NBA Playoffs: For one game new Spurs look like old Spurs

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These are not your father’s San Antonio Spurs. Well, bad example, because your father’s Spurs had Artis Gilmore and George Gervin, and these definitely are not those Spurs.

But these are not the four-time champion Spurs, either. This is a very different team with a different, more offense-minded identity. As Timothy Varner said at 48 Minutes of Hell, one of the more interesting story lines of the playoffs is how far these new Spurs can go.

But for one night — and one night only — it was like the old Spurs were back.

Kind of. It was the defensive Spurs with just enough offense to win it. In what was an offensively ugly game, the Spurs held the Grizzlies to 39.8 percent shooting, 3-of-14 from three and 91.6 points per 100 possessions (16 points below Memphis’ season average). More importantly, the Spurs held the Grizzlies two big men, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, to a combined 7-of-23 shooting. The Spurs controlled the paint, they doubled Randolph and both and fronted and doubled Gasol. Memphis could not get comfortable.

It was an old-school Spurs defensive slugfest and they won 93-87 to even the series heading back to Memphis for Game 3.

This was not a pretty game, but then this isn’t really going to be a pretty series. Memphis wants to grind it out and the Spurs can play that game. For example, the first quarter saw both teams shooting less than 40 percent and ending with a 17-17 score.

San Antonio was always in for a tough series because the Grizzlies and their physical style with two quality scorers in the post were very much the kind of team that matches up with the new Spurs. Tim Duncan is still a quality defender and had a big part in what San Antonio did in the paint. But he cannot own it in the same way he did in years past.

The other key was the return of Manu Ginobili, who wasn’t sharp (only hitting 7-of-13 free throws shows you how much his elbow is hurting still) but still opened things up on the floor and came up with several key defensive steals. Manu helps create better angles of attack in the Spurs offense. More importantly, the Spurs had a different energy with him out there. Single game +/- is usually a pretty useless stat, but the fact Manu was a game high +16 was not a coincidence.

These Spurs did what the old-school Spurs did — they executed better at the end of the game. They went on a late 11-4 run to take control of the game and while the Grizzlies got a three from Sam Young to make it close the Spurs were willing to live with that (Young took 50 threes all season, that’s not his specialty). At the end of the game George Hill drained four free throws while the Grizzlies missed threes.

Memphis fans have reason to feel good — they got a split in San Antonio and lost the second game by six points on about as off a shooting night as Zach Randolph is going to have. They are going home with a real chance, knowing the Spurs have not been a very good road playoff team in recent years.

But that was the old Spurs, who made a return appearance Wednesday. We’ll see what Spurs we get in Game 3.

Monte Morris plays it safe – to Nuggets’ delight

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DETROIT – Monte Morris entered the NBA inauspiciously.

Despite looking like a borderline first-round pick after his junior year, Morris returned to Iowa State for his senior season. He pulled his quad during the pre-draft process in 2017, missing most of his scheduled workouts. He fell to the No. 51 pick. The Nuggets offered just a two-year, two-way contract.

“I was excited,” said Morris, a Flint, Mich., native. “Where I come from, if you get a chance to get to this level, everybody back home looks at you as the hero. So, I was just happy for my opportunity.”

Morris has seized it.

With Isaiah Thomas sidelined most of the season, Morris has emerged as a quality contributor in Denver. Morris deserves strong consideration for spots on Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player ballots. And this could be just the start.

The knock on Morris has long been his ceiling. The 6-foot-3, 175-pound point guard is neither big nor overly athletic. In four years at Iowa State, he developed a reputation for protecting the ball and taking what defenses gave him. Usually, future NBA point guards bend the game more at that level. They use their burst and/or shooting to dictate terms to the defense. Morris left many scouts believing he’d be a career backup in the NBA – at best.

Morris has improved his outside shooting, making 43.1% of his 3-pointers on 2.8 attempts per game this season. But he’s mostly playing the same style he always has, avoiding bad shots and turnovers. It has just translated far better than expected.

Morris’ 6.4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio is on pace to be the best in NBA history. Here are the highest assist-to-turnover ratios since 1977-78, as far back as Basketball-Reference data goes (assists and turnovers per game in parentheses):

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Morris has gone 127 minutes since his last turnover.

“As a coach, that’s what you want in a point guard,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “He’s a throwback.”

Morris is averaging 10.8 points per game, and he competes defensively. Few reserves have produced like him this season.

Montrezl Harrell and Domantas Sabonis are pulling away from the field in the Sixth Man of the Year race. But the ballot runs three deep, and Morris ranks third among Sixth Man of the Year-eligible players in win shares:

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Not bad for someone who spent most of last season in the NBA’s minor league.

Morris played well there, and he has only continued to improve since. He impressed so much in summer league, Denver signed him to a standard contract a year before his two-way deal would have ended. That way, the Nuggets could use Morris more than the 45-day limit for two-way players within the season.

