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Three Things We Learned Monday: Spurs look like contenders, Cavaliers look lost in rout

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Maybe you were busy Monday night having flaming food shoved in your mouth and didn’t have time to watch the night’s slate of NBA games. We’ve got you covered, here are the big takeaways.

1) Spurs look like title contenders, Cavaliers look overwhelmed in rout. Cleveland falls to second in Eastern Conference. Is it time to worry yet, Cleveland? Because it’s feeling a lot like it’s time to worry. Not full on hit the panic button mode, more make sure you know where it’s located level of worry.

Last season the Cavaliers went 13-7 over their last 20 games, and that includes some meaningless losses with guys resting to close out the season — they had flipped the switch and found a groove that they carried into the postseason. Starting at the same point this season they are 5-6 in their last 11 (with nine games left). They are 8-10 since the All-Star break with the second-worst defense in the NBA in that stretch (allowing 113.2 points per 100 possessions, barely better than the tanking Lakers). Tyronn Lue and the Cavaliers say they can flip the switch, that getting guys rest is the priority. They hint that when they play good teams they are playing vanilla offenses so as not to give anything away. Lue and company want it to sound like this slump is nothing, it can be easily overcome, that it’s almost part of the plan.

Was the plan to fall behind Boston and become the second seed in the East?

Was part of the plan to get thrashed by the Spurs on national television?

Both those things happened Monday night. San Antonio looked like a contender getting in a playoff run groove. Cleveland looked like a guy standing in the middle of the street in Pamplona trying not to get run over by the stampede. San Antonio routed the Spurs 103-74 in a game that was never in doubt after the second quarter. The Spurs did whatever they wanted, check out this 10-0 run at one point in the second quarter.

The Cavaliers offense was a big problem in the first half – they had an offensive rating of just 85.1 at the half — but the larger issue became those bad shots led to the Spurs getting out and running, exposing the Cavaliers lackluster transition defense. Another problem was the Cavs’ bench, the Spurs won that first-half battle 28-0.

With the loss the Cavaliers fell half a game back of Boston for the top seed in the East.

If the Cavaliers are playing like the Cavaliers can, extra road games are not a problem. Maybe there is a switch to flip, an adjustment here or there that changes everything. Cleveland’s defensive issues, and to a degree offensive ones as well, seem to be about effort. There is a sense of boredom as the team waits for the playoffs to start. Maybe that’s the case. But during the wins at the end of last season the Cavaliers were building good habits to fall back on when things did get tough in the postseason, these Cavaliers are doing no such thing.

It’s still tough not to pick Cleveland to come out of the East. But if things get tough against the Wizards in the second round, or against Boston or Toronto at some point in the postseason, those teams will be ready and think they know where they can find another gear. Will Cleveland?

2) Russell Westbrook makes an MVP statement: He racks up another triple-double, dominates end of game in Thunder’s comeback win. What made this game an impressive part of Russell Westbrook’sMVP resume was not his 37th triple-double of the season — 37 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists — but rather how he showed his value to the team at the end.

The Dallas Mavericks were up 13 on OKC with 3:30 remaining in the fourth quarter. The game looked over. Then Westbrook happened — he scored 12 points in a 14-0 Thunder run to close out the game, capping it off hitting the game winner. On that shot, the Thunder almost went 1-4 flat and just let Westbrook work in isolation on his defender — because nobody was going to stop him.

It was an MVP-level performance. Whether that is enough to get him the award is another question.

3) Is Sam Hinkie possibly making a return to the NBA? With the Sacramento Kings?
With the trade of DeMarcus Cousins, the Sacramento Kings will be counting on fan loyalty, an amazing new building, and hope for the future to sell tickets the next few seasons. That’s because the Kings are in full on rebuilding mode… can you call it rebuilding if you haven’t been to the playoffs for a decade? Whatever you call this round of bottoming out, the Kings are restructuring their roster, Sacramento is doing it.

Do they trust Vlade Divac to lead that rebuilding?

They probably shouldn’t, based on track record. Plus stability at the top of the organization is not something owner Vivek Ranadive apparently considers important — again, based on his track record — and it’s been coming up on two years since there was a front office shakeup. So it wasn’t a shock when a report surfaced Monday night that the Kings were talking to former Philadelphia GM Sam Hinkie about coming on board.

The Kings quickly denied this.

