Tony Parker’s clutch buckets late help Spurs take down the Thunder

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This was a game the Thunder could have won, and watching how the last few possessions played out, it’s one the Thunder should have won. But in the end, San Antonio had the execution that Oklahoma City did not, and the Spurs came away with a buzzer-beating 86-84 win over the Thunder to give them their second win in as many nights to open the 2012 season.

This was a close game that went back and forth all night, but it wasn’t a particularly well-played one. The teams combined for 31 turnovers, and the Spurs’ 44.3 percent shooting seemed high compared to the 37.7 percent that OKC posted.

A lot of the Thunder’s problems offensively can be traced directly to Russell Westbrook, whose shot selection was atrocious for most of the night, and yet despite rarely connecting, he kept on firing — 21 times, the most from any player on either team. Westbrook hit on only six of those shots, which came mainly on his patented pull-up jumpers from mid-range, while seemingly not even considering time left on the shot clock or the overall game situation.

Westbrook is a double-edged sword, however, because on nights like this one, he’s typically the only one on the team making a point of being aggressive. The rest of the Thunder looked largely passive for most of the game, playing at a slower overall tempo which played right into the Spurs’ hands.

Oklahoma City debuted its sixth-man replacement for James Harden in this one, and got a decent performance from Kevin Martin, who scored 15 points off the bench, and chipped in five assists in his 32 minutes of action. It’ll take some time for Martin to learn where to go on the court to get the easiest looks, and of course, he’ll need to adjust to playing with his new teammates. But he can definitely score, so as the season progresses, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see his offensive numbers surpass even those of Harden’s.

But while Martin is a scorer, Harden is a better overall playmaker. And with that second unit, OKC will need to have someone step into that role to be successful — over time, maybe that’ll be Eric Maynor. But it isn’t likely to be Martin.

On the Spurs’ side of things, San Antonio got a lot of positive contributions from a lot of guys you don’t necessarily expect them from. And isn’t that just like them? Kawhi Leonard did an excellent job defensively on Kevin Durant, Tim Duncan played big on the second night of a back-to-back, and Tony Parker drained the shots that mattered down the stretch for the second straight night. Danny Green hit timely shots from three-point distance, and Gary Neal came in and got buckets efficiently in limited minutes.

This game had wild swings both ways, with the Thunder leading by as many as eight, and the Spurs leading by as many as 10. But it came down to the final few possessions, and the Spurs were supremely prepared to execute while the Thunder couldn’t get out of their own way. Let’s review:

– OKC led by three with 1:02 remaining. They had a chance at converting an alley-oop, but Westbrook should have known he was too close to the rim to convert it, and should have simply caught the ball and come down with it instead of forcing the shot attempt. It was a quick possession for the Thunder when they didn’t need one, and the Spurs immediately responded.

– On the ensuing possession, Boris Diaw found himself under the basket and nearly falling out of bounds along the baseline, but gathered himself enough to kick the ball out to Parker up top, who drained an open three-pointer to tie the game at 84. It was a classic Spurs possession in the sense that once the defense collapsed and things seemed to break down, someone made the heady play to find the open man, who calmly knocked down the shot.

– No problem for the Thunder now, theoretically. Kevin Durant is among the game’s purest scorers, so get the ball into his hands and let him go to work. Except, you have to actually get the ball into his hands. The Thunder failed in this regard, because as Durant flashed to get the ball (somewhat lackadaisically), Leonard was able to head off the pass and get the steal. It wasn’t all on Westbrook for making a poor read on the pass, because Durant should have showed a little harder and sealed his defender. But it was a blown opportunity for the Thunder nevertheless.

– This brings us to the final possession. Watch it again for yourself, but it appears that Westbrook had no intention of guarding anybody during this play — either that, or he got completely lost. Parker creeps along the baseline, then curls out to the wing to receive the pass, while Westbrook casually heads to the middle of the paint for no apparent reason. Big-time shot from Parker to be sure, but you can’t tell me that the Thunder did all they could defensively to prevent that wide-open look.

This one came down to execution; once the season is finished, should these two teams meet again, things will likely end up differently. But at this early stage of the season, with the veteran crew the Spurs have in place, and with one of the best in the game running the show there in Gregg Popovich, the fact that San Antonio was able to get the win the way that they did shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.

Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett Hall of Fame induction pushed back to May

Kobe Hall of Fame
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ASSOCIATED PRESS — Kobe Bryant and the rest of this year’s Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame class won’t be inducted in 2020 – or at the birthplace of basketball.

The Hall announced Friday that the enshrinement ceremony will be held May 13-15, 2021, and the entire festivities will be moved to Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut.

This year was to be a highlight for the Hall of Fame, located in Springfield, Massachusetts. Bryant, killed in January in a helicopter crash, headlined a decorated class featuring Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett that would have been enshrined in the recently renovated museum.

But the coronavirus pandemic scuttled those plans and hit the Hall so hard that it eliminated several full-time positions and cut senior management pay in the 25-40% range.

