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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.

Watch DeMarcus Cousins’ historic 44/24/10 night

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The last time somebody did this — scored more than 40 points, had more than 20 rebounds, and dished out more than 10 assists in a game — “Poseidon Adventure” was in the theaters and Elton John had just released “Rocket Man.” It was Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar when he was still playing in Milwaukee.

Monday night, DeMarcus Cousins did it.

Cousins scored 44 points, had 24 rebounds, and dished out 10 assists in the Pelicans’ double OT win against Chicago. These were not meaningless points, Cousins picked up seven of them in the second overtime.

Cousins has had a monster first half of the season and earned his first All-Star Game start this year.

Report: Kevin Love called out in emotional Cavaliers team meeting

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Having lost 8-of-11, a Cavaliers team meeting where the players got to vent seemed inevitable. There isn’t one person in that Cavaliers locker room that doesn’t deserve some blame for how things have turned.

However, Kevin Love apparently became the whipping boy.

From Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

The Cleveland Cavaliers held a fiery team meeting in the practice facility locker room prior to Monday’s practice, during which several players challenged the legitimacy of Kevin Love’s illness that led him to leave Saturday’s loss to Oklahoma City early and miss Sunday’s practice, league sources told ESPN.

Several players were pushing for the Cavaliers’ management and coaching staff to hold Love accountable for leaving the arena before the end of Saturday’s game, and then missing Sunday’s practice, league sources told ESPN.

The meeting was loud and intense, only calming down once Love spoke to those gathered in the room and explained himself, league sources said.

The more things change, the more things are always Kevin Love’s fault.

According to the report, the majority of the team seemed to accept Love’s explanation. Love left the Cavaliers ugly, nationally televised blowout at the hands of the Thunder in the first half and did not return due to what was described only as an illness. He did not stay around for the end of the game. I’m not about to speculate on how ill he was or was not, what matters is that his teammates were not buying it. When a team is losing finger-pointing is almost inevitable, and Love has gotten more than his fair share of it in Cleveland. At least he stood up for himself.

Team meetings may allow a pressure release in a locker room, but they almost never result in any kind of meaningful change. We’ll see what if anything changes in Cleveland.

Bucks GM on Jason Kidd firing: “This is a performance-based thing”

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Last season the Bucks went 42-40 in the regular season and were up 2-1 in their first-round playoff series against Toronto before ultimately losing in six.

This season, expectations were high. Before the season there was talk from the team of a 50-win team (Las Vegas oddsmakers set the under/over at 47.5) that would finish in the top four in the Eastern Conference, hosting a playoff round. There was hope that the defense would improve, and with that the Bucks would look like a young team figuring it out.

They haven’t looked like that at all — they are 23-22 (with the point differential of a 20-25 team), and their defense is 25th in the NBA. Currently, they have just a one-game cushion for the final playoff slot in the East.

That cost coach Jason Kidd his job, first-year Bucks GM Jon Horst said Monday night at a press conference, as reported by Matt Velazquez at the Journal-Sentinel.

“At the end, this is a performance-based thing,” Horst said. “We believe in this team, we believe in our players and in the talents that they have. We’re looking forward at making playoff appearances in consecutive years for the first time in over a decade and hopefully winning a first-round series for the first time in over a decade. So we felt like at this time, this is the right decision to help this team get there.”

Around the league the move was not a total surprise, but the timing caught people off guard. Horst said it happened “relatively quickly” and explained:

“A general manager in the NHL had a statement once: ‘If something is inevitable, why wait?’ I think we came to the conclusion that this was the best thing for the future of the franchise and this was the time.”

Come this summer this will be the hottest coaching job available because of Giannis Antetokounmpo and the potential of this roster. Names such as Jeff Van Gundy and former Pelicans coach Monty Williams have been mentioned, but the ultimate list will be longer. Honestly, a few coaches with jobs might rather have the Bucks job (although the challenges between the two owners there can make things uncomfortable at times).

“We have another game on Friday and between that time we have a plan that we’ll put in place that we’ll kind of layout for the rest of the season,” Horst said. “We’ll go into the summer and have an extensive coaching search with an opportunity to hopefully find a great coach for this organization of which (interim coach) Joe Prunty has every opportunity to be a part of based on what happens going forward.”

This is going to a rough adjustment for Antetokounmpo and some of the players, who respected and trusted Kidd. There’s a lot of pressure on Horst with this hire.

That doesn’t make it the wrong move — Horst did the right thing here. The Bucks were going to be moving on, they just did it sooner rather than later.

 

Kevin Durant fires back, says Clint Capela’s job is “easy”

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“We’re confident because we know if we’re doing what we’re supposed to do, we’re going to beat them… We are better than them.”

That was young Rockets center Clint Capela after the Rockets beat the Warriors last Saturday night, feeling confident.

Asked about it, Kevin Durant shot Capela down, saying he’s not the guy that should be commenting.

There are no easy jobs in the NBA. It takes a lot of work physically, a good mental feel for the game, and the right opportunity just to get a chance. That said, some NBA jobs are simpler and more straightforward than others. On offense, Capela is not the ball handler and creator making a lot of decisions, things are simple for him — and he executes them. He’s shooting 66.6 percent this season — he does what he does well.

Houston took two of three from Golden State this season, and while that is far from doing it in a playoff series it should be a confidence boost for Houston if/when they go up against Golden State.