Tony Parker, Gregg Popovich, Manu Ginobili

Spurs avoid total meltdown, hand Lakers their 5th straight loss

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In what’s been a familiar site lately, the Lakers lost a game on Wednesday night, this time to the Spurs 108-105. The loss drops them to 15-20 on the season and represents another shovel of dirt on their playoff chances in what’s been their most disappointing season…maybe ever.

The win gave the Spurs their 15th win (in only 17 games) in San Antonio this season and allows them to keep pace with the red hot Clippers and Thunder in the standings by pushing their record to 28-10 on the year. The win also allows the Spurs to bounce back from a loss in their most recent game, un unsettling defeat to the Hornets.

The result to this game, for nearly everyone, was a foregone conclusion. The Lakers have stunk, were missing Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol, and were on the second night of a back to back. Meanwhile, the Spurs are the Spurs and were playing at home. It really should have been that simple.

Except, of course, it wasn’t. I guess that’s why they play the games.

Early on the game went mostly as expected. The Spurs were able to build a relatively comfortable lead, using a combination of good off ball movement and their size advantage to get easy shots inside. The Lakers, as they have all year, struggled to defend for multiple passes and were thus beat by back door cuts when the ball was reversed while also falling victim to offensive rebounds when they didn’t help the helper on San Antonio dribble penetration.

As the game went on, the Lakers did well to stay within striking distance with Metta World Peace (23 points) able to take advantage of his match up with Tiago Splitter by scoring inside off dribble penetration and out by making deep jumpers when Splitter got sucked into the paint.

The Lakers were also bolstered by a career night from Earl Clark who, thrust into the rotation due to L.A.’s injuries, found creases in the Spurs’ defense. Clark used his athleticism and active legs to slash into the lane and get shots close to the basket and then hit his mid-range jumper when the defense sagged off him. Clark’s 22 points (on only 12 FGA’s) were surely found money for the Lakers but desperately needed someone to offset the cold shooting night Kobe Bryant was having.

However, even with the Lakers keeping it close the Spurs were right there to snuff out any attempt for an upset. Whenever the Spurs needed a bucket, Tony Parker (24 points, 6 assists, 10-16 shooting) would drive to the rim or hit a mid-range jumper. If not Parker, then Ginobili (19 points, 8 rebounds) would go on the attack and either hit a key shot or draw a foul that sent him to the foul line.

If the game had actually continued in this fashion — and it certainly looked like it would — no one would have batted an eyelash at the result. After all, it’s what we all expected.

But in the lead in to the fourth quarter, the Lakers started to make one more push that felt different. Down by 17, World Peace hit a three pointer. After a Ginobili turnover, Kobe then hit a short jumper to cut the Spurs’ lead to 12. A Parker miss was followed by an Earl Clark long 2 and suddenly it was 10. The quarter would end with Kobe hitting another jumper to cut make it a single digit game, but with Manu getting it back to 10 with free throws.

With the stage set, the 4th quarter became a drama filled period with both sides showing some clutch shot making to give their side a boost. A running Nash jumper from 19 feet was countered by a Gary Neal three pointer. A Clark lay in off a Nash pass would only give a short momentum boost as Stephen Jackson hit a three, and then another. Before you knew it the Spurs were back up by 16 and with only 7 minutes to go the game was over.

Not so fast. Here is where the game got really good.

Furiously, the Lakers began their final try at a win. And, in one of the more un-Spurs like performance you’ll see, it looked like San Antonio wanted the Lakers to have it. Spurs turnovers became Laker baskets. Made shots by Antawn Jamison, World Peace, and Kobe seemed to only further unravel the Spurs.

With Stephen Jackson arguing a non-foul call, he earned himself an ejection after two technicals and, with the ensuing FT’s the Lakers would only trail by 5. The possession that followed was the Lakers best of the game where nearly every player touched the ball and it ended with a Jamison lay up off a nifty pass from Nash. Three point game.

