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Paging LaMarcus: Ailing Spurs need Aldridge to take charge

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In the summer of 2015, the San Antonio Spurs went shopping like they never have before.

Long content to spend big money on their core while using free agency to sprinkle role players around them, the Spurs lavished a max contract on LaMarcus Aldridge, a four-time All-Star from Portland who would join Kawhi Leonard as one of the focal points of the franchise after Tim Duncan retired.

Now with Leonard ailing and San Antonio facing mighty Golden State in the Western Conference finals, the Spurs need Aldridge to take control.

“LaMarcus has to score for us,” coach Gregg Popovich said after the 136-100 wipeout in Game 2 that put the Warriors up 2-0 in the best-of-seven series. “He can’t be timid. He turned down shots in the first quarter. He can’t do it. You’ve got to score.”

Aldridge had just eight points on 4-for-11 shooting in Game 2 as he was swarmed all night by a Warriors defense that was free to double- and sometimes triple-team him since it didn’t have to worry about Leonard, who missed the game with an ankle injury. Aldridge was 0 for 2 with two turnovers in the first quarter and knows he has to be more aggressive when the two teams meet for Game 3 in San Antonio on Saturday.

“The ball has to move, but I have to take a shot if it’s there,” Aldridge said Thursday. “I was trying to make the extra pass, but I have to score, too. If I’m open, I have to shoot.”

The Spurs signed him to a four-year, $80 million deal to take some of the scoring burden off of aging stars Duncan, who retired last summer, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.

“Timmy’s last couple years, he couldn’t score nearly like he used to and Manu’s getting older and Tony’s getting older,” Popovich told the AP in March. “Luckily we had Kawhi who was going through the roof. But there’s got to be an inside threat, somebody else that can score for you. So LaMarcus was a huge opportunity for us to try to convince him to come.”

Aldridge was everything they needed in the clincher over Houston in the conference semifinals. While Leonard sat out with the ankle injury, Aldridge scored 34 points and grabbed 12 rebounds to help the Spurs to a stunning 39-point victory.

Aldridge brought it in Game 1 against the Warriors as well, scoring 28 points in a two-point defeat. Leonard went down just over halfway through that game and his status for Game 3 remains undecided. But Golden State blitzed Aldridge from all angles in Game 2 and the Spurs are scrambling to find their identity with both Leonard and Parker out with injuries.

Since Leonard’s ankle rolled on Zaza Pachulia‘s foot while taking a jump shot in Game 1, Aldridge has turned the ball over eight times and made only seven shots against Golden State’s swarming defense.

“They’ve been throwing different things at us, throwing different things at LaMarcus,” guard Danny Green said. “Obviously, thinking a little bit. It’s a lot easier to do that when we don’t have everybody that we need to make plays so they can trap a little more on those guys.

“But offensively, I think it’s a combination of them playing good defense and also us not finding our chemistry, not finding our rhythm, and not knowing where to be with two of our main playmakers not there.”

The key, Aldridge said, was finding a balance between being assertive and looking to score while also making sure that he keeps his teammates involved and hits them with passes when they’re open on the perimeter.

“It was definitely something different than I’ve seen here, but you’ve got to play through it,” Aldridge said of the increased attention from the Warriors. “I either take my shot or try to find the open guy. I think the last game it definitely worked in their advantage with me getting passive, but next game I won’t do that.”

For San Antonio, there is no time to lose. Popovich made that abundantly clear in his pointed remarks after Game 2 when he lamented the team’s lack of intensity and belief.

It all starts with a team’s star players, and Aldridge is the biggest one still standing for the ailing Spurs.

“I think he’s got a major responsibility in Game 3 to come out and get something done, whether it’s for himself or teammates,” Popovich said. “They come after him, to find somebody, turn it over, take good shots. He’s got to do it. No doubt about it.”

AP freelance writer Raul Dominguez in San Antonio contributed to this report.

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Chris Paul scores 33, Rockets topple Warriors 116-108

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HOUSTON (AP) — James Harden felt closer to normal after struggling in his first game back from a hamstring injury, and the Houston Rockets got a big game from Chris Paul to down the Golden State Warriors on Saturday night.

