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.

Kawhi Leonard, Patty Mills lead Spurs by Grizzlies for 3-2 series lead

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) Kawhi Leonard had 28 points and the San Antonio Spurs rebounded from two discouraging road losses to beat the Memphis Grizzlies 116-103 on Tuesday night and take a 3-2 lead in their first-round series.

San Antonio shot 14 for 28 on 3-point attempts, two off its postseason record, including 5-for-7 shooting by Patty Mills.

Mills finished with 20 points and Tony Parker added 16.

Mike Conley had 26 points and Marc Gasol added 17 for the Grizzlies, who have lost nine straight postseason games in San Antonio.

With each team winning on its homecourt, Game 6 is Thursday night in Memphis.

The Spurs went on an 11-0 run shortly after switching Leonard onto Conley defensively, holding the Grizzlies scoreless for 2:46 midway through the first quarter.

But it was the few times either team had success defensively.

San Antonio shot 53 percent from the field and Memphis shot 52 percent in a surprisingly explosive game between teams renowned for their defense.

Conley had seven points during a 17-3 run bridging the third and fourth quarters to pull Memphis within 87-83 with 9 minutes remaining.

The teams exchanged baskets over a 3-minute span before consecutive 3-pointers by Mills helped break the game open for San Antonio.

After failing to score in the first four games, Manu Ginobili had six points in 33 seconds in the first quarter and finished with 10 points.

James Ennis III had 11 points and Andrew Harrison added nine, as both took advantage of Leonard leaving them to help defensively during the second and third quarters.

TIP-INS

Grizzlies: Conley and Gasol are the only Memphis players to score in double figures in all four games. . Zach Randolph had nine points and six rebounds Tuesday after averaging 17 points and 9.7 rebounds in the previous three games. Randolph was held to six points and three rebounds in Game 1. . Tony Allen remained out with an injury to his right leg after being kicked in the calf during Memphis’ regular-season finale against Dallas. . Ennis was 4 for 9 from the field in scoring 11 points after averaging 7.0 points in the previous four games.

Spurs: San Antonio’s franchise record for 3-pointers made is 16 against Miami in the 2013 NBA Finals. . Leonard has scored in double figures in 25 straight playoff games, the longest streak in franchise history since Tim Duncan had 26 from 2011-2013. . The Spurs have lost three straight only once this season, dropping their final three games of the regular season after clinching the second seed. They have lost two straight on four occasions, including back-to-back losses in Memphis in this series. . Dewayne Dedmon returned after missing Game 4 due to an illness. . Ginobili’s eight points in the opening quarter are the most he scored in any quarter of a playoff game since scoring nine in the 2014 NBA Finals.

Watch Houston’s Eric Gordon yam it down over Thunder forward Jerami Grant (VIDEO)

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Eric Gordon is a leading Sixth Man of the Year candidate for the Houston Rockets for one reason: he can shoot the lights out.

But that didn’t stop Gordon from surprising a few folks during Tuesday night’s closeout Game 5 against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Gordon scored just eight points in Houston’s 105-99 win, but two of those points came on a thunderous dunk over Oklahoma City’s Jerami Grant.

Via Twitter:

Wasn’t expecting him to get up like that.

Houston will go on to play the winner of the San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies series.

Rockets advance with 105-99 win, Thunder eliminated despite 47 from Westbrook

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HOUSTON (AP) — James Harden had 34 points and his supporting cast helped the Houston Rockets overcome a 47-point game by Russell Westbrook to get a 105-99 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday night to advance to the Western Conference semifinals.

The Thunder head home a year after advancing to the Western Conference finals after Houston took this series 4-1.

The Rockets used a 5-1 run, with all their points coming on free throws, to pull away from the Thunder and make it 98-91. Victor Oladipo threw a pass about 5 feet above Westbrook’s head and out of bounds on the next possession and Harden made a layup on the other end with about 3 minutes left.

The Rockets began eating up the clock after that and Oklahoma City missed shot after shot that could have closed the gap.

Houston couldn’t add to its lead though and the Thunder cut it to 4 points twice in the final seconds, with the second one coming on a basket by Alex Abrines. But Harden made two free throws both times they got close to secure the win.

After scoring 20 points in the third quarter, Westbrook made just 2 of 11 fourth-quarter shots in a disappointing end to a stellar season where he became the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62 to average a triple-double by scoring an NBA-best 31.6 points a game, with 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists. He also set an NBA record for most triple-doubles with 42 to help the Thunder withstand the loss of All-Star Kevin Durant in free agency.

He had 11 rebounds and nine assists to come just shy of his fourth straight triple-double in this series, but he made just 5 of a career-high 18 3-point attempts.

Lou Williams added 22 points and Patrick Beverley had 15 to help the Rockets get out of the first round for the second time in three seasons in front of a crowd that included Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon, rapper Travis Scott and his rumored girlfriend and reality star Kylie Jenner.

The Thunder had a five-point lead entering the fourth quarter and led by 3 after a jump shot by Jerami Grant early in the quarter. The Rockets then used a 10-2 run to take an 86-81 lead with about 9 minutes left. Williams made the last eight points in that stretch, making three free throws to start it and capping it with a 3-pointer from way behind the line.

Houston was up by 6 early in the third quarter before using a 7-2 spurt to make it 61-50 with about 7 minutes left in the quarter. Harden got things going in that span and Beverley capped it with four straight points.

The Thunder started rolling after that, using a 12-3 run, with seven points from Westbrook, to get within 2 with about 5 minutes left in the quarter. Houston’s offense went cold in that span with its only points coming on free throws by Harden.

Five straight points by the Thunder a couple of minutes later, highlighted by a 3-pointer from Westbrook, gave the Thunder a 69-68 lead.

Harden made two free throws after that before Westbrook hit two 3-pointers in about 30 seconds to extend Oklahoma City’s lead to 77-70.

The Rockets were unhappy with a few calls in the first quarter and team owner Leslie Alexander got up from his courtside seat and walked over to a referee during play late in the quarter apparently to express his displeasure before sitting back down.

Houston led 51-44 at halftime.

TIP-INS

Thunder: Led by as many as 8 points early. … Oladipo had 10 points and eight rebounds. … Abrines had 11 points. … Westbrook received a technical for arguing with Beverley in the fourth.

Rockets: Made just 1 of 13 3-point attempts in the third quarter. … Williams has scored at least 20 points in three of the last four games. … Houston made just 6 of 37 3-point attempts overall. … Beverley received a technical for arguing with Westbrook in the fourth. … Harden made 16 of 17 free throw attempts.

 

Did Gregg Popovich leave a $5,000 tip at a Memphis restaurant? (PHOTO)

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Gregg Popovich seems like a nice, considerate dude with a good head on his shoulders. The San Antonio Spurs coach made headlines this season as a leading advocate against many of the political changes occurring since the election of Donald Trump. He’s a thoughtful guy.

Popovich is also apparently a big tipper. A photo recently surfaced via Reddit and MySA.com that showed Popovich’s signature on a bill that had a $5,000 tip on it.

Nope, not a typo. $5,000.

Via MySA.com:

If you’re ever waiting on Pop, be sure to come back to refill his water as much as you can. It looks like it might be worth it for you.