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.

Rockets’ Patrick Beverley says players “disrespecting game” by resting when healthy

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Former Bulls guard turned agent and podcaster B.J. Armstrong said on our podcast last week that no, players didn’t have DNP-rest days back when he played — but he added that might well have been different if they had the information on injuries that today’s teams and players have. He said they got tired, they got banged up, and they played through it. You can call that tough, but it likely took time, maybe years, off their career.

Houston’s Patrick Beverley is from that old-school mentality and said players are disrespecting the game if they don’t get out there when healthy. Via Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

“I think that’s bulls—,” Beverley said after the Rockets’ 137-125 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday. “I think that’s a disgrace to this league. I think that fans deserve better.

“I could care less about coaches asking players to rest or not. It’s up to you to play or not, and if you don’t, you’re disrespecting the game. And I don’t believe in disrespecting the game, because there was a time where I wasn’t playing in the NBA and I was trying to get here. So me resting, I feel like, is disrespecting me, disrespecting the name on the front of the jersey and disrespecting the name on the back of the jersey.”

It’s the coaches and the organizations telling players to rest, it’s rarely the players themselves, and the teams are doing it because they want their guys at their peak come the playoffs. If the goal is winning a title in June (or at least going deep into May) then not wearing guys down matters.

Everyone has their opinions on it, Gregg Popovich did a good job trying to explain the nuances, but the simple fact is player rest games are not going away. They did it back in Armstrong’s day too, they just called a sore ankle or back rather than rest. What helps lessen games stars have off is building more rest and days off into the schedule, which the NBA is trying to do. But that’s a challenge that will continue to be discussed.

Three Things We Learned Sunday: Westbrook, Harden showdown leaves MVP race same as it ever was

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How many teams did you get right in your Final Four bracket? For the record, I have one (North Carolina). Which is why I was watching a lot more NBA on Sunday than NCAA (that and it’s my job). Here are the big takeaways from Sunday.

1) Russell Westbrook gets 36th triple-double. James Harden lifts Rockets victory. The MVP race is the same as it ever was. If you wanted to make a case for Russell Westbrook as MVP, he gave you reason on Sunday in a showdown with James Harden and the Rockets. Westbrook dropped his 36th triple-double of the season with 39 points, 11 rebounds, and 13 assists, and the Rockets could not stop him.

Harden put up numbers — 22 points on 15 shots, plus 12 assists — but his team got the win because he got help: 31 from Lou Williams, 24 from Trevor Ariza, and 24 from Eric Gordon. Williams had 18 points in the first half. As a team, the Rockets shot 63.3 percent overall and 51.3 percent from beyond the arc.

Harden has better teammates around him, but he is orchestrating them beautifully, he’s more efficient, and he’s lifting his team to higher heights. Westbrook is almost single-handedly carrying the Thunder offense by putting up historic numbers.

This game offered no clarity in the MVP race. In one of the closest, most interesting award races in years, your pick for MVP depends on how you want to define the award and its criteria. (And we’re not even getting into the legitimate case that can be made for Kawhi Leonard here. LeBron James is in the mix, too, although the recent stumbles of the Cavaliers may hurt his case.) We know where the Rockets organization stands.

Sunday’s Thunder/Rockets just an MVP showdown, it was a potential first round playoff matchup. On that front, the Rockets led by as many 25, and while the Rockets made a late push to get the lead down to single digits in the final couple minutes, but the Thunder couldn’t get stops, and the result was never really in doubt. It’s hard to see a playoff series going much differently, the Thunder just don’t defend well enough to slow Houston.

2) Celtics beat Heat, move into tie with Cavaliers for top record in the East. Boston just keeps on grinding, keeps on making enough plays, and keeps on winning. So much so that with a hard-fought win over the Heat on Sunday Boston finds itself tied with Cleveland for the top seed in the East (Boston has one more win, Cleveland has one fewer loss).

Boston may well finish on top, it has an easier schedule to close out the season. However, the big game — and what will determine who has the tiebreaker between the two — comes when the Celtics and Cavaliers play on April 5.

The Celtics got the win because they made crucial shots down the stretch, like this driving floater by Isaiah Thomas (who finished the night with 30 points).

Then Al Horford‘s block sealed the 112-108 victory.

For Miami, even with the loss they sit as the eight seed in the East, the final playoff spot, but Chicago is just half a game back, and the Pistons one game back. While the race could go any direction, the Bulls have the softest schedule the rest of the way of any of those three teams.

3) Blazers win, Nuggets lose, teams now tied for the eighth seed in the West. The race to be the team destroyed by the Golden State Warriors in the first round out West is heating up — Denver and Portland are now tied for the eight seed.

On Sunday, Denver had a sloppy loss at home as New Orleans came to town without DeMarcus Cousins, and yet Anthony Davis dropped 31 and the Pelicans won.

