Spurs vs. Thunder Game 4 preview: Serge Ibaka’s back but which Spurs team shows up?

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Serge Ibaka changed the dynamic of the Spurs/Thunder series, no doubt. After being declared out for the series with a calf injury he was back in Game 3 and was blocking shots (four) while altering others in the paint on defense, he was helping space out the floor on offense. Combine that with the comforts of being home and the Thunder were a different team in Game 3.

But the Spurs were a different team, too.

Gregg Popovich called the first half the worst defense he had seen from the Spurs all season. Tony Parker was 4-of-13 shooting with as many turnovers as assists. Spurs not named Manu Ginobili shot 35.9 percent overall and 23.5 percent from three. The Spurs were out rebounded by 16.

Yes, Ibaka’s return helped influence the Spurs poor play, but the fact is the Spurs shot 40.7 percent when he was on the court and 37.5 percent when he was off it. They shot worse from three when he was off the court. It you watched the game, you saw the Spurs just flat out miss a number of good looks they normally knock down.

That is the big question for Game 4 Tuesday night, not can Ibaka’s play keep lifting the Thunder — it can and will — but how will the Spurs respond?

If the Spurs play up to their standards from the first couple rounds of the playoffs and the first couple games of this series, Game 4 could be a classic.

Back before this series started and before we knew the extent of Ibaka’s injury, we thought we had a real series on our hands — evenly matched, a tight series that could go either way. Now we have that. It’s going to be a good show.

For the Spurs, they need to get back to defending without fouling — they were the best in the league at it but in Game 3 the Thunder lived at the line (31 free throw attempts). Part of that was the Thunder were the clear aggressors and attacking, but still the Spurs were uncharacteristically fouling.

The Thunder should still be playing with a sense of desperation — they can’t just trade wins, go down 3-1 in this series and it’s all but over — but they got a boost in Game 3 from more than just Ibaka. Reggie Jackson being inserted into the starting lineup also provided scoring balance and the Spurs did not exploit the defensive mismatch (Russell Westbrook was usually on Parker and Danny Green was just 3-of-12 at the other guard spot). Jackson will be back in the starting lineup and while he had 15 points he was 1-of-6 from three and the Thunder may need better than that.

The Thunder need the much improved defense to keep clicking as well, their rotations were much sharper in Game 3 — Ibaka deserves the credit there. His ability to cover ground defensively, his timing, are very impressive and knowing he is back there protecting the rim lets the perimeter Thunder defenders be more aggressive, more confident.

You couldn’t watch Game 3 Sunday and not think back to 2012, when the Spurs won the first two games of the Western Conference Finals before the Thunder figured out how their athleticism could disrupt the Spurs offense, then the Thunder won the next four and went on to the NBA Finals. That Game 3 and Sunday night had a similar feel.

But it is Game 4 Tuesday that will be more telling of what kind of series we have the rest of the way. The Spurs are not prone to have a couple bad games in a row. The question is will that be enough?

Celtics’ Brad Stevens said early September tests will show if Thomas ready for camp

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Isaiah Thomas said he expects to be ready for the Celtics’ training camp next month. The guard’s All-NBA season came to an early end in the playoffs when he aggravated a labral tear in his right hip initially suffered back in March. At least the injury did not require surgery.

Players are also about the worst judges of when they will recover from an injury. They pretty much all think they are invincible and will be healthy faster than doctors predict.

Coaches tend to be more pragmatic. Take Boston’s Brad Stevens, who told Chris Mannix on The Vertical Podcast that tests in a couple of weeks will show if Thomas is ready for camp.

“He has another follow-up and another scan in the early part of September. Obviously, it’s been a lot of appropriate rest, a lot of rehab. There have been some good strides here certainly in the last month or few weeks, but we’re not going to know that until after that early September timeframe.”

The Celtics are understandably going to be cautious with Thomas, while Thomas wants to prove he is healthy and has no ill effects from the injury as he enters a contract year (one where he expects to get PAID). Also, the Celtics could use him in camp as they start to figure out how he and Gordon Hayward can share playmaking duties.

Still, from the outset, the timelines have suggested he should be ready for camp in late September. Coaches are just cautious on these things by nature.

Allen Iverson predicts LeBron James will win MVP

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LeBron James has four NBA MVP trophies in his case. (Does he keep that case in his home in Akron or the one in Los Angeles… that’s a question for another day.) Only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six) and Michael Jordan (five) have more.

Could LeBron James add a fifth to his case this season?

Allen Iverson said yes at last weekend’s Big3 playoffs in Seattle.

LeBron was fourth in preseason odds to win the MVP at 15/2, behind Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and Kawhi Leonard.

To me, LeBron could be a good bet. If/when Kyrie Irving is traded, the chances of LeBron getting the MVP go up. If LeBron puts up impressive numbers (again) and leads a depleted Cavaliers team to a top two seed in the East, he is certainly going to be in consideration. And should be.

It’s a long season, and personally, I think you need to get midway through the season before seriously considering the year-end awards. But history says LeBron will be in the mix, and Allen Iverson could be proven prophetic.

Phoenix Suns with quality solar eclipse joke on Twitter

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With the cooler-than-I-expected solar eclipse on Monday came a lot of bad solar eclipse jokes on Twitter. Because that’s what Twitter does. Especially the NBA Twitterverse. We knew a lot of “where on the flat earth will Kyrie Irving watch the eclipse?” jokes were coming.

There were a couple of good ones, however.

Appropriately, the Phoenix Suns won the day.

One personal favorite here, an old meme that never goes out of style.

Report: Other small-market teams championing Pacers’ tampering allegation against Lakers

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The NBA, at the Pacers’ request, is investigating whether the Lakers tampered by making impressible contact with Paul George.

Bob Kravitz of WTHR

In fact, there’s word that other small- and mid-market team officials have reached out to the Pacers and told them, “Good for you. Fight the good fight.”

Small-market teams whine too much about the disadvantages they face, but tampering isn’t really a market-size issue. Remember, under Mitch Kupchak, the Lakers were known as the only team that didn’t tamper.

The Lakers have advantages because George is from the area, and Los Angeles offers immense marketability. That’d be true whether or not they contacted George or his agent before he officially became a free agent.

I understand the desire to take down the big, bad Lakers – especially now that they appear poised to become truly big and bad again. But it’s hard to find a team that can cast a stone at them from anywhere other than a glass house.