Which led to the Tweet of the night from Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

A few things here. First, the number of times the Kings have said “we’re not doing” something then turn around and did it would require a spreadsheet to track, with the latest being trading DeMarcus Cousins. Second, the Kings are a leaky organization, so I don’t doubt the reports. Third, there has been a push from some minority owners to make changes at the top of the Kings basketball operations side, and Wojnarowski said the league has suggested the same thing because they want the Kings to be more professional.

Starting this summer, the Kings need someone in charge who understands rebuilding a team — that doesn’t have to be Hinkie, there are numerous other qualified candidates — but it needs to be someone. It shouldn’t be a big flashy name or personality, not someone a star-struck owner likes sitting next to and talking with, but someone who knows how to do the job. What the Kings need most of all, however, is to hire this person then have Ranadive get completely out of the way. Give the basketball person power, then get out of the way for four or five years. Let the rebuilding happen, and at that point assess what, if any, changes need to be made. Because the system going on in Sacramento now isn’t working on the court.

Victor Oladipo’s practice dunk better than anything he – or maybe anyone – did in dunk contest (video)

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Victor Oladipo has grown into far more than just a dunker.

In fact, in Saturday’s dunk contest, he didn’t look like a dunker at all.

The Pacers star missed all three attempts of his first dunk, and a Black Panther mask was by far the biggest draw of his second. Oladipo was eliminated after the first round.

Maybe Dennis Smith Jr. wasn’t the only eliminated dunker who left something in his bag. This Oladipo dunk – 180 degrees, throwing ball off the backboard with his left hand while in mid-air, dunking with his right hand – while preparing in Los Angeles was awesome.

Larry Nance Jr. had the contest’s best dunk. This would have rivaled it.

Pelicans owner Tom Benson hospitalized with flu symptoms

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METAIRIE, La. (AP) — New Orleans Saints and Pelicans Owner Tom Benson has been hospitalized with flu symptoms.

A statement released Wednesday by the NFL and NBA clubs says their 90-year-old owner is resting comfortably at Ochsner Medical Center, a hospital which also serves as a major sponsor and which owns naming rights to the teams’ training headquarters.

Benson has owned the New Orleans Saints since 1985 and bought the New Orleans Pelicans in 2012.

In recent years, Benson has overhauled his estate plan so that his third wife, Gayle, would be first in line to inherit control of the two major professional franchises.

 

Report: Seattle hosting Kings-Warriors preseason game

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Kevin Durant spent his rookie season in Seattle, before the SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City and became the Thunder. He has said Seattle fans deserved to see him grow up in the NBA after supporting his promising start.

They’ll get their chance.

Ailene Voisin of The Sacramento Bee:

The Kings and Golden State Warriors have scheduled a preseason game next season in Seattle, according to multiple league sources.

The Oct. 6 meeting between Northern California teams will be the first NBA game in the Key Arena since the Sonics moved to Oklahoma City after the 2007-08 season and became the Thunder.

This game will be loaded with storylines. Not only Durant, but the Kings considered moving to Seattle a few years ago. And of course, the return of NBA basketball to Seattle.

At some point, Seattle will get its own team again. For now, this preseason game creates intrigue there.

Report: Kawhi Leonard cleared medically, seeking second opinion

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Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said he’d be surprised if Kawhi Leonard played again this season, a stark reversal from just a month ago. Back then, even while announcing Leonard was out indefinitely with a quad injury, the San Antonio coach said Leonard wouldn’t miss the rest of the season.

What’s going on?

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

After spending 10 days before the All-Star break in New York consulting with a specialist to gather a second opinion on his right quad injury, All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard bears the burden of determining when he’s prepared to play again, sources told ESPN.

Leonard has been medically cleared to return from the right quad tendinopathy injury, but since shutting down a nine-game return to the Spurs that ended Jan. 13, he has elected against returning to the active roster, sources said.

The uncertainty surrounding this season — and Leonard’s future which could include free agency in the summer of 2019 — has inspired a palpable stress around the organization, league sources said.

At first glance, this sounds like Derrick Rose five years ago. Even after he was cleared to play following a torn ACL, the then-Bulls star remained mysterious about when he’d suit up. His confidence in his physical abilities seemed to be a major issue, and he was never the same player since (suffering more leg injuries).

But the Spurs famously favor resting players to preserve long-term health. They seem unlikely to rush back Leonard. They might even sit players who want to play more often. And Leonard isn’t Rose.

Still, it’s clear something is amiss in San Antonio. Maybe not amiss enough to end Leonard’s tenure there, but the longer this lingers, the more time for tension to percolate.