David Stern: Be careful where you step in punishing Popovich, Spurs

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Three times last season, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich rested Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker in the same game. He’s done it before then as well. And he is far from the only coach to rest multiple key players in a game — Doc Rivers, Phil Jackson and other coaches have done it.

And while fans and media sometimes grumbled — “people paid good money to see those stars” — those moves always came without comment from the NBA.

But when Popovich rested his big three on Thursday night for a much anticipated, nationally televised game against the Miami Heat, fans were upset and David Stern stepped in with a statement.

“I apologize to all NBA fans. This was an unacceptable decision by the San Antonio Spurs and substantial sanctions will be forthcoming.”

This post is not a debate about whether Popovich did the right thing — I think he was well within his rights, our own Brett Pollakoff and plenty fans who tweeted me disagree saying Popovich needed to think of the league and the fans. That is a discussion for another day. (The game being competitive down to the final minute also has little bearing here.)

My point is this — Stern is about to change either NBA rules or at least how the rules are interpreted and enforced by going after the Spurs with some kind of fine and punishment. And once he does that he sets a new precedent that has to be carried out for every team all season long.

And everywhere Stern and the league step with this new rule there are landmines.

With a punishment to the Spurs, the league is saying Popovich’s move — resting healthy players at the end of a road trip even if they are tired — is bad for the overall business of the NBA and cannot be tolerated. While Stern has always been about marketing and league perception first and foremost, he has not ventured into telling coaches how to coach before and a punishment to the Spurs changes that.

David Stern may feel the fan’s frustration from Thursday but he has a lot of questions to think about if he is going to punish the Spurs:

• Why is this situation in Miami a violation of league rules when Popovich did the same thing in Portland last year and it wasn’t? More to the point, how is that line drawn? What is and is not a violation?

• Is it something that is not okay to do in November but would be permitted later in the season, say March? Is the disappointed 12-year-old who doesn’t get to see his favorite players in November justified in his anger but the 12-year-old who has tickets the final week of the season is not?

• Is resting players something that cannot be done for nationally televised games but is okay to do in other games? Does what market the game is in matter? To use the Spurs case as an example, was it wrong to do this in Miami on a Thursday but would have been okay in Orlando on Wednesday? (Be careful in saying publicly that the fans and ratings in big markets are more important that smaller ones.)

• How do you define what players can and cannot be sat? If it is wrong for Popovich to sit major stars like Duncan and Parker, what about if Bucks coach Scott Skiles sits Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings to rest them next week. Is that different? What players can and can’t be sat out? Is this a burden that falls only on teams with superstar players?

• Stern can’t use the “competitiveness” argument because the Spurs almost won that game, this is about the NBA’s star system and Stern pretty much has to own up to that here.

• What happens when Popovich wants to rest Duncan and to avoid a league fine Duncan suddenly has a minor foot or knee injury? By just a few weeks into any season you could make a case for every NBA player having a minor injury they should rest.

Wherever Stern steps on this issue there are potential landmines. He can’t say its wrong to do this in Miami but fine in Portland or other smaller market. He doesn’t want to get into dictating who a coach can and can’t play, but this skirts up against it. There is no easy way to define it. If he starts trying to define it by being competitive the Spurs were that.

In the past the league did not take action in these situations. Stern is changing how the rules are enforced if he acts to fine the Spurs here, and he is setting a new precedent that is going to apply to every team in the league going forward. He better think this through. Carefully.

Or it might be smarter if he just walked away from it altogether.

LeBron James, Tyronn Lue say LeBron’s minutes no big deal

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LeBron James was on the court a very reasonable 27:16 Monday night, only because the Cavaliers had thrashed the upstart Pistons so badly he didn’t need to play the fourth quarter (116-88 final in that one).

However, on the season LeBron is averaging 37.9 minutes per game, the most in the NBA. He has played 644 total minutes, also tops in the NBA. All this in his 15th year in the league, about to turn 33, with more regular season games played in his career than Michael Jordan. Even Draymond Green has wondered about LeBron’s workload. LeBron himself didn’t disagree, saying the goal is to get the minutes down.

