ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: San Antonio Spurs

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Last season: The Spurs finished with the second best record in the Western Conference, and blew through the playoffs with a 12-2 record (including sweeps against the Lakers in the first round and the Grizzlies in the Conference Finals) before facing the Heat in the NBA Finals.

The series was one for the ages, with both teams playing at an extremely high level for all seven games. San Antonio was poised to win the title in Game 6, when the team held a five-point lead with 28 seconds to play and the league was preparing for their trophy presentation by lining the court with the now-infamous yellow ropes.

We all remember how things finished — Ray Allen hit one of the biggest shots in NBA history to send that game into overtime, and though the Spurs were able to bounce back and compete in Game 7, the Heat ultimately pulled away to become last season’s champions.

Signature highlight from last season: The Spurs wouldn’t have been in position to have a shot at winning the title without this incredibly tough shot from Tony Parker that sealed the team’s Game 1 victory in Miami. Seriously, this was ridiculous.

Key player changes: This is the Spurs we’re talking about, so for a franchise that’s all about longevity and consistency, there wouldn’t be any wholesale roster changes while the team’s best players are still capable of being among the league’s best.

  • IN: Marco Belinelli (most recently of the Bulls) was signed to a two-year deal in free agency, as was Jeff Pendergraph Ayres after playing the last two seasons for the Pacers.
  • OUT: Gary Neal signed with the Bucks after the Spurs rescinded their qualifying offer which would have given them the right to match any offer he received in free agency. DeJuan Blair was out of the Spurs rotation by the end of the season, and signed a one-year deal with the Mavericks. Tracy McGrady, who joined the team late in the year but played no significant role, announced his retirement this summer.

Keys to the Spurs season:

1) Moving past the devastating Finals loss: The first priority for the Spurs as a team is to get over the painful memory of coming so close to an NBA title before ultimately falling short. In the preseason, the team has showed anything but a resiliency and a readiness for the upcoming season.

A preseason return to the scene of the crime against a Heat team playing without LeBron James, and with the Spurs playing their starters regular first half minutes saw them give up 66 points over the first two periods while falling behind by as many as 16 points before halftime.

Add to that Gregg Popovich still talking about how he thinks about the Finals loss every day and still dreams about LeBron and Ray Allen hitting shots, and you have a team-wide mental block that needs to be cleared before San Antonio is ready to focus on the task at hand this season.

2) The development of Kawhi Leonard: Kawhi Leonard is just entering his third NBA season, but all indications are that he’s poised to make the leap to becoming the Spurs’ next star. He has an above-average skill set on both ends of the floor, and fits perfectly into the Tim Duncan mold of being a boring, selfless superstar concerned only with winning from a personality standpoint.

Leonard appeared in just 58 games last season due to dealing with minor injuries, and averaged 11.9 points and 6.0 rebounds in 31.2 minutes per contest. His production increased substantially during the postseason, however, when the averages were 13.5 points and 9.0 rebounds in 36.9 minutes per game, while increasing his field goal percentage from 49.4 to 54.5 percent.

The Spurs will need the more durable version of Leonard they saw in the playoffs, along with an even higher level of production from him in order to preserve the more aging stars during the long grind of the regular season.

3) Can the Spurs’ veterans keep it together one more time: That’s the question we’ve seemingly been asking ourselves every season for the past several years. The Spurs are old, deteriorating, and are no longer capable of keeping up with the game’s younger, more athletic teams — so the story goes. But ask the Miami Heat about that, who were moments away from losing the title to these San Antonio veterans.

That will be what we look for entering this season once more, with players like Duncan and Ginobili needing regular season relief from some of the other players on the roster in order to be healthy enough for a strong run into the postseason. Guys like Tiago Splitter, Danny Green, and Leonard will need to play well enough to keep the team winning while covering for the Spurs’ stars on nights off or extended periods of rest.

Why you should watch: The Spurs haven’t been “boring” for a few seasons now, and offensively, they’re usually quite the opposite. San Antonio was seventh in the league in offensive efficiency and played at the league’s sixth fastest pace a season ago, and with Tony Parker at the helm and Tim Duncan still working wonders in the post, this team can at times be — dare I say it — a joy to watch.

