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

12 Comments

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.

Report: Manute Bol’s birthday was made up, may have played in NBA at age 50

Manute Bol
Leave a comment

Former NBA center Manute Bol was a sight to behold when he came to the United States for college. At 7-foot-7 and just 200 pounds, his slight frame was always shocking to the eye.

Bol passed away in 2010, but stories about the Sudanese big man have been top of mind lately as his son, Bol Bol, recently committed to play basketball at the University of Oregon.

A recent story has surfaced about the elder Bol and the purported age at which he entered the NBA and played.

According to former Cleveland State coach Kevin Mackey, he was the one who decided Bol’s birthday was October 16, 1962. This was apparently because it wasn’t clear just how old Bol was at the time.

Via Zagsblog:

“I gave him his birthday because they didn’t know how old he was,” Mackey, now a scout with the Indiana Pacers, told ZAGSBLOG.

But Mackey says Bol was probably much older and could have been in his 40s or even 50s when he played in the NBA. According to Wikipedia, Manute played in the NBA from his early 20s until his early 30s for various teams, including the Washington Bullets, Golden State Warriors and Philadelphia 76ers.

“The immigration people were in the office [at Cleveland State] and they thought it was great. They loved it. And they were big fans of Cleveland State, they used to come to all our games. They wanted to cover themselves because Manute was starting to get so much publicity. His picture was in the paper. He was on the 6 o’clock news because he was a such a different looking guy than everyone else. At that time, no one had ever seen anything like it.”
So at that point, Mackey worked with the local immigration office to come up with a birthday for Bol, Oct. 16, 1962
“It was in October, I wanted to make it after Sept. 1,” Mackey said. “I wanted to make sure he was young enough because he didn’t have an age. I think he was [in his 40s], I really do. But there’s no way of ever really knowing.”

Bol didn’t end up playing at Cleveland State, reportedly because his English was not good enough. He wound up playing at the University of Bridgeport before getting drafted by the Washington Bullets with the 31st pick in the 1985 NBA Draft.

Mackey is now a scout with the Indiana Pacers, and he is so far the only person telling this story. If it is true, it would have been an incredible feat for Bol to play in the NBA into his 40s.

Patrick Beverley after Clippers’ 9th-straight loss: “This ain’t how I roll”

Getty
5 Comments

The Los Angeles Clippers are bad. The team has lost nine straight games since beating the Dallas Mavericks on Nov. 1.

LA has looked discombobulated, and even their stars have struggled. Over the past 10 games, for example, Blake Griffin is shooting an unthinkable 38.2 percent from the field. Griffin’s shooting percentage now sits 10 points below his career average.

So too have guys like DeAndre Jordan and Austin Rivers struggled, either in scoring the basketball or in effecting resistance on the defensive end. The Clippers are ranked just 21st on defense according to Basketball Reference, a dip from 12th the year before.

Oh, and Danilo Gallinari is hurt, but you probably already saw that coming.

Meanwhile, Chris Paul‘s replacement at PG is Patrick Beverley, an equally tenacious defender and motivator of playoff squads. After Monday’s loss to the New York Knicks, Beverley spoke to reporters about the team needing to play harder and mature faster.

Via the LA Times:

“This … feels like 100 losses,” Beverley said. “Straight up. This … is weak. This ain’t how I roll. That ain’t OK and I won’t allow it to be OK as long as I’m here. That’s a fact.”

“We just got to play harder. That’s it. We just got to play harder. You get rid of the mistakes by playing hard. We’re not playing hard; the first unit, not the whole team. I challenged the first unit to play harder.”

“We too cool. We too cool. We come in this game, we come on the court like people are supposed to back down because of the name on the back of our jerseys and that’s not the case. The only thing people are looking at is the name on the front of our jersey, and that’s nine losses in a row.”

Beverley is an intense dude, but the Clippers issues are systemic and aren’t likely to right themselves. Remember, this is a Western Conference where the Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets, and Memphis Grizzlies have all had injuries. Portland has floundered out of the gate. If there was a time to strike, it would be now for LA.

Instead, the Clippers are one of the teams that are struggling along with the rest of the aforementioned teams. I’m not sure what Beverley will be able to do about that.

Steven Adams says Thunder late-game struggles on him, not Westbrook/George/Anthony

Getty Images
4 Comments

In the first half of games this season, the Oklahoma City Thunder have the best defense in the NBA, allowing just 91.7 points per 100 possessions. In those first 24 minutes, the Thunder are outscoring teams by 12.7 points per 100 possessions, second best in the NBA (Houston is first).

However, in the fourth quarter, the Thunder defense is 18.1 points per 100 possessions worse. Their offense stagnates late in games with a lot of “you take a turn and then it’s my turn” isolation between Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony.

The Thunder have nine losses this season, and OKC lost double-digit leads in six of those. Monday night it was a 19-point lead against New Orleans where the Pelicans — without DeMarcus Cousins — came back to win 114-107.

There’s a lot of blame and finger-pointing going on in Oklahoma City, but Steven Adams said less of that should be at the three stars and more of it should be at him. Via Royce Young at ESPN:

“Mainly me, to be honest (should be blamed). Because the play itself you have to execute it properly and it has to be legit down to the t. I screwed up my feet on a couple of them in terms of spacing. … Everyone plays a part in the plight so you can say yeah the shot doesn’t go in which sucks. But to get them that shot I didn’t help them.”

Adams can take on a little of the blame, but this is a team thing right now — everyone has earned some blame. Billy Donovan as coach, role players like Andre Roberson or Patrick Patterson who have not lived up to expectations this season, and yes Westbrook/George/Anthony have earned some blame, too. It’s a little bit of everything.

There’s also time for the Thunder to figure it out, but they are on the clock as this is a one-year experiment in Oklahoma City (no way they pay the whopping tax coming next season to keep all three stars and Adams, no matter what ownership says publicly).

C.J. McCollum: I told Evan Fournier during altercation ‘ you’re sweet and soft like those crepes you eat’

AP Photo/Steve Dykes
4 Comments

C.J. McCollum blew kisses at Evan Fournier when they got into a confrontation during the Trail Blazers’ win over the Magic last week:

But apparently the incident was even better than that!

McCollum on The Flagrant Two podcast, as transcribed by Colin Ward-Henninger of CBSSports.com:

“I just felt like he disrespected me by putting his hands on me,” McCollum said. “Obviously, I’m not trying to get any fines or anything of that nature and I told him he was sweet. He’s French, and I said that, ‘you’re sweet and soft like those crepes you eat.’ “

Did McCollum actually say that in the moment, or did he come up with the line after the fact? I want the former to be true, so I choose to believe it.