The Extra Pass: Behind San Antonio’s hot start and Monday’s recaps

11 Comments

source:

At least in the standings, the San Antonio Spurs are as good as they’ve ever been.

By walloping the New Orleans Pelicans on Monday, San Antonio tied their franchise best for a start to the season. The Spurs are 13-1 now and winners of 11 straight games.

What can you say? I ran out of adjectives to describe the Spurs about, oh, four years ago. They know who they are, and you know who they are.

If it’s possible, though, the Spurs have been almost more…Spurs-ish this season. Here’s a look at the numbers behind their hot start:

1. No Spurs player is averaging over 30 minutes a game right now.

I’m not sure if any team has done that over an entire season, but the Grizzlies came close in 2004, with only Pau Gasol averaging over 30 minutes a game. If you find a team that hasn’t had a single player average over 30 minutes a game, drop it in the comments and I’ll name you the Extra Pass commenter of the week or something equally free.

While you’d expect Parker to get over 30 minutes a game by season’s end, it’s still incredible that a 13-1 team is barely using their best players.

2. San Antonio’s net rating (offensive rating of points per 100 possessions minus defensive rating) is 13.9. The fourth best team in that category is the Houston Rockets. They have a net rating of 6.4.

Maybe we need to bust out some 1984 newspeak for the Spurs. They’re doubleplus good! San Antonio’s point differential is +12.1 on the season, and they’re the only team in double-digits in that category this year.

3. The Spurs lead the league in defensive rebounding percentage. Tim Duncan is having his worst rebounding year of his career so far.

The Spurs have been rolling with Duncan stuck in neutral. Duncan is shooting an uncharacteristic 38.9 percent, and per 36 minutes he’s averaging career lows in points per game, rebounds per game and free throw attempts per game. He’s been pretty bad, all things told, and it doesn’t matter.

Kawhi Leonard is quietly filling in the cracks for the Spurs. Duncan isn’t cleaning the defensive glass as well, so Leonard is rebounding at a career-high rate. Manu Ginobili’s scoring is down, so Leonard’s is up.

And he’s doing all of that while not saying a word or showing any ounce of emotion. Have you ever seen Kawhi Leonard’s teeth? You have not.

When the time comes for the Spurs to turn a new leaf, Leonard will be perfect as the new face of the franchise. Very clearly, though, that time isn’t upon us yet.

—D.J. Foster

source:

source:

Celtics 96, Bobcats 86: This was an ugly game with some fairly sizable swings, and the Celtics managed to be the ones still standing when all was said and done. Each team held a lead of double digits at one point in this one, but Boston maintained control throughout the fourth to come away with the victory. Jordan Crawford had the big night for the Celtics, finishing with 21 points on 11 shots in 28 minutes of action. —Brett Pollakoff

Pacers 98, Timberwolves 84: Minnesota continued its struggles on the road, while the Pacers kept on proving that they’re one of the league’s best teams. A strong start got Indiana out to a 12-point lead in the first quarter, behind eight early points from Paul George. And then a 14-2 run to open the fourth helped Indiana pull away for its 13th win in 14 tries this season. The Pacers got big games from Paul George and George Hill who contributed 26 points apiece, while the Timberwolves shot just 29-of-89 from the field and 3-of-19 from three-point distance which ultimately doomed their chances. —BP

Pistons 113, Bucks 94: The Bucks are a complete disaster right now, and though injuries have played a part in their recent demise, the overall lack of talent on the roster is becoming painfully evident with each passing game. The Pistons have struggled themselves this season, and improved to just 6-8 with this victory. But they were able to get out to a lead of as many as 34 points against this terrible Milwaukee squad, behind 15 points and 13 assists from Brandon Jennings who was one of seven Detroit players that finished the game in double figures.—BP

Heat 107, Suns 92: Phoenix was playing its fifth straight game without Eric Bledsoe, who continues to be sidelined with a bruised shin injury. We’re not sure his presence would have mattered against the defending champs, considering LeBron James was able to pour in 35 points on just 14 shots and Dwyane Wade was similarly efficient with 21 points and 12 assists on 9-of-13 shooting. The foundation is being laid in Phoenix, however, as the effort put forth by the team along with its propensity to consistently pass up decent shots for better ones will undoubtedly pay dividends in the future.—BP

