Spurs have changed a lot since 2011 loss to Grizzlies

4 Comments

When the Spurs started the 2010-11 season with a 17-3 record – on their way to a conference-best 61-21 finish – Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated profiled a team that no longer resembled previous San Antonio squads.

Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili had played together under Gregg Popovich since the 2002-03 season, and in that time, the Spurs had been one of the NBA’s slowest teams, ranking between 20th and 28th in pace each season. San Antonio had also never finished with a higher-ranked offense than defense.

But that changed in 2010-11. The Spurs ranked 14th in pace, 2nd in offensive rating and 11th in defensive rating. Mannix:

The changes that Popovich emphasized in training camp (cross-court passing, more look-aheads, quicker shots) have been fully embraced. “They’re pushing the ball better than any team in the league,” says a Western Conference scout. “They’re unselfish, and the ball moves fluidly. It’s like they were built to play like this.”

Except the Spurs weren’t really built to play like that.

Richard Jefferson, Antonio McDyess, George Hill and Matt Bonner all played major roles on a Spurs team that had ranked 20th in pace the year before, and San Antonio simply asked that same group to play faster. Because of their willingness to adjust, those four handled an increased tempo fine for a while, but they weren’t equipped to master it in the long run.

In the first round of the 2011 playoffs, Popovich’s strategy finally crumbled, as the eighth-seeded Grizzlies upset the Spurs in six games.

But in the wake of that loss, San Antonio didn’t relent in its commitment to becoming a faster team.

The Spurs showed their up-tempo bona fides today during a 105-83 win over the Grizzlies in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. Though the pace of the game wasn’t particular fast, San Antonio excelled by pushing the tempo at opportune moments and getting back defensively after a transition attack – doing so in ways the 2011 team wasn’t capable of.

Duncan, Parker and Ginobili are still the backbone of the franchise, but the surrounding pieces have made the difference.

In 2011, the Spurs had already signed the relatively athletic Tiago Splitter three years after drafting him and plucked Danny Green, an active defender, from the D-League. But Green and Splitter weren’t prepared to contribute in the playoffs that year.

In classic San Antonio fashion, the organization developed those two into starters. Green has already played more against the Grizzlies in the conference finals than he did in the first round in 2011, and Splitter is on pace to pass his 2011 mark in Game 3. Green scored 16 points on 3-of-6 3-point shooting, and Splitter played strong defense on Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol inside.

Even Boris Diaw, how many pounds he weighs above his listed total, made his bones with Steve Nash’s fastbreaking Suns.

But the Spurs’ most meaningful change since 2011 has been Kawhi Leonard.

The Spurs traded for Leonard on draft night 2011, and the athletic forward quickly became a starter in a league that was increasingly featuring elite athletes. Leonard, who scored 18 points today, can quickly leak out for an easy layup, but he also defends in the open court, too.

That’s where San Antonio’s continued adaptation has really made a difference. The Spurs continue to get faster – 14th to 8th to 6th in pace the last three seasons – but after back-to-back years of ranking 11th in defense, they ranked third this season. San Antonio temporarily compromised its defense values in the name of pace, but the tradeoff is no longer necessary with this roster.

Popovich and the Spurs have continued to learn from the lesson Memphis handed them two years ago, and more than ever, they look like a team with that has earned a graduate degree from the School of Fastbreak.

“We’re trying to have pace,” Popovich said during his second-half sideline interview when asked about the key to his team’s success today.

Not long before, the Grizzlies were trying to have pause.

Fewer than two minutes into the game, Lionel Hollins called timeout as San Antonio raced to a 7-2 lead. These aren’t the same Spurs as the ones Hollins, Randolph, Gasol, Mike Conley and Tony Allen beat in 2011.

Back then, San Antonio was chasing a new identity. The Spurs have found it and mastered it, and now the Grizzlies are doing all the chasing. So far, they can’t keep up.

Jazz shut off Thunder in feisty Game 4 win

4 Comments

Jae Crowder threw an ejection-drawing elbow, and teammate Donovan Mitchell couldn’t contain his grin as he pulled Crowder from the scuffle.

Steven Adams took the elbow in the face, and he didn’t even flinch.

Both the Jazz and Thunder showed their competitiveness in Utah’s chippy 113-96 Game 4 win Monday. The difference: The Jazz delivered the blow. Oklahoma City took it.

Utah has won three straight to take a 3-1 lead in the first-round series. Teams without home-court advantage up 3-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 89% of the time. Still, those leading teams lose Game 5 on the road 74% of the time. Game 5 of this series is Wednesday in Oklahoma City.

In other words: The Jazz have seized control of the series. They probably won’t close it out in Game 5 – though the way they’re playing, the certainly could.

Mitchell scored 33 points tonight, the first 30-point playoff game by a rookie since Brandon Jennings in 2010 (34 points). Mitchell has already scored 110 points this postseason, the most by a rookie since Harrison Barnes in 2013 (193 points). With Utah increasingly likely to advance, Mitchell has a chance to catch Dwyane Wade (234 points in 2004).

“He’s playing amazing,” Ricky Rubio said of Mitchell. “He doesn’t seem a rookie at all.”

Rubio, the star of Game 3, happily deferred to Mitchell tonight. Russell Westbrook‘s guarantee to shut down Rubio meant little, as Rubio set the tone as a passer. His eight assists don’t do him justice, as he made key passes that led to fouls drawn and other advantage situations for his teammates.

