The Extra Pass: The Spurs’ Hammer set; plus Tuesday’s recaps

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The Signature Series takes a look at a play that’s largely unique to one team. Here’s San Antonio’s “Hammer” set.

The San Antonio Spurs don’t get enough credit for keeping up with the times. Although the end result is often the same as it has always been – Tim Duncan facing up and banking a shot home, Tony Parker shooting floaters in the lane, Manu Ginobili doing Manu Ginobili things – the means of transportation has changed over the years.

San Antonio once walked the ball up the floor, but for the last three seasons, they’ve been a top-10 team in the league in pace.

During that time, San Antonio has relied more on quick-hitting plays in the halfcourt than elaborate sets. Rarely will you see Duncan holding the ball and surveying for long periods of time like he used to. San Antonio got slower, but now they move quicker.

A prime example of how the Spurs have blended their patented half court execution and need for speed is the “Hammer” set they’ve used with great success.

Although there are a few different variations of it, here’s a good look at the basic set by Dan Murphy at FastModel Sports:

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The Spurs are masters of movement and misdirection, and the initial action here on the left is nothing much more than that. The real purpose of this set is simple: create an open corner three-point attempt for a shooter.

The Spurs have been able to do just that with frightening regularity. San Antonio was third in the NBA in corner threes last year, and Danny Green was second in the entire league in made shots from that area.

Check out how clean some of these three-point looks deviating from the different Hammer sets are:

As you can see above, all it takes is for a defender to turn their head or help in the paint on the baseline drive. If that happens, they’re getting caught with a flare screen and giving up one of the most desired shots in basketball to a deadly shooter.

There are more physical teams in the league. There are teams that jump higher. But if you want to try and find an offense that’s more mentally taxing on their opponents than San Antonio’s? Good luck.

-D.J. Foster

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Trail Blazers 119, Cavaliers 116: Teams keep exposing the weaknesses of this Blazers team — the Cavaliers used their size up front with Andrew Bynum (13) first half points — and it doesn’t matter. Cleveland put up 116 points on the Blazers defense and lost. Portland used a 22-7 run in the fourth quarter take what looked like a lead that would let them coast in for a win. Cleveland had other ideas — Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters (each who finished with 25 points) sparked a comeback to tie the game, 116-116 with just 7.1 seconds. But that’s Damian Lillard time. He had 36 and his second straight game winner.

Bobcats 95, Kings 87: The Bobcats had no defensive answer for DeMarcus Cousins, who finished with 30 points (on 13 shots), 17 boards, 6 assists and 3 steals. Charlotte had plenty of answers for everyone else — the rest of the Kings roster shot 31.3 percent on the night. Charlotte’s reserves came in and started to take control of the game late in the first quarter and while Sacramento made runs the rest of the night the scrappy Bobcats had answers. Kemba Walker had 24 points and Gerald Henderson 20 to lead Charlotte.

Lakers 96, Grizzlies 92: That’s the Pau Gasol Lakers fans have wanted to see. Not so coincidentally, that’s the Lakers getting the ball to Pau Gasol in the half court where he wanted it. With the game on the line in the fourth quarter the Lakers went to Pau Gasol over and over isolated 15 feet out Zach Randolph. And it worked. Gasol had 7 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter helping spark the Lakers win. Kobe Bryant had his best game since his return as well and had 21, helping the Lakers fought off each Grizzlies run. Meanwhile Memphis really missed Mike Conley (bruised thigh) as they had no threat from three and no good shot creation. Combine that with the lack of Marc Gasol and these Grizzlies are a shell of themselves.

Thunder 105, Nuggets 93: Not sure what to say about this one other than the better team won. Pretty easily. Denver is a good team and they got some good performances — J.J. Hickson had 20 points, Nate Robinson made a run in the fourth to make the game interesting — but OKC is simply playing much better ball right now. Which is why they have won 7 straight. Kevin Durant had 30 and just tore apart the Nuggets switching defense on the pick and roll.

