NBA Playoffs: Thunder play well, but Spurs win while still seeming unstoppable

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The San Antonio Spurs have now played an even ten games in the NBA Playoffs and, amazingly, have won every one of them. The wins haven’t all been dominant — Tuesday night’s 120-111 victory ended up being one of their more difficult challenges this season — but it’s been astounding to watch the old, formerly boring ball players simply click on all cylinders for majority of the past few months.

While we all marvel at what the Spurs have been able to do en route to staying undefeated for 48 consecutive days, the most impressive thing is that the Spurs haven’t been playing any sort of “hero” ball … they’re just playing basketball the way it was meant to be played and, surprise(!), it works. Gregg Popovich has found out a way to put a fine-tuned machine out on the court, allowing the basketball purists among us 48 awesome minutes of watching wings cut to the bucket, guards move the ball around, slashers slash, passers pass and the big men doing what big men have been taught to do since the first time they picked up a basketball and their coach realized they were bigger than anyone else.

The Spurs are winning simply by playing fundamentally-sound basketball, really, so it shouldn’t be any sort of surprise that Mr. Fundamental himself — the ageless Tim Duncan — helped San Antonio earn a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference Finals following Tuesday night’s victory. Duncan wasn’t the most efficient player from the floor as the Thunder got a bit more physical with him than he would have liked, but his double-double while chasing down loose balls and picking up four big blocks were key for the Spurs as Oklahoma City employed the “Hack-A-Player” defense on backup Tiago Splitter (oh, and in case anyone missed it, he also did this to Serge Ibaka).

Most frustrating for the Thunder, though, is likely the fact that San Antonio was able to find another answer on the offensive end. Manu Ginobili was the star in Game 1, but Argentina’s favorite sixth man was bottled up early on Tuesday night and never really found his rhythm … at least not until hitting what might have been a dagger three-pointer late in the fourth quarter. No worries for the Spurs, though — Tony Parker simply decided to show once again why he belongs in the conversation as one of the top point guards in the league by accumulating 32 points, seven assists and turning the ball over a mere two times — all while hitting 15 of his 20 shot attempts in part of a near-perfect performance. The scariest part is that Thursday night’s Game 3 will likely end up belonging to someone entirely different if the Thunder are able to figure out  how to stop both of the Spurs perimeter playmakers (here’s hoping for Gary Neal and Matt Bonner three-pointers early and often).

If the fact that San Antonio continues to find contributors on the other end no matter what the Thunder do on defense — Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green combined for 25 points — it probably isn’t making Oklahoma City happy on offense that the Spurs are also quite adept at keeping them from getting into any sort of rhythm. Tuesday night’s game got grimy in the second half when a plethora of free-throws were shot and, even though the Thunder shot more from the charity stripe, it kept them trailing as they were unable to get into a rhythm and barely picked up even a modicum of momentum before San Antonio eventually elicited an answer for each run.

The worst part about Tuesday night’s game might have been that Oklahoma City’s stars all ended up having excellent games. Kevin Durant scored 31 points on 17 shots (though he was limited quite a bit in the fourth quarter), James Harden came off the bench to hit 10 of his 13 shot attempts and free-throw attempts to score an even 30 points while Russell Westbrook scored 27 points and dished eight assists and nary a turnover. Typically when one team’s top three players are able to score 88 points against an opponent that hadn’t given up triple-digit points in their previous nine outings, it’ll lead to a victory. That surprisingly wasn’t the case on Tuesday night, however, because San Antonio held the remaining six Thunder players to a total of just 23 points despite attempting 35 shots.

It’ll be interesting to see what the Thunder decide to change for Game 3 considering they did almost all they can be expected to do on Tuesday night before falling into a two-game deficit in the seven-game series. If they’re unable to win when their top three players combing for nearly 30 points apiece while shutting down the star from their series-opening loss, can there really be much hope left in the Oklahoma City locker room?

Zion Williamson sitting out Pelicans-Wizards (rest)

Pelicans big Zion Williamson
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The Pelicans have been one of the NBA’s most disappointing teams in the bubble. New Orleans has gone 1-3 at Disney World and fallen to 13th in the Western Conference.