However, as this has become a thing, the Cavaliers are playing it down. Here is Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue after the Detroit win, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“I hear about that all the time,” a somewhat perturbed Lue said. “I played with Michael Jordan when he was 39, he played 37 minutes a night. Karl Malone was 37, played 38 minutes a night, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Kobe [Bryant]. Everybody’s built different. If you’re one of the greats, sometimes you’ve got to play, sometimes you get rest like tonight.”

The way Kobe’s body broke down on him at the end of his career, is he the guy you want as an example here?

LeBron was not that worried about his minutes after the Detroit win, either.

“You make so much a big thing about my minutes,” James said. “It’s not a huge issue. But at the end of the day, when we can get a win like this, everybody benefits from it. Not just me. Everybody.”

The concern isn’t just the heavy minutes, but the workload — with Isaiah Thomas still out, and right now Derrick Rose and Iman Shumpert as well, basically all the playmaking duties on the team fall on LeBron. He has to carry the Cavs.

With most players, you would say this will distinctly wear on them and could be an issue down the line. With LeBron, normal human rules do not apply. He’s playing at MVP consideration level again early — 28.3 points, 8.5 assists, and 7.4 rebounds a game while shooting 58.2 percent from the floor — and nothing seems to slow him. Maybe eventually the Cavaliers will play well enough consistently there will be more light nights for LeBron, and he can have some games off. For now, however, they need him on the court and performing like a superstar.

Three Things to Know: The streaks continue, the Celtics keep winning, Clippers keep losing

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Celtics need overtime, Kyrie Irving to be dominant with 47 points, but win streak reaches 16. It was the team with the best record in the league against the team with the worst record — that meant Boston was either going to blow Dallas out, or Boston was going to look past Dallas and get itself in trouble. This game was the latter. For the third game in a row, Boston had to come from double-digits down to win and keep its streak alive — Brad Stevens called that “resilient” after the game. Either that or living very dangerously.

The Celtics raced out to a 15-point first quarter lead thanks to a hot start from Kyrie Irving, who had 25 points in the first half.

Then Boston took its foot off the gas. Harrison Barnes had 19 points over the second and third quarters, and Dallas chipped away at the lead, eventually retaking it. After a 10-2 run early in the fourth, Dallas led by 13.

The Celtics responded with a 22-9 run and eventually forced overtime. Marcus Smart was making defensive plays and some impressive passes, while Irving and Jayson Tatum (15 points on the night) were getting buckets. With the game close late, then into overtime, Irving took charge — he had 10 points in OT to get to 47 on the night. He has been clutch all season.

The Celtics win streak has been living on borrowed time in recent games (Barnes had a good look at an 18-foot fadeaway to win it in regulation for Dallas, but missed). Boston’s defense — which was fantastic down the stretch against Dallas after some sloppy stretches — and Irving have kept it afloat. But even when the streak — now the fourth longest in Celtics’ history — does end, it will be remembered as the time this Boston team stepped up as a contender. This team has announced its presence ready for the NBA’s biggest stages.

2) On the other side, Clippers losing streak reaches nine after 22-point loss to Knicks. First, let’s give the Knicks their due — this team is playing quality basketball. Better than I (and many) expected out of them season. Kristaps Porzingis has taken a step forward as the face of the franchise, doing whatever it takes to get them wins. Also Enes Kanter has given them buckets and boards they need, Jarrett Jack has been a steadying force at the point, and each night someone else steps up, such as Doug McDermott with 16 on Monday night.

However, beating the Clippers right now is no feat — Los Angeles has lost nine in a row and the wheels have come off.

The Clipper offense isn’t bad when the ball moves and players move off it, but they don’t do that consistently, falling back into habits of isolation and “you take a turn, then I take a turn” that they don’t have the talent to pull off. However, that’s not the real problem — their defense is a disaster. The effort is not there, and through the last nine games Los Angeles has the worst defense in the NBA, allowing 110 points per 100 possessions. Injuries play a part in this, no Danilo Gallinari or Milos Teodosic in this game forces Wesley Johnson and Austin Rivers into starting roles, and that thins the bench. But the best teams overcome injuries and still have effort and a system that works, the Clippers do not.

