Memphis Grizzlies v San Antonio Spurs - Game One

Gregg Popovich’s first starting-lineup adjustment of the playoffs changes Spurs’ fortunes

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The San Antonio Spurs have a clear starting-lineup philosophy.

Actually, they have two.

In the regular season, they rest and experiment. With top players frequently getting nights off, Gregg Popovich often tests new combinations. In the playoffs, San Antonio goes with what worked best during all that regular-season shuffling.

Entering their pivotal Game 5 matchup with the Thunder on Thursday, the Spurs’ dichotomy in number of starting lineups was strong:

  • Regular season: 30 (second most in the NBA behind only the Los Angeles Lakers)
  • Playoffs: 1

Thursday, Popovich made an expert adjustment – starting Matt Bonner for Tiago Splitter and then Boris Diaw for Bonner to begin the second half – to spark San Antonio’s offense in a 117-89 win.

Bonner and Diaw pulled Serge Ibaka from the paint, limiting Oklahoma City’s top interior defender and neutralizing the other Thunder who depend on Ibaka’s rim protection to gamble themselves. Inside and out, Bonner and Diaw changed the game.

The Spurs’ offensive rating with Bonner on the court (108.0) Thursday was significantly higher than their overall offensive rating in Game 3 (94.1) and Game 4 (97.2). That’s despite Bonner’s impact being limited to him standing on the perimeter and forcing Ibaka to account for him. He missed all four his shots, and other than two fouls, didn’t register in the box score.

Diaw (13 points on seven shots, including making both his 3-point attempts, with six rebounds and three assists) is much more qualified to handle a major role at this point. San Antonio’s offensive rating launched into the stratosphere with him on the court – an astounding 138.5.

Of course, Diaw and Bonner hardly did it alone. Mostly, their spacing freed their teammates to operate as Thunder stretched their defense thin.

The Spurs are a superb passing team, and with Ibaka on the perimeter, they again moved the ball like when he was completely out in Games 1 and 2. Danny Green, Patty Mills and Manu Ginobili led San Antonio to 13-of-26 3-point shooting, and Tim Duncan (22 points and 12 rebounds) worked the Thunder inside.

At heart, these Spurs are an offensive team. They’ve now scored more than 110 points eight times this postseason – tying Mike D’Antoni’s seven-seconds-or-less 2005 Phoenix Suns for the most such games since Popovich began coaching.

Popovich has shifted strategies through years – eschewing grinding defensive teams for running offensive teams. Again in Game 5, Popovich showed his priorities.

Bonner and Diaw are defensive downgrades from Splitter, a tradeoff many coaches wouldn’t make this time of year. Though the Thunder slipped after throwing in the towel late, they scored 111.8 points per 100 possessions with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook on the floor.

Yet, whatever the Spurs gave up defensively, they more than made up for it offensively.

In hindsight, the move is obvious. San Antonio was -14 in the 27 minutes Splitter and Ibaka had shared the court this series. Minutes into Game 5, it became clear how much changing changing Ibaka’s defensive responsibilities had thrown the Thunder out of whack.

But in the regular season, the Spurs played Oklahoma City even in the 30 minutes Duncan and Splitter shared the court. That’s not so bad for a team that dropped all four matchups against Oklahoma City.

I can’t say with total certainty Popovich – who also made other adjustments like having Kawhi Leonard guard Westbrook, dropping Tony Parker onto Reggie Jackson and Green onto Durant – knew precisely what he was doing. He might have just been grasping at straws after dropping 12 of 14 to the Thunder with Ibaka.

Popovich tends to get more than his share of these decisions right, though – and he got this one right. He gets, and deserves, the benefit of the doubt.

Scott Brooks will have a chance to counter in Game 6 Saturday, and perhaps he’ll use more small lineups with Caron Butler or even Jeremy Lamb in place of Kendrick Perkins. The Spurs have relinquished their ability to pound Oklahoma City inside offensively, and they’re exposed to more-skilled offensive opponents picking them apart. Then again, there’s only so much a coach known for lacking a deep playbook can do.

The Thunder gained a huge advantage with Ibaka returning, but San Antonio had the biggest advantage in this series – a 2-0 lead. That allowed the Spurs margin for error, extra time for the NBA’s best coach to adjust.

It took a few games, but Popovich has the Spurs’ offense humming once again and one win from another trip to the NBA Finals.

Steve Kerr on Stephen Curry: “it’s not an injury”

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In the age of social media and spin, the idea of a nuanced answer — where there is some truth to a statement, but it is not the only reason for something — gets drowned out.