Prediction: A top-four seed in the West, and a potentially deep postseason run. The Spurs are one of those teams that the longer they are allowed to stay in the playoffs, the more difficult they are to beat. If they’re as close to 100 percent as a team as is reasonable by the end of the season, there’s no reason they shouldn’t challenge for the Western Conference crown for a second straight season.

The struggle for San Antonio will be remaining engaged over the long regular season grind just to get back to having that chance.

What does Boston do without Gordon Hayward? Five things to watch

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Gordon Hayward’s injury sucked the air out of Quicken Loans Arena on Tuesday night. Cavaliers fans were buzzing, gave Hayward a standing ovation as he was carted off the court, and never got back to booing Kyrie Irving with the same venom, as it seemed petty after what had just happened.

Hayward is in Boston, will soon have surgery to fix things, and start a long road of recovery.

What do the Celtics do the rest of the season? (Or, until he gets back if you want to be an optimistic Celtics’ fan.) How much does this hurt Boston?

• Long-term, not too much changes. That comes with the caveat: So long as Hayward is able to recover and be himself again. With Danny Ainge at the helm, the Celtics have always taken the long view. They have not been in a rush to challenge LeBron James and the Cavaliers for East supremacy this season, thinking more about next season and beyond. That doesn’t change now. By next season Hayward should be back and healthy (*knocking on wood*) and the plan does not change.

• Welcome to the Kyrie Irving show. Boston’s offense could resemble last season’s “turn Isaiah Thomas loose” offense at times because the Celtics are back to having one primary shot creator. Hayward was going to be the glue guy who could be a secondary shot creator, a guy who would keep the ball moving, and the new guy used to playing in Brad Steven’s motion offense. Now, it’s the Kyrie show.

Stevens will try to get Irving and the team to buy into his motion offense (Irving did move well off the ball in the opener) but last season there was a lot of IT isolation plays, and we may see that at points with Irving (one of the games’ best iso shot creators). Irving had 22 points and 10 assists in the loss opening night, and he got them in the flow of the offense without stopping the ball to go isolation. He’s going to be asked to continue to do that and put up similar numbers or better, and to take the clutch shots for this team.

• Small Ball lineups. With or without Hayward, this was always part of the plan — have Al Horford at center, Irving at the point, and a bunch of 6’6” to 6’9” interchangable wings, play fast and shoot threes (count Marcus Morris in that group when he returns). The goal was to space the floor and create driving lanes for Irving and Hayward, but the plan still works for Irving.

It didn’t work ideally late in the opener, but LeBron James and the Cavaliers create unique challenges no other team in the East does. (Jaylen Brown played hard and had a great game, but he can’t stop LeBron down low late in games, only a couple of players in the entire league stand a chance at that.) The real question for the Celtics’ small ball lineup is they have to knock down their threes or defenses will sag off. Brown was 2-of-9, Marcus Smart 0-of-4, and as a team the Celtics shot 25 percent from three for the game. That has to improve for the small ball lineups to thrive.

• Can they get enough stops? This was the biggest question about the Celtics before one of their better wing defenders on the roster went down. They don’t have a classic rim protector (Aron Baynes did a little of that off the bench, but he’s mostly a big body) and their defenders tend to be either young and inexperienced or disinterested.

Boston’s defense wasn’t going to be that good before, but how big a step back they take in wins after the Hayward injury will be more about defense than offense. Boston will miss Hayward on this end of the court.

• Young players get a lot of run, team gets to evaluate roster. Just how good is Jayson Tatum, who can make tough, contested shots but needs to find a way to get easy buckets, too? How big a step can Jaylen Brown take? Has Marcus Smart developed to the point the Celtics will pay to keep him next summer? What kind of player can Semi Ojeleye develop into?

There’s going to be more data, more minutes, more eyeball tests to answer these questions now. Brown led the Celtics with 25 points in the opener, and Tatum scored all 14 of his points in the second half. Those were promising stars, but the tests for these young Celtics stars will be season long.

Smart is the biggest question in that list, and he’s going to get the biggest minutes bump with Hayward out. He’s a restricted free agent next summer and is playing for his paycheck now. He’s going to be one guy to watch on this team.

Fake Klay Thompson almost steals show in Golden State

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Klay Thompson was everywhere Tuesday night for the Warriors.

He had 16 points, knocked down four threes, and had six boards. He was also chillin’ in the stands enjoying the game.