Rockets 93, Grizzlies 86: James Harden sat this one out with a sore left foot, and Marc Gasol is out for a while after suffering an MCL sprain. That meant a balanced attack from the players that were left, and it took a monster fourth quarter from Houston to come away with the victory. The Rockets outscored the Grizzlies by 15 points in the final period behind a 14-of-20 shooting effort. Omri Casspi had 11 in the fourth and Chandler Parsons had nine on 4-of-4 shooting to help Houston pull away over a Grizzlies team that fell to just 7-7 on the season.—BP

Nuggets 110, Mavericks 96: The Nuggets have swept a home against Dallas and have moved above .500 — they may be finding their groove under Brian Shaw. This was a close game for the first half then in the third quarter Ty Lawson put up 13 of his 19 on the night to pull the Nuggets ahead. Dallas made some runs in the fourth but Nate Robinson answered all of them on his way to 17 points. It was vintage Nate. Monta Ellis had 22 for Dallas and continued his run or strong play.—Kurt Helin

 Spurs 112, Pelicans 93: Imagine how good the Spurs are going to be when Tim Duncan gets going. Not to knock Duncan, his offense is off to a slow start (just 7 points in this one) but his defense seemed to bother Anthony Davis on the night and the New Orleans star to 3-of-8 shooting. The Spurs defense was on fire all night, holding the Pelicans to 38 percent shooting (and that bumped up from around 33 percent with a late little run). The Spurs did it with balance — seven players in double figures.—KH

Jazz 89, Bulls 83 (OT): This was Black Monday for the Bulls — in the morning they officially lose Derrick Rose for the season, at night they lose to the Jazz (who are now 2-14). Chicago is just struggling to create offense with Rose out (not surprisingly), Luol Deng had 24 and is the guy the Bulls went to late, but he is the only guy who can get shots consistently. Give Utah some credit too — Marvin Williams had 17, while rookie Trey Burke showed some real confidence on his way to 14 points (on 17 shots, but cut the kid some slack). —KH

Trail Blazers 102, Knicks 91: Face the fourth best offense in the NBA this young season with the struggling Knicks defense without Tyson Chandler and this was pretty predictable. Portland went on a 22-6 run that started midway through the first quarter to pull away, and the game was never really in doubt after that. Nicolas Batum had 23 points on 12 shots and along with Damian Lillard (23 points also) had his way with the Knicks defense. Carmelo Anthony had 34 points and 15 rebounds but he alone can only carry the Knicks so far.—KH

Amir Johnson on South Beach: 2006 Pistons ‘let the streets beat us’

Eric Espada/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Amir Johnson is a savvy veteran on the young 76ers.

On the 2006 Pistons, he was a scarcely used rookie straight out of high school.

But he was learning lessons he’d apply to his current role.

Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press:

Philadelphia heeded Johnson’s advice. The 76ers won Games 3 and 4 in Miami to take a 3-1 series lead.

The Pistons went 0-3 in Miami during the six-game 2006 Eastern Conference finals. There was little shame in losing to those Heat. They pushed Detroit to seven games in the 2005 conference finals and were – with Dwyane Wade transcendent while Shaquille O’Neal remained in his prime – even better the following year.

But too much partying is a major charge and a somewhat surprising one. The Pistons were led by the same veteran core – Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace – that made the previous two NBA Finals and won the 2004 title. They’d been around long enough to know better.

Gregg Popovich to miss Spurs-Warriors Game 5

AP Photo/Eric Gay
1 Comment

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has missed Games 3 and 4 of his team’s first-round series against the Warriors following the death of his wife, Erin.

Unsurprisingly, he won’t coach the Spurs as they leave San Antonio for Game 5 tomorrow at Golden State.

David Aldridge of NBA.com:

Popovich should take all the time he needs. Ettore Messina is capable as acting coach, and Popovich being with his family now is more important anyway.

This will probably be the final game of the series. Up 3-1, the Warriors are the better team and at home.

LeBron James on Lance Stephenson-drawn technical foul: ‘I gave him a little nudge, and he falls to half court. Come on’

4 Comments

LeBron James and Lance Stephenson have met in 23 playoff games.

Stephenson has tried to agitate LeBron throughout all of them.

