Celtics, Spurs prove the antidote to the L.A./Miami show

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This was a basketball’s fan’s matchup.

It wasn’t about the hype or the reality shows, it was about the game. With all the focus on Los Angeles and Miami, too many have missed that Boston and San Antonio have played the best basketball and have the best records in the league.

It is far too early to talk about this as any kind of preview, but watching the Spurs and Celtics go at it in January showed us all this would make a fantastic NBA finals. You know it’s not what David Stern is pulling for. You know it’s not what most of America wants to see in June. You know the suits at ESPN/ABC want Kobe and Phil and LeBron and Dwyane. They want the glitz and soap opera to help sell the telecast.

That’s not Celtics vs. Spurs — this was pure and about the game. It was a basketball fan’s matchup. This was for the die hards. If those seven games in June were half as fun as this this 105-103 Celtics win on a cold Wednesday in January, the rest of the country would catch on. This was entertaining.

Not that a finals between these two would look like what we saw Wednesday night, for example the Spurs would not be on the second night of a back-to-back. And you can bet the execution in the last two minutes will be a lot better by both teams (this got sloppy). Plus, you can bet both teams will be a lot tighter defensively by then. (They will be or they won’t be there.) If the Spurs don’t start playing better defense soon I fear for Gregg Popovich’s health. He benched DeJuan Blair early, called two quick time outs and his blood pressure was clearly way up.

That was in part because Popovich’s Spurs had no defensive answer for Rajon Rondo, who had 22 assists to go with his 12 points, 10 rebounds (the last scooping up Paul Pierce’s block of a Manu Ginobili shot at the buzzer) and six steals.

A lot of Rondo’s assists went to Ray Allen, who destroyed the Spurs with 31 on the night. Boston ran Allen of screens early and Ginobili could not keep up, giving Allen time for good look catch-and-shoots. Allen had a very quick six points, and that got him going. The Spurs went to George Hill on Allen and he was better but that didn’t work, Allen had his momentum and nobody was stopping the roll he was on. After the game, Popovich fell back on sarcasm to talk about Allen, as reported at Celtics Hub.

“Ray needs to work on his shooting a little bit. He only hit 13 out of 16.”

Both Rondo and Allen played key roles in the run that won Boston the game. From the 2:28 mark of the fourth quarter — when the game was tied 96-96 — until :56 seconds remained Boston played about as well as they could (without Kevin Garnett). And the Spurs made uncharacteristic mistakes.

That run by Boston started with Rondo probing, stopping 18 feet out, finding Glen Davis open along the baseline and hitting him with a snap pass from out top. Davis felt the help coming and slid the ball off to a cutting Marquis Daniels for the lay in.

Then on the other end Rondo baited Ginobili into a bad pass to Tony Parker that Rondo stole. Boson slowed it down (after a time out) and then once again Ginobili was slow coming off a Pierce screen and Allen got another good look at a three. You can guess how that went.

Then after a defensive stop got the Celtics the ball back, they came down, Rondo came off a Pierce high screen and drove uncontested until he was 8 feet from the rim, at which point he hit a pretty little floater in the lane. Then seconds later Allen stripped Hill and took it for a breakaway layup.

It was a 9-0 Boston run to put them up 105-96 — and they would need every bit of that to hang on and win, because it was time for the Spurs to execute and Boston to stop.

First Ginobili hit a catch-and-shoot three. Then Tony Parker stole the ball from Pierce (there might have been a foul there) for a layup. Then Manu stole a pass intended for Rondo (there was a foul there) and Richard Jefferson got fouled trying to convert that to a layup. Hill hit the free throws, and it was 105-103. Then came maybe the strangest part of the game — after a Pierce miss and Nate Robinson offensive rebound, the Spurs had to foul and so they fouled Allen. Who promptly missed two clutch free throws. I can’t remember the last time he did that.

The Spurs got one last chance but that’s when Pierce blocked the Ginobili shot at a three to win it, Rondo grabbed the rebound and that was the ballgame.

But what a ballgame.