Portland got 22 from Damian Lillard and pulled away in the third quarter to beat the hapless Lakers, 97-81.

Denver and Portland play Tuesday night in what will be a huge game in that race.

Blazers beat Lakers 97-81, tie Denver for final spot in West

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Damian Lillard scored 22 points and the Portland Trail Blazers beat the Los Angeles Lakers 97-81 on Sunday night to pull even with Denver in the race for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Both the Blazers and Nuggets are 35-38 with nine games left in the regular season. They play each other Tuesday in Portland.

Denver lost at home to the New Orleans Pelicans earlier Sunday night.

Portland took control by outscoring the Lakers 37-24 in the third quarter and led by as many as 26 points. Los Angeles shot 39 percent from the field and was outrebounded 61-42.

Allen Crabbe added 18 points off the bench for the Blazers, and Noah Vonleh grabbed 14 rebounds.

D'Angelo Russell led the Lakers with 22 points, and reserve Tyler Ennis scored 14.

Portland led 40-32 at the break after an unsightly half in which the teams took turns struggling from the field. At halftime, both were shooting exactly 32.6 percent.

The Lakers won their previous game against the Timberwolves but have won consecutive games only once since mid-November.

TIP-INS

Trail Blazers: Shot 62.4 percent against Minnesota on Saturday, their best mark since hitting 64.1 percent on March 12, 2003. Coming into Sunday, they had shot 50.6 percent over their last five games.

Lakers: Rookie forward Brandon Ingram, who started the previous 19 games and averaged 12.1 points on 48.4 percent shooting, did not play because of right patellar tendinitis. Said coach Luke Walton: “He was out there warming up and it’s not right.” Corey Brewer got his first start for the Lakers.

 

Watch Russell Westbrook drop a triple-double in epic battle with James Harden (VIDEO)

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HOUSTON (AP) Lou Williams scored 31 points off the bench, James Harden finished with 22 points and 12 assists, and the Houston Rockets never trailed while cruising to a 137-125 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday.

Russell Westbrook had 39 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists for his second straight triple-double and his 36th this season, but Harden led the Rockets to a 25-point lead through three quarters in the matchup between top MVP candidates.

Trevor Ariza and Eric Gordon added 24 points apiece for the Rockets, whose lead was trimmed to eight on a 3-pointer by Westbrook with about 90 seconds left. The Rockets scored four quick points after that to secure the victory.

Harden left late in the game after crashing into the court and appearing to injure his left wrist but said in a TV interview he expected to be OK.

Houston jumped out to a 9-0 lead and was up by at least 20 for most of the game. It was a stark change from the first three games between these teams this season, which were decided by a combined seven points.

Williams made 11 of 15 shots, going 7 of 8 on 3-pointers. He didn’t miss a shot until his layup was blocked by Jerami Grant early in the fourth quarter.

Houston won its fourth straight overall and has won nine of their past 12 games against the Thunder.

The Rockets shot 71 percent in the first half, and Harden made a layup before grabbing a rebound and hitting a 3-pointer at the buzzer to extend Houston’s lead to 113-88 entering the fourth quarter.

The Thunder chipped away with a 12-4 run midway through the fourth quarter to get within 126-114 with 4 minutes left. Williams hit a 3-pointer after that to slow down the Thunder the team’s late run.

The Rockets had a 16-point lead in the third quarter before they used a 13-4 run to make it 108-83 with about 90 seconds left in the quarter. Williams had two 3-pointers in that stretch and a highlight came when Houston stripped the ball from Westbrook and Harden dished to Ariza, who finished with another 3. The run wrapped up with an alley-oop dunk from Harden to Clint Capela, but Capela received a technical on the play for hanging on the rim.

Mike D’Antoni received a technical seconds later for arguing that call.

Houston had built a 79-59 lead by halftime thanks in part to nearly perfect 3-point shooting by Trevor Ariza and Williams. Ariza made four of five attempts and had 16 points at the break, and Williams was a perfect 6 for 6 overall, with four 3-pointers to pile up 18 points in the first two quarters.

TIP-INS

Thunder: Victor Oladipo finished with 15 points. … Steven Adams and Alex Abrines scored 11 points apiece.

Rockets: Houston’s 79 points were the most the team has scored in a half this season. … Sunday was the 12th time this season where the Rockets had 100 points before the fourth quarter. … Williams had at least 20 points off the bench for the 29th time this season.

ANDERSON’S HEALTH

Houston’s Ryan Anderson will miss about two weeks after spraining his right ankle on Friday night against the Pelicans. D’Antoni hopes Anderson will recover in time to play the last couple of regular-season games and be at full strength for the start of the playoffs.

UP NEXT

Thunder: Visit Dallas on Monday.

Rockets: Host Golden State on Tuesday.