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.

Rebuild? What’s that? Grizzlies bring in veterans, dream of playoffs

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This is the latest of NBC’s NBA season preview stories, and we will post at least one a day on these pages until Oct. 16, when the NBA season kicks off. We will look at teams and topics around the NBA throughout the series, with today the focus on Grizzlies.

When the NBA zigged, the Memphis Grizzlies… zigged.

The biggest factor in the Grizzlies offseason direction came last April when primary owner Robert Pera bought out two minority owners of the franchise, keeping control of the team. At the time there was a lot of buzz around the league about this being the right spot for Memphis to rebuild — trade 33-year-old Marc Gasol, trade 31-year-old Mike Conley, explore the trade market for the other veterans, and since they were already tanking to end last season have that draft pick (which turned out to be Jaren Jackson Jr.) as the first step along rebuild road.

Pera didn’t want a rebuild. End of story.

Instead, Pera had the team re-load and aim for the playoffs — and making it is not out of the question, if a lot of things go right. We’ll get back to that.

With ownership having set a direction, Memphis’ front office had a quality summer, prying Kyle Anderson out of San Antonio as a restricted free agent, plus adding solid veterans who can help like Garrett Temple, Omri Casspi, and Shelvin Mack. Last season, when the injury bug hit the Grizzlies hard — Conley only played 12 games — the lack of quality depth they could trust became the team’s downfall. This season, they have veterans who coach J.B. Bickerstaff can trust in a pinch.

In trying to predict this season’s Grizzlies, you learn little from last year’s team — they were 7-5 when both Conley and Gasol played, but that’s such a small sample size it’s near meaningless. However, the record in those dozen games fits with the previous 43-win season where Conley and Gasol played 63 games together. This season, 43 wins is not going to be enough to make the postseason in the West, but with a better bench they believe they will beat that number. Pera said there is no reason this can’t be a 50-win team.

Um… the rest of us see those reasons. But the Grizzlies can make the playoffs…

• If Conley and Gasol are both healthy and can play at least 65 games together, ideally more. They did that in 2014-15 (70 games) but in the three years since have averaged 40.3 together per season. While the talent around them is better, these are still the two best players on the team and they need both of them together to be a threat in the deep West.

• If they get some depth and help out of Chandler Parsons, who played 36 games last season, and that was better than the one before. Parsons wasn’t bad when he was on the court last season, he could contribute in the rotation, but he has to be healthy enough to do that.

• If the Grizzlies can get back to being an above average defensive team. The era of Gasol as Defensive Player of the Year is long gone but he can still be — and needs to be — a quality presence in the paint (with Jackson blocking shots). Mike Conley needs to return to form as one of the better defensive point guards in the NBA. With Gasol, Jackson, Anderson, and JaMychal Green the Grizzlies have the length inside to be a problem. The pieces are there to be good, but can this group execute in the halfcourt?

• If rookie Jaren Jackson can contribute, particularly defensively, starting this season. Jackson was one of the best players I saw at Summer League this year (particularly in Salt Lake City, by the time he got to Vegas and had played five games in seven days he was looking a little tired). He can be a defensive/shot blocking force right away, and his offensive game shows promise.

• If Kyle Anderson can work as a secondary shot creator. The question isn’t “can Anderson make some plays” because we know he can, we saw him as a good ball handler in San Antonio, a guy who averaged 1.01 points per possession as the pick-and-roll ball handler once you include passes (stat via Synergy Sports). While he has a nice enough spot-up jumper, he needs the ball in his hands, playing his slo-mo game, to be effective. Bickerstaff has to fit that into the offense.

• If Dillon Brooks can take a step forward and rookie Jevon Carter can bring the defense off the bench (once he gets healthy from his thumb injury, he could see some early season time in the G-League).

That’s a lot of “ifs.”

Probably too many “ifs” to make the playoffs in the deep and brutal West. Too many things need to go right. And if things start to go wrong… will they regret not going the rebuild direction?

Doesn’t matter now, the call has been made. Memphis is making another run at it.

Assessing Jimmy Butler’s trade value

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Thanks to his trade request, Jimmy Butler instantly became the hottest name on the NBA’s trade block. How much is he worth to teams that want to deal for him? The answer is particularly complex, with numerous – significant – factors pulling each direction.

Pro: Production

This sounds simple, but it’s an important place to start: Butler is really good at basketball. He aces every test. Traditional stats, advanced stats and old-school scouting all reveal an elite player.

Over the last two years, Butler has averaged 23.1 points, 5.8 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game. A large majority of times a player hit those marks for a full season, he got MVP votes.

Butler’s real plus-minus has steadily climbed over the years – from 69th to 23rd to 18th to 7th all the way to 4th last season. His individual numbers aren’t empty. He immensely positively impacts winning.

Just watch him play. He’s a force on both ends. He digs into his man defensively and takes charge offensively. He’s not fancy, but he steadily creates and converts good shots while adding an excellent all-around game. He just does so many little things – making the right pass, the right rotation, etc. – to help his team.

Con: Age

Butler will turn 30 before playing on his next deal. He’s reaching the age most players decline, and a long-term deal would surely take him past that point.

Con: Mileage

Tom Thibodeau coached four All-Stars who were in their 20s with the Bulls – Butler, Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng. The other three have aged terribly, and it doesn’t seem like total coincidence. It’s not just heavy playing time, though Butler has consistently ranked near the top of the league in minutes per game. Thibodeau also pushes his players hard in practice.

Con: Cost

Butler’s max next summer projects to be $190 million over five years if he re-signs or $141 million over four years if he leaves his team. Given the previous two concerns, that’s a scary amount of money.

