Tony Parker goes MIA in Game 5, but Spurs advance to Western Conference Finals

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Where’s Tony Parker?

That question dominated the first half as the San Antonio Spurs point guard left the court and bench without suffering an obvious injury. Turns out, his hamstring tightened, and the Spurs ruled him out at halftime – potentially a real concern going forward.

But there were no questions about Kawhi Leonard’s whereabouts.

He was everywhere.

Leonard (22 points on three 3-pointers and two dunks, seven rebounds and five steals) made plays all over the court to lead the San Antonio to a 104-82 series-closing win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday.

With their 4-1 series victory, the Spurs join the Heat as the only teams to make the conference finals each of the last three years. But whether San Antonio returns to the NBA Finals, let alone wins them, might hinge on Parker.

Parker’s backup, Patty Mills (18 points, three steals, zero turnovers in 26 minutes), filled in admirably. But winning with depth, as the Spurs have done to this point, gets much more difficult when the field narrows. Parker is a true star, someone who has repeatedly elevated his game as the playoffs go deeper. That’s whom San Antonio needs.

And there’s reason to believe the Spurs will get Parker back soon.

“I think it’s more precaution than anything,” said Tim Duncan, whose 16 points and eight rebounds helped ensure the Spurs could comfortably rest Parker on Wednesday. “Just don’t want to get him any more hurt.”

At least San Antonio will get extra rest before facing the Thunder or Clippers, and that can only help Parker heal.

In wins in Games 1-3, the Spurs led at halftime by 26, 19 and 20 at halftime. In their Game 4 loss, they trailed by two at the break.

Wednesday, they led by just seven at halftime – a comfortable position to be certain, but one indicative of a team no longer possessing an unbreakable lock on the series. The only other time the Trail Blazers got this close after two quarters, Game 4, they ran away with it in the third.

“We might have ran out of a little energy in the last game,” Duncan admitted.

San Antonio quickly ensured that wouldn’t be repeated in Game 5, opening the third quarter on an 8-0 run. Thanks to Danny Green making all five of his second-half shots on the way to 22 points, the Spurs led by double digits the rest of the way.

The Trail Blazers’ run ends here, and they were an exciting team that got in over their heads – way over their heads. But this season was a resounding success for Portland, which reached the playoffs for the first time in three years and won a postseason series for the first time in 14.

Portland’s stars – Damian Lillard (17 points and 10 assists) and LaMarcus Aldridge (21 points and 10 rebounds) – had double-doubles in the season ender, but neither really gave San Antonio much reason for concern. They’re not quite good enough to beat a great team like the Spurs, especially with so little bench help.

Next season, the Trail Blazers can get better. They’re young enough to expect significant internal growth, and using the mid-level exception wouldn’t take them into the luxury tax.

But the West is tough, and breaking into the upper echelon is a daunting task. Again and again this series, the Spurs proved that.

James Harden on recruiting Chris Paul from LA: “He didn’t seem happy”

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One of the most interesting storylines of the first month of this upcoming NBA season will be the Houston Rockets.

The team has paired MVP candidate James Harden with one of the greatest point guards of all time in Chris Paul, but it remains to be seen whether the two will be able to work together with the kind of efficiency that Mike D’Antoni’s team had in 2016-17.

Harden has been the subject of some chatter already this offseason after a photo of him surfaced on Instagram. In it, Harden looked to have added a significant portion of muscle this summer, which may help him as he moves back to a more off-ball style of play with Paul in the fold.

Harden was also the subject of significant scrutiny at the end of last season, where he failed in the playoffs in spectacular fashion against the San Antonio Spurs.

In a recent interview with Sam Amick of USA Today, Harden said his newfound weight gain has been part of his plan to combat late-season fatigue. Harden has also introduced yoga and pilates into his workout routine.

Perhaps more interesting information from Harden’s interview with Amick revealed just how much impact he had recruiting Chris Paul in the trade from Los Angeles Clippers, and Paul’s attitude at the end of the season toward his former team.

Via USA Today:

Harden, who signed a four-year extension this summer and will earn a combined $228 million by the end of the 2022-23 season, had everything to do with the move.

“I just knew that in the summertime obviously (Paul) was a free agent, and I wanted to see where his head was,” Harden said of Paul, who will now be a free agent next summer. “He didn’t seem happy, so after that we just took it from there.

“Obviously Golden State has been in the Finals and won two out of three, so that’s what everybody is trying to build up against. But we’re right there. We’re right there. Obviously, we have a lot of work to do, but it definitely puts us in a better chance.”

