2011 NBA All-Star Game Practices

Was Doc Rivers one game from replacing Gregg Popovich as Spurs head coach?

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Imagine an NBA general manager who, mid-season, fires the coach with the best winning percentage in franchise history.

Then, despite having no head-coaching experience outside something called Pomona-Pitzer, the general manager names himself head coach.

He goes 17-47 the rest of that season. Yet, he lucks into the No. 1 pick in the draft and selects the arguably the most NBA-ready rookie of all-time, a future Hall of Famer to pair with the one his team already has. Then, with two future Hall of Famers, he wins just one playoff series. In year three, he starts 6-8.

Think that coach belongs on the hot seat?

Well, Gregg Popovich was in 1999.

By March 2 of the lockout-shortened 1999 season, the Spurs coach faced intense scrutiny from within and outside the organization.

Marc Stein of ESPN:

A popular former Spur named Doc Rivers also happened to be a member of San Antonio’s broadcast team in those days. The fans’ clamor for Rivers, who was already being billed as a coaching natural, to replace the what-has-he-ever-done Popovich got louder with every loss suffered during that slow start.

But by the time the Spurs were headed to Houston for the 15th game of a truncated schedule that left no time for early slumps, pressure on Pop wasn’t coming solely from the public or the media. The belief among many of Pop’s players was that the coach was on the brink of being fired. Or being forced, at the very least, to return to a GM-only role.

“It was different from the regular pregame,” former Spurs forward Malik Rose said, rewinding back to the game in question against a Rockets team headlined by Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen.

“David [Robinson] usually didn’t say much beyond a prayer in the huddle when we brought it all in, but [before this game] David was saying, ‘We’ve got to get it together, we’ve got to do this, this is a big game.’

“If we lost that game, they were going to fire Pop and bring in Doc … that was the rumor. I would have to say it was real because of the gravity in the locker room. I’ll never forget it.”

Said then-Spurs guard Steve Kerr: “I can’t say I felt like he was close to getting fired, but there was a lot of discomfort with the way things had started [that season]. Pop wasn’t Pop yet. He didn’t have a name. The fans still didn’t really know who he was.”

[Avery] Johnson, Pop’s point guard and the most vocal of leaders on that Spurs team, says today that he has no doubt that Houston game was the ultimate must-win for the third-year head coach.

“Absolutely,” Johnson says. “Things had been communicated to us. It was really real.

“There was a lot of noise about Pop being potentially replaced by Doc, so David [Robinson] and I went to Pop’s house before we got on the flight to go to Houston. Pop talked to us and … what I will say is we came out of there feeling so strongly about Pop that we knew we had to go win that game.”

“I don’t know that I’d say the end was near,” said longtime Spurs assistant coach Mike Budenholzer, now coach of the Atlanta Hawks. “But there was a real concern that we weren’t meeting expectations. It was real. It was genuine. We knew we needed to start playing better and start playing better soon. So I would say it was real.”

Said Johnson: “At the end of the day my allegiances were to Pop because he had put such great faith in me. I felt if he would have gotten fired [after replacing Hill], I’d have been one of the reasons he got fired, because I wasn’t viewed as a starting point guard that could lead a team to the championship. So I really took that personal. [And] it was the most passionate pregame speech David ever gave. He was foaming at the mouth.”

The Spurs beat the Rockets by 17, sparking a 31-5 finish to the regular season and a run through the playoffs that ended with a championship. Popovich obviously stuck around, and Rivers eventually broke into coaching with the Magic.

Yet, this story – one of many told by Stein in an excellent feature on Popovich and Duncan – leaves so many fun and unknowable questions unanswered. The two that stand out to me:

  • How would Rivers had done with the Spurs?
  • Was Popovich already a great coach in March 1999, or did this one win give him time to grow into the job?

This – what if the Spurs had lost to Houston that Tuesday night? – is definitely one of the great what-ifs in NBA history.

Kawhi Leonard’s 34 points rally Spurs past Timberwolves, 122-114 (VIDEO)

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) Kawhi Leonard had 34 points and the San Antonio Spurs overcame a strong start by the Minnesota Timberwolves for a 122-114 victory Tuesday night.

Leonard’s fourth straight 30-point game helped him become the first San Antonio player to score 950 points in the first half of a season since Tim Duncan in 2003.

Coming off a career-high 38 on Saturday against Phoenix in Mexico City, Leonard was 12 for 17 from the field.