For example, let’s take the case of Stephen Curry‘s below-par performance against the Oklahoma City Thunder (he was 6-of-20 shooting with six turnovers in Game 4 and is 5-of-21 from three in the last two games). A report came out Wednesday morning saying Curry was only 70 percent following his knee surgery, which first led to a lot of silly “excuses” comments on Twitter. This led to Steve Kerr denying the injury, via Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times.

Here’s a radical idea: Curry’s struggles are a combination of things.

Yes, the improved, athletic, and lengthy Thunder defense is giving Curry problems. They are meeting him out high, often doubling off the pick-and-roll, and when that pick is set by Draymond Green Kevin Durant and his length is doing a great job of blowing that play up. Also, it is clear the physical exertion of guarding Russell Westbrook is wearing Curry down.

But also, he has lacked the explosiveness we saw lift him to a second consecutive MVP during the season. He’s had great quarters — the fourth and OT in Game 4 vs. Portland, and the second quarter of Game 2 vs. OKC — but he has not been the consistent force we are used to seeing.

Welcome to the playoffs, where if someone is a little bit off that gets exploited by the other team.

That is what is going on, the rest is just spin.

Frank Vogel says it would be “inaccurate” to say he begged for his job with Pacers

TORONTO, ON - MAY 01:  Head Coach Frank Vogel of the Indiana Pacers looks on in the first half of Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Toronto Raptors during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on May 01, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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This is all moot now. Frank Vogel has landed on his feet with a promising young Orlando team; Nate McMillan slid up a chair to take over the head coaching job in Indiana (which is an odd hire if Larry Bird wants the Pacers to play faster). But…

Frank Vogel wants you to know he did not beg for his job.

At the post-firing press conference of Pacers’ coach Larry Bird, he said that Vogel basically begged for his job. Vogel, speaking on ESPN Indianapolis Radio’s Dan Dakich Show Tuesday, via the Indianapolis Star:

Larry’s going to speak his mind. A lot of people talked to me about it who didn’t like that and it’s probably an inaccurate perception that I was begging him to stay. … I fully respect Larry and the process. He knew it was going to be an unpopular move but he did what he had to do.

“I felt like we were on the verge of some big things. We stood toe-to-toe with a 56-win team. I told my team after the series that were poised … I felt like I was going to be able to do that with this group. That was my only mention to Larry.”

Again, this is all moot.

The reality is Vogel was never Bird’s guy, Bird wanted the Pacers to play faster than they did last season (11th in the NBA in pace), and Bird thought it time for a change. He’s the team president, it’s his call.

But did Bird make the Pacers better with this move? Begging discussion aside, that is the question to which he must answer.

Kobe Bryant texts Draymond Green, says making history is not easy

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The Golden State Warriors made history — they won 73 games, more than any team in NBA history.

But they are on the verge of being remembered like the 2007 Patriots.

The Warriors are down 3-1 to the Thunder for a variety of reasons — the Thunder defense has been exceptional, Russell Westbrook is a beast, for whatever reason Stephen Curry is not playing like MVP Stephen Curry — but there is another key one:

Draymond Green has played like crap the last couple games.

Kobe Bryant, who relates to Green’s drive and intensity, texted him a message according to Sportando:

That reflects Kobe’s world view.

It may be very different from the Warriors’ reality — even if Curry and Green were back to playing at their peak, it very well might be a coin toss with this Thunder team playing at their peak. The struggles of those two — Green has turned the ball over, missed shots, and missed defensive rotations for two games — have a lot to do with the quality of play of that Thunder defense.

But if the Warriors can come back and win the series (and the title), it will add to their legend.

Report: Grizzlies offer David Fizdale head coaching job

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This is a quality hire, a respected long-time NBA assistant who has deserved a shot in the big chair.

But is he an upgrade over Dave Joerger?

Apparently the Grizzlies are betting that Miami Heat assistant coach David Fizdale is the man they need. From Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

Casual fans may not know his name, but this could be a good hire for Memphis. Fizdale is an assistant coach with a quality franchise who has paid his dues and deserves a chance. For example, in Miami Fizdale had won the trust and respect of a team full of players that had won rings. He was a guy they leaned on. As an example, Fizdale worked hard with LeBron James on developing a post game; he was the guy LeBron trusted.

But how will he deal with an aging roster that lacks shooting? The Memphis job is a good one, but it has its challenges.