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?

Nuggets say Paul Millsap won’t return until after All-Star break

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The Western Conference has been a blast this season, with the Houston Rockets playing strong after the arrival of Chris Paul. The team has 13 straight wins, and a 1.5 game lead over the Golden State Warriors.

That’s just part of the results of the West getting a boatload of stars sent its way over the summer. One team is lacking their new addition, however, and his absence has been a quiet disappointment. The Denver Nuggets still sit in sixth place out West, but new forward Paul Millsap has been sidelined with a wrist injury.

The original timeline for Millsap said he would be out for three months, which would put him back around the beginning of March. That plan was confirmed by Nuggets head coach Mike Malone, who said that he expects Millsap will be out until at least the All-Star break, which starts on February 16.

Malone also seemed to indicate it’s possible Millsap is out longer than that.

Via Twitter:

At least Millsap is on schedule? It’s hard to tell inflection from text, but let’s just hope Malone’s “at the earliest” isn’t an indicator of slow recovery on Millsap’s part. The Nuggets certainly don’t need to rush Millsap back. They have a 16-13 record and instill more confidence than most the teams floundering below them in the standings.

LeBron James on talk with Lonzo Ball: “Some things could be held private”

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LeBron James was caught on a hot mic this week speaking with Los Angeles Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball. The conversation came after the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Lakers in Ohio, 121-112.

In their talk, LeBron told Ball that he needed to stay in his zone and be aggressive. Pretty generic stuff, to be honest.

Meanwhile, LeBron was asked about whether he thought having microphones record those types of conversations between players was good for the league. He was less than enthused.

Via Cleveland.com (response is at 0:50 in the video above):

Some things could be held private. Like my conversation with Lonzo. Everything doesn’t need to be said. Should be some type of privacy. I’m OK with it.

It does raise an interesting question in terms of player privacy and separation between media, fans, and players. On one hand, you could see how what they say on the floor, in a public arena meant for spectators, could be deemed public and therefore fair game.

But it’s also common for media not to publish — or for TV not to broadcast — the things players say during the game. We don’t hear trash talking, even if we see it, and if you’ve ever sat near the floor at an NBA game you hear a lot more colorful language than you do watching the game on TV.

However you come down player privacy on the court, it doesn’t seem like LeBron needed to speak with Ball in front of media like that. He could have spoken to him in the tunnels below the Q, or got his phone number and texted him. He could have sent him a DM on Twitter and it would have been more private.

It feels like there was a performative aspect to this, like LeBron wanted to create a mystery around his conversation with Lonzo but it got turned on its head. It’s just too bad what was said between them wasn’t actually that interesting.

LeBron James on possibly winning fifth MVP this season: “it would mean a lot”

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LeBron James is destroying the NBA’s traditional aging curve. Over the years and looking at thousands of players, we know that at certain ages and years in the league, guys start to decline. Look at the guys still in the league from the 2003 NBA draft: players still in the league, such as Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony, are seeing their games deteriorate in their 15th NBA season. As expected.

Not LeBron.

About to turn 33 and having played more regular season games than Michael Jordan did, LeBron is averaging 28.1 points, 9.3 assists and 8.1 rebounds a game, with a true shooting percentage of 65.9 that would be a career high, and a PER of 31.5 that is right at his career high for a season (31.7). LeBron has not lost a step.

LeBron is in the middle of the too-early MVP conversation, where he and Houston’s James Harden have separated from the field a third of the way into the season. At shootaround Saturday LeBron said winning the NBA MVP for a fifth time would matter to him, but what he really likes doing is opening the door to future NBA players to blow up the aging curve. Via Nick Friedell of ESPN.

“Team success is always the number one, but along the way if you’re able to accomplish some individual awards, individual achievements, it would mean a lot,” James said after Saturday’s practice. “I feel good. This is my 15th year, but this is one of the best years I’ve had as far as how I feel and I want to continue that. I want to kind of try to break the mold for the next generation. So just take the narrative out of ‘OK, you’re past your prime when you get [to] 31, or you’re past your prime in your 12th year in the league, or whatever the case may be.’ Hopefully I can break the mold so when the next guy comes, he can still get 200 or 300 million and be 33 years old. I’m serious. You guys are laughing, I’m serious. This is the mold I’m trying to break.”

He’s broken it.

Part of it is that today’s players know more about nutrition and training than past generations. They tend to take better care of their bodies, there are improved medical treatments, and much better diets — and nobody takes all that more seriously than LeBron.

Also, he is a physical freak of nature. Always has been.

It’s too early to have a serious MVP conversation, we have two-thirds of the season remaining, but as of now LeBron and Harden are the front runners (with guys such as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis and others on the next tier). If LeBron can keep up this level of play, and continues to carry the Cavaliers to a top two record in the East, he will be one of the top vote-getters. No question.

And that would break a mold, too, and put him in a conversation with Michael Jordan again (Jordan won five MVPs, the oldest at age 35).

Kevin Hart plays Shaq, Saturday Night Live takes on Inside The NBA

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Notoriously undersized actor — and NBA All-Star Weekend Celebrity Game MVP — Kevin Hart playing the notoriously oversized Shaquille O’Neal is brilliant.

That was at the heart of it when Saturday Night Live took on Inside the NBA on its Christmas show Saturday night. Hart was into it poking fun at Shaq’s penchant for going off with his own word salad during the show.

Charles Barkley and Shaq are rich satire targets, and SNL went right at them. Well done.