From the choke sign back when Stephenson was still a benchwarmer to the infamous ear blow to the tapping of LeBron’s face the next game, Stephenson has been relentless. And LeBron has mostly kept his cool.

But not last night.

Midway through the fourth quarter of the Cavaliers’ Game 4 win over the Pacers, Stephenson stuck close to LeBron as LeBron went to the Cleveland bench. LeBron pushed Stephenson away and received a technical foul.

LeBron:

I mean, I should never have gotten a tech in the first place. There’s a timeout called, and this guy’s following me to my bench. I gave him a little nudge, and he falls to half court. Come on. But I should know better. I should know better. I’ve been dealing with this since elementary. It’s like I tell you a joke – I tell you a joke and then you laugh, and you get caught. That’s what happened. Lance told me a joke. I laughed. Teacher caught me. Now, I’ve got to go see the principal. That’s what happened.

Stephenson earned that technical foul. He did just enough to bait LeBron, but too much where Stephenson would get a tech. Then, Stephenson exaggerated the contract.

LeBron got got, and he knows it.

He’s also probably savvy enough to remain on greater alert to Stephenson’s antics the rest of the series and avoid responding again.

Where the Blazers, Neil Olshey, and Terry Stotts go from here

2 Comments

The Portland Trail Blazers were a frustrating team to watch to start the season. They floundered early as players like Moe Harkless and Evan Turner failed to take the next step forward to help the team. The emergence of Zach Collins playing in tandem with a healthy Ed Davis was a good story, but not enough to overcome Portland’s fatal flaws. Most of the talk surrounding the Blazers remained about roster construction — as it has since GM Neil Olshey signed Turner to his massive 4-year, $70 million contract back in 2016.

Then things flipped.

Starting with a win over the Golden State Warriors on February 14, Portland rattled off 13 straight. Harkless was no longer moody, Damian Lillard was playing like a Top 5 MVP candidate, and CJ McCollum hummed right along with him. Al-Farouq Aminu was shooting well, Shabazz Napier was an important rotational piece, and even Turner’s midrange turnarounds felt like a simple change of pace rather than a glaring misfit. Roster talk died down because Portland looked unstoppable, and with a new defensive effort the team felt like a lock to beat whichever squad they faced in the first round.

But the Blazers found themselves outgunned, overmatched, and demoralized as they took on the New Orleans Pelicans after the conclusion of the regular season. Portland got swept, 4-0, in perhaps the most embarrassing playoff sweep in franchise history since their series with the San Antonio Spurs at the turn of the last century.

So here we are, with both the Blazers and fans in Portland back to wondering the same thing: just what can be done to fix this roster and maximize Lillard’s prime?

We have to start with the basic fact that Portland is not going to trade McCollum.

Part of the internal friction for the Blazers is that McCollum is the guy Olshey seems most emotionally attached to. Olshey was fully at the helm of the organization when McCollum was drafted in 2013, and thus McCollum is wholly an Olshey guy. Portland had scouted Lillard long before Olshey arrived 24 days prior to the 2012 NBA Draft. Not that Olshey values one over the other, but there’s an odd, unspoken understanding that Olshey wants to make McCollum work along with Lillard partly as a matter of pride.

So if we move away from the possibility of changing the overall theory of a roster built around those two guards, where does that leave the Blazers? The answer comes with a boggling number of variables.

The key that unlocked Portland’s potential to dismantle most of their opponents after Valentine’s Day was a happy Harkless, one who was dropping 3-pointers from the corners and dishing out assists rather than moping on the deepest part of the bench. That was the big variable that made the switch for the Blazers. But in the playoffs, Portland got a Harkless that was just coming off knee surgery, and he wasn’t as effective.

Harkless said in exit interviews on Sunday that team brass reiterated to him how important he’s going to be to them next season, and they aren’t blowing smoke. Harkless is young, cheap, and versatile. He’s a better passer and dribbler than Aminu, whose contract expires after next season, and he’s a better pure shooter from deep. The problem is relying on Harkless, who admits to being moody and letting that emotional variance affect him on the court.

This puts us back to the question of Turner. For as much as Olshey likes to talk as though he slow plays the league, it was an extreme reach not only to pay Turner his contract but to sell the public the logic behind it. After McCollum and Lillard were trapped to death in the playoffs a few years ago, Olshey grabbed Turner as a third ball handler, one who could let Lillard and McCollum run around screens off-ball to reduce turnovers. At least, that was the story.