Warriors 104, Pelicans 93: Look at the box score and you see Stephen Curry with 28 points, or David Lee with 21 points and 17 boards, and you’ll miss how much the return of Andre Iguodala meant to the Warriors. He had just two points but with him back in the lineup the Warriors moved the ball better on offense, while on the other end of the court held the Pelicans to 37.5 percent shooting. It was an easy win, and the Warriors needed that. Ryan Anderson had 21 for New Orleans.

J.R. Smith on Celtics start: “We don’t start paying attention until after All-Star break”

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I’m not sure any LeBron James team can fly under the radar, but the Cavaliers have relatively quietly won five in a row. Most importantly, in those five games, Cleveland’s defense is 8.6 points per 100 possessions better than their season average (and eighth in the league in that stretch). The Cavaliers may be finding their groove.

Not that anyone is noticing because Boston has rattled off 16 wins in a row to have the best record in the NBA.

Hey, J.R. Smith, are the Cavaliers paying attention to Boston’s hot start? (Via Bleacher Report.)

“Nah,” JR Smith told B/R when asked if they’re paying attention to the league-leading Celtics. “It’s too early. Too early. We don’t start paying attention until after All-Star break when you see teams spacing out (in the standings). You start getting your best shot after the All-Star break.”

Cleveland, even after the win streak, is 5.5 games back of the Celtics. While it’s too early to say anything with certainty, much like last season it seems probable that Boston will be the No. 1 seed and the Cavaliers will need to go on the road to secure another trip to the Finals. Which is just fine with the Cavs if they can be healthy and rested when the postseason rolls around.

Healthy means getting LeBron a little more rest at some point — he leads the NBA in minutes played at 37.9 per game, and he’s in his 15th season. He’s played more regular season games than Michael Jordan. At some point, the Cavaliers need to get him some rest.

But LeBron said postgame he’s not playing the hard minutes, yet.

“Are all 40-minute (games) created equal?” James repeated.

Dwyane Wade elaborated: “If you play 40 minutes and you’re banging around, or you play 40 minutes, an easy up-and-down? You still play 40 but it’s different.”

James: “Forty minutes in a playoff game and 40 in a regular-season game is totally different. For me and him, we don’t just sit on the perimeter. We’re slashing.”

Bucks’ Mirza Teletovic out 4 weeks; Henson to miss Suns game

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Injuries are thinning the Milwaukee Bucks’ frontcourt as they begin a Western Conference road trip.

The team says forward Mirza Teletovic is expected to miss four weeks following arthroscopic surgery on Tuesday to repair cartilage in his left knee. He has missed the last six games.

The 6-foot-9 Teletovic is a key player off the bench for Milwaukee. He is averaging 7.1 points in 10 games this season, shooting 46 percent from 3-point range.

The Bucks also say starting center John Henson will miss Wednesday night’s game in Phoenix after what they call a “successful eye procedure.”

Henson is expected to rejoin the Bucks before Saturday’s game at Utah. He is averaging 6.7 points and 6.6 rebounds.

Guard Matthew Dellavedova also remains out with left knee tendinitis.

Three Things to Know: If playoffs started today Lakers would be the eight seed

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) After beating Bulls, if playoffs started today Lakers would be the eight seed. The Lakers have been better than advertised this young season… but a playoff team?

Yes. If the playoffs started today, the Lakers would be the eighth seed.

While everyone seems to focus on Lonzo Ball’s lack of a jumper (he was 3-of-13 Tuesday, 2-of-8 from three), the Lakers have produced the fourth-best defense in the NBA, allowing just 100.3 points per 100 possessions. It’s a shocking improvement from the team with the worst defense in the NBA last season, they are allowing 10.3 points fewer per 100 possessions than a season ago. Los Angeles runs out a long, athletic lineup with a well-positioned backstop big in Brook Lopez in the paint. Maybe fourth in the NBA is not sustainable (teams are shooting just 31.9 percent from three against L.A., and that’s not so much defense as luck), but the Lakers are improved defensively.

