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 scores 40, hits game-winner to beat Suns (VIDEO)

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PHOENIX (AP) — Passing the ball inbounds at a critical time proved too big a challenge for the sputtering Phoenix Suns. So, Damian Lillard got one final chance.

Of course, he came through.

Lillard scored 40 points, the last two on a driving layup with nine-tenths of a second to play, and the Portland Trail Blazers rallied from 15 down in the final 7 1/2 minutes to beat Phoenix 106-104 on Saturday night, the Suns’ ninth straight loss.

Lillard called it one of his “more significant performances” of the season.

“Obviously, Damian was huge, showed his leadership, showed his talent,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “We overcame a horrendous shooting night for most of the night and found a way.”

Lillard, who scored 19 points in the fourth quarter, got the final chance because Phoenix’s Troy Daniels couldn’t get the ball inbounds on a five-second call that turned possession over to Portland with 20.6 seconds to play.

“We knew they didn’t have any time outs left,” Stotts said, “so we gave it a shot and made some good reads and didn’t give them any outlets.”‘

Devin Booker scored 30 points for the Suns, losers of 14 of their last 15.

His two free throws gave Phoenix its biggest lead, 93-78, with 7:26 to play. Lillard triggered the subsequent 18-4 outburst that caught the Suns at 97-97 on his 3-point play. Booker’s fifth and final 3-pointer gave the Suns a 100-97 lead with 2:19 to go. Lillard’s 3 tied it at 100 with 1:10 left.

Booker’s powerful driving basket put Phoenix up 104-102 with 33.6 seconds to go. But, after a timeout, Lillard’s step-back 15-footer tied it at 104-104 with 28 seconds left. The Suns called time out to set up the play but, on the sidelines, Daniels couldn’t get the ball inbounds for the five-second call.

“We had no timeouts. I didn’t see anybody open. If I did, I would have thrown it obviously,” Daniels said. “I’ve been in that position a lot of times, but like I said, it’s tough to be in that position when you have no timeouts. You learn from and you get it better.”

On the play, Portland’s CJ McCollum said “I just tried to take away Booker.”

“I saw how they were set up and I just guarded him normal and when I turned and saw him run toward half-court I just shaded toward him,” McCollum said.

Booker never broke open, Daniels decided not to chance it, and the last opportunity was gifted to Portland.

“There was 20 seconds left and I just wanted to make sure I got the last shot,” Lillard said. “I really just wanted to get the clock down, keep it towards half-court where it is further out and I can get downhill. I took a peek, the clock was at six and I got downhill.”

The Blazers, coming off a win at Utah the previous night, have won three straight and five of six.

The game was tied 10 times before Portland finished the first half with a 7-2 spurt take a 55-50 lead at the break.

But the Suns turned it on in the third quarter, outscoring the cold-shooting Blazers 31-16. Portland scored the first five of the second half to take its biggest lead, 60-50. But Phoenix overwhelmed the Trail Blazers 29-5 to go up 79-65 on Booker’s 3.

 

Russell Westbrook, Paul George call out Zaza Pachulia for “dirty” fall on Westbrook

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Zaza Pachulia has a reputation. The league even created a rule — the “Zaza rule”  — after he stepped under Kawhi Leonard last playoffs and twisted the forward’s ankle, ending Leonard’s playoffs and the Spurs chances.

Then Saturday night, as the Warriors pulled away in the second half and routed the Thunder, this play happened, where Pachulia fell on Westbrook’s leg.

While there was some contact, was that really enough to knock Pachulia over? It doesn’t look like it, it looks intentional, but remember Pachulia falls into a lot of guys — including Kevin Durant last season. This, however, was ugly.

After the game Westbrook and Paul George called Pachulia out.

Even the Celtics’ Kyrie Irving chipped in on this.

It will be interesting to see if the league does follow up. There is some history here.

After two lopsided losses to OKC, Kevin Durant leads Warriors rout

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Kevin Durant scored 28 points for Golden State while avenging an embarrassing home loss to his former Oklahoma City team earlier this month and another on the road in November, leading the Warriors past the Thunder 112-80 on Saturday night.

