Spurs would like to remind you they are very good, crush Grizzlies in Game 1

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The San Antonio Spurs are never the “it” team. Never the sexy squad with high-flying stars casual fans gravitate toward in the postseason. The collective national will was behind Stephen Curry and Golden State last round. Then a whole lot of prognosticators — very smart, good ones — picked Memphis this round. The Grizzlies were the new hot team among the basketball cognoscenti.

The Spurs don’t care.

San Antonio remains what they always were — very good, very efficient, very smart and a beautiful thing to watch if you truly love the sport of basketball.

Sunday afternoon San Antonio raced out to a 28-3 lead at home, pushed back on Memphis’ big third quarter run, shut down Zach Randolph (2 points and a -28) and cruised to a 105-83 win. San Antonio now leads the series 1-0.

Memphis will not be rattled; they will be a much better team Tuesday night in Game 2. They have been adjustment kings this postseason — they have lost Game 1 of every series and eventually won four straight to end it.

But their adjustments are going to be a lot more difficult this time around. Plus, that Gregg Popovich guy who coaches the Spurs is pretty good at adjustments, too.

Tony Parker carved up Mike Conley, getting into the teeth of the Grizzlies defense all game on his way to 20 points on 14 shots, plus 9 assists. Kawhi Leonard had 10 points and was 4-of-5 from three. As a team, the Spurs were 14-of-29 from three and that was key to this win.

After playing the Clippers and Thunder, this was a radically different offense the Grizzlies faced — both those first two teams key off just one guy (Chris Paul and Kevin Durant). The Spurs are not like that, they are diverse and will beat you with what you give them. The Spurs often attacked at the top of the key then got into the paint, the middle of the floor, with three point shooters in the corners. The Grizzlies defenders that were supposed to rotate had an impossible choice — leave the hot shooter from three or stop the layup. They couldn’t do enough of either.

“The main thing is we just overhelped,” Memphis coach Lionel Hollins said after the game (in a press conference broadcast on NBA TV). “I mean we were just so hyper, running all over the place on defense. We’d have four guys in the paint and nobody would be out on the perimeter guarding anybody, and that’s not how we play defense.”

(The Spurs, on the other hand, played the two big men combo of the Lakers in the first round, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol, which helped prep them some for this series.)

Memphis did a solid job all night defensively of taking away the Spurs first options on offense, the preferred shot out of their sets, but San Antonio is better and more efficient at their second and their options than any team (Miami might want to argue that). Danny Green had 16 points, Matt Bonner hit 4-of-6 threes, and when the Spurs are doing that you’re in trouble.

“We’ve played our bench all year long and they’ve probably gained a little bit of confidence through that,” Popovich said in his post-game press conference (broadcast on NBA TV).

Memphis got better as the game wore on, but the Spurs found a rhythm and once the shots started falling even when Memphis started to contest it didn’t matter the Spurs hit everything.

Meanwhile, Memphis could not get in a rhythm at all.

San Antonio fronted Zach Randolph in the post and Memphis reacted like they had never seen this before. Mike Conley was never comfortable and shot 5-of-12. As a team Memphis never looked comfortable.

Except for Quincy Pondexter — he came in hot off the bench in the second half with 11 third quarter points on 4-of-5 shooting that quarter (he had 17 points on the night to lead Memphis.

He helped spark a 10-0 Grizzlies third quarter run that had the San Antonio lead down to six. But then the Spurs answered with a Manu Ginobili three, a Bonner three, then a Ginobili driving layup. By the end of the third quarter the lead was 16 and most of the fourth quarter was garbage time.

Hollins and the Memphis coaching staff have a lot of work ahead of them. They have to cut off the San Antonio penetration in the paint (that collapsed the defense and left Spurs shooters alone at the arc), they have to get Zach Randolph the ball in spite of the front, they have to get some floor balance.

They have done it before in the playoffs. It’s just going to be harder this time because the Spurs are very good. In case you forgot.

Tristan Thompson expected to return to Cavaliers Tuesday, come off bench

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — Cleveland Cavaliers center Tristan Thompson could play for the first time since Nov. 1 on Tuesday against Atlanta.

Thompson has been sidelined with a strained left calf. The team initially said Thompson would be out for up to four weeks, but he said Monday that timeline was inaccurate and that his injury was more serious. Thompson did not divulge any other details about the injury.

Coach Tyronn Lue says Thompson will not start when he returns, meaning Kevin Love will remain at center. Thompson says he’s fine with a reserve role and made it clear he’s willing to do whatever Lue needs.

The Cavaliers have won 14 of 15 and their defense has improved dramatically over the past month.

Thompson says he’ll have the same mindset on the floor as always and “just be myself. Being myself has worked out pretty well for me.”

 

Report: Hornets’ center Cody Zeller out six weeks following knee surgery

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Charlotte just cannot get over the injury bug this season, and we found out last week it had struck again.

Now we know how severe the damage is, as reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Ouch.

Zeller has been solid off the bench behind Dwight Howard this season, averaging 7.2 points and 5.5 rebounds in just under 20 minutes a night. He plays around the basket, 75 percent of his shots come at the rim, but his efficiency has dipped a little this season and he is shooting just 50 percent inside the restricted area.