Well, that was “fake” Klay Thompson in the seats — fully decked out in a Golden State uniform and sitting almost right behind the team bench at Oracle — but the cameras loved him.

Heck, “fake Klay” even had a take on real Klay’s first-half performance.

I wonder if I can get fake Klay to sign my toaster?

76ers’ Markelle Fultz to make NBA debut close to home in Washington

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Markelle Fultz gets to start the next chapter of his career in a familiar setting.

The No. 1 pick in the draft will make his NBA debut for the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday night at the Washington Wizards, about a half-hour from home. Fultz grew up in nearby Upper Marlboro, Maryland, in Prince George’s County and played at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville and will have many friends, family members and former coaches in attendance.

“Being able to have his first game in his backyard, I’m so happy for him,” said Keith Williams, Fultz’s AAU coach, trainer and mentor. “It’s perfect. It couldn’t have worked out better.”

Not wanting to throw Fultz “into the fire,” Sixers coach Brett Brown is easing the 19-year-old in by bringing him off the bench after missing portions of the preseason with shoulder and knee injuries. Fultz will be just the third top pick since 2003 to be active and not start his season opener, joining Anthony Bennett and Andrea Bargnani.

Fultz said he’s OK with the decision to come off the bench and considers opening in Washington “almost the best thing that could happen” to him. Expectations are high on the University of Washington product, so starting in his backyard is a substantial positive for Fultz, who was cut from his high school team as a sophomore and came back to become a blue chip prospect.

“The world’s going to spin pretty quickly here,” DeMatha coach Mike Jones said. “Sometimes things are going to seem like they’re a blur to him. Him being able to get started on that journey here in front of a lot of people that supported him and looked up to him I think is a great thing.”

Fultz will face 2010 top pick John Wall, and Williams hopes Fultz doesn’t feel too many jitters in his first pro game. Because Brown said Fultz “didn’t play” enough in the preseason, perhaps getting to come off the bench eases some of the pressure.

“At the end of the day, I want to do whatever I got to do to help my team win, so if that’s coming off the bench, I’m fine with that,” Fultz said. “Just contribute in any ways I can.”

Fultz is joining a young Philadelphia team featuring Joel Embiid and 2016 No. 1 pick Ben Simmons, who will also be making his NBA debut after missing all of last season with a foot injury. The 6-foot-4, 195-pound Fultz is expected to share the ball-handling duties with Simmons, and there’s plenty of intrigue about how he’ll handle the jump.

“I know he’s a strong, athletic point guard that brings a lot of toughness to the game,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. “I like what I’ve seen so far, regardless of limited playing time. But he has great size. He has great size, and you can’t teach that. He’s a strong point guard that’s going to have a bright future.”

Williams thinks Fultz, if given opportunities, could average 18 to 20 points a game as a rookie. After seeing Fultz think the game beyond his age, Jones has high expectations for him.

“He’s capable of being one of the best guards in the NBA,” Jones said. “Every year he’s going to get better and better and better. I know that’s his goal, and I’ve learned through the years to never bet against him. I know that he wants to be the best player he possibly can be, and with each passing month of this season, his rookie year, he’s going to push himself to that.”

 

LeBron James on boos Kyrie Irving faced: “It was nothing”

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LeBron James knows about being booed by Cleveland fans — there was more venom thrown his way upon his return to Cleveland after bolting for Miami than Jack Tatum at a Steelers’ or Patriots’ fans bar.

He heard the boos rained down upon Kyrie Irving, upon return to Cleveland after forcing his way off the Cavaliers, and LeBron shrugged. Here is a video of his comments.

“That was nothing. What do you want me to say? I’ve experienced big boos before. That was like a pat on the back. It could never… I love our fans to death. That was nothing.”

To be fair to Cavaliers fans, the gruesome Gordon Hayward injury sucked the air out of the building and made booing someone for changing teams seem petty. The energy in the building was understandably never the same after that.

But even before the injury, this wasn’t the same level of hatred that had been reserved for LeBron before in Cleveland. In part because LeBron handled his exit poorly (not that Irving was smooth, but there were no television shows to broadcast the decision) and LeBron was the native son seen as deserting his family. It was different.

Kyrie Irving had 22 points but, with LeBron guarding him, missed a three-pointer to tie the game, and the Cavaliers won 102-99.