Who knows what the NBA finals will look like? There’s more than half a season to go and both these teams need to stay healthy. Plus, those teams that Stern and the ABC suits like are good. It’s too early to say what will happen in the Eastern and Western conference finals.

But if the two teams that have played the best basketball in the NBA so far — Boston and San Antonio — were to meet again in June real fans of the game would be happy. Because that would be a fan’s matchup.

New Bulls forward Jabari Parker: ‘They don’t pay players to play defense’

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Jabari Parker never found his footing with the Bucks. Parker’s injuries and Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s ascension left Parker – a top recruit then No. 2 overall pick – trying (and often failing) to to fit into a complementary role he clearly never envisioned for himself.

After signing a contract to become the Bulls’ highest-paid player, Parker is unapologetically embracing a new mission.

Parker, via 670 The Score:

I just stick to my strengths. Look at everybody in the league. They don’t pay players to play defense. There’s only two people historically that play defense. I’m not going to say I won’t, but to say that’s a weakness is like saying that’s everybody’s weakness. Because I’ve scored 30 and 20 on a lot of guys that say they play defense.

If you know the game, you also know that everyone’s a pro, right? And you know that certain guys have an average. No matter what you do, they still get that average. They pay people to score the ball, and I would hope that somebody scores the ball on me if they pay them that much. So, I’m not saying that to cop out or nothing. It’s the NBA. We’re professionals. Everybody scores. It’s just about limiting them as much as you can, trying to contain them.

A better offense wins a championship.

Parker is generally right. Scoring is rewarded far more than defense. If NBA teams don’t want to encourage that attitude, they ought to pay players more for other skills. Until then, players like Parker – who has no salary guarantee beyond this season – will continue to be drawn to scoring.

Parker is also correct that certain players get their points-per-game average no matter what. What he fails to explain: If that player needs too many shots to get it, he hurts his team. Good defenders force inefficiency from their opponents.

But, again, players who get theirs in the points column are often rewarded in salary.

So, expect Parker to hunt his points during his upcoming contract year.

These quotes only reinforce what we’d already seen from Parker. He showed glimpses of strong defense during this year’s playoffs, but that was rare for him. His skill set and approach are offense-first.

And great offense probably beats great defense. But offenses are rarely reliably great. Defense more often can be. The Warriors, as exceptional as they are offensively, are also elite defensively. I’m not sure Parker grasps that.

It’s on Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg to convince him, but managing this issue is easier said than done. Not only does Parker bring years of habits to Chicago, he’s playing to prove himself next season. The Bulls have a team option on him for 2019-20.

Parker will most positively affect winning by trying hard on both ends of the floor. He might most positively affect his bank account by saving his energy for offense.

You might not like him saying it, but it’s also reality.

Report: Kawhi Leonard warming to playing for Raptors

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Shortly after the Spurs traded Kawhi Leonard to the Raptors, word leaked he didn’t want to play for Toronto.

That stance is apparently softening.

Adrian Wojnarowski on ESPN:

They’ve been in communication with Kawhi Leonard’s camp. He’s going to play. He’ll be in training camp. He’s healthy. He may be at USA Basketball’s minicamp next week which Gregg Popovich is coaching. That’s possible.

But the one thing I was told today he’s started to warm to the idea that he’s going to a contender. He’s got a team that could be as good as anybody in the Eastern Conference.

And now it’s on Toronto to try to recruit him, keep him. But in his mind right now, he’s headed to L.A. next year.

Leonard has little choice but to get on board. If he withheld services from the Raptors, they could fine him – eventually all the way up to his entire $20,099,189 salary for next season. Perhaps even more catastrophically, if it was determined he withheld services for more than 30 days of the season, he could be denied free agency entirely.

Maybe he could have finessed using his injury as an excuse rather than explicitly holding out. It has been threatened before. But that’s hard to manage and would have hurt his stock among all teams, including his preferred destination(s).

The best way for Leonard to get everything he wants is going to Toronto, playing well then becoming a free agent next summer.