Still (barely) hanging in the race to make the play-in, the Pelicans must face the Wizards without Zion Williamson.

Pelicans:

The Pelicans are treating Williamson carefully – and they should. He’s their 20-year-old franchise player with major health concerns.

But New Orleans still has its highest ceiling now with Williamson on the floor. He’s an offensive force. His interior scoring and gravity create efficient looks for himself and teammates.

Williamson has been woeful defensively, and the Pelicans have bigs – Derrick Favors and Jaxson Hayes – to take Williamson’s minutes. New Orleans can go small, too.

The Pelicans should still beat Washington, even without Williamson. Ideally, this will have Williamson ready for a closing stretch against the Spurs, Kings and Magic without sacrificing today’s game.

Yet, this is really just proof New Orleans isn’t as ready to launch as it appears during Williamson’s most exciting moments. His availability remains murky. His team has run hot and cold. I wouldn’t assume a win over the Wizards – though it’s a game the Pelicans need to preserve their fading playoff hopes.

Rumor: Next NBA season could begin in March

Wizards guard Bradley Beal and 76ers center Joel Embiid
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The NBA could reportedly delay the start of next season – currently planned for Dec. 1 – if fan attendance becomes foreseeable.

How long would the league wait?

Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times:

one plan includes starting in March if the NBA feels they can get fans in the arena by then, as well as not lose personnel and viewership to the Summer Olympics.

I understand the temptation to delay. The coronavirus pandemic has made it more difficult for NBA teams to turn a profit.

But this plan would invite all sorts of complications:

  • What if there’s no vaccine, cure or comparable solution by March? Then, the league would have wasted months getting practically no revenue – rather than reduced revenue – without reaching a more favorable point. (However, maybe owners could also reduce costs with a lockout.)
  • Starting the season in March would radically alter the NBA’s calendar. Shifting back to an October – or even December – start date would mean even more upheaval, potentially for several years.
  • The Tokyo Olympics are scheduled for July and August 2021. The Olympics have been a powerful tool for the NBA and its players expanding their global reach.

These are unique and trying circumstances. Coronavirus is a massive and confounding variable. Everything should be on the table.

Do I predict next season will begin in March? No. But apparently the possibility is being considered, which is something.

Magic center Mo Bamba had coronavirus

Magic center Mo Bamba
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Mo Bamba has fallen behind Khem Birch as the Magic’s backup center (to Nikola Vucevic). At the NBA’ resumption at Disney World, Bamba has played in only two of Orlando’s four games, receiving just four and six minutes. Magic coach Steve Clifford cited the 22-year-old’s conditioning.

Bamba wants you to know the full story: He had coronavirus.

Josh Robbins of The Athletic:

Bamba received word of his positive test on June 11

The illness temporarily robbed him of his senses of smell and taste, made him unusually fatigued and caused muscle soreness.

“Part of me is reading the temperature of the room and just knowing that there are definitely going to be questions, and sometimes you’ve just got to address them with honesty,” Bamba said. “In this case, I think it’s best for them to have that context and have that understanding of what, exactly, is going on.

“I want people to know that I’m still working as hard as ever, if not even harder, and I’ll get through this.”

Bamba thought he had endured the worst by the time the Magic entered the NBA bubble on July 7. But the false positives required him to have an additional three-day in-room quarantine while his teammates practiced together on July 9, July 10 and July 11.

I appreciate Bamba being so forthcoming. It was easy for people to suspect he didn’t train properly during the hiatus. Though medical privacy should also be valued, transparency often alleviates the worst suspicions.

At least 54 NBA players have tested positive for coronavirus. Does that number already include Bamba? It’s unclear.

After going quiet during most of the shutdown, the league has announced the number of players who’ve tested positive since June 23. Maybe Bamba continued to test positive on June 23 or later. Or perhaps he’s an additional case from the quiet period. There definitely were some cases in that timeframe.

False positives are an issue – an unavoidable one. It’s unfair Bamba was stuck in his hotel room, not training, longer than necessary. But the NBA can’t risk allowing a potentially contagious player into the bubble. Better to err on the side of safety.