Few think as highly of Butler as I do. Even I would be leery of maxing him out over the most possible years.

Pro: Work ethic

Butler is one of the NBA’s hardest workers. Even while taking a social-media shot at Andrew Wiggins‘ brother, Butler was working out.

He didn’t just get lucky in his rise from overlooked college recruit to No. 30 pick to NBA star. He earned his rise by putting in the work.

Pro: Example set

Not only does Butler’s strong work ethic help him, it can inspire teammates. Some young players just don’t understand how much effort it takes to thrive in the NBA, but they can look to Butler as a model. Ideally, everyone follow his lead.

Con: Patience

However, not every player wants to work that hard. Some just want to get by, and Butler – understandably, considering his background – doesn’t have much patience for that. His testiness toward teammates who didn’t match his competitiveness and effort caused problems in Minnesota and Chicago. If he wants to be a leader for all situations, Butler must get better at lifting teammates who aren’t on his level. Coarseness doesn’t work on everyone.

Pro: Kyrie Irving friendship

Butler is close with Kyrie Irving, and there has been plenty of chatter about the two playing together. That type of talk occurs way more often than stars actually team up. But getting Butler could mean an inside track on signing Irving, who can become an unrestricted free agent next summer.

Pro: Availability

Butler’s trade request tanked the Timberwolves leverage. They proceed as if they’ll keep him, but everyone knows he wants out.

Some interested teams will wait to try signing him outright next summer rather than surrender significant assets now.

Minnesota is also pressed by Karl-Anthony Towns‘ reported discord with Butler. Towns’ Oct. 15 extension deadline looms.

Con: Flight risk

Butler can become an unrestricted free agent next summer. An extension before then seems unrealistic. Any pledge Butler makes now would be nonbinding. There’s always a chance things go south over the next season and Butler leaves a team that trades for him.

Even the Clippers, Knicks and Nets – Butler’s reported preferred destinations – can’t be assured he’ll re-sign.

Bottom line

Butler is an awesome player. The cost of trading for him should be high. The cost of re-signing him should be high.

Given the circumstances, teams might be able to trade for him without surrendering as much as a player of his caliber would usually command. But that likely comes with giving him a massive contract next summer, and that deal could age poorly.

Teams ready to win now or soon that have key players with strong competitive streaks should target Butler. There are more than enough such teams to drive up the price.

That’s why Minnesota has a valuable asset – for now – and Butler is positioned to cash in next summer.

Report: Timberwolves rebuffing Jimmy Butler trade calls

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Timberwolves president-coach Tom Thibodeau reportedly had no interest in trading Jimmy Butler despite the star’s trade request. In fact, some believe Thibodeau would rather leave Minnesota than take a step back by dealing Butler.

Just how serious is Thibodeau about keeping Butler?

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

I’m curious whether Thibodeau and Taylor are on the same page as far as not entertaining offers for Butler.

There’s a selfish logic to Thibodeau’s stance: If the Timberwolves fail to reach the playoffs this season, he could get fired. Keeping Butler maximizes Minnesota’s talent right now, and even if Butler leaves in unrestricted free agency next summer, that buys Thibodeau time to figure out something.

Taylor can take the longer view, trying to do what’s best for the franchise. Maybe he feels immediately ending all talks right now maximizes the Timberwolves’ leverage.

Or maybe this is all Thibodeau’s doing so far.

At some point, Minnesota should hear out offers. That doesn’t mean trading Butler. Perhaps keeping him and trying to change his mind – and Karl-Anthony Towns‘ – is the right course. It depends what other teams offer. But the Timberwolves should at least explore the market.

This puts the ball back in Butler’s court. Will he report to training camp? Not showing up would certainly add pressure for Minnesota to take these calls more seriously. But it’d also escalate the situation into something even more dramatic.

Pistons PG Reggie Jackson says ankle injury still keeping him off court

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If Reggie Jackson didn’t injure his ankle, maybe Stan Van Gundy is still running the Pistons.

Detroit went 27-18 when Jackson played and 12-25 otherwise last season. The Pistons missed the playoffs by four games then fired Van Gundy.

Ed Stefanski takes over running the front office, and Dwane Casey is now coach. But they won’t necessarily get a healthy Jackson, either – even though Jackson played the final 12 games of the season.

Jackson, via Keith Langlois of Pistons.com:

“Probably didn’t heal the way everybody thought it might once we had time off,” Jackson said. “Just haven’t been able to get on the court, but been doing everything I can to get healthy.”

“It actually feels good. I feel like I can cut again,” he said. “Once I get going fully, just see how it feels. But it feels night and day compared to last year. … I think anybody who watched, I never looked right. I never ran right. But that’s what you do. Everybody has nicks and bruises in this game. I wouldn’t change it any other way. I would still come back and play. It was just unfortunate that it wasn’t healed.”

“I’m going day to day,” he said. “I don’t necessarily know. I’m going to come in and do what they tell me, what they allow me to do. I think the organization, our coaching staff and the training staff have a great game plan on when I’ll be back and how to implement myself back into the workouts.”

Jackson not playing would be problematic for the Pistons, who look like a fringe playoff team. Ish Smith would be OK as a fill-in starting point guard, but moving Jose Calderon into the regular rotation could be dicey.

Calderon, who turns 37 next week, is fine in spurts. But I wouldn’t want to overly rely on him at this point. And, though Smith can hold his own as a starter, he looks much better as a reserve.

Even if Jackson gets healthy enough to play by the regular season, that wouldn’t solve everything. His endurance has been a problem at times, and limited offseason training could make that even more of an issue.