Sadly, for the Lakers, that would be as close as they’d get, though the last minute of the game was just as exciting. A Ginobili three pointer to push the Spurs back up to 6 was quickly countered by a triple by Clark. On the Spurs final possession they’d turn the ball over and give the Lakers one last shot.

However, in the most anticlimactic of endings the final Laker shot would be what we’ve all seen countless times. Even though the team was down three, Mike D’Antoni eschewed a set play call and instead gave the ball to Kobe to work in isolation deep on the wing. He rose up a foot behind the three point line and missed a contested jumper that bounced harmlessly off the rim. Ball game.

As it stands, the Lakers, though shorthanded, are showing more fight than they have all year. But, it’s just not making a difference in the win column. This game offered excitement, but like so many other games this season it ended in disappointment.

Meanwhile the Spurs just keep trucking. They came into the game with the league’s 5th ranked offense and defense in terms of points per possession. This game did nothing to show they can’t continue to keep that up, though I’m sure Coach Popovich would have liked a cleaner finish.

I’m also sure he’s not going to give this win back. No matter how much the Lakers could have used it.

 

New challenges face Portland guard CJ McCollum in Year four

Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum poses for a photograph during NBA basketball media day in Portland, Ore., Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Steve Dykes)
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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) CJ McCollum became a starter for the Trail Blazers last season, broke out as the NBA’s Most Improved Player then signed a big contract over the summer.

Driving him all along the way was third-year pressure.

“Because I knew that was a make-or-break year for me. I know that going into year three I hadn’t played particularly well. I’d had flashes, but I just didn’t sustain a level of consistency for a season.

“In our league you get three years, you get traded, you get put in a box and they say `This is what you are,”‘ McCollum said when the team convened this week for training camp.

The 25-year-old guard became a star in the Blazers’ backcourt with Damian Lillard last season after four of the team’s starters left in the offseason.

With one of the youngest rosters in the league, the Blazers were considered a team that was rebuilding.

But they surpassed expectations, finishing 44-38 and earning the fifth seed in the Western Conference and advancing to the second round of the playoffs.

At one point last season, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle referred to Lillard and McCollum as “a younger version of those Golden State guys.”

McCollum averaged 20.8 points, 3.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists during the regular season. He had 197 3-pointers, fourth most for the Blazers in one season. He scored in double figures in 79 games.

He raised his scoring average by more than 14 points over the previous season and the dramatic turnaround earned him the Most Improved Player award.

That improvement was the most since Tony Campbell from an average of 6.2 points to 23.2 points with Minnesota between the ’88-89 and `89-90 seasons.

McCollum averaged 20.5 points, 3.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists in the postseason last season.

But at times he was nervous that he was just an injury away from seeing all the hard work fizzle away.

“It was nerve-wracking for me because if you get hurt so many times you fear it. You’re like, `Oh, this could be it,”‘ he said. “So for me to get through a season healthy and to play well, it was comforting.”

McCollum, the 10th overall pick in the 2013 draft out of Lehigh, missed the first 34 games of his rookie season with a foot injury.

The next season he was a reserve, but he started to turn heads down the stretch and into the playoffs after starter Wesley Matthews was knocked out with a ruptured Achilles. His postseason included a 33-point game against Memphis.

This summer the Blazers solidified their backcourt for years to come by signing McCollum to a four-year contract worth $106 million. It will keep him in Portland through the 2020-21 season.

While McCollum says he feels “less pressure” this season, he’s still looking to grow. The Blazers signed free agent Evan Turner in the offseason to help shore up the Blazers’ depth at guard.

“As a younger player you just play and react,” McCollum said. “As an older player you start to get more experience and you start to `think’ the game. I think once I put those two things together I can be a special player.”