It didn’t really work all that well given the symbiotic nature of the game of basketball. Last season, Aminu’s shooting dipped and opposing defenses simply helped off of him and onto Portland’s main dribblers. That made Harkless and Allen Crabbe invaluable as shooters, not only as scorers but as sources of gravity to open up passing lanes.

There was as similar issue this season as Aminu’s shooting percentages rose while Harkless sat on the bench in the middle of the year. Without Harkless or Crabbe to anchor the 3-point line, that left Portland with just one shooter outside of Lillard and McCollum in Aminu. Teams drifted toward Aminu, leaving Turner as the open shooter on the 3-point line. He shot 32 percent from deep, and Portland went from 8th in 3-point percentage to 16th in a year.

Turner adapted his game over the course of this season the best he could to compliment Portland’s system and needs. He’s just not useful enough at top clip. This explains the position the Blazers have been in the entirety of Turner’s contract — it’s going to be impossible to move him without attaching significant assets and in the process, delaying the progress of the team. No trade involving Turner will return the wing Portland needs. That’s just not how it works when you’ve got an albatross contract in 2018.

And so, after their sweep at the hands of the Pelicans, the conversation in Portland swiftly moved to speculation that coach Terry Stotts could be on the hot seat. The reality of Portland firing Stotts, if they are considering it, is of a major setback.

Stotts is beloved by his players, most of all Lillard, the franchise cornerstone. Stotts was a genuine Coach of the Year candidate this season for his role in developing guys like Napier and Pat Connaughton, who were useful at different parts of the season. Stotts pushed Nurkic to be more aggressive, a major factor in their late-season success. He rehabilitated Harkless. Reaching back even further, Stotts masterminded an offense that turned Mason Plumlee into the third creator on offense for Portland before the Nurkic trade last year. He’s been excellent, and firing him would be a colossal mistake.

I’ll put it this way: when Lillard had his “where is this going” conversation about the Blazers with owner Paul Allen, that talk wasn’t about Stotts. It was about Olshey’s roster construction.

The conversation about Stotts is a bit ridiculous, although it’s understandable given Olshey is both above him organizationally and a bit more financially annoying to fire after a recently-signed extension. But unlike Stotts, Olshey has not exceeded expectations in his position. Despite some clever draft day trades and the rumored rejection of a max contract bid offered by Chandler Parsons‘ camp two summers ago, the fact is Olshey is the one who has hampered the team, while Stotts has done the best with what he’s been given.

And so here we are, with the same questions about the Blazers roster nearly two years down the line and with an embarrassing playoff sweep in their possession. McCollum and Lillard are firmly cemented, perhaps more so thanks to their defensive improvement and the team’s win total. The Blazers can’t move their pieces thanks to poor fiscal management, and they’re in danger of losing valuable contributors like Davis, Napier, and eventually Aminu because of it.

It appears Portland’s only way forward is to do what they’ve always done, although it won’t be by their own volition, much as Olshey would like to spin it that way. Olshey, who said as much during exit interviews, will look for value in the draft and build a team that functions as a unit. I would assume that he’ll also need to ask owner Allen to tempt the repeater tax as he tries to re-sign Davis this year and Aminu the next. Olshey will need to hope Harkless is more consistent, and that he can find yet another shooter in the draft or via an exception signing or trade. All of these things are pretty big ifs, particularly in the light of Lillard’s public urgency and the results of Olshey’s bigger misfires.

The end to the season in Portland was disappointing, because of their sweep but also because they didn’t do enough to change our minds about their flaws and roster issues. That burden lies squarely with Olshey. Portland’s GM says he wants to stay measured in his approach, but moves like signing Turner, trading Crabbe for an exception, and swapping Plumlee for Nurkic were anything but. Those are big swings with mixed results.

Portland’s roster isn’t good enough to sustain large dips, and its plodding, “calculated” approach to roster management has put the Trail Blazers in a place similar to what you’d expect from a front office with a more flamboyant, laissez-faire style. Big contracts, an overpaid supporting cast, and an inconsistent bench rolled into a cap hit scraping $121 million.

The roster theory is understandable, but the execution in Portland is lacking. Eventually, the Blazers — and Olshey — are going to have to stop being measured and simply measure up.