Thunder vs. Spurs Game 5 preview: Is home cooking enough for San Antonio?

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San Antonio doesn’t want to hear about 2012 (when it was up 2-0 on Oklahoma City in the Western Conference Finals and got swept the next four). The Spurs are a different team now they say, as are the Thunder. This is a different series. All of that is true.

The Spurs biggest problem for Game 5 is one they couldn’t solve in 2012:

When the Thunder players get off the plane in San Antonio, they are still going to be incredibly long and athletic. For a couple years now that advantage has not been something the Spurs have been able to overcome.

Through four games of the Western Conference Finals the home team has won in a blowout. Yet while the series may be even 2-2 but the games have not been. The Spurs owned the first two. After getting crushed on the road now the Spurs come home seeking to reassert their dominance. The Spurs need to win at home because it’s become evident through their nine-game losing streak there they can’t win in Oklahoma City.

Their Serge Ibaka is coming to Game 5, too.

Since he returned to the Heat in Game 3 from a calf injury that was allegedly going to keep him out of the playoffs (nice bit of gamesmanship by the Thunder) the Thunder have been a different team. Their offensive spacing is vastly improved, Ibaka’s threat on the pick-and-pop has opened up driving lanes for Russell Westbrook. On defense the Thunder are more aggressive in extending their pressure because Ibaka is lurking back in the paint to clean up their mistakes. The Thunder’s length and athleticism, with Ibaka back in the lineup, allows them to contest virtually everything — in Game 5 the Thunder contested 47 percent of the Spurs shots, and San Antonio shot 33 percent on those (for comparison, the Thunder shot 49 percent on contested shots in Game 5).

Gregg Popovich has had a couple of years to tinker and experiment on how to beat a healthy Oklahoma City, and as evidenced by the last two games he’s still looking for answers. His team played well for the first eight to nine minutes of Game 4 but then he said they got away from what worked and that will doom you against the Thunder.

“We didn’t play smart on a consistent basis,” Popovich said in his post game press conference broadcast on NBA TV Tuesday night. “All of a sudden we were going to see if Serge (Ibaka) could block a shot or something. I thought about passing a picture out on the bench so they’d know who Serge was. Really unwise basketball all of a sudden. Rather than hitting open people we started attacking the rim unwisely and that turns into blocked shots and turnovers.

“You got to play smarter against such great athletes. They’re talented, obviously, but their athleticism and length gives you a smaller margin for error and you better be smart the way you play. And you can’t afford to screw that up as many times as we did.”

For two games the Thunder have not only been more athletic, they have been far more aggressive and far more physical. Their ability to challenge passes on the perimeter with that athleticism (and Ibaka as a backstop to clean up problems) has the Spurs hesitating to make passes for a split second, which is allowing defenders more time to recover and contest. Tony Parker has had Russell Westbrook in his face defensively and Ibaka in the lane when he drives, taking away anything easy and clean. When Parker struggles the Spurs offense stalls.

Going home for Game 5, and realizing the desperate situation, expect to see the Spurs play harder. Play smarter. Expect the Spurs to come out with a new sense of physicality to their game.

The question is will it matter, or are these Thunder just a matchup problem Popovich and the Spurs cannot solve?

Nike, Adidas, Under Armour pass on potential No. 1 pick Lonzo Ball

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NBA teams reportedly aren’t dinging potential No. 1 pick Lonzo Ball over all the wild stuff his dad says and does.

Shoe companies are apparently taking a different approach.

Darren Rovell of ESPN:

An endorsement deal with Nike, Under Armour or Adidas is not in the cards for Lonzo Ball.

Ball’s father LaVar confirmed that the three shoe and apparel companies informed him that they were not interested in doing a deal with his son. Sources with the three companies told ESPN.com that they indeed were moving on.

In his meetings with the three, LaVar insisted that the company license his upstart Big Baller Brand from him. He also showed the companies a shoe prototype that he hoped would be Lonzo’s first shoe.

“We’ve said from the beginning, we aren’t looking for an endorsement deal,” LaVar told ESPN. “We’re looking for co-branding, a true partner. But they’re not ready for that because they’re not used to that model. But hey, the taxi industry wasn’t ready for Uber, either.”

“Just imagine how rich Tiger (Woods), Kobe (Bryant), Serena (Williams), (Michael) Jordan and LeBron (James) would have been if they dared to do their own thing,” LaVar said. “No one owned their own brand before they turned pro. We do and I have three sons so it’s that much more valuable.”

Is there more upside in this approach? Yeah, I guess.

But the traditional shoe companies bring valuable infrastructure and experience. There’s value in forfeiting upside for those resources. Lonzo Ball, who has yet to play in the NBA, is also missing out on guaranteed life-changing money.

On the risk-reward curve, this seems like a mistake.

Clippers coach Doc Rivers leaves door open for starting Paul Pierce in Game 6 against Jazz

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The Clippers have four sure-fire starters: Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Luc Mbah a Moute and DeAndre Jordan.

The fifth spot is up for grabs with Blake Griffin‘s season-ending injury.