Paul scored 33 points with 11 rebounds, Harden bested Stephen Curry twice in the final seconds and the Rockets held off the Warriors 116-108 to snap their 14-game road winning streak.

The victory gives Houston a 2-1 series advantage over Golden State after the reigning NBA champions had won the series the previous three seasons.

“Obviously they’re a championship caliber team for the past four years … and that’s what we’re trying to build our way up to,” Harden said.

Harden stepped back from Curry for a 3-pointer as the shot clock expired to make it 114-108 with 1:10 left, then blocked Curry’s 3-point attempt after a timeout.

Harden finished with 22 points. Paul added two free throws with 28 seconds left.

Golden State lost away from home for the first time since Nov. 22. The Warriors had won seven straight in Houston.

“It’s been a good streak, disappointing end to it,” coach Steve Kerr said. “But we didn’t deserve to win tonight. We played pretty poorly, did a lot of things to hurt ourselves and we’re playing a great team. Can’t get away with it.”

Houston coach Mike D’Antoni raved about the performance of the 32-year-old Paul .

“The guy is a winner, he’s been a winner, he’s going to win,” D’Antoni said.

Kevin Durant led Golden State with 26 points, Draymond Green had 21 and Curry added 19 on a night he went 5 of 15 on 3-point attempts and 6 of 20 overall. It was just the sixth time in his career that he’d attempted 20 or more shots while making six or fewer.

“It was just one of those nights where I personally didn’t have the right vision on the floor,” he said. “So I’ve got to take that responsibility for that one. It was pretty bad.”

The Warriors were wrapping up a five-game road trip and had won the first four games to tie a franchise record for consecutive road wins. But they struggled from the outset Saturday and trailed by double digits for most of the first half.

It was Harden’s second game back after missing seven with a strained hamstring. He was in a much better rhythm than in his return Thursday night, when he scored a season-low 10 points. He had eight assists, two steals and two blocks Saturday.

The Rockets got the victory despite missing Trevor Ariza and Gerald Green, who were both serving the second game of a two-game suspension for an altercation with the Clippers. Clint Capela added 18 points for Houston on a night when top reserve Eric Gordon went 0 for 9 from 3-point range and finished with just six points.

Golden State led by four before Houston went on a 9-2 run, with the first five points from Paul, to take a 109-106 lead with about three minutes left.

 

Report: NBA’s minor league won’t allow potentially eligible college players

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USC’s De’Anthony Melton, Louisville’s Brian Bowen and Auburn’s Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy haven’t played this season due to the FBI’s probe into college basketball. Mitchell Robinson left Western Kentucky before his freshmen season started to train for the NBA draft.

But they’re all potentially eligible to play college basketball again someday.

So, they can’t play in the NBA’s minor league.

Jonathan Givony of ESPN:

That ineligibility stems from a rule that prevents players who were enrolled in college during an academic calendar year from being offered a contract in the same season, unless they have been ruled permanently ineligible by the NCAA with no opportunity of being reinstated (as was the case with P.J. Hairston in 2013).

“We’re not looking to compete with college basketball for their players,” a G League source said. “The NBA, specifically NBA lawyers, are concerned about the optics of NCAA players being disgruntled with minutes or coaching decisions and leaving college with the hopes of joining the G League. This is a blanket rule unfortunately that applies to all players. Like all of our rules, we are open to revisiting them if needed, but at the moment any player that was enrolled in a college this season is ineligible to play in our League.”

NBA executives and scouts are griping because they can’t evaluate these prospects in games. I don’t care about that.

This is an affront to capitalism. The basis of our economy should be competition, and the NBA is handing the NCAA – a cartel – a monopoly in this level of basketball. And it’s the workers (players) who lose.

So what if a freshman is disgruntled with his minutes and wants to turn pro during the season? He can’t join the NBA due to the age minimum. Why shouldn’t he be allowed to at least enter the NBA’s minor league, for which he’s old enough? We should trust him to manage his future, not protect the almighty college coach from facing consequences to his rotation.

