Spurs, Celtics slouching towards playoffs; count them out at your own peril

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Back at the All-Star break, a Celtics vs. Spurs finals seemed like a good bet. Sure, it made the guys who count the profits at ABC/Disney nervous — you know they want Lakers/Heat, and they really don’t want the Spurs — but the Celtics and Spurs were playing the best basketball by far. That matchup promised execution and smart basketball.

Today, not so much.

The Spurs have lost four in a row and have Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili banged up. Then Gregg Popovich sat Tony Parker because he might get injured at some point. They’re old and it’s showing say the doubters.

The Celtics are 5-5 in their last 10, still don’t have Shaquille O’Neal back while Kendrick Perkins is banging bodies next to Kevin Durant. Ray Allen can’t even get his hands on the rock. Celtics fans are giving lip service to last season — when Boston limped into the playoffs then turned it on — but they don’t believe it. You can hear it in their voices.

Spurs and Celtics fans are right to be worried.

But not about the recent slumps.

Those will pass. Those are the things that come with veteran teams and smart veteran coaches getting guys healthy, resting teams for the playoffs. Come the playoffs, those slumps and what has caused them will disappear faster than Chris Brown’s career.

The things to worry about are bigger issues, ones there before the slumps.

For the Spurs, right now it’s all about being healthy. Which is what it’s been about for the past few years but they just never were in the playoffs, Parker or Ginobili were not right and the supporting cast was not there. This season everything is in place. The current injuries are not that serious — Parker will be back Thursday against Boston, and both Duncan and Gimobili might be. The fact they are close shows concerns these may linger into the postseason are overstated.

The Spurs just need to hold off the Lakers and Bulls for the best record overall — they have a three-game cushion in the loss column over both with just two weeks left. Popovich knows what he is doing. The Spurs will play their stars just enough to keep that lead. Aside that it’s about rest – fresh and healthy legs that allow big postseason minutes.

What should worry Spurs fans is simply the Lakers. They are healthy, they are defending, they are running the offense (for a change) and they look like defending champions. Can a healthy Spurs team beat the Lakers? That’s the question that should keep Popovich up at night.

In Boston, the concerns with this slump run deeper.

What is costing Boston games now was a strength earlier — end of game execution, as our man A. Sherrod Blakely notes at CSN Boston (in an article enumerating Boston worries). But come the playoffs, do you really think Paul Pierce is not going to drain the step-back jumper, that Ray Allen will not hit the three, that Kevin Garnett will not outwork everybody for the key rebound? Exactly.

Rajon Rondo still does not seem right, still seems to be battling a finger issue. But he can get some rest once the seedings are more set — Delonte West should help lift the pressure off him — and once the playoffs come he’ll be fine.

What should worry Celtics fans is Shaquille O’Neal: Will he be healthy enough, in good enough condition to really anchor the paint in the playoffs? He did it early in the season, but on a team with issues of age everywhere Shaq has the biggest question mark after his name. In the best of times his conditioning was an issue, in the best of times he got exposed on the pick-and-roll in the playoffs. What will Dwyane and LeBron, or Rose and Noah do to him? Shaq isn’t simply backing up Perkins now (as we thought when he was brought in last summer); he is the man in the middle. That should worry Celtics fans. It should worry Danny Ainge.

But the slumps Boston and San Antonio are going through now, those are not worth worrying about. These are veteran teams that understand what it takes to be ready for the playoffs. They will leave it all on the floor when it matters.

The real question is will that be enough?

Is part of Markelle Fultz’s problem a too-tight, family-dominated inner circle?

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There needs to be context with this story. A lot of context. First, whatever is going on with Markelle Fultz, it cannot be traced to just one thing. It’s never that clean and simple. His agent and lawyer Raymond Brothers is trying to pitch his issues are all physical when clearly there are mental aspects and more involved.

Next, a close-knit family where the mother/dad/uncle is very protective of the elite basketball prospect and is deeply involved in everything is far, far, far from a new story in the NBA. It’s more the norm.

All that said, it’s fair to ask if Markelle Fultz’s family situation is impacting him. The amazing Candace Buckner of the Washington Post delved into this topic, interviewing Fultz’s former trainer Keith Williams among others.

“He’s a sensitive young kid, and I think emotionally he went through so much,” Williams said….

Fultz is now a professional on a four-year contract worth $33 million, but close associates said [his mother] Ebony still goes to great lengths to shield him. During Fultz’s first season in Philadelphia, Ebony had cameras installed inside his New Jersey home, according to several people familiar with the setup who described the indoor surveillance as unusual. The cameras have since been removed. Multiple people said Ebony has asked some who have dealt with Fultz to sign nondisclosure agreements for reasons that are unclear to them…

“There’s definitely crazy [expletive] going on with the mom and how involved she is and how overprotective she is,” said a person with a close connection to Fultz. “The best possible situation is if the mom just backs off for a period of time and gives him a chance to breathe.”

Again, overprotective parents are not new in basketball circles. NBA teams have dealt with it before and generally understand how to make that less of a problem. Just like your parents don’t get to follow you to your first real job after college, NBA parents don’t either. Just ask LaVar Ball.

That said, this concern it adds to the things making it hard to move him in a trade.