Marreese Speights started Games 4 and 5 against the Jazz. Paul Pierce started the second half of Game 5.

Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times:

When asked if Marreese Speights or Paul Pierce would start against the Jazz in the best-of-seven Western Conference first-round series in which the Clippers trail 3-2, Rivers said, “Yeah, one of them.”

“Paul was good,” Rivers said. “He’s been good throughout the series overall, I will say that. But he’s got to play better too, especially with his second effort, getting out to the shooters and stuff like that.”

There are no good options here.

Pierce, 39, has looked washed up most of his time in L.A. That the Clippers have outscored Utah by nine points in his 58 minutes seems like a product of small sample size.

Speights starting leaves the Clippers vulnerable at center when Jordan sits, and rather than staggering, maybe they ought to just start differently.

Rivers wants to ease the ball-handling burden on Paul, but one choice to do that – Raymond Felton – would be a defensive liability. Another possibility – Jamal Crawford – would present the same defensive issues and sabotage second-unit scoring.

Austin Rivers could bridge the gap, but he’s just returning from his own injury.

Doc Rivers clearly doesn’t trust Wesley Johnson, and the forward’s Game 5 gaffes won’t change that.

The Clippers’ central problem: They have only one player – Luc Mbah a Moute – who can guard Gordon Hayward and Joe Johnson. When those Jazz forwards share the court, especially in crunch time, the Clippers face one massive mismatch.

Is relying on Pierce a good option? No way. But it also might be the Clippers’ best option.

Did you know Myles Garrett, No. 1 pick in NFL draft, has brother who played in NBA?

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The Cleveland Browns are trying something new: Making smart decisions. That included drafting Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett with the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft.

Garrett has NBA ties. His half brother, Sean Williams, was the No. 17 pick by the New Jersey Nets in 2007. Williams played just four years in the NBA, also spending time with the Mavericks and Celtics. He serves as a cautionary tale for Garrett.

Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated in a 2015 profile of Garrett:

Then there’s Sean Williams, Myles’s older brother by almost 10 years, a pro athlete who accompanied him on an official visit to College Station and served as a role model and mentor. More important, he offered a cautionary tale. “Myles looks up to Sean and loves Sean but knows the things Sean went through and how my mom hated watching her son self-destruct,” says Brea. “Myles never wanted to let my mom down. Honestly, the best thing Sean could have done for Myles was to f— up.”

Myles remembers approaching a Chevrolet Avalanche with smoke pluming from its windows. He was around 12, and as he pleaded with the man inside to stop smoking weed, tears streaked his face. Sean, then a 6’10”, 235-pound shot-blocking power forward for the Nets, had heard his little brother make this request many times before but never heeded him. “Definitely not,” Williams, 28, says when asked if he maximized his potential. “I let bad decisions get in the way, [let] smoking so much get in the way.”

As he got older, Myles played a lot of basketball with Sean, and despite the gaps in age and size, they went at it hard. Along with the stellar genes, Audrey gave her children an edge: “There was no allowing the kids to win in our house, be it Uno or tic-tac-toe. They could have been bums, but they would have been competitive bums.”

Myles idolized Sean. After the Nets picked Sean, Myles spent vacations in New Jersey with him, celebrating when he finally won in video games and when he first dunked on his big brother by grabbing onto him with one arm and tomahawking the ball with the other. In 2011-12, when Sean was playing for the Mavericks, the brothers often squared off at the team facility. One day Sean’s agent, Bernie Lee, got a call from Dallas GM Donnie Nelson. “You have to tell Sean to stop bringing his friend in to play one-on-one,” Nelson told Lee. “We’re scared they are going to hurt each other.” Nelson didn’t know who the friend was but guessed he was Sean’s bodyguard. Myles had just turned 16.

Check out the rest of Thamel’s story for a fuller basketball-colored introduction to Garrett.

Report: Isaiah Thomas scheduled to fly from Chicago to Washington after Celtics-Bulls Game 6

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Isaiah Thomas has played – and played well – in all five games of the Celtics’ first-round series against the Bulls, which Boston leads 3-2.

But he has done so while travelling more than his teammates, flying home to Washington to be with his family after Game 2, following his sister’s death in a car crash. He’ll again make the extra trip after Game 6 tonight.

Adam Himmelsbach of The Boston Globe:

After the Celtics and Bulls play Game 6 at the United Center on Friday night, Thomas is scheduled to fly to Tacoma to attend his sister’s funeral at noon on Saturday. If the Celtics win Game 6, this series will be over. But if Chicago wins, Game 7 will be played in Boston at 1 p.m. on Sunday.

Teams up 3-2 with a road Game 6 in a 2-2-1-1-1 have won Game 6 just over half the time. The Celtics have been inspired to play for Thomas, who is admittedly emotionally exhausted, and I suspect this will only intensify his teammates’ desire to win for him.

I can’t imagine how Thomas has handled such a heavy burden, but it’d be nice if he had a little relief rather than the pressure to return to Boston by early Sunday afternoon.