“He embodied who we want to be,” Malone said. “He embodied our culture. Self-motivated. And every time you gave Monte Morris a challenge, he met it head on.”

Judging Morris’ improvement can be tricky. He played just 25 minutes in three NBA games last season. I suspect he could have handled a bigger role, even as a rookie. But there’s a certain amount of guesswork there. (Not so for my Most Improved Player favorite, Kings point guard De'Aaron Fox, who was demonstrably bad last season then has become a near-star this season).

Undeniably, Morris’ impact this season is far greater than ever before.

Here are the biggest increases in win shares (middle) from a prior career high (left) to the current season (right):

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Everything is trending the right direction for Morris. He’s showing the fruits of his work ethic, and he’s just 23. Maybe we can finally view him as someone with upside. But even if this is his ceiling, it’s high enough. Morris is already a productive NBA rotation player.

Perhaps best of all for the Nuggets, Morris is on just a minimum contract.

Here are this season’s win-share leaders among minimum-contract players:*

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*Excluding players who were bought out or just waived in-season then signed elsewhere for the minimum. Excluding players on rookie-scale contracts who had their salaries increased to the minimum by the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Of the 15 minimum-salary players on that leaderboard, only two have contracts that won’t allow them to enter free agency and pursue raises this summer. Spencer Dinwiddie signed a three-year, $34,360,473 extension in December, which he deemed even better than hitting the open market. Morris has two (!) additional minimum-salary seasons on his deal.

By getting him onto a two-year, two-way deal initially, Denver gained immense leverage in negotiations last summer. Morris could have played out his two-way deal and become a restricted free agent next summer. Instead, he took the safe approach with a three-year contract that guaranteed two seasons at the NBA minimum and included a third unguaranteed minimum season.

It’s incredible value for the Nuggets… and delays Morris getting a payday commensurate with his production. But he’s maintaining the same steady approach he shows on the court.

“It’s cool,” Morris said. “I’ve just got to keep being Monte, keep being on-time, keep being a good person, and everything will take care of itself.”

Former Warriors coach Don Nelson on how he’s spending retirement: ‘I’ve been smoking some pot’

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Last night, the Warriors honored their “We Believe” team, which upset the No. 1-seeded Mavericks in the 2007 playoffs. Golden State’s coach that year, Don Nelson, and two of his players – Stephen Jackson and Jason Richardson – were asked how they’re spending retirement.

Nelson:

I’ve been smoking some pot.

But I never smoked when I played or coached. So, it’s new to me. But, anyway, I’m doing that. And I’m having a pretty good time. It’s more legal now than it’s ever been, so I’m enjoying that.

The best part: Jackson – who previously admitted to playing high – raising his arms victoriously while Nelson answered.

Giannis Antetokounmpo makes incredible chase-down block on Jayson Tatum (video)

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Look at this!

Jayson Tatum is barely in the picture as he takes off for the basket. Giannis Antetokounmpo is still at the free-throw line and looking at Terry Rozier.

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Yet, Antetokounmpo still caught Tatum for the awesome block in the Bucks’ 98-97 win over the Celtics last night.

James Harden: Scott Foster ‘rude and arrogant,’ shouldn’t be allowed to ref Rockets games

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In the Rockets’ loss to the Lakers last night, referee Scott Foster called James Harden‘s third and fifth fouls – both offensive. The third came in the first quarter and sent Harden to the bench early. The fifth set up Harden to foul out a short time later.

Foster also called Chris Paul‘s sixth and disqualifying foul. Then, Foster gave Paul and Houston coach Mike D’Antoni technical fouls.

In all, Foster called 12 fouls on the Rockets and six on the Lakers. In the second half, he called 10 fouls on the Rockets and three on the Lakers.

Harden, via Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

“Scott Foster, man. I never really talk about officiating or anything like that, but just rude and arrogant,” said Harden, who finished with 30 points to extend his streak of 30-point performances to 32 games, the second longest in NBA history. “I mean, you aren’t able to talk to him throughout the course of the game, and it’s like, how do you build that relationship with officials? And it’s not even that call [on the sixth foul]. It’s just who he is on that floor.

“It’s lingering, and it’s something that has to be looked at for sure,” Harden said. “For sure, it’s personal. For sure. I don’t think he should be able to even officiate our games anymore, honestly.”

It’s impossible to escape the timing of this. Former referee Tim Donaghy received renewed attention this week as more evidence emerged he fixed games. Donaghy and Foster frequently spoke by phone while Donaghy was still an NBA official, which only raised suspicions about Foster. But he explained the calls as simply friends conversing.

Fair or not, Foster isn’t particularly well-liked within the league. Paul also made pointed comments about him last year.

Does Foster have a personal vendetta against Harden, Paul and the Rockets? Were Foster’s calls last night erroneous? I’m not sure.

But it wouldn’t be the first time a referee let his emotions interfere with calling a game fairly. It’s probably worth the NBA taking Harden’s concerns seriously and assessing them.