NBA Playoffs, Suns v. Spurs Game 4: With blood in the water, Phoenix will go for the quick kill

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Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker have become a basketball establishment in their eight seasons together. They’ve captured three titles, made it to the postseason in each of those eight seasons, and lost in the first round of the playoffs only once.

They also have never, in the time that the three have been teammates in San Antonio, been swept. Not in any playoff series in any round. Phoenix will have an opportunity to be their auspicious first in Game 4 tonight, as the Spurs will look to defend their home court against an onslaught of Suns brooms.

With the outcome of the series no longer in doubt, the only question remaining is ‘when?’ or really, ‘how long?’ How long can Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker prolong the inevitable? How long can San Antonio keep false hope alive?  

The Spurs do have a few things on their side. For one, the sweep is such a difficult feat in a seven-game series, and when the opposition includes Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan, it seems rather impossible. Duncan may not be balling at best-player-in-the-game levels these days, but he’s still a tremendously skilled two-way player that’s capable of extending the Spurs’ playoff lives into next week. Pop isn’t just one of the greatest to ever run a post-game presser, but also one of the greatest to sit at the head of the bench.

Plus that home court advantage thing? It matters. Especially in the playoffs, and though the AT&T Center crowd may be a bit deflated after the Spurs’ Game 3 letdown, there’s something to be said for friendly cheers and an ocean of silver, black, and white. Even in spite of a potentially limited Tony Parker, the Spurs should be expected to win tonight.

Then again, the same could have been said before Game 3. Or in the first half of Game 3 when San Antonio was up by 18 points. Or even when the Spurs and Suns were in a virtual deadlock to start the fourth quarter, and SanAn as the squad with the veteran savvy, the championship experience, and the future hall-of-famers.    

The only thing anyone can say with certainty is that San Antonio will not win this series. They don’t even have a chance. Not with Phoenix finding consistent answers to each of the Spurs’ adjustments, getting contributions from top to bottom, and coming up with every big play. I never thought I’d be writing a “Can the Spurs even win one game against the Suns?” post, as if San Antonio was playing the part of an outmatched Atlanta team facing off against big league Orlando, yet here I am and here the Spurs are.

This series was expected to not only be extremely entertaining — which it has been — but very competitive. The games themselves have been battles, but how can anyone look at a 3-0 advantage and see anything but an anticlimax? It’s fun to see Goran Dragic go nuts, or Channing Frye step up, or Jared Dudley get some long overdue respect, but even those noteworthy performances don’t give this series the life that it could have had.

This could all be over tonight, and while the Suns have been a true pleasure to watch, it’s a shame that we’ll never really know just how great this series could have been.   

Report: Tom Thibodeau raised asking price for Jimmy Butler after infamous practice

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After sitting out while awaiting a trade rehabbing after injuring his wrist, Jimmy Butler practiced with the Timberwolves for the first time last week. He reportedly showed up late, talked a ton of trash and led third-stringers to a win over the starters then left early.

Amidst widespread speculation they had to trade Butler after that, the Tom Thibodeau-run Timberwolves put out word they considered it their best practice of the year.

Maybe Thibodeau is that insanely competitive. Maybe he was just trying to preserve leverage.

If it were the latter, he sure stuck to his story.

Adrian Wojnarowski on ESPN:

Teams who talked to Minnesota after his first practice, literally the day after his practice, Minnesota was asking for more then than they were before the day. Which tells you this: Minnesota is not trading him. They’re asking for packages that know teams aren’t going to agree to.

The Timberwolves are in a though spot. Butler is an excellent player, but everyone knows he wants out. I don’t blame them for trying to maximize their limited leverage.

How will Butler react to this revelation, though? Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor said he told Butler the team would seek a trade. Butler pledged to play hard in the meantime.

But if Butler playing hard just makes it less likely Minnesota will trade him, will he feel as if the team isn’t holding up its end of the bargain? Then what?

It has long seemed Taylor and Thibodeau are on different pages on several issues. Though Taylor just backed Thibodeau, Butler could drive a wedge even deeper between the owner and president-coach.

Russell Westbrook sneak-snacking steals show on NBA’s opening night

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NBA’s opening night was quite tame. The Celtics and Warriors won as expected, neither the 76ers nor Thunder mounting much of a challenge.

That allowed Russell Westbrookout with an injury — to have the most fun moment when he looked around deviously, turned to his side and ate something.

What did did Westbrook eat? Was he not supposed to be eating? Did he not want to share? Big questions remain unanswered surrounding this important incident.

Joel Embiid on 76ers-Celtics: ‘This is not a rivalry … They always kick our ass’

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The 76ers-Celtics rivalry is being renewed.

But it’s not there yet, according to Philadelphia center Joel Embiid.

The 76ers are 3-19 against Boston since drafting Embiid, and though that includes multiple tanking years, Philadelphia hasn’t fared much better since getting good. The 76ers went 2-7 against the Celtics last season, including 1-4 in their second-round playoff series. Philadephia followed that with a season-opening loss to the Celtics last night.

