Thunder take down Spurs, close the gap for top playoff position in the West

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The Spurs have been known to rest their top players when their head coach feels the timing is just right, but Thursday night in Oklahoma City there was good reason for Gregg Popovich to see what his team was capable of against the Thunder while playing at full strength.

San Antonio started the game with only Manu Ginobili out of the lineup due to legitimate injury, but finished it with Tony Parker on the bench thanks to what seemed to be a new ailment of his own. In between, the Spurs battled back multiple times after facing double digit deficits, only to ultimately fall to the Thunder 100-88.

With the loss, the Spurs’ lead over the Thunder for the best record in the Western Conference is down to just a half game, with both teams tied in the loss column.

Oklahoma City got out to a lead of 20 points in the second quarter, but the Spurs had it to a manageable eight by halftime. The Thunder ran it back up to 19 points in the third, before San Antonio came back once more to cut it to six by the end of three.

Parker was able to play just two fourth quarter minutes, thanks to what Popovich characterized as “something in his shins” which forced him to be sidelined the rest of the way. That left backup guard Nando de Colo to run the point in crunch time, and San Antonio actually had the lead down to just three with under five minutes remaining.

But a couple of free throws from Russell Westbrook, followed by a dagger of a three-pointer from Kevin Durant pushed the lead back to eight, and the Spurs couldn’t get within six the rest of the way.

Popovich likely wanted to see what he had against this Thunder team that beat his Spurs four straight times in the Western Conference finals a season ago. What he saw was a younger and faster team in Oklahoma City that San Antonio can force into tough shots at times, but that ultimately used that speed and athleticism to get out on the fast break for a 19-3 advantage in that category.

Westbrook and Durant finished with 27 and 25 points respectively, and while Kevin Martin was held to just two points, the Thunder got a rare boost from Derek Fisher, who chipped in 17 points in under 15 minutes, while knocking down five of his seven shots from three-point distance.

San Antonio can beat the Thunder, but only if they’re at or near full strength. They’ll need every bit of what a healthy Parker and Tim Duncan can give them in the postseason, and they’ll need to get at least a serviceable version of Ginobili back for the later rounds of the playoffs in order to have a fighting chance.

The Thunder might have been good enough to come out of the West even if all of their opponents along the way were at 100 percent from a health standpoint. With the Spurs struggling through injury, as well as the recent troubles in Denver, Oklahoma City may end up getting a return trip to the Finals by default instead.

Twitter is confused: Isaiah Thomas, Damian Lillard got All-Defensive team votes

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Isaiah Thomas is deservedly an All-NBA player and likely finished fifth in MVP balloting after a monster season. Damian Lillard is an All-Star level player who averaged 27 points a game for Portland last season.

Neither of them are good defenders. At all.

Both got one NBA All-Defensive second team vote.

There are no great defensive metrics, but the best snapshot one out there is ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, which weighs a lot of factors into how a player and team defends. Thomas finished 86th out of 86 potential point guards, and second to last in the entire NBA (to answer your question, Doug McDermott was worse). Lillard finished 65th among point guards, in the range of Brandon Jennings and J.J. Barea. One stat certainly should not be a deciding factor for voters, but Twitter was rightfully confused how either of them got an All-Defense vote.

Isaiah Thomas chimed in, but he wasn’t defending himself.

On Tuesday the NBA will release a full breakdown of which media members voted and who they voted for on all the awards. (For the record, I had a vote, and I didn’t vote for either of them here). The NBA’s voting system can be a challenge because it’s pulldown menus with a lot of players, it could just be an error, but you can bet Twitter will be ready to ask.

Sixers young core already nicknamed “FEDS,” Durant thinks they should play a game first

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Hype is high in Philadelphia.

They have two NBA All-Rookie players on the roster already — Joel Embiid and Dario Saric — and next year they add to the roster the last two No. 1 picks, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz. If I were a Sixers’ fan, I’d be Rocky climbing the stairs pumped — this team has real potential. So much so there’s already a nickname.

Kevin Durant and the Warriors were out taking batting practice at the A’s Stadium — that’s what you get to do when you’re NBA champs — and KD thought the Sixers may want to slow their roll and actually play a game together first.

Personally, I like the nickname. Now, will all four of them be on the Sixers in three years? Odds are at least one is gone, this is a cruel business. This was jumping the gun, but so what? Sixers fans deserve to be able to crow about something after the past couple of years.

Adam Silver’s view on age limit is evolving, Ben Simmons documentary helped change that

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The NBA age-limit discussion is like other, far more important debates going on in this country (such as health care) — there is no easy answer to be had. If there was a deal would already be done. What we know now is the current system doesn’t work.

“So my sense is it’s not working for anyone,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said during the NBA Finals. “It’s not working certainly from the college coaches and athletic directors I hear from. They’re not happy with the current system. And I know our teams aren’t happy either in part because they don’t necessarily think that the players are coming into the league are getting the kind of training that they would expect to see among top draft picks in the league.”