LaMarcus Aldridge added 29 points on 12-for-20 shooting, spoiling Minnesota coach Tom Thibodeau’s 59th birthday.

San Antonio had difficulty with Minnesota’s explosive starting lineup. Karl-Anthony Towns had 27 points and 16 rebounds, and Ricky Rubio added 21 points and 14 assists. Zach LaVine scored 18, Gorgui Dieng had 17 and Andrew Wiggins 10.

Minnesota’s 41 points in the second were a season high for any period and the most points in a quarter by a San Antonio opponent this season.

The Spurs were more active in the second half, holding the Timberwolves to 43 points.

TIP-INS

Timberwolves: LaVine has 29 points, nine rebounds and three assists in two games since returning from a two-game absence caused by a bruised left hip. . Minnesota is 4-22 when allowing 100-plus points. . The Timberwolves’ last win against San Antonio was April 8, 2014, a 110-91 victory at home. . Minnesota’s previous high for a quarter was 39 points in the first against Orlando on Nov. 9. Its previous high for the second period was 35 in that same game against the Magic. . The Timberwolves are 5-15 on the road.

Spurs: Leonard has scored in double figures in 73 straight games, the seventh-longest active streak in the NBA behind LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Isaiah Thomas, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and DeMarcus Cousins. . Parker collected his 6,500th career assist, joining James as the only two active players with 6,500 assists and 18,000 points. John Stockton, Isiah Thomas, Gary Payton and Oscar Robertson are the only other players to reach those milestones. . San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich was assessed his fourth technical foul of the season with 3:41 left in the first quarter for berating Michael Smith over a non-call. After Aldridge appeared to be shoved from behind on an attempted offensive rebound, Popovich walked the sideline screaming and shadowing Smith and had to be restrained near midcourt by Spurs assistant Ettore Messina. . The previous high for free throws attempted by an opponent was 38 by Sacramento on Oct. 27.

UP NEXT

Timberwolves: At the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday night.

Spurs: Host the Denver Nuggets on Thursday night.

In salary cap move, Atlanta trades Mo Williams to Denver

CLEVELAND, OH - MARCH 31: Mo Williams #52 of the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrates after hitting a three point shot during the second half against the Brooklyn Nets at Quicken Loans Arena on March 31, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cavaliers defeated the Nets 107-87. 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. Mandatory copyright notice. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***Mo Williams
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Mo Williams decided before the season he was done — he walked away from basketball and left the Cavaliers without a reliable backup point guard. LeBron James is still complaining about not having one.

But just because he wasn’t playing didn’t lead the Cavaliers to shed his salary. That was dead money that could be useful in a trade — such as landing Kyle Korver. The Hawks landed Mo Williams in that deal (along with Mike Dunleavy Jr. and a pick).

Now the Hawks have moved Williams on to Denver in a salary cap move for both teams, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

The Hawks worked out Gary Neal recently and saw the veteran as a shooter who could help them fill the hole left by Kover.

This is simply a salary cap trade. It’s not changing anyone’s rotation.

Mavericks edge Bulls 99-98 for 3rd straight win (VIDEO)

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CHICAGO (AP) Wesley Matthews made a go-ahead 3-pointer from the wing with 12 seconds left, and the Dallas Mavericks beat the Chicago Bulls 99-98 on Tuesday night for their first three-game winning streak of the season.

Six players scored in double figures for the Mavericks, including all five starters. Harrison Barnes had 20 points, Seth Curry added 18 and Dirk Nowitzki finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds.

Dallas trailed 98-96 after Jimmy Butler made a long jumper over Matthews with 23 seconds left, but Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle decided against a timeout and Deron Williams drove into the lane before kicking out to Matthews for the 3.

Chicago had one last chance, but Dwyane Wade missed a potential game-winning jumper from the corner on his 35th birthday as time expired.

Butler finished with 24 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds for the Bulls, who had won two in a row. Robin Lopez scored 21, and Wade had 17 on 8-for-21 shooting.

Wade’s fadeaway jumper gave the Bulls a 94-90 lead with about 3 1/2 minutes left, but they were unable to close out Dallas. Chicago has dropped four in a row against the Mavericks, including a 107-82 loss in their first meeting of the season.

Chicago played without forward Taj Gibson, sidelined by left ankle soreness. Paul Zipser, a second-round pick in last year’s draft, started in Gibson’s spot and finished with five points and three rebounds in his 13th game of the season.