Embiid, via Matt Haughton of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

“JJ (Redick) mentioned it earlier, this is not a rivalry,” Embiid said to reporters after the Sixers’ 105-87 season-opening loss to the Boston Celtics (see observations). “I don’t know our record against them but it’s pretty bad. They always kick our ass.”

I appreciate Embiid’s directness. We can all see the problem. There’s no point denying it.

The subtext is Embiid’s motivation to change this status quo, and a lot of it does fall in Embiid. Al Horford has given him fits. Even Aron Baynes worked him at times last night. Embiid is talented and far younger than those two. He’ll eventually get there.

In the meantime, he’s not mincing words.

Vinsanity grinds into a 21st season, rare company in the NBA

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ATLANTA (AP) — Vince Carter feels like a 20-something again.

Always does when this time of year rolls around.

Never mind the specks of gray in his beard, all the wear and tear on his body, a resume that shows he entered the NBA the same year teammate Trae Young was born.

Carter has made it to another opening night. The thrill of a new season flows through those creaky ol’ bones. Once again, it all seems worthwhile: the monotonous practices, the tedious film sessions, the long plane flights, the grind of 82 games.

“If I had that old `heck, here we go again’ feeling, then I wouldn’t play,” Carter said Tuesday, having finished up practice with a few extra jumpers. “This is like I’m in my third, fourth, fifth year. I’m excited about the opportunity. I’m excited about playing. I still love playing. I still love competing. I still enjoy the traveling, the ups and downs of the league. That’s what it’s all about. It’s hard to let go.”

The league’s oldest player – Carter is 41 and will turn another year older in January – is back for his 21st season. That puts him on the cusp of some very exclusive company: Robert Parrish, Kevin Willis and Kevin Garnett are the only players to last that long in the NBA (Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki also has a chance to join the 21 Club this year).

Carter is hardly chasing a championship, signing on with a rebuilding Atlanta Hawks team that is years away from having a realistic shot at competing for a title. He’s here to mentor to a bunch of young players and serve as a virtual player-coach on a first-year staff led by Lloyd Pierce.

“When we have our locker room and on-the-bus debates and conversations, he’s on our side,” quipped Pierce, a rookie head coach who is only about eight months older than Carter. “He can relate a little closer to the coaching staff than he can with the players.”

Kent Bazemore, the last holdover from a 60-win team that reached the Eastern Conference finals in 2015, lost most of his golfing buddies – including Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver – when the Hawks embarked on a rebuilding plan that send them tumbling to 24-58 last season.

With Carter on the roster, Bazemore again has someone to tee it up with on off days.

“I’ve got a new golfing buddy,” said Bazemore, who at 29 is one of the oldest players on the roster not named Vince Carter. “I’m excited about that. (The younger players) haven’t gotten into it yet.”

As expected, Carter takes some good-natured ribbing from his teammates, a grandpa joke here, an “ain’t it past your bedtime” there.

But all in all, he seems to fit it quite nicely with all these kids.

“We have a lot in common, believe it or not,” Carter said, breaking into a smile. “I make it my business to know what’s going on in the millennial world.”

While expected to fill a largely backup role for the Hawks, Carter will be in the starting lineup when they open the season Wednesday night against the New York Knicks. He’s subbing for power forward John Collins, a first-round pick in 2017 and one of those building blocks for Atlanta’s future, who is sidelined by an ankle injury.

Never mind that Carter is only 6-foot-6 and has spent his entire career at shooting guard and small forward.

Wherever he’s needed, he’s ready to give it a shot.

“I prepare myself in the summer for any situation,” Carter said. “I tell the coach first thing: `I’m willing to do whatever it takes.”‘

Young, the No. 5 overall pick and cornerstone of the Hawks’ makeover, looks forward to gleaning all he can from a player who was once one of the league’s brightest stars, a guy who threw down sick jams and averaged more than 20 points a game in 10 of his first 12 seasons.

Carter’s above-the-rim antics earned him a variety of nicknames – from “Vinsanity” to “Half-Man, Half-Amazing” – and a likely spot one day in the Basketball Hall of Fame, even though he’s never won a championship and there was griping early in his career about whether he was giving it his all.

These days, he’s a respected senior citizen, a player who draws nothing but awe for hanging on as long as he has, even though he’s bounced around to six teams in the past decade and hasn’t been a regular starter since 2012.

“He’s experienced so many things,” Young said. “I can go to him about anything and just ask him questions. He’s a future Hall of Famer. I’m just blessed to be around him and get advice from him.”

Carter hasn’t decided how long this ride will last.

Twenty-one years might be enough.

Then again, if he still feels that same sort of excitement that he’s feeling right now, he might go where no one has gone before in the NBA.

A 22nd season.

“At year 18, 19, I just said I’ll assess how I feel and the situation at the end of each year,” Carter said. “Just because I’m close to a bunch of different accomplishments, I don’t want to change my routine. I’ve had a lot of success doing it this way.”

With that, Carter hustled off to the locker room, the last guy to leave the court.

There was another flight to catch.

Another opening night to get to.