However, Silver is no longer just on the “raise the age limit to 20” bandwagon, as he told Dan Patrick this morning on the Dan Patrick Show. His views on this are evolving.

The Showtime documentary on Ben Simmons had something to do with it — it highlighted what a sham the one year, really one semester, elite players spend in college has become. Simmons was open that he was only at LSU because he had to spend a year in college, and making the NCAA Tournament was not really a priority for him. (The past two No. 1 picks, Simmons and Markelle Fultz, both did not play in the tournament.) This year, 16 first-round picks were college freshmen.

The answer needs to be more holistic than just the age limit. It has to involve a stonger G-League, two-way contracts and other good developmental programs, and changes even down to the AAU level.

“To be honest, I’m not standing here today saying I have the perfect solution,” Silver said back in June, and reiterated to Patrick today. “I do know that as I talk — increasingly the veteran players in this league, as well, who feel that the young players are not coming in game ready in the way that they were when they were coming out of college. And we’re also seeing a dichotomy in terms of the international players. They’re coming in when they come in at 19, many of them have been professional for up to three years before they come into the league and have a very different experience than what we’re seeing from American players coming through our college programs.”

There is no easy answer. But at least the players union and NBA will start talking about it this summer. They need to find a system better than the one we’ve got.

Draymond Green, Rudy Gobert, Kawhi Leonard headline NBA All-Defensive teams

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Later Monday night, one of Draymond Green, Rudy Gobert, or Kawhi Leonard will be named NBA Defensive Player of the Year. (The smart money is on Green to win, but you can make a legitimate case for any of the three.)

Before that award is handed out, the NBA released its All-Defensive teams.

Not a lot of surprises here, especially on the first team. Green, Gobert, and Leonard are the top three vote getters for DPOY, so they were going to make this team, and since this team is positionally tied that meant two guards had to join them. (Each team has to have two guards, two forwards, and one center, and the voters have to vote that way.) Chris Paul and Patrick Beverley made that cut. The ballots were cast by 100 members of the NBA media (full disclosure I had a vote). A full list of who voted for whom will be made public on Tuesday by the NBA.

The biggest surprise: No LeBron James. Good defenders such as Jimmy Butler, Avery Bradley, and Klay Thompson also didn’t make the cut.

Here’s who made the All-Defensive teams.

2016-17 NBA ALL-DEFENSIVE FIRST TEAM

Position, Player, Team, Total Points (out of 200 possible)
Forward Draymond Green, Golden State, 198
Center Rudy Gobert, Utah, 196
Forward Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio, 192
Guard Chris Paul, LA Clippers, 140
Guard Patrick Beverley, Houston, 110

2016-17 NBA ALL-DEFENSIVE SECOND TEAM

Position, Player, Team, Total Points (out of 200 possible)
Guard Tony Allen, Memphis, 80
Guard Danny Green, San Antonio, 68
Center Anthony Davis, New Orleans, 58
Forward Andre Roberson, Oklahoma City, 53
Forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee, 35

Other players receiving votes, with point totals (First Team votes in parentheses): Avery Bradley, Boston, 46 (12); Klay Thompson, Golden State, 45 (16); John Wall, Washington, 38 (14); DeAndre Jordan, LA Clippers, 35 (1); Paul Millsap, Atlanta, 35; Hassan Whiteside, Miami, 25 (1); Marcus Smart, Boston, 21 (5); Jimmy Butler, Chicago, 18; LeBron James, Cleveland, 12 (1); Robert Covington, Philadelphia, 11 (2); Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City, 10 (5); Paul George, Indiana, 7; Kevin Durant, Golden State, 6; Dwight Howard, Atlanta, 6 (1); Mike Conley, Memphis, 5 (1); Jae Crowder, Boston, 5; Jrue Holiday, New Orleans, 5; Wesley Matthews, Dallas, 4 (2); Stephen Curry, Golden State, 3; Andre Iguodala, Golden State, 3 (1); Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Charlotte, 3; Ricky Rubio, Minnesota, 3; P.J. Tucker, Toronto, 3; Trevor Ariza, Houston, 2; Nicolas Batum, Charlotte, 2; Marc Gasol, Memphis, 2; Eric Gordon, Houston, 2 (1); Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota, 2 (1); Steven Adams, Oklahoma City, 1; LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio, 1; Al-Farouq Aminu, Portland, 1; Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Detroit, 1; George Hill, Utah, 1; Serge Ibaka, Toronto, 1; Damian Lillard, Portland, 1; Luc Mbah a Moute, LA Clippers, 1; Austin Rivers, LA Clippers, 1; Isaiah Thomas, Boston, 1; Cody Zeller, Charlotte, 1.

It should be noted that Atlanta’s Millsap had as many total points as Milwaukee’s Antetokounmpo for the final slot, but because the Greek Freak got seven first-team votes as opposed to zero for Millsap, Antetokounmpo wins the tie breaker. Also, Boston’s Bradley and Golden State’s Thompson had more points than Antetokounmpo, but they could only be listed as guards.