Spurs rodeo ride shows them to be average

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The legendary “rodeo trip” — when the San Antonio Spurs are forced into a long road trip because horses, bulls and cowboys fill the AT&T Center — is usually when the Spurs bond and start to make a run heading into the end of the season and the playoffs.

This year, not so much.

They return from this year’s rendition having gone a fitting 4-4, the same inconsistent ball of problems that left for Sacramento on Feb. 2.

At 31-23, the Spurs are seventh in the Western Conference, a game ahead of Portland, two ahead of ninth-place New Orleans and facing an upcoming schedule not exactly conducive to making an upward push.

For the first time in the Tim Duncan era, the Spurs are being forced to contemplate the postseason in terms of “if” and not “when.”

When they do make the playoffs, the Spurs likely will get bounced by Denver or Dallas in the first round. That will be the ultimate sign that attempts to keep the right pieces around the core — and keep the core healthy — have fallen well short. Richard Jefferson may have looked like a good move on paper but he doesn’t fit in. Roger Mason has been off. The list goes on and on.

But the biggest shock, and the biggest problem, is that the Spurs used to be one of the best defensive teams in the league, and now they are just average. They are 11th in the league in points given up per possession and they are 28th in creating turnovers (which means fewer easy tranistion baskets). The man defense on the wings, the crisp rotations, the unit thinking as one on defense is largely gone.

Basically, the Spurs have been playing like the AT&T Center smells for the week after the rodeo is in town, something Gregg Popovich described as “moist and earthy.” And that seems unlikely to change soon.

Bulls hold players-only meeting morning after franchise-worst 56-point loss to Celtics

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The Chicago Bulls suffered the worst loss in the history of the franchise this week. A 56-point drubbing at the hands of the Boston Celtics was an inauspicious mark on the record of head coach Jim Boylan, who was elevated to his position after Chicago decided to fire Fred Hoiberg earlier in the week.

The young Bulls haven’t taken to Boylan, at least that’s how it’s appeared on the court. On Sunday it came out that Chicago held a players-only meeting. After that, the players met with the coaching staff to discuss the issues of the day.

Via Twitter:

Players wouldn’t discuss in detail what their meetings were about, save for getting on the same page, whatever that may mean. Just about everyone used the word “productive” to describe the behind-closed-doors meetings.

According to a report from The Athletic, Chicago almost had a full-blown mutiny on its hands. Lauri Markkanen and Robin Lopez reportedly quashed that, but it’s not looking pretty for Boylan early.

Via The Athletic:

One idea that had significant support, according to sources, was the players simply not showing up to the Advocate Center on Sunday. A preliminary plan was to gather at one player’s house and wait for the phones to begin buzzing. That plan fizzled because Lauri Markkanen and Robin Lopez spoke up, voicing their concerns about the unprofessionalism of that potential act of rebellion, as well as the impact such a stance could have on the roster’s younger, less established players, sources said.

Another idea discussed centered on players walking into the practice facility Sunday morning as a unified group before turning and immediately walking out.

In the end, players reported to work and rather than practice on the court or review Saturday night’s game in the film room, they held two meetings — one with players airing their grievances among themselves, followed by one with coaches entering the room to do the same with players.

The Bulls have the worst record in the East at 6-21. It’s hard to see how it’ll improve much in that respect, but perhaps the guys on the team will like each other a little better after today.

Three Things to Know: New look Bucks remind Raptors East full of threats

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Bucks rain threes, throw down dunks, remind Raptors the top of the East is a Battle Royale. Here’s my primary takeaway from Milwaukee’s 104-99 win in Toronto Sunday:

I can’t wait for the second round and beyond of the Eastern Conference playoffs next May.

Any combination of the big four teams — Toronto, Milwaukee, Boston, and Philadelphia — is going to be a compelling combination of slugfest and chess match. All those teams are deep with talent, have versatility, can knock down threes, can defend, and any one of them can win the East’s King of the Mountain battle next May.

The Bucks reminded the Raptors on Sunday not to count them out.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was the focus of the army of long, athletic wing defenders the Raptors can roll out — Paskal Siakam, Kawhi Leonard, OG Anunoby, Danny Green — and they did as much as anyone can do to make Antetokounmpo look human, he finished with “just” 19 points on 15 shots. Of course, he also had 19 rebounds, 6 assists, but he didn’t take over the game. Toronto had clearly focused on making it difficult for the Greek Freak to beat them, although he still was doing this (even if it didn’t count).

What the Bucks had was other guys to step up. Brook Lopez was every bit of Splash Mountain scoring 19 points and going 5-of-8 from three, including a beautiful step back at one point. Then, with the game on the line, Malcolm Brogdon was doing this.

These are not the Jason Kidd Bucks anymore, this is a modern NBA team now — they took 39 threes and only 12 of their 87 shots came between 8 feet of the rim and the three-point arc (13.8 percent of their shots from that midrange). Credit the Raptors defense, that’s more midrangers than the Bucks usually take. However, under Mike Budenholzer these Bucks are committed to their style of play.

So is Toronto under Nick Nurse, and they took 44 threes, hitting 15 (34.1 percent). The Raptors just were not as efficient: Serge Ibaka had 22 points but needed 21 shots, Leonard had 20 points on 18 shots.

