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Three things we learned Tuesday: Once again, we’re sleeping on the Spurs

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If you had to pick up the in-laws at the airport, or start your holiday shopping, or just generally were busy Tuesday, I’m sorry. This was as good a night of NBA games as we’ve had this season. Your loss. Here are the big takeaways.

1) In an annual tradition, everyone is sleeping on the San Antonio Spurs.
There are dynamic and exciting teams at the top of the NBA food chain. Golden State is blowing good teams out — they beat the Jazz by 30 Tuesday — and Kevin Durant is blending in seamlessly. LeBron James and the Cavaliers are the clear best of the East and seem destined for the Finals. Toronto’s incredible offense — better than the Warriors or Cavaliers — makes them must watch and a threat. Then there is the offensive blur that is the Houston Rockets, with James Harden leading a sharpshooting offense to 10-straight wins.

Dazzled by all the bright, shiny objects, we once again are looking right past the Spurs.

That would be the 23-5 Spurs, probably the second-best team in the NBA right now (at least by our power rankings), a team that put on an impressive three-point shooting display late Tuesday night — 8-of-10 in the fourth, including Patty Mills wide-open game winner — to snap the Rockets 10-game winning streak.

The Spurs have the sixth-ranked offense in the NBA, the fourth-ranked defense, and just continue to execute better than anyone in the clutch, finding the mismatches and exploiting them nightly. San Antonio is 15-1 on the road. Their defense has improved as the season went on. Kawhi Leonard is an MVP candidate (yes, statistically the Spurs defend better with him off the floor, but he’s usually out there with both Tony Parker and Pau Gasol, and he can only make up for so much on that end, plus there’s the decoy issue). LaMarcus Aldridge remains nearly impossible to guard averaging 16.6 points per game and shooting 45.5 percent from three. Gasol has adjusted to his role and is scoring 11.8 per game. Manu Ginobili is still making plays off the bench — one of the better benches in the game.

Can the fading athleticism of the Spurs, along with the defense of Parker and Gasol (dragging them into pick-and-rolls) be exploited in the playoffs? Teams are going to try, but how many have the personnel to pull it off? In the West there’s the Warriors, the Clippers when healthy, and… it’s a short list. The Spurs are legit contenders, and we should be talking about them more.

2) DeMarcus Cousins goes off. First during the game, then after. Tuesday was the most DeMarcus Cousins of days.

First, he gets a $50,000 fine from his own team for berating a Sacramento Bee columnist (a fine that was well deserved, there are much smarter ways to handle that). A frustrated Cousins takes the court Tuesday night and takes all of it out on the overmatched big men of the Portland Trail Blazers (sorry Mason Plumlee) dropping 55 points.

But the sequence everyone is talking about is Cousins getting ejected — then quickly unejected. The referee said postgame he thought Cousins threw his mouthpiece. Clearly, he didn’t, but did he spit it out intentionally? Either way, the refs changed their tune.

Cousins was adamant that the mouthpiece only came out accidentally — he was barking at the Blazers bench and it just fell out. Cousins was going off on his “ridiculous” rant that was pure gold — “gold Jerry, gold” — when the mic just cuts out.

It looked like the broadcast cut him off, although the reporter involved said they would never cut away from something that good, this was just an issue with the battery pack for the mic malfunctioning. Either way, it’s a perfect end to Cousins’ day.

3) Tuesday was the night of the close finishes.
Tuesday was the most entertaining night of League Pass this season. For example, Boston went into Memphis and got an overtime win on the road because Isaiah Thomas was doing his best unstoppable Allen Iverson imitation — a career high 44 points.

There was the Cavaliers and Bucks going to overtime, where LeBron James had the shot of the night — from Stephen Curry range — to put the Cavs ahead for good.

Charlotte’s Nicolas Batum had a driving bank shot over Nick Young to give the Hornets a win over the Lakers in the final seconds.

Of course, there was the Kings beating Portland and DeMarcus Cousins putting on a show (see above). And then there was Carmelo Anthony dropping 35 in a Knicks win. It was a good night to be an NBA fan.

Florida State’s Jonathan Isaac, probable top-10 pick, declares for NBA draft

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Jonathan Isaac explored bursting through a loophole to declare for the 2016 NBA draft straight out of high school.

Instead, he went to Florida State. Now, he’ll enter the 2017 draft.

Isaac:

If he doesn’t hire an agent, Isaac can maintain college eligibility, but this message seems pretty final. Expect Isaac to remain in the draft, and expect him to go in the top 10.

What I like most about the 6-foot-11 forward: Despite being so lanky, he was an elite defensive rebounder. That shows an underlying technical proficiency and physicality that should serve him well.

And then there are the drool-inducing flashes – his ability to go up and get alley-oops above the rim and a sweet-looking jumper.

He’s still a work in progress, and he deferred a lot at Florida State. But he’s just 19, and he has the tools to do more. I’d love to get him on my team as he learns to assert himself.

Report: Clippers sort of resent Austin Rivers’ favored status

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The Clippers faced a potential crisis this summer.