Doc Rivers’ seat has to be getting warm. How long he would be around after he was stripped of his GM powers over the summer was a fair question, but Rivers is making more than $10 million a year and his contract runs through the summer of 2019 — that’s a lot of money for even Steve Ballmer to eat. However, there will come a time he may be willing to do that, and if the Clippers keep playing like this the question is not “if” but “when.”

3) Boogie Cousins ejected. Russell Westbrook with triple-double. Pelicans still win. If I told you that first DeMarcus Cousins would get ejected for elbowing Russell Westbrook in the head (not the most flagrant 2 I’ve seen, but the league has cracked down on blows to the head).

Then I told you Westbrook stayed in the game and got a triple-double (22 points, 16 rebounds, 12 assists), you would think that the Thunder picked up a road win in New Orleans.

You’d be wrong. The late-game woes that have plagued the Thunder all season — an offense that becomes isolation heavy, and a defense that is 10.6 points per 100 possessions worse in the fourth quarter than the rest of the game — came back to bite them. Again. The Thunder raced out to a 25-6 lead but had given all that back by the middle of the second quarter. Then down the stretch, OKC again could not execute.

Meanwhile, Anthony Davis put up 36 points and 15 boards, 14 of his points came in the fourth as OKC had no answers for him, and without Cousins, Davis carried the Pelicans to the 114-107 win.

Irving’s 47 lead Celtics past Mavericks to maintain streak

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DALLAS (AP) — Kyrie Irving scored 10 of his season-high 47 points in overtime as the Boston Celtics rallied once again from a double-digit deficit to beat the Dallas Mavericks 110-102 on Monday night and extend their winning streak to 16 games.

The Mavericks led by as many as 13 points in the fourth quarter, but as they have several times during their winning streak, the Celtics stormed back.

The winning streak ties the fourth-longest in Celtics history.

Boston tied the game at 96 when Irving stole the ball from Dirk Nowitzki and fed Jayson Tatum for an alley-oop lay-up that hung on the rim for a full second before dropping through.

Irving scored his team’s first six points of overtime. Then after Jaylen Brown gave Boston a 104-102 lead with a jumper with 1:39 to play, Irving went to work on Yogi Ferrell, backing him down and drawing contact on a lay-up with 48.5 seconds to play. Though Irving missed the free throw to keep the score 106-102, Dallas never got closer.

Harrison Barnes scored 31 points and Wesley Matthews had 18 for Dallas, which came back from an early double-digit deficit as the Celtics went cold for much of the second and third quarters.

Irving and Barnes had chances in the final 30 seconds but both missed shots that would have given their teams the lead.

The Mavericks fell behind by as many as 15 points in the first half, outscoring the Celtics 55-35 over the second and third quarters.

Dallas took its biggest lead of the game when Yogi Ferrell fed a cutting Dwight Powell for a lay-up to make it 87-74 with 7:47 to play before the Celtics rallied.

Boston shot just 10-for-34 over the two middle quarters after building the early lead.

 

DeMarcus Cousins ejected after elbowing Russell Westbrook in head

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DeMarcus Cousins‘ history of flagrant fouls certainly didn’t help him here, but if anyone elbows a guy in the head, he’s going to get tossed.

And that’s what Cousins did here.

Midway through the third quarter in New Orleans, Cousins blocked a putback attempt by Russell Westbrook, then grabbed the rebound. Westbrook tried to reach in across Cousins’ body for the steal, and Cousins cleared out space with his elbow — right to Westbrook’s head. Cousins walked around saying “no, no, no” afterward, and he likely thinks the officials had it out for him here because he was just getting a guy off him, but we go back to the original point — elbow a guy in the head, get tossed. The league is cracking down on blows above the neck. Westbrook did not leave the game.

The Pelicans went on to come from 19 down to win the game 114-107, behind 36 points and 15 boards from Anthony Davis.