That is where Toronto needs Kyle Lowry to step up, but he is in the middle of a terrible shooting slump and was scoreless in this one (he did have seven assists, he’s more of a playmaker now, but he still needs to be a threat to score for it all to come together). Lowry was 0-of-5 Sunday, making him 5-of-32 in his last five games.

This was a highly entertaining, up-and-down game that for a few minutes became the Brogdon vs. Fred VanVleet shootout we all expected (VanVleet had 19 off the bench). Actually, it speaks to the depth of these rosters that this game could become that and never lose its energy.

Milwaukee got the win Sunday, but next May if these teams meet in the playoffs we’re all going to win.

2) In the wake of a 56-point blowout loss, Bulls players call for meetings, everybody vents. When Fred Hoiberg was fired, Bulls management didn’t give Jim Boylen the interim tag as the new coach, they gave him the job for the rest of this season and noted he’s under contract for next season and they want to bring him back.

The reason for this was to give him leverage to come in hard and shake things up — Boylen has called it “shock and awe” to borrow the military term. He’s running long, hard practices and benching starters when they struggle. He did that for the final 21 minutes Saturday 56-point blowout loss to the Celtics.

Sunday, players pushed back against the tactics. It almost led to a player mutiny where they didn’t show up to practice, but then Lauri Markkanen and Robin Lopez talked everyone into showing up and meeting — first a players’ only meeting, followed by one with coaches and the front office. There was a lot of venting to do.

Boylen has come in trying to change the culture of a Bulls team that needs it. Remember, he comes out of the Spurs organization, where Tim Duncan was open to Gregg Popovich coaching him hard and calling him out in front of the team as an example. Thing is, there is no Duncan on this Bulls team (on or off the court). When Hoiberg was the head coach Boylen could be the bad cop, hold guys accountable, and there was a balance, even if it didn’t work all that well. However, as the head coach, you can’t just be the bad cop or you lose guys. There has to be positives, there has to be rest for guys. More importantly, there must be explanations of why things are happening, trust needs to be built up. Do that and this generation of players will still run through walls for a coach — but if the coach just says “run through that wall” it doesn’t work anymore.

Everyone is adjusting to the new realities in Chicago. With Markkanen back and the team getting healthy, they should be good enough to move out of the East cellar. However, that’s going to take some work, from the players and coaches. And some open communication. That, at least, seems to be happening.

3) Julius Randle is a beasting as a starter. When Nikola Mirotic went out with an injury, Julius Randle slid into the starting lineup and has played in a way that is going to make it very difficult to take him out of it. Randle has dropped at least 26 points in his last four games — all starts — and that includes 28 points, six rebounds, and five assists Sunday as the Pelicans knocked off the Pistons 116-108.

In his last four games as a starter, Randle is averaging 29.5 points and 11.3 rebounds. It might be time for coach Alvin Gentry to take Randle out of the Sixth Man of the Year running — a race he has been in the conversation for early this season — because he will start to many games. It’s hard to argue with production.

DeMarcus Cousins is set to start practicing with Warriors’ G-League team

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We got a report this week that DeMarcus Cousins was already throwing down alley-oop dunks in Golden State Warriors practices. Now, it appears that cousins could be ready to take an NBA floor sooner rather than later.

According to The Athletic’s Anthony Slater, Warriors coach Steve Kerr says that Cousins will start to practice with Golden State’s G-League affiliate the Santa Cruz Warriors.

Via Twitter:

Reports have said that Cousins is slated to return with the team after Christmas, and so this timeline stays with that thinking. Returns from Achilles injuries can be dodgy, and there will be a lot of question marks about his ability, both due to his size and age.

If Cousins can come back and produce efficiently, he will help bolster Golden State against a shifting Western Conference in the playoffs.

David West on Draymond Green-Kevin Durant dust-up: ‘I could’ve stopped it’

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David West used to be a calming influence in the Golden State Warriors locker room. The former two-time All-Star big man retired in August after a long career, and the Warriors are perhaps worse off because of it.

West was known to be the guy who could sort out the problems of other teammates, acting as an enforcer and mediator, a focuser of will. That might have come in handy this season as the Warriors have had some internal strife.

Draymond Green and Kevin Durant have famously feuded with each other, resulting in a blow up during a game against the Clippers which left Green suspended and Durant miffed.

During a recent interview with The Athletic, West said he felt he would have been able to diffuse the situation during the Clippers game and avoid some of the questions about Golden State moving forward.

Via The Athletic:

“I’m gonna be honest,” West told The Athletic by phone last month. “The only moment (where) I said, ‘Man, I wish I was there,’ was at that Clippers game. When Draymond turned the ball over at the end — and he was going to create the play; he was going to make the play, it just sometimes doesn’t happen — at that moment, when I saw the way he was walking, and I saw KD react, and it was like ‘Oh, I know if I was there that shit wouldn’t have happened.’ That’s the only moment where I felt like, ‘Man I could’ve stopped it.’”

At this juncture it’s hard to know just how much the issues between Durant and Green will cause, playoff time. The question about Durant leaving in free agency isn’t of real concern at this moment, mostly because it’s impossible to predict.

From an outside perspective, it does seem like West would have been a major factor during the Durant-Green tiff if he’d been in a Warriors jersey. West went on to say that the idea that Golden State doesn’t have to deal with adversity is “a false narrative”.

Will the Warriors be cohesive enough come playoff time? We’ll just have to wait to find out.