They had already agreed to re-sign Austin Rivers to a three-year contract worth more than $35 million, and Jamal Crawford was threatening to leave. Losing the then-36-year-old Crawford would’ve been costly, but it wouldn’t have been devastating. The bigger issue would have been the image: keeping the coach’s son over the reigning Sixth Man of the Year.

Clippers president/coach Doc Rivers calmed the brewing storm by giving Crawford a three-year, $42 million deal.

But apparently the underlying tension hasn’t completely dissipated.

Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report:

The in-house resentment toward Austin Rivers being favored as Doc’s son, according to team sources, still very much exists, but it isn’t out of control.

Know what the Clippers truly resent? Losing. They’ve gone 8-9 since the All-Star break, and they’re clearly feeling the slump.

That brings lingering issues, like Austin’s place on the team, to the surface.

And other Clippers are reasonable to show suspicion about the dynamic, a complication Doc should have considered when he traded for Austin.

Austin has explained his never-that-warm relationship with Doc, who was busy coaching while Austin was growing up. These two claim this is far more a coach-player than father-son relationship, and I believe they believe that. I also believe it’s mostly true, though their familial ties probably intrude more than they realize.

That said, Austin has worked himself into a legitimate backup guard after a horrendous start to his NBA career. It’s worth a reminder just how bad he was in New Orleans because that shows how even his modest role now is a sign of tremendous growth. Austin has improved his shot, and his 6-foot-4 frame is an asset in some defensive matchups (probably not as many as Doc believes, judging by Austin’s assignments).

Does Austin deserve 28 minutes per game? Probably not, though he also handles garbage-time minutes so older teammates don’t have to. Does Austin deserve his $11 million+ annual salary? Probably not, though the capped-out Clippers had no recourse beyond minimum contracts to replace him, so he had leverage (ditto Crawford). Does he deserve to so often speak for the team? Probably not, though bigger stars Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan might not mind the occasional break.

Austin’s biggest problem is that, despite his improvement, his gaffes are still so blatant. That makes it more difficult to take him seriously, even when the totality of evidence says we should.

And for all the examples of Doc’s Clippers favoring Doc’s son, Austin was still the player who got left in the game with a concussion. That’s just dangerous, not nepotism.

There isn’t out-of-control resentment for Austin, because there’s isn’t out-of-control favoritism for him.

But there is some favoritism, and the more the Clippers struggle, the more they’ll look for a place to point the finger and occasionally land on Austin.

Report: Spurs assistant Becky Hammon, determined to become NBA head coach, offered Florida women’s job

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Spurs assistant Becky Hammon is the NBA’s first female full-time coach.

She could also become the next Florida women’s basketball coach.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

San Antonio Spurs assistant Becky Hammon is considering a lucrative offer to leave the NBA and become the University of Florida women’s basketball coach, league sources told The Vertical.

The financial offer would be a considerable raise, especially considering that she’s still a young, behind-the-bench assistant on Gregg Popovich’s staff. Nevertheless, Hammon is grappling with the decision, because she has been determined to stay on course to become the NBA’s first female head coach, league sources said.

Hammon is blazing a trail in the NBA and might eventually become a head coach in the league. She has Gregg Popovich’s endorsement, praise from San Antonio players and success in limited opportunities.

But the path for a woman coach in men’s basketball is extremely narrow. It’s not fair, but Hammon faces hurdles others wouldn’t.

And the glass ceiling becomes exponentially thicker for a woman in women’s basketball who’s trying to jump to men’s basketball. Women’s college basketball is not a pipeline to the NBA, especially not for a woman. If Hammon goes to Florida, the paradigm changes. It would renew questions about her playing experience coming only in women’s basketball and her limited time with the Spurs.

Hammon wouldn’t be blackballed from the NBA, but she’d be setting up more obstacles for herself to clear to become a head coach in the league.

In one respect, I don’t envy her decision. However, she has positioned herself to choose between a promising path and an excellent job. Even if deciding is difficult, she’ll wind up in a good place.

Reports: Phil Jackson attending Shaq statue ceremony, Magic Johnson missing it to scout UCLA-Kentucky

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The Lakers are formally unveiling Shaquille O’Neal’s statue outside their arena tonight. Also tonight: UCLA-Kentucky in the Sweet 16, which features NBA prospects Lonzo Ball, Ike Anigbogu, T.J. Leaf, De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo.

That makes an interesting choice for the NBA’s two highest-profile team presidents – the Lakers’ Magic Johnson and Knicks’ Phil Jackson (who coached Shaq in Los Angeles), both of whose teams are headed toward a high picks in the upcoming draft.

And the front-office heads are going different directions.

Arash Markazi of ESPN:

Marc Stein of ESPN:

Watching a single game in person is unlikely to swing anything. Both Johnson and Jackson could send scouts to watch UCLA-Kentucky live and then the presidents could watch video later.

But attending in person is ideal, and there are already questions about Jackson’s work ethic. This will only fuel them.

If nothing else, this is an opportunity for Johnson, new on the job, to establish an image. He can clearly juxtapose himself with the failing Jackson and establish himself as a diligent alternative. The Lakers hired Johnson at least in part due to his high profile, but that needn’t stop him from grinding now that he has the position. Anyone doubting him would respect that.