The Hornets had to start the season without Nicolas Batum, and Michael Carter-Williams has missed time as well. On top of that, coach Steve Clifford had to take a leave of absence from the team for personal health reasons. Stephen Silas has stepped in to replace him.

Report: LiAngelo, LaMelo Ball have deal to play professionally in Lithuania

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This feels like a publicity stunt. Whatever the under/over is on how long it will last, bet the under.

That said, the two younger brothers of Lonzo Ball — LiAngelo, 18, and LaMelo, 16 — have reached a deal to play for a team in the highest level of the Lithuanian league. The story was broken by Adrian Wojnarowski and Jonathan Givony of ESPN (before the signing became official).

LiAngelo and LaMelo Ball are in serious discussions to sign professional basketball contracts with Lithuanian club Prienu Vytautas, sources told ESPN.

The club plans to decide in the next 24-to-48 hours whether to finalize agreements with the two American teenagers, sources told ESPN.

If signed, the franchise has hopes that the Balls – including their father LaVar — could be a marketing boon for the fledgling franchise, sources told ESPN.

Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports reports the deal is done.

Lithuania is a hoops-mad Baltic country of an estimated 2.9 million people who has three players currently in the NBA — Jonas Valanciunas, Donatas Motiejunas, and Mindaugas Kuzminskas — and has put 11 players in the league total, including Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Arvydas Sabonis, and Sarunas Marciulionis. You might remember the Lithuanian National Team wearing Grateful Dead inspired uniforms and taking the bronze medal in the 1992, 1996, and 2000 Olympics.

This is a country that takes its basketball seriously, and the Balls are a traveling circus and reality show. The Lithuanian league doesn’t have NBA-level players, but they guys they suit up have a real feel for the game and play a disciplined style. This could be a real culture clash, the kind of thing that ends quickly and spectacularly poorly. Here is some insight into the team from FIBA’s Lithuanian hoops writer.

Don’t expect the Ball children to play much, especially not at first.

The pay at this level is reportedly north of $1,500 a month, but that could be higher if the brothers are seen as a draw. With the report of the tight financial squeeze, this is likely a gambit on the coach’s part to boost revenue (in Europe, coaches are the CEOs of the organization, much more akin to the power top college coaches have than an NBA coach).

This is a league where men play and the game is taken seriously, it has produced not only Lithuanian players but Boston Celtics center Aron Baynes played there. This team apparently does not run the (suprisingly standard in Europe) two-a-day practices on non-game days, but their practices are longer and harder than most American versions. There are a lot of quality players — former American college/D-League guys, as well as good Europeans — who would love a shot like this. Who deserve a chance like this. If the younger Ball children do not perform and do not take this seriously, it will turn on them quickly.

LiAngelo Ball had gone to UCLA to play basketball this season, but after being suspended for shoplifting in China, his father LaVar pulled him out of college, designed a “Gelo 3” signature shoe for his son from the Big Baller Brand, and started looking for a professional contract. I’m not sure LiAngelo belongs at this level. As one scout told me last summer, LiAngelo was only at UCLA because Lonzo was a top recruit and LaMelo had a lot of potential. That scout wasn’t sure LiAngelo could stick in Europe.

LaMelo is a generally highly-rated recruit with NBA potential, a guy with crazy shooting range for a high-school Junior and good handles, but scouts had a lot of questions about his defense and most of his game outside of just shooting. LaMelo put up 70 points in an AAU game, but he cherry-picked the entire time, and the sense is there is a lot of that in his game. His father LaVar pulled LaMelo out of Chino Hills High School this season after a new basketball coach said he was going to push his guys to play within a system on both ends. How well LaMelo adapts to a very different culture on and off the court at his age is a big question.

Maybe this works out. Maybe the Ball children are more mature in personality and game than I think, maybe this is the financial boost that Prienu Vytautas needs and it works for them. It’s possible. I just don’t expect it.

Matt Barnes announces retirement from NBA after 15 seasons

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When too many fans think of Matt Barnes, they think of the guy who tried to fight Derek Fisher, the nightclub incident in New York, the guy who was a pest on the court and racked up more than his share of technicals and fines in a 15-year NBA career.

Ask Barnes former teammates about him, and they loved him — off the court and on. He was the quintessential guy you wanted on your team and hated to play against.

Barnes announced Monday on Instagram that his 15-year NBA run was over.

Barnes won an NBA title with the Warriors last season, and he played well for the team after signing in Golden State — Kevin Durant went down with a knee injury and Barnes stepped up his role and play. He earned that ring. However, this season there seemed to be no fit for him in the league.

Barnes was drafted in the second round out of UCLA by the Memphis Grizzlies and went on to play for nine teams during his career. He was the guy teams turned to for a spark off the bench — both because he could shoot the rock and because he played a fiery, emotional game. Barnes finished his career averaging 8.2 points and 4.6 rebounds per game.

I’m going to miss him. While he had a rough exterior and was plenty chippy on the court, off the court he was one of the more thoughtful basketball interviews out there — ask him about the game and he gave smart, calm, intelligent answers, not just clichés. He was active with charities and gave of his time and money, it wasn’t just a tax write off. I wish him the best and know he’ll enjoy life after basketball.