The No. 6 pick in the 2018 NBA draft, Bamba improved steadily from an underwhelming rookie season. He still needs more work to become a quality NBA player. This is a setback, and one that makes him unlikely to contribute much the rest of this season. Hopefully, he’ll be able to pick up next season where he left off when this season got suspended.

Three Things to Know: What’s next for 76ers without Ben Simmons?

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack — especially with games spread out every day in the bubble — so every weekday during the NBA restart we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.

1) What’s next for 76ers without Ben Simmons?

“This one stings, for sure.”

That was 76ers coach Brett Brown, who has had to deal with a lot of injuries to players during his tenure in Philadelphia. But this one hurts a little more because of the timing. The Sixers will be without Ben Simmons for a while after he suffered a subluxation of the left patella — his kneecap essentially dislocated then popped back into place — against Washington.

The 76ers were adjusting to playing Simmons at power forward during the restart in Orlando. Now there are just questions.

How long will Simmons be out? That’s the big one and the answer is nobody knows for sure. The Sixers are evaluating treatment options. As Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes notes, Allen Crabbe had the same injury earlier this year and missed 11 days (three games), but he had no damage to the ligaments or rest of the knee. That’s the most common outcome for this injury and it would have Simmons back around the start of the playoffs. However, if there is any ligament damage, Simmons could be out much longer. (The early reports were the MRI came back clean, but that doesn’t tell us much about the real level of damage other than it wasn’t severe.) Philadelphia has always been cautious when it comes to bringing its stars back from injury.

Who starts for Philadelphia while Simmons is out? That’s one Brown has to decide by today (Friday) and the game against Orlando. He could plug Al Horford back into the starting lineup — the Sixers were +1.4 points per 100 possessions this season with Embiid and Horford on the court together without Simmons (it was -0.7 with all three and the floor spacing was a mess). Or, Brown could keep Horford on the bench and go with another wing such as Matisse Thybulle or Furkan Korkmaz.

Philadelphia seems locked into the six seed in the East (they are one game back of five seed Indiana with four to play, but the Pacers beat the Sixers last Friday and have the tiebreaker, so it is in practice a two-game lead).

Philadelphia is 6-5 this season without Simmons, and while they can plug other players into the four they will not have Simmons’ elite defense, nor his passing skills, and the new player will not be the same threat in transition. Philadelphia is just not the same threat in the East without Simmons.

2) Portland is in control of ninth seed in West after win, New Orleans loss

There is going to be a play-in series in the West — and Portland is going to be in it.

That much seems obvious after Thursday’s action, where Jusuf Nurkic was dunking on Bol Bol and Portland was picking up a 125-115 win over Denver.

That win has Portland half a game back of  Memphis for the eighth seed in the West — and the 0-4 Grizzlies face a tough game against the Thunder Friday. The West could be tied by Saturday morning.

Portland looks to be a lock for the play-in.

Can anyone else crash that party? Sacramento earned it’s first win in the bubble on Thursday, knocking off Zion Williamson and New Orleans, meaning now both the Kings and Pelicans sit 2.5 games back of the Grizzlies with four to play. Both need to win out and hope Memphis continues losing to have a chance to get into a play-in with Portland.

The undefeated-in-the-bubble Suns and the Spurs both sit two games back of the Grizzlies and with a chance to make a play-in. Just as with the Kings/Pels, the Suns and Spurs essentially need to win out and count on the Grizzlies continued stumbles to have a chance.

Memphis controls its own destiny. But without Jaren Jackson Jr., and with Ja Morant struggling from three, a sharp turnaround is needed.

3) Milwaukee wraps up No. 1 seed in East

This was expected, but the Bucks made it dramatic. Miami led this game by 23 points in the first half, but both Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton turned it on — both finished with 33 points each — and Milwaukee came back to get 130-116 win. With that, the Bucks officially wrapped up the No. 1 seed in the East.

While this is good for the Bucks — who now get an easy first-round playoff matchup against Brooklyn or Orlando — they know they will be judged on the playoffs. This is a Finals-or-bust team. And Milwaukee fans don’t want to think about the options for bust.

Milwaukee has eased into games in the NBA restart, not worrying about wins now and rather being healthy and firing on all cylinders when the games matter. They have that luxury with the lead they built up in the East, but they need to flip the switch eventually. As they did coming back on the Heat.