It certainly makes sense that after years of perpetual playoff failure by the Clippers that Paul would want to move on. Harden and CP3 seem to enjoy each other at the moment, and a pairing does seem to make sense on paper. We will see how that plays out over the course of next season.

Giannis Antetokounmpo announces he will not play for Greece in Eurobasket

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Giannis Antetokounmpo said had big plans to play for the Greek national team this summer, taking his country back to the top of the European ladder at EuroBasket (they had won the tournament a dozen years ago).

Instead, a sore knee will keep the Greek Freak out of EuroBasket. He made the announcement on his Facebook page.

Antetokounmpo had missed all but one of Greece’s early EuroBasket tune-ups due to a sore knee. That, understandably, concerned the Bucks, especially with his four-year, $100 million contract extension about to kick in next season.

Antetokounmpo is in China promoting shoes, but said he on Facebook he took a physical while there and was not able to complete the exercises due to pain.

“It is by far the biggest disappointment in my career. I must deal with the problem,” Antetokounmpo said in the Facebook post (written in Greek).

Within hours of the post going up, the Greek basketball federation released a statement slamming the Bucks and Antetokounmpo, saying they had done an MRI of his knee and found no damage.

“The simultaneous report by the Milwaukee Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo himself, by phone and social media from faraway China, and not by the appropriate official manner, of his inability to join the national men’s team saddens us … but is not surprising… A series of indications … had convinced us of the existence of an organized and well-staged plan by (the Bucks), with the full knowledge if not encouragement of the NBA that put the athlete on the spot and forced him to announce today that he is no longer part of the men’s national team.”

Great, just what the world needs, another conspiracy theory.

While NBA teams generally are not huge fans of their stars playing in national team tournaments (due to the injury risk), teams cannot stop a healthy player from playing. Antetokounmpo said this was his decision because he is in pain and has to think about the upcoming NBA season.

Whatever the Greek Federation believes internally, slamming the player and his team publicly like this is one good way to make sure he will not want to play for them in the future. He’s got knee pain, they are saying “you’re fine, walk it off, ” and that must have Antetokounmpo and the people around him wondering if the Greek Federation has his best interests — or theirs — at heart.

Akron store already selling “Stay Home 23” shirts, hats as LeBron decision looms

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We’ve seen this movie before.

There is all sorts of buzz around the league that LeBron James has one foot out the door in Cleveland. While people around LeBron denied he the rumor he is “100 percent” leaving, good luck finding any league source who thinks he is staying put next summer. Nothing is set in stone, his options — including staying — remain open, but we’ve all been down this road before.

The hometown fans are going to do their part to urge LeBron to stay.

Fan sentiment has some pull with LeBron (he came back to win the city a title). However, what matters more is a sense of a plan to keep the Cavaliers as title contenders for the coming years — and that is more than just Dan Gilbert paying the tax. The Cavs did nothing this summer that got them closer to beating Golden State, and while they swung for the fences with Paul George, what they really needed was wing defenders and athletes, and they didn’t get those either. Luc Mbah a Moute signed a one-year deal for the minimum somewhere else. Instead, Cleveland overpaid Kyle Korver.

Despite all that, the Cavs remain the team to beat in the East. If Cleveland gets to the Finals — LeBron’s eighth in a row — and they win or make it close, he may see staying as his best option. A season can be a lifetime in the NBA in terms of shifting attitudes. Still, I wouldn’t bet the rent on it.

Marshall Plumlee gets camp invite, partially guaranteed contract from Clippers

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The Los Angeles Clippers have 14 fully guaranteed contracts on their roster, plus a partial guarantee for DeAndre Liggins (who likely is on the roster opening day). They also are pretty much set at center with DeAndre Jordan and Willie Reed (plus when they go small they can play Blake Griffin there, something I wish they’d do a little more).

That said, Doc Rivers — just a coach now — needs bodies for camp, so in comes former Duke star and Knick Marshall Plumlee, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Plumlee played in 21 games for the Knicks last season, logging a total of 190 minutes. He bounced between New York and the D-League Westchester Knicks, when down he averaged 12.3 points and 9.8 rebounds a game.

He’s not making the Clippers’ squad (barring injury), but he could show well and get noticed by other teams. Over the course of a season, there will be a need for bigs as guys go down injured, Plumlee is getting a chance to show how his game has developed. And he makes some money in the process.