Ultimately, what Fultz needs is to be traded to a smaller market where he can develop out of the spotlight and demands that came in Philly. The Sixers are testing the market, but so far no deal has come close. That team will have to deal with everything going on around and with Fultz. And it’s not going to be just one thing.

 

Watch the video: How many times was James Harden fouled by the Lakers?

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James Harden has attempted 235 free throws this season, second most in the NBA (Joel Embiid, to answer your question about the most). He averages 9.8 free throws a game, again second most in the NBA.

Every team complains about how he draws fouls — driving into players bodies then selling it by throwing his head back, flailing his arms and going to the ground. Last night the Lakers were so frustrated they played with their hands behind their backs for a while.

How many fouls did Harden really draw? Watch this and decide for yourself.

The NBA referees think he was fouled more than you do. That includes a foul on Kyle Kuzma.

That second one is the correct call — Lonzo Ball has his hands down but he as the defender initiates the contact and drives into Harden. That’s a foul. Other ones are as well, the Lakers slid under him as he went up on a number of plays.

A lot of NBA fans complaining about the calls Harden gets may want to watch their own team more closely — a lot of players do the same thing. Not as often or as convincingly as Harden, but it’s the same idea, a lot of players do the same thing.

Harden is the master of drawing fouls, with his herky-jerky, old man at the Y game which includes a lot of stepbacks and flailing. It’s frustrated everyone, including Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook when they had to guard him as teammates.

Why does he do it? Because it works. It throws defenders off. Same reason Marcus Smart and others flop on defense, he gets calls and gets in opponents heads.

And it’s not going to stop.

No, the Heat are not going to tank, you can stop asking

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At the season’s end, if no trades or moves are made, the Miami Heat would pay nearly $6.3 million in tax. They have the sixth-highest payroll in the NBA.

The Miami Heat are 11-16 and right now out of the playoffs in the East. Even if they get it together, this is not a roster ready to compete with the top four in the East.

There is a lot of context is needed here: Goran Dragic, Hassan Whiteside, James Johnson, Dion Waiters all gave missed time this season (Waiters has yet to play), it’s not simply that this is a bad team asking too much of Josh Richardson. But it is an unimpressive team.

Which always leads to the “will the Heat sell off their good players and tank” question? A question the franchise is weary of hearing.

No. That’s not the way Pat Riley sees the world. That’s what everyone told Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated.

“This is what pro sports is supposed to be about,” Spoelstra told The Crossover. “Competing every night. To try to win. Not the opposite. Obviously not every year you are going to have a realistic chance to compete for a title. Since I have been here, working for Pat, from day 1, that has always been the directive. For me, that brings great clarity. Keep the main thing the main thing. And everything else is just b*******….

“Do the history on it,” Spoelstra said. “What franchises have had the most enduring sustainable success over the last 24 years? We’re up there with the top three or four. The teams that constantly tank, I don’t know where they are. It would make for a pretty good discussion. But if you are hardwired to find a way to get it done without any excuses, you will find different pathways. There’s no one way to do it.”

Miami has advantages — the nightlife, the weather, no state taxes — that allows it to get free agents other franchises can only dream of. Miami is a destination. Build a core and try to attract free agents is a legitimate strategy for Miami in a way it is not for other franchises.

Building a core is just not that easy. Miami is a team is set to be over the tax this season and next, and their 2021 first-round pick is owed to Philadelphia unprotected (via Phoenix). Is the goal to stick around in the East and overachieve as Spoelstra teams tend to do the Heat are set up to go for it, but should they take a step back to try and take a step forward.

That’s not the way the Heat operate.

 

Report: Suns owner Robert Sarver overruled draft-night trade for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

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On draft night, the Suns traded the No. 16 pick and the Heat’s unprotected 2021 first-round pick to the 76ers for No. 10 pick Mikal Bridges. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander went to the Clippers with the No. 11 pick (via the Hornets).

Phoenix is now an NBA-worst 5-24 and lacks even a decent point guard.

Bob Young of The Athletic:

It’s worth noting that the Suns wouldn’t be in this fix if Robert Sarver, the club’s managing partner, had not reportedly overruled his then-general manager, Ryan McDonough, on draft night.

McDonough reportedly planned to package the club’s pick from Milwaukee and a player taken with the 16th pick to move up and draft Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a point guard from Kentucky.

When Philadelphia offered the rights to Mikal Bridges for the rights to Zhaire Smith and Miami’s unprotected 2021 first-round pick, Sarver pushed for that deal. So the Suns moved up six spots to add their fourth young wing player.

I didn’t like the trade the Suns made. I ranked Bridges No. 6 on my draft board, and he’s having a fine rookie year. But part of Bridges’ appeal was his NBA-readiness. Phoenix isn’t good enough to take advantage of that. The Heat pick is also too valuable.

McDonough’s preferred trade would have been better. The Bucks pick – 1-3 and 17-30 protected, in 2019, 1-7 protected in 2020, unprotected in 2021 – is less valuable than the Miami pick. Gilgeous-Alexander has looked promising in L.A.

Importantly, Gilgeous-Alexander would have given the Suns a much-needed point guard.

As owner, Sarver can step in where he sees fit. It’s his team after all. But this makes it all the more ludicrous he fired McDonough shortly before the season due, in part, to not having a quality point guard.

That said, if Gilgeous-Alexander were struggling, I’m not sure we’d hear this story. Only the near-hits, never the near-misses, get leaked.