Gibson, averaging 12 points and 7.3 rebounds, could return Friday night at Atlanta. He had played in every game this season.

Dallas put together a 15-4 run spanning halftime to open a 64-51 lead on Barnes’ turnaround jumper with 8:38 left in the third. But Chicago kept chipping away at the deficit, and Lopez’s three-point play off a pass from Butler trimmed the Mavericks’ lead to 76-74 heading into the fourth.

Williams had 11 points, nine assists and six rebounds for Dallas, and reserve J.J. Barea scored 12 points. Matthews went 3 for 5 from 3-point range and finished with 11 points.

TIP-INS

Mavericks: C Andrew Bogut missed his third straight game with a right hamstring strain.

Bulls: Butler received his Olympic championship ring during a pregame ceremony. He helped the U.S. win gold in Rio de Janeiro last summer. … F Doug McDermott, who scored a career-high 31 points in Chicago’s 108-104 victory at Memphis on Sunday night, finished with seven points on 3-for-10 shooting.

UP NEXT

Mavericks: Visit Miami on Thursday night. The Mavericks have lost nine of their last 10 regular-season games against the Heat.

Bulls: Visit Atlanta on Friday night. The Bulls have dropped five in a row against the Hawks, including a 115-107 defeat at Atlanta on Nov. 9.

Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap

Goran Dragic scores 21 as Heat stun Rockets, 109-103

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MIAMI (AP) The way the Miami Heat saw it, this was a reward.

Goran Dragic had 21 points and eight assists, Wayne Ellington scored 18 off the bench and the Heat – saddled with one of the worst records in the NBA – overcame another triple-double from James Harden to beat the Houston Rockets 109-103 on Tuesday night.

Dion Waiters scored 17, Tyler Johnson had 16 and James Johnson added 15 for the Heat, who trailed by a point midway through the fourth quarter before putting the game away with a 20-5 run.

“I’m glad to see our guys get rewarded finally for all the work, but that doesn’t guarantee anything,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We talk about it all the time. You keep on putting in deposits, to the team, to the work, continue to work to get better … trust that process.”

Harden had 40 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists for the Rockets (32-12), his 13th triple-double of the season. He shot 12 for 30 from the field and got his triple-double with an assist to Montrezl Harrell with 12.6 seconds left, an uncontested dunk with the Heat simply waiting for the clock to run out.

Harrell had 13 points for the Rockets, who got 12 from Patrick Beverley.

“They played hard and they beat us,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said. “There’s not much else to say.”

Hassan Whiteside added 14 points and 15 rebounds for Miami in a game that had 19 lead changes and 15 ties.

Dragic found Ellington for a corner 3 with 1:41 left to give Miami an 11-point lead – the largest either team had to that point. The Rockets turned it over on their next possession, James Johnson got a runout dunk and the Heat (12-30) soon finished off the win.

“We got open shots. We just missed them,” Harden said. “We gave ourselves a chance, especially in that third quarter. Fourth quarter we didn’t play as well as we need to.”

TIP-INS

Rockets: Clint Capela returned after missing 15 games with a small left fibula fracture and started at center. He was scoreless in nine minutes. … The Rockets were without Ryan Anderson (flu), and Eric Gordon – bothered by a sore ankle – shot 3 for 17. … Harden’s triple-double was only the seventh posted by an opposing player in a game (including playoffs) at Miami – and the second in three weeks, after Russell Westbrook did it on Dec. 27.

Heat: It was Miami’s first home game since Jan. 1. … Okaro White was signed to a 10-day contract Tuesday, but did not play. … Floyd Mayweather was courtside, as he’s been for several Miami games this season. … Miami held the Rockets to a 9-for-39 night from 3-point range. … Miami’s bench outscored Houston’s 51-32.

TECHS FOR EVERYONE

Spoelstra received a technical early in the third quarter, upset after Rodney McGruder got hit with his fourth foul in 13 minutes. D’Antoni drew a technical with 5:40 left, and Beverley got one with 1:12 left.

HARDEN IN MIAMI

Shooting has never been easy for Harden in Miami.

He was 3 for 18 in two games at AmericanAirlines Arena in the NCAA tournament for Arizona State in 2009. He’s a 38 percent shooter in 11 games at Miami as a pro, 30 percent from 3-point range – and his teams are 3-8 in those games.

UP NEXT

Rockets: Host Milwaukee on Wednesday, part of a four-game, five-night swing.

Heat: Host Dallas on Thursday in the second game of a four-game homestand.