Report: With new building set to open, Sacramento pushes to host 2020 All-Star Game

The Sacramento Kings released the NBA basketball team's new logo, Tuesday, April 26, 2016, in Sacramento, Calif. The new logo has a reshaped crown and new typeface meant to convey a modern look. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
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In just a few weeks, the new arena that kept the Kings in Sacramento is set to open. It’s a well-designed basketball-first facility that both the fans and players should love.

Now the Kings want to show that building off to everybody and host a future All-Star Game, reports James Ham of CSNCalifornia.com.

It’s not uncommon for a team with a new building to get to host the All-Star Game. The 2017 game is in New Orleans, 2018 is in Los Angeles, 2019 will go to Charlotte if the “bathroom bill” is repealed (or strongly modified). That makes 2020 the next one up.

The Kings new building is in downtown Sacramento, in a growing area close to the California state capital. The only question is whether that area has enough hotel rooms and nearby convention space to handle the massive influx of people that come to an All-Star Game. The league office has this mapped out, it knows how many hotel rooms it needs in close proximity to the arena, for example. If Sacramento can meet all those qualifications, it could well land the February showdown.

Sixers players have dinner with Will Smith

HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 24:  Actor Will Smith attends the premiere of Warner Bros. Pictures' "Focus" at TCL Chinese Theatre on February 24, 2015 in Hollywood, California.  (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
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Ali. Men in Black. I am Legend. Fresh Prince. Suicide Squad. Independence Day. Plus more than a few movies he’d like us to forget (hello Hancock).

Will Smith is all that — and part owner of the Philadephia 76ers.

As training camp opened, Smith took his team out to dinner, according to the Sixers official site.

Jahlil Okafor and his teammates weren’t told that the Oscar-nominated and Grammy-winning entertainer from West Philadelphia would be dining with them.

“It was great, it was a lot of fun,” said Okafor, who participated in Tuesday’s practice, despite sustaining a minor ankle sprain a few weeks ago. “Will Smith is my favorite celebrity, my favorite actor. It was great to hear him speak.”

Smith shared stories and passed along advice to a crowd consisting mostly of early to mid 20-year olds who grew up on his movies and albums.

“I think the main thing he said is the company you have around you,” Joel Embiid said. “He was trying to explain the people you have around you affect the type of person you are. He was just trying to tell us to have good people around. That’s the main thing I got from that.”

It’s a good lesson for the Sixers in what could be a season of lessons coming for the Philadephia. This team is going to be better than it was a year ago, but don’t confuse that with good. They may get there someday, but there are a lot of hard lessons to learn between now and then.

But it’s a lot more fun to get some of those lessons from Will Smith.

Report: Other teams offered Denver first round picks for Will Barton, answer was no

PHOENIX, AZ - DECEMBER 23:  Will Barton #5 of the Denver Nuggets reacts after scoring against the Phoenix Suns during the second half of the NBA game at Talking Stick Resort Arena on December 23, 2015 in Phoenix, Arizona.  The Nuggets defeated the Suns 104-96. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Picking up Will Barton as part of the Arron Afflalo trade a couple of seasons back was one of the smartest moves of the Nuggets front office. Before last season they signed him to a three-year, $10 million deal and he blossomed as his jumper became a real weapon — this season he’s a guy to watch in the Sixth Man of the Year race.

A good player on a good contract? You can be sure other teams will try to poach him.

Which is exactly what happened, reports Christopher Dempsy at the Denver Post.

Now he’s being praised after a breakout season that landed him in the thick of the conversation for postseason awards, that had other teams offering first-round picks to nab him, and that had opponents highlighting him on scouting reports as a player to stop.

At age 25 Barton is part of a young core in Denver that includes Emanuel Mudiay, Gary Harris, Nikola Jokic and others. Why would Denver let Barton go?

At some point maybe Denver will move him to get a player at a position they need more. But that time is not today, Barton is still part of the plan in Denver. And it’s going to take him a lot to pry him away (that first round pick is going to have to be high up the board).