the Spurs could be right there at the end, playing for a spot in the Finals once again.

Damian Lillard defends Blazers’ coach Terry Stotts on Instagram

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It’s far too early for panic in Portland. This is a team most outside Portland thought would finish a little above .500 and maybe grab one of the back-end playoff spots in the West, and at 9-7 they are on that pace.

But after an ugly Portland loss to Sacramento (just a few games after a loss to Brooklyn where coach Terry Stotts benched center Jusuf Nurkick for most of the fourth), Trail Blazers fans were restless and started to slam coach Stotts on the Trail Blazers’ Instagram page.

I doubt Stotts noticed, but Damian Lillard did and jumped in to defend his coach.

Lillard added this (hat tip Mike Richman at the Oregonian).

“Because people think they know more about what it takes to get things done at this level … For our team than they actually do,” he said. “We’re in this position for a reason. And coach Stotts had two 50-win seasons here and four straight years in the playoffs for a reason –because he knows what he’s doing. They mention … our record is 8-7 and we’re having breakdowns late in games. Well those breakdowns are a missed shot here, a turnover there, a defensive breakdown here, giving up extra possessions, missed free throws. It’s things that players control. If we were down 30 every game, that’s different. But we’re in position to win games. And when it’s time to win games, that’s the players’ job. “

Lillard is loyal to those around him and has had the back of teammates and his coach before.

Lillard and his teammates went out Saturday night and got some revenge on the Kings, winning 102-90.

Portland’s defense has been surprisingly good this season, second best in the NBA. It should have been better with Nurkic in the paint, but this has been a radical turnaround for a team where that end of the floor held them back in recent years. While that lofty ranking may not stick all season, the Blazers are defending.

Now the Blazers are just having trouble scoring efficiently (18th in the NBA), which is a little about a less-efficient Lillard and a rough start on that end for Nurkic.  That end of the court should come around, Lillard and C.J. McCollum are too good for it not to.

 

Teammate spoke to Lonzo Ball about walking away from “fight”

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We see these posturing/shoving matches all the time in the NBA, and they’re pointless. Late in Friday night’s Phoenix win in Los Angeles the Suns called a timeout, then Tyler Ulis and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope got in one a shoving match. As happens, players from both teams raced into the fray to protect their teammate/break it up… except for Lonzo Ball, who looked at it and kept moving along.

I have defended Ball’s actions as mature (he’s right, nothing was going to happen), while others (fans and media) have questioned his leadership for not rushing to stand by teammates, pull guys out of the pile, and having a “band of brothers” attitude.

None of that matters, the only opinions that carry any weight are the ones in the Lakers’ locker room. What did his teammates think? Lakers coach Luke Walton said a teammate did talk to Ball, quote via Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN.

“Someone on our team talked with him,” Walton said after the Lakers’ practice Saturday, without disclosing who it was. “It’s all part of the learning process.”

If his teammates were bothered, then there’s an issue. It’s more about perception than anything, again nothing was happening in that “fight,” but perception matters. It’s a small issue, but an issue. With young players this gets discussed, and everyone moves on.

Ball’s passing and energy on the court are things teammates love. As his game matures — and he eventually finishes better around the rim and, hopefully for him, finds his jumper — and he grows as a bigger threat on the court, his teammates will forget this ever happened. As will fans. But when you play for the rabid (and not always rational) fan base of the Lakers, and when your father invites publicity and with it scrutiny, things get blown out of proportion. Welcome to Lonzo’s world.

Marc Gasol kicks away Clint Capela’s shoe, earns technical

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Midway through the first quarter, Clint Capela literally came out of his shoe trying to move up to set a pick for James Harden. Just stepped right out of it. J.R. Smith wasn’t there to untie the laces or anything.

Capela turned around to go get his shoe, and Memphis’ Marc Gasol showed his soccer skills kicking the shoe away. That earned him a technical foul. Gasol could argue he just wanted to get something he could trip over off the court, but Capela was clearly coming back for it at that point. Gasol earned this one.

Capela retied his shoes and went on to have 17 points and 13 boards in Houston’s 105-83 win over shorthanded Memphis.

Stephen Curry scores 35, Warriors rally to beat 76ers 124-116

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Stephen Curry scored 35 points, Kevin Durant had 27 and the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors overcame a 22-point halftime deficit in a 124-116 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday night.

Joel Embiid scored 21 points and Ben Simmons had 23 points and 12 assists for Philadelphia, which led 47-28 after one quarter and 74-52 at the half.

But the Warriors erased that large deficit with a furious rally in the third quarter. Curry’s 3-pointer got them within one point. He then made a pair of free throws to give Golden State a 90-89 lead.

The two-time NBA MVP hit another 3 and Draymond Green blew past a defender for a dunk to make it 99-89 going into the fourth.

A raucous, sellout crowd that chanted “Trust the Process” most of the night went silent while the Warriors put on a shooting clinic in the second half.

Even veteran David West came off the bench and made big shots in the fourth quarter to give the Warriors distance. He finished with 14 points. Klay Thompson had 16.

Embiid was coming off a career-best performance – 46 points, 15 rebounds, seven blocks, seven assists – in a 115-109 win at the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday.

He seemed on his way to another monster game in the first quarter. Embiid embraced the frenzied fans and slapped hands with a guy sitting courtside after a dunk.

But the Warriors showed why they’re the best by stifling Philadelphia in the second half to improve to 12-4.

The Sixers, who lost 135-114 at Golden State one week ago, fell to 8-7.

Playing his first game since receiving a lucrative contract extension, Robert Covington had 20 points for Philly.

Back home for the first time following a five-game road trip to the West Coast, the Sixers showed no jet lag in the first half.

They jumped ahead 15-4 following a 3-pointer by Embiid. Covington stripped Durant and hit a 3 to make it 37-18, electrifying the crowd.

Durant’s dunk off Green’s alley-oop pass got the Warriors within 70-51 late in the second. But Embiid finished off the half with a dunk that sent the Sixers into the locker room up 74-52.