“We play as a team,” Rubio said.

Westbrook, on the other hand, looked out of control. He committed four first-half fouls, and though calls were questions, he also committed five turnovers and shot just 7-for-18. The question isn’t whether Westbrook was reckless. He was. The only debate is just how reckless.

Westbrook’s fervor hardly stood out. In addition to Crowder’s ejection, the game featured six other technical fouls – on Paul George, Quin Snyder, Steven Adams, Joe Ingles, Rudy Gobert and Raymond Felton. And there was even more trash-talking and physicality than whistled.

There just wasn’t nearly enough sustained production from the Thunder.

George (32 points on 9-of-21 shooting with six turnovers) had moments but was far too sloppy. Oklahoma City’s big three shot dreadfully from beyond the arc – Carmelo Anthony (0-for-6), Westbrook (0-for-3) and George (2-for-9).

Utah led by double digits the final 23 minutes. Joe Ingles made as many 3-pointers (5-for-11) as the Thunder combined (5-for-26).

Ingles is an excellent shooter, but the Jazz’s offense hummed and got him open looks. His outside shots are a bellwether – of a Utah team cruising.

Mitt Romney taunts Russell Westbrook after fourth foul

Getty Images
4 Comments

It’s been a glorious night for Utah Jazz fans.

In Game 4 the Jazz have taken care of the big three of the Thunder in what has been a very physical, chippy game (Jae Crowder even got ejected). Between their team going on big runs and the physical play of the game, the Utah crowd — one already with a reputation for verbal hostility toward opponents — has savored every second of it.

That includes former Massachusetts Governor, presidential candidate, and current Utah Senate candidate Mitt Romney, who reminded Russell Westbrook exactly how many fouls he picked up.

Twitter – which has its own reputation for verbal hostility — was not kind to Romney after this. Of course, he earned it with that outfit.

MVP James Harden, dominant Rockets show up in second half, crush Timberwolves

1 Comment

We had to wait three-and-a-half games for it.

We had seen James Harden play like an MVP all season. We had seen the Rockets bury threes at a record rate all season. We had seen Houston’s switching defense impress all season (sixth best in the NBA). We had seen Houston rack up 65 wins and make it look easy.

Then we got to the playoffs and the Rockets couldn’t put it all together at once. Harden struggled after Game 1, including going 0-of-7 in the first quarter Monday night. The defense was inconsistent and the threes were not falling. All of it let the Timberwolves hang around in the series — down 2-1 — and the same in Game 4, down just a point at halftime.

Then the Harden and Rockets we all expected showed up.

Houston put up 50 points in the third quarter alone, shooting 61 percent overall and 9-of-13 from three, plus they got to the line 13 times and made every shot. The Rockets opened the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, with almost all of the damage from Harden, who had 22 in the quarter.

The Rockets pulled away and cruised from there to an easy 119-100 win.

“We hit the switch, the switch we’ve been trying to hit since the beginning of the playoffs on both ends of the floor,” Harden said postgame. “It’s pretty scary what we’re capable of when defensively we’re locked in like that, and offensively we got rolling.”

Houston now leads the series 3-1 and can close it out at home in Game 5 Wednesday night.

In the first half this looked nothing like something that would end with a comfortable Rockets win. Houston struggled at the start of Game 4, opening 0-of-5 in the paint, including Harden missing an open layup. As a team, the Rockets started the game 4-of-16 from three, and a lot of those were uncontested looks. The Rockets play a lot of isolation, but even for them the ball seemed to stick in the first half. If not for Trevor Ariza knocking down three from beyond the arc, the Timberwolves might have been able to pull away.

The fact they didn’t was a blown opportunity for the Timberwolves, something they just can’t do in this series. It was a one-point Rockets lead, 50-49, at the half.

Minnesota had some moments on offense in the game, usually when attacking quickly off the Rockets switch. Derrick Rose had some moments and finished the game with 17 points. Karl-Anthony Towns had 22 points and 15 rebounds, Jimmy Butler had 19 points on 17 shots.

But that was no match for the Rockets when they flipped the switch.

It was a barrage of threes that we have waited for all season, and it all started with Harden and Chris Paul, they had all of the first 15 points of the second half for Houston. Harden finished with 36 points and hit 5-of-11 from three. CP3 had 25 points and six assists, Eric Gordon finally woke up in this series with 18, and Ariza finished with 15.

Minnesota is a talented team, but they are learning fast what a contender can do — even not at their peak the Rockets had taken two of the first three in the series, and when they did flip the switch it was another level. A level the Timberwolves want to get to, there are just some rough lessons along the road to getting there.

James Harden puts on show to start second half vs. Timberwolves

Associated Press
Leave a comment

James Harden started Game 4 0-of-7 from the floor, including missing a lay-up. It was an extension of Game 3, and it let the Timberwolves hang around for a half despite their own offensive woes.

Then in the second half the MVP Harden showed up.

Houston started the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, and a lot of it was Harden (with a little help from Chris Paul). Harden had 22 points in the third (with 4:30 left in the quarter). After a couple rough games the Timberwolves were going under the pick when Harden had the ball, and suddenly he made them pay.

Or, he was just stepping back.

With all the buckets the Rockets turned a close game into a 25 point lead.