That defense keeps the Lakers in games, then thanks to flurries from an inconsistent offense the Lakers 8-10 to start the season after knocking off the Chicago Bulls 103-94. Chicago led by 19 in the second and early third, but the Lakers rallied behind Julius Randle and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

The Western Conference that was expected to be so deep going into the season is watching good teams stumble (Oklahoma City) and other teams struggle with injuries (Memphis, Utah, L.A. Clippers). It has opened the door for now, and the Lakers have stepped in. Or, at least not fallen out.

I still don’t expect the Lakers in the postseason when we get to April, and their young core is still a work in progress, but this start is a big boost to the confidence of the team. It’s a step in the direction they want to go.

2) Denver loses Paul Millsap for three months due to wrist surgery. Last season, Denver had one of the worst defenses in the NBA. This season they are middle of the pack — a substantial improvement. Paul Millsap is a big part of that, the Nuggets have been 4.5 points per 100 possessions better when Millsap has been on the court this season.

Which is why it’s going to hurt so much that he is out to have wrist surgery, he is out three months or so (think return after the All-Star Game).

Millsap inked a team-friendly three-year, $90 million contract with Denver over the summer (the third season is not guaranteed). He is averaging 15.3 points and 6.2 rebounds a game, numbers are down a little from previous years (as were his shots as he adjusted), but things have looked up lately. Millsap seemed to be finding a groove during the recent streak when Denver won 4-of-5. He and the Nuggets were figuring out how to play together. Now that is on hold, and Denver goes from a team that looked like a playoff lock in the West to one to watch. Injuries are shaping the West playoff race right now in a massive way.

3) Worst. Free throw. Ever. This was on Shaqtin’ last week, but it is too good not to post, in case you haven’t seen it.

"This is the worst free throw of all-time!" 😂 Shaq goes overseas for Week 5's #Shaqtin winner 🏆

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Report: Manute Bol’s birthday was made up, may have played in NBA at age 50

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Former NBA center Manute Bol was a sight to behold when he came to the United States for college. At 7-foot-7 and just 200 pounds, his slight frame was always shocking to the eye.

Bol passed away in 2010, but stories about the Sudanese big man have been top of mind lately as his son, Bol Bol, recently committed to play basketball at the University of Oregon.

A recent story has surfaced about the elder Bol and the purported age at which he entered the NBA and played.

According to former Cleveland State coach Kevin Mackey, he was the one who decided Bol’s birthday was October 16, 1962. This was apparently because it wasn’t clear just how old Bol was at the time.

Via Zagsblog:

“I gave him his birthday because they didn’t know how old he was,” Mackey, now a scout with the Indiana Pacers, told ZAGSBLOG.

But Mackey says Bol was probably much older and could have been in his 40s or even 50s when he played in the NBA. According to Wikipedia, Manute played in the NBA from his early 20s until his early 30s for various teams, including the Washington Bullets, Golden State Warriors and Philadelphia 76ers.

“The immigration people were in the office [at Cleveland State] and they thought it was great. They loved it. And they were big fans of Cleveland State, they used to come to all our games. They wanted to cover themselves because Manute was starting to get so much publicity. His picture was in the paper. He was on the 6 o’clock news because he was a such a different looking guy than everyone else. At that time, no one had ever seen anything like it.”
So at that point, Mackey worked with the local immigration office to come up with a birthday for Bol, Oct. 16, 1962
“It was in October, I wanted to make it after Sept. 1,” Mackey said. “I wanted to make sure he was young enough because he didn’t have an age. I think he was [in his 40s], I really do. But there’s no way of ever really knowing.”

Bol didn’t end up playing at Cleveland State, reportedly because his English was not good enough. He wound up playing at the University of Bridgeport before getting drafted by the Washington Bullets with the 31st pick in the 1985 NBA Draft.

Mackey is now a scout with the Indiana Pacers, and he is so far the only person telling this story. If it is true, it would have been an incredible feat for Bol to play in the NBA into his 40s.