I don’t know whether or not the NBA and NCAA colluded, but the NBA’s stance is the exact one it would take if it colluded. The NBA has worked to improve the quality of play in its minor league by increasing salary to compete against foreign leagues for players. It’s strange to just willingly take a backseat to college basketball when there’s a great opportunity to compete for top talent.

The players could legally challenge the policy, but they’ll be eligible for the NBA draft in June, and there’s risk in upsetting a potential future employer. And would anything be decided quickly enough in court to matter for the challenging player?

Players like Melton, Bowen, Wiley, Purifoy and Robinson aren’t allowed to let the market set their compensation as college basketball players, because NCAA schools have colluded to cap wages. Those players aren’t allowed to seek employment in the comparable American professional league, because that league doesn’t want to compete with the NBA.

It’s a travesty for capitalism and these workers.

LeBron James has tepid response when asked about Tyronn Lue’s job safety

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LeBron James was no fan of David Blatt, so he was let go around the All-Star break with the Cavaliers a couple of years ago when the team had the best record in the East.

Now the Cavaliers have fallen to third in the East and have lost 8-of-11, were blown out by the Thunder on national television on Saturday, have one of the worst defenses in the NBA, and have a brutal stretch of games against good teams ahead.

Is Tyronn Lue’s job in danger? That question has been asked around Cleveland, and when LeBron was asked about it after the OKC loss his response was tepid (via Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com)

Is a coaching change really the answer? I’m not Lue’s biggest fan as a coach, I think Cleveland’s offense has too much isolation and can get simplistic, but he’s got an older team that lost Kyrie Irving (and replaced him with Isaiah Thomas, who just returned to the rotation a couple of weeks ago and is still getting his legs under him).

Maybe that wakes the team up, but the more likely change is a trade or two at the deadline. If Cleveland isn’t willing to put the Brooklyn pick in the mix (reportedly they will only do that for an elite superstar) it’s hard to see them getting a player that really makes a difference. However, get one who wakes the team up out of its malaise and plays a little defense, and the Cavaliers become more likely to out of the East.

It’s going to be an interesting few weeks in Cleveland.

Thunder drop 148 points on defenseless Cavaliers, win in rout

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If you wondered why Cleveland is so active in the trade market as the deadline nears — and why they are hunting out guys who can play defense — all you had to do was watch the Thunder dismantle the Cavaliers on Saturday afternoon on national television, 148-124.

The Thunder went into Quicken Loans Arena and list of offensive accolades is long (and ugly if you’re a Cleveland fan):

• Oklahoma City dropped 148 points.

• Oklahoma City shot 58 percent overall.

• Oklahoma City shot 46.7 percent from three.

• Oklahoma City got 44 percent of its shots within four feet of the rim.

• Oklahoma City’s big three of Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, and Paul George combined for 88 points.

• Westbrook had 23 points and 20 assists.

• Paul George had 36 points on 12-of-19 shooting.

Steven Adams had 25 points and 10 rebounds.

• Westbrook, George, Adams, and Anthony combined for 113 points on 66 shots.

To be fair, this was also about the Thunder playing one of their most complete offensive games of the season. They moved the ball beautifully, there wasn’t the “your turn/my turn” issues from earlier this season.

For a team still unsure of its identity and looking for validation, this game provided it.

It also provided another glimpse into the troubles in Cleveland.

Last season the Cavaliers counted on an exceptional offense to cover up for a defense that was decent when they cared and horrific when they didn’t, but when it got time in the playoffs Cleveland was able to flip the switch (it just wasn’t enough in the Finals). LeBron James has another gear and was able to lift his teammates up with it.

This season, they don’t seem to know where the switch is. The good defensive habits they had built over time seem lost and forgotten, as they run out a litany of minus defenders in their regular rotation.

Cleveland looks like a team that needs help at the trade deadline to ensure it gets out of the East. The question becomes will they throw in the Brooklyn pick to do it? And even if they did, would DeAndre Jordan really solve their issues right now?