Spurs have changed a lot since 2011 loss to Grizzlies

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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.

Michael Beasley fouls out in 10 minutes, gets standing ovation (VIDEO)

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Michael Beasley hasn’t played all that much for the New York Knicks. The journeyman forward is 10th in minutes played for the team, and is a bench contributor at this stage in his career.

Beasley appeared to be a bit overexcited to get some run late in Sunday’s win over the Atlanta Hawks, 111-107. Having played just 10 minutes in the game, Beasley quickly racked up three fouls in the span of one minute and 45 seconds.

That earned him his sixth foul — the others were picked up earlier — and a standing ovation from the Madison Square Garden crowd after his disqualification.

Via Twitter:

Support your guys, NBA fans, even if they’re out here getting DQ’d after scoring one point and grabbing two rebounds.

Kobe Bryant gave a 30-minute pep talk to the Eagles before Rams game (VIDEO)

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Kobe Bryant is just about everywhere during retirement. We’ve talked before about how his post-playing career revisionism is one of the greatest works of sports marketing currently underway.

Of course, Ol’ Bean has to take some days off from being a “storyteller” and that includes cheering on his hometown Philadelphia Eagles. Bryant was born in Philly and lived there for various parts of his childhood, of course going pro directly from Lower Merion High School, located in a nearby suburb.

So despite the return of the Los Angeles Rams, it appears that Kobe is still an Eagles fan through and through. He apparently even spoke to the Eagles for half an hour before the team practiced in California on Friday.

Bryant also gave the world a little video message.

Via Twitter:

The bummer news for Eagles fans, of course, was that it was Philadelphia QB and MVP candidate Carson Wentz who was hit high and low on Sunday, and the team fears that he has torn his ACL.

Kobe is looking pretty thick in that jersey. Maybe they should work him out and see if he can’t beat out Nick Foles for the starting job the rest of the season?

Watch Victor Oladipo score a career-high 47 points vs. Nuggets (VIDEO)

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Victor Oladipo was sent from the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Indiana Pacers along with Domantas Sabonis as part of a major trade for Paul George.

Boy, Pacers fans have got to be glad things have turned out the way they have.

Oladipo is having a career season in terms of scoring, rebounding, blocks, 3-point shooting and field goal percentage. His advanced stats look good too, as Oladipo’s efficiency per-100 possessions in many offensive categories have seen a rise to go along with his box score bump.

On Sunday, Oladipo scored a career-high 47 points in an overtime win against the Denver Nuggets, 126-116.

Oladipo’s performance was incredible, adding seven rebounds, six assists, two steals, and a block to go along with his 47 points. Oladipo shot 15-28 from the field, including 6-of-12 from 3-point range, and added 11 points from the free-throw line.

Watch the full highlights of Oladipo’s performance in the video above.

Rumor: NBA executives think Rockets have shot at signing LeBron James

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LeBron James is now rumored to be headed to about 29 NBA teams this summer when he can opt out of his current contract and become a free agent. Earlier this week, we heard rumblings that LeBron could be interested in sharing a Los Angeles Lakers roster with Dallas Mavericks center-at-large Nerlens Noel.

Now we’re hearing that NBA executives think the Houston Rockets have a chance of nabbing The King in the summer of 2018.

All aboard the Banana Boat.

According to USA Today’s Sam Amick, both the Rockets themselves and rival execs think Houston is a real landing spot for James thanks in part to how well they are playing this season. James Harden is having another MVP-caliber year, and Chris Paul has played beautifully in his return.

Via USA Today:

While James has made it clear that he won’t deliberate his uncertain future until the Cavs’ season is complete, there is strong belief in Rockets circles that they’ll have a legitimate shot at landing the four-time MVP this summer. Rival executives also believe the Rockets will have a real chance. And once you really look at it, when you get past all the noise about the Lakers and even the compelling case for the up-and-coming Philadelphia 76ers, it makes all sorts of sense.

The only team we haven’t heard connecting rumors about is the Cleveland Cavaliers themselves. LeBron — whose family lives in LA — recently bought a new house there and all signs point to James heading to the Western Conference. Well, unless he goes to the Philadelphia 76ers, of course.

Then again it felt like a certainty that LeBron would head to the New York Knicks nearly a decade ago, an idea that seems hilarious in retrospect. The NBA is weird, and if LeBron dips from Cleveland expect it to get even weirder.