Stifling defensive effort leads Spurs to Game 1 win over Lakers

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The Lakers put up a fight in Game 1 of their playoff series in San Antonio on Sunday, and hung within striking distance for most of the game. But thanks to a suffocating defensive effort from the Spurs, L.A. couldn’t score with enough frequency or enough volume the entire afternoon, and sparked offensively by Manu Ginobili off the bench, San Antonio pulled away late for the 91-79 victory.

The Spurs are the higher seed, of course, and the Lakers without Kobe Bryant were a long shot to even keep things competitive enough to push the series beyond four or five games.

But had you told Mike D’Antoni that his team would have held its opponent below 40 percent shooting for the game, stayed even in the rebounding battle, and defended well enough to where Tim Duncan and Tony Parker combined to make just 14 of 36 shot attempts from the field, I think he would have liked his chances.

The Lakers’ problems came on the offensive end, where turnovers killed any opportunity they had to get into a rhythm, especially in the first half. L.A. committed 12 of its 18 turnovers in the first two periods, with Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol combining for half of those with three apiece.

It’s easy to say the Lakers should pound the ball inside, but the Spurs were swarming defensively, often times running an extra defender or two at L.A.’s bigs to create confusion. San Antonio’s rotations were largely flawless, so even on possessions where Gasol or Howard would kick it back out, the Spurs were able to recover and close on the shooters to create tough shots.

And more than once in the second half, the Spurs were able to do this multiple times in a single possession.

As the defense stifled the Lakers’ offense, the Spurs were able to get just enough to gain separation when it mattered most. Ginobili was huge with 18 points in 19 minutes off the bench, which tied him for a team-high with Parker, who needed 21 shots over 37 minutes to accomplish the same.

In a low-scoring, low-shooting percentage game, Ginobili’s personal scoring run to end the third quarter essentially sealed it. He scored eight points in the final 1:38 of the period to push the Spurs’ lead from seven to 13 points, and the shots he made — two three-pointers in transition after a floating left-handed runner over Gasol — were ones that brought with them a palpable momentum change as the game entered its final period.

Steve Nash returned to the Lakers starting lineup after missing the last eight games of the regular season due to a combination hip and back issue that limited his hamstring, and while it was clear he was battling out there, it was also evident that he’s not yet close to 100 percent.

Nash finished with a helpful 16 points and three assists in 29 minutes, but shot an uncharacteristically poor 6-of-15 from the field. It’s unclear whether or not Nash will be ready to go again for Game 2 on Wednesday.

The defensive effort to hold the Spurs to 37.6 percent shooting, along with the way Howard and Gasol were able to rebound are positives the Lakers can take from this one, and if they’re able to repeat those efforts over the course of the series, you’d like to think the offense will come, and will at some point be enough to steal a game or two.

The Spurs, however, would like to believe otherwise. And if San Antonio continues to come up with these types of constricting defensive performances anywhere close to consistently, L.A. is going to suffer through just three more games like this one.

Report: Nerlens Noel hires Rich Paul as agent, looking for big deal from Mavericks

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It’s been a rough year for restricted free agents (and plenty of unrestricted ones). After NBA teams spent like drunken sailors on shore leave last summer, this time around — with the cap not rising as much as had been expected — the market got tight quickly, and few questionable contracts were handed out. A year ago the Brooklyn Nets were making the Miami Heat pay big to retain Tyler Johnson and the Trail Blazers pay big to keep Allen Crabbe. This year teams were not biting the same way on restricted free agents.

Which left guys like Nerlens Noel, who expected to be maxed out by the Mavericks (or someone), still looking for a deal. Noel was frustrated enough to switch agents, picking up Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, according to Michael Scotto of Basketball Insiders.

Paul is LeBron James‘ agent, and in recent years has done well getting Tristan Thompson and Eric Bledsoe good contracts as extensions to their rookie deals. In both cases, he showed a fearlessness in holding out longer and being willing to push the envelope. That had to appeal to Noel.

But it doesn’t change the underlying dynamics at play — and not just with Noel. Paul also represents restricted free agents this summer Shabazz Muhammad — who has yet to sign a deal — and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who had to take a one-year deal with the Lakers for $18 million (well below his max). Throw in Noel’s injury history, and teams were not eager to jump in with a big offer for the athletic big man.

At this point, no team has the money to offer Noel a max contract right now — the Bulls have the most available money at $17.3 million, the Sixers and Suns have about $15 million and $14 million. Noel’s max is $24.7 million a year. Dallas is playing hardball because they can — without another offer on the table, Noel’s only real threat is to sign the qualifying offer (about $6 million) and play the season for that, then become an unrestricted free agent next summer. That’s possible, but a guy with Noe’s history of injuries may want to be careful betting on himself like that.

With Paul in the negotiations, expect them to drag out. That’s about the only sure thing.

Remembering Notre Dame, Laker legend Tommy “the hawk” Hawkins

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Tommy Hawkins passed away recently at the age of 80.

The former NBA player was the first black athlete to earn All-America honors in basketball at Notre Dame (he still holds the school’s total rebounds record), was drafted in the first round, and went on to have a 10-year NBA career playing for the Minneapolis/Los Angeles Lakers as well as the Cincinnati Royals. Los Angeles fans may also remember him as the long time director of communications for the Los Angeles Dodgers after his playing days ended.

The NBA put together this well done video look back at Hawkins’ career.

Celtics’ Brad Stevens said early September tests will show if Thomas ready for camp

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Isaiah Thomas said he expects to be ready for the Celtics’ training camp next month. The guard’s All-NBA season came to an early end in the playoffs when he aggravated a labral tear in his right hip initially suffered back in March. At least the injury did not require surgery.

Players are also about the worst judges of when they will recover from an injury. They pretty much all think they are invincible and will be healthy faster than doctors predict.

Coaches tend to be more pragmatic. Take Boston’s Brad Stevens, who told Chris Mannix on The Vertical Podcast that tests in a couple of weeks will show if Thomas is ready for camp.

“He has another follow-up and another scan in the early part of September. Obviously, it’s been a lot of appropriate rest, a lot of rehab. There have been some good strides here certainly in the last month or few weeks, but we’re not going to know that until after that early September timeframe.”

The Celtics are understandably going to be cautious with Thomas, while Thomas wants to prove he is healthy and has no ill effects from the injury as he enters a contract year (one where he expects to get PAID). Also, the Celtics could use him in camp as they start to figure out how he and Gordon Hayward can share playmaking duties.

Still, from the outset, the timelines have suggested he should be ready for camp in late September. Coaches are just cautious on these things by nature.

Allen Iverson predicts LeBron James will win MVP

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LeBron James has four NBA MVP trophies in his case. (Does he keep that case in his home in Akron or the one in Los Angeles… that’s a question for another day.) Only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six) and Michael Jordan (five) have more.

Could LeBron James add a fifth to his case this season?

Allen Iverson said yes at last weekend’s Big3 playoffs in Seattle.

LeBron was fourth in preseason odds to win the MVP at 15/2, behind Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and Kawhi Leonard.

To me, LeBron could be a good bet. If/when Kyrie Irving is traded, the chances of LeBron getting the MVP go up. If LeBron puts up impressive numbers (again) and leads a depleted Cavaliers team to a top two seed in the East, he is certainly going to be in consideration. And should be.

It’s a long season, and personally, I think you need to get midway through the season before seriously considering the year-end awards. But history says LeBron will be in the mix, and Allen Iverson could be proven prophetic.