Stephen Curry added 21 points with five 3-pointers, nine rebounds, six assists and three steals as Golden State put on the kind of defensive performance coach Steve Kerr has been seeking from the defending champs.

Russell Westbrook had 15 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists for Oklahoma City, which failed to reach 100 points for the first time in the last five games. The Thunder had scored at least 100 in 14 of their last 16.

Durant’s pretty layup off a perfect pass by Curry with 3:06 left in the third put the Warriors up 75-66. That was part of a 37-11 Golden State run that included 30 points over the final 8:48 of the third – when Zaza Pachulia subbed in to relieve JaVale McGee.

The Warriors held Paul George to five points. George’s 3-pointer at the 7:52 mark of the third with Durant’s hand in his face was his first basket after going 0 for 9 to begin the game. He finished 1 for 14 after going off for 38 points in the last meeting when Oklahoma City left Oracle Arena with a 125-105 rout on Feb. 6.

Golden State also lost at OKC by 17 on Nov. 22.

Draymond Green added 10 points, eight assists and five rebounds. He picked up his 15th technical of the season with 1:04 left in the first half, moving him within one of an automatic suspension. That came after Durant and Carmelo Anthony pushed, shoved, yelled from close range and had to be separated, receiving double technicals.

It was a testy rematch after the Warriors received five technical fouls in the previous meeting. That prompted general manager Bob Myers to address the importance of keeping poised.

Durant announced his decision to join the Warriors and leave OKC on July 4, 2016, making him an instant villain in his former city.

He scored 33 in the Feb. 6 meeting but got plenty of help this time.

Earlier this month against the Thunder, Curry and Klay Thompson were a combined 11 of 27 from the floor and 4 for 15 on 3-pointers as the Warriors lost for the third time in four games. Thompson had 11 points Saturday, shooting just 1 for 11 from deep.

The Warriors on Saturday improved to 8-1 this season in the next game against an opponent after losing the previous meeting.

After Shaun Livingston‘s jumper at the 8:47 mark of the second quarter, Golden State went nearly five minutes without scoring before Curry’s basket at 4:51 started a 7-0 burst.

The Thunder grabbed eight offensive rebounds in the opening quarter to score 10 second-chance points, with Westbrook getting eight boards and George five. But Oklahoma City went 2 for 11 on 3s in the initial 12 minutes – Anthony, George and Westbrook a combined 1 of 8.

 

Steve Kerr “disappointed” in alma mater Arizona; wants to see NCAA follow new model

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Before he was the coach of the Golden State Warriors, before he was a five-time NBA Champion playing next to Michael Jordan and Tim Duncan, Steve Kerr was one of the great players the University of Arizona ever produced. The crowd would echo the announcer after ever made three — “Steeeve Keerrr” — where he was an All-American and helped lead a team (with future NBA players Sean Elliott and Tom Tolbert) to the Final Four.

There is a crisis around Arizona basketball right now. Coach Sean Miller was caught on a federal wiretap discussing a $100,000 payment for star recruit Deandre Ayton (expected to be a high lottery pick in June, possibly the No. 1 pick). Miller did not coach Saturday and changes are coming to Arizona.

Kerr was asked about it before the Warriors took on the Thunder Saturday.

Kerr said he was “disappointed” in his alma mater over the incident. Which is understandable.

Not to completely excuse it, but what Miller got caught doing is commonplace — money is funneled to families or the players of top recruits on a regular basis. What is more troubling (in my mind) is the money paid under the table to AAU coaches, family members, and others close to elite recruits to funnel them to a specific “financial planner” or agent, or a specific university. People in positions of trust with the player are bought and paid for.

Kerr put out one solution that would certainly be a big step forward: follow the Olympics model and let elite players get sponsorships that don’t end their college eligibility.

This system has its flaws as well, but it gets some of the dirty money out in the open. It would be better than the hypocritical facade of amateurism the NCAA has hit behind for years.