I’d advise Leonard to keep an open mind until then. It might have made sense to posture against the Raptors to discourage a trade. But the trade has happened. Maybe he’ll join Toronto and like it more than he expects.

Paul George didn’t expect to stay with the Thunder, but he considered them throughout the season and found a long-term home. I don’t expect that to repeat with Leonard and the Raptors, but it could. Why close the option?

If not, Los Angeles will always be waiting.

Report: Spurs wanted to declare Kawhi Leonard out for the season, but he wouldn’t let them

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In February, Gregg Popovich said he’d be surprised if Kawhi Leonard played again during the 2017-18 season. Leonard didn’t, but the Spurs never followed Popovich’s doubt with a clear statement on Leonard’s status. Instead, Popovich repeatedly deferred questions of Leonard’s health in the following months to Leonard’s “group.”

Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

Privately, officials within organization had hoped Leonard would let the Spurs declare him out for the season due to his injury, according to sources with knowledge of the situation. Believing he’d eventually return, Leonard declined each time

Did Leonard not realize this made him – not the Spurs – look bad? Especially once it leaked he’d been cleared medically. Especially when he told the team repeatedly and public once he’d return soon but never did.

Perhaps, this was just genuine competitiveness. Maybe Leonard really thought, or at least wanted to believe, a return was around the corner. This could have been him valiantly never giving up.

But there’s a reason teams usually err on the side of caution in long-term injury announcements. It’s to protect the player from looking bad for remaining out if he’s not quite ready as quickly as initially projected.

The Pacers received a disabled-player exception for Paul George in 2014-15, and he still beat the odds to return late in the year. The Celtics called Gordon Hayward out for this season and weren’t going to stray from that public stance until he suited up, even when – for a moment – it appeared he had a chance of returning.

Even if the Spurs publicly declared him out for the rest of the year, nothing would have stopped Leonard from playing. It’s not a binding resolution. Instead, he repeatedly missing targeted return dates and looked soft to many because of it.

And he insisted on the strategy that led to that perception!

This is just more evidence those around Leonard might not know what they’re doing.

Report: Spurs wouldn’t trade Kawhi Leonard to 76ers unless they included Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid

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The 76ers reportedly refused to include Markelle Fultz in trade offers for Kawhi Leonard, which seems misguided to me. Leonard carries major questions about his future, but after his rookie year, so does Fultz! At least Leonard has proven he can reach an elite level. That’s not to say Philadelphia should have definitely dealt Fultz for Leonard. The 76ers definitely have a better understanding of Fultz’s behind-the-scenes progress, and they might have more information on Leonard’s health and willingness to stay long-term. I just wouldn’t have made Fultz a deal-breaker in negotiations.

But it seems the Spurs placed a far more unreasonable restriction on Philadelphia, though.

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

The Spurs made it clear any deal with Philly would require Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid (likely Simmons), and the Sixers weren’t going anywhere near that, league sources say.

Given their age and contract status – and, in Simmons’ case, health – Simmons and Embiid are each way more valuable than Leonard. There’s no way the 76ers would have dealt either of those two for Leonard.

Which apparently took a still-viable suitor off the table for San Antonio.

Between Fultz, Dario Saric, Robert Covington, Zhaire Smith, the Heat’s 2021 first-rounder and Philadelphia’s own picks, the 76ers could have assembled a better package than the Raptors sent the Spurs for Leonard. Maybe the 76ers wouldn’t have. But it would have been worth at least exploring.

It seems San Antonio placed too much on remaining competitive, which led to a deal revolving around DeMar DeRozan. There’s nothing wrong with that strategy per se, but it gets more difficult to defend when the Spurs got so little. In this Western Conference, they could slip out of the playoffs, even with DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl. A long-term approach should have at least been considered.

To be fair, I’d also caution against taking this report at face value with no skepticism. Today, 28 teams – especially those, like Philadelphia, linked to Leonard – are trying to explain why they didn’t get the star. This could easily be the 76ers’ spin and not an accurate reflection of the Spurs’ stance.

But Lowe is a great reporter, and I tend to trust this – which raises red flags about San Antonio.