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.

Chris Paul appears to kick at … something … while standing over Utah’s Joe Ingles (VIDEO)

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Chris Paul and the Los Angeles Clippers are out of the playoffs.

Once again, due to injury and perhaps a little bit of a curse for LA if you want to go that way, the Clippers found themselves bounced early when expectations were high.

Facing the Utah Jazz in a Game 7 at Staples Center on Sunday, Paul and the Blake Griffin-less Clips couldn’t get it done. The Jazz closed the series, 104-91.

Meanwhile, there was one play late in the game that say Paul give a full kick at … something … with Jazz wing Joe Ingles on the ground.

I’ll let you be the judge:

Big deal? Medium deal? No deal? I guess we will have to find out in case the league makes some kind of comment about it via the L2M on Monday.

Paul Pierce after final NBA game: “I gave every ounce I could, each and every day” (VIDEO)

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That’s it for Paul Pierce.

The Los Angeles Clippers lost in Game 7 of their first round series against the Utah Jazz, and in doing so ended an illustrious 19-year NBA career for The Truth.

Pierce, 39, saw his team go down by a score of 104-91. The former Boston Celtics star also saw time with the Washington Wizards and Brooklyn Nets before making his final stop in LA.

After the game, Pierce thanked his fans in every NBA city.

Via Twitter:

Current and former NBA players got in on congratulating Pierce on an incredible career on social media:

Shout out to Paul Pierce for an incredible career.

We meet again: Cavaliers, Raptors back together in postseason

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CLEVELAND (AP) We The North vs. We Are The Champions.

One round earlier than a year ago, Toronto and Cleveland are meeting again in the NBA playoffs.

On the way to winning their first title last season, LeBron James and the Cavs took care of the Raptors in the Eastern Conference finals, a series that was tied 2-2 before Cleveland won the final two games. The teams finished this season with identical 51-31 records and their history makes for an intriguing May matchup.

“They know us,” James said, “and we know them.”

After sweeping Indiana in the opening round, the Cavs will have waited a full week before Monday’s Game 1 tips off at Quicken Loans Arena, where Cleveland is 15-1 against conference opponents over the past three postseasons.

The down time gave James and his teammates a chance to recharge, heal some nagging bumps and bruises and prepare for a Toronto team that not only added Serge Ibaka (acquired from Orlando in February) and P.J. Tucker (acquired from Phoenix at the trade deadline) this season, but is looking for revenge after having its season ended by Cleveland in 2016.

These Raptors don’t want that to happen again.

“We’ve got some fighters and scrappers,” coach Dwane Casey said after Toronto eliminated Milwaukee in six games. “The guys are going to compete. We make it hard on ourselves sometime, but at the end of the day we’re going to go down swinging.”

They submitted last year in Game 6 at home, when James scored 33 points with 11 rebounds, six assists and three blocks in Cleveland’s 113-87 win.

“He canceled Christmas,” Casey said earlier this season. “One of these days … one of these days.”

For the Raptors to knock off the Cavs, whose shaky defense still showed some significant holes against the Pacers, Toronto stars DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry will have to be at their best.

“The two-headed monster,” Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said.

DeRozan averaged 23.5 points per game in the opening round against the Bucks, and may need to bump that into the 30s for the Raptors to have a chance.

Toronto lost three of four against Cleveland this season with the only win coming in the season finale, when Lue rested James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.

Here are some other things to keep in mind as James takes another step toward a possible seventh straight trip to the Finals:

ROAD WARRIOR: James loves the road, where he has won at least one game in a record 27 consecutive playoff series.

The three-time champion revels in the discomfort of being booed and hated.

“Home cooking is great; love the home fans for 14 years,” he said. “But I love playing out on the road more than I love playing at home. It’s just a weird thing. I love the adversity. … It’s the bunker mentality of knowing it’s 15 guys plus the coaching staff and whoever there that’s traveled with us against the whole state and the whole city.”

Or in this case, all of Canada.

KYLE IS KEY: Lowry is back to full speed after missing 21 games following surgery on his right wrist. He averaged 14.3 points and 5.2 rebounds against the Bucks, but the Raptors will need more from him to dethrone the Cavs.

Lowry might be able to exploit Cleveland’s suspect perimeter defense and lack of a true rim protector by driving to the basket.

FREE-THROW WOES: After making a career-low 67 percent of his free throws in the regular season, James went only 22 of 38 (58 percent) from the line in the opening round.

None of his misses was too costly, but the pressure only intensifies from here with every make and every miss meaning more.

DEMAR THE STAR: DeRozan can get his shot off any place, any time. Like they did with Paul George in the first round, the Cavs are expected to focus their attention Toronto’s best player, harassing him with double teams to make him give up the ball.

“He’s one of the best one-on-one players in our league right now, and he does a good job of getting to the free-throw line,” Lue said. “His mid-range jumper is automatic and he can also get to the basket where he’s very athletic. He’s a tough cover and we just want to make him make field goals and not free throws and make it hard on him.”

ON THE MOVE: James has been climbing various lists all season and he’s still rising. He enters the series 60 points behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (5.682) for the second place on the career postseason scoring list. Once he passes Mr. Sky Hook, next on the list is His Airness, Michael Jordan (5,987).

More AP NBA: apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Wizards’ Markieff Morris rolled his ankle so hard he “thought it was broke” (VIDEO)

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The Washington Wizards dropped Game 1 of their semi final round against the Boston Celtics on Sunday. A big part of that loss was the absence of Markieff Morris, who turned his ankle with just a few minutes to go in the first quarter.

Morris was shooting a jumper from the left elbow extended with Boston’s Al Horford contesting. Horford didn’t give Morris enough of a chance to land, and a foul was called.

The video of Morris’ ankle turning is pretty gross, especially if you’re a basketball player, so just be forewarned.

Via Twitter:

After the game Wizards coach Scott Brooks said he did not have an update on Morris’ status but that they would see how he was feeling on Monday.

Morris, meanwhile, said he initially thought he had broken his ankle.

Speaking to MassLive.com, Morris said as much:

“This was my worst one,” Morris said. “I kind of twist my ankles like this, that’s my injury, an ankle twist. But this was by far the worst one. I honestly thought it was broke. They got the swelling to go down a whole lot, but it almost was like the size of a softball.”

Game 2 of the series is in Boston on Tuesday.