“These are people who have been a big part of the Hall’s success in recent years; it hurts deeply,” said John Doleva, President and CEO of the Hall of Fame, said in a statement. “The decision to reschedule Enshrinement into May of next year, along with diminished museum guest visitation and a very uncertain future regarding our multiple collegiate and high school basketball events this fall, has forced us to make these very difficult decisions. Our goal now is to conserve resources so that we may stabilize in 2021 and return to our growth trajectory in 2022 and beyond.”

“For this single event, and only because of the pandemic, we will relocate the entire event one time to Mohegan Sun which has been a long-time marketing partner of the Hall. Mohegan Sun has shown they can effectively operate a ‘near-bubble’ for our event which provides a more secure environment for our guests,” Doleva explained. “In making this announcement today, our goal is to provide this date and location change with ample notice for our network broadcast partners, nationally and internationally traveling guests and the many basketball constituents the Hall serves.”

Mohegan Sun is a long-time partner of the Hall. Doleva says it can operate a “near-bubble” to provide a secure environment for guests.

 

Vlade Divac steps down as Kings GM; Joe Dumars takes over in interim

Vlade Divac out
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Days after the Kings’ playoff drought reached 14 seasons — second-longest in league history and only one year behind the Donald Sterling Clippers — the repercussions hit GM Vlade Divac and he is out.

Divac has stepped down as the Kings’ general manager, the team announced Friday. Joe Dumars, the former Pistons GM who had been working as a consultant with the team, will step in during the interim while the search for a new GM takes place.

“This was a difficult decision, but we believe it is the best path ahead as we work to build a winning team that our loyal fans deserve,” Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé said in a statement. “We are thankful for Vlade’s leadership, commitment and hard work both on and off the court. He will always be a part of our Kings’ family.”

While there are legitimate questions about the job Luke Walton did in his first season in Sacramento, his job is safe, something first reported by Sam Amick of The Athletic and since confirmed by James Ham of NBC Sports Bay Area. The Kings also said there will be no other major roster moves made until a new GM is in place.

“Joe has become a trusted and valued advisor since joining the team last year, and I am grateful to have him take on this role at an important time for the franchise,” said Ranadivé.

Divac was a member of the best Kings’ teams ever (during the Chris Webber era) and is in the Hall of Fame as a player. Playing and being a GM, however, are two very different skill sets. Divac did sign a contract extension with the Kings a year-and-a-half ago.

The NBA restart bubble was not kind to the Kings, and that ultimately doomed Divac.

After a promising finish as the ninth seed a season ago, playing a fast-paced style that suited young star De'Aaron Fox, Divac made a move to switch coaches last off-season and fired Dave Joerger to hire Walton. However, under Walton the Kings played slower and were much easier to defend. The Kings did get healthy and start to find a groove right before the league was shut down, going 7-3 in those last 10, but once in the bubble Sacramento was a mess again with a bottom-10 defense in Orlando, and they finished 3-5 in the seeding games.

The salt in the wound in Orlando — and what really eats at Kings’ fans — was the elite play of Luka Doncic in Orlando, and all season long.

Divac — who had scouted in Europe and has deep connections there — chose to use the No. 2 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft on Marvin Bagley out of Duke instead of Doncic. While the Kings had scouted Doncic extensively (Ranadive even went to Europe to watch him play and backed taking Doncic), Divac and the front office staff thought the athleticism of Bagley gave him a higher upside than Doncic. (Scouts were often divided on Doncic: Nobody thought he would be bad, but some questioned his ceiling because he already had so much polish to his game and he’s not an explosive athlete by NBA standards. Divac and the rest of the Kings’ front office fell into this camp.) Plus, Divac liked the idea of a big man to pair with their point guard Fox, rather than bringing in another ball handler in Doncic.

Doncic almost certainly will make an All-Seeding Games team out of the bubble in Orlando, and in his second NBA season is an MVP candidate (he will get bottom of the ballot votes). Bagley did not play in any seeding games due to another injury, this one to his foot.

Moving on from Divac may be the right move for the Kings, but it begs the question: Who are they going to hire to replace him? What is the new GM’s basketball philosophy and what kind of team does he want to build? And, will he have the power to do it, or will Ranadive keep his reputation as an owner who likes to meddle in basketball operations?

The Kings need a change — but they need the right change. That will be the tricky part.

Miami’s Derrick Jones Jr. taken off court on stretcher after collision

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It was the kind of play that happens countless times a game: Miami’s Derrick Jones Jr. was trying to chase Doug McDermott over an off-ball (and moving) screen when collided with pick-setting 6’11” center Goga Bitadze.

This ended up being no standard collision — Jones’ head and neck whipped back, and he instantly went to the ground.

Jones was grabbing his neck at first and was on the ground for about 10 minutes — in the eerie silence of a fanless bubble arena in Orlando — before being taken off the court on a stretcher.

The good news is Jones has just suffered a neck strain, the team announced. There is no timeline for his return, but this could have been much worse.

The Heat and the Pacers, who already have tension between them thanks to a beef between Jimmy Butler and T.J. Warren, will face each other in the first round of the playoffs starting Monday.

Jones, who tested positive for the coronavirus before coming to Orlando (and was quarantined), will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. He has been making the NBA minimum since coming into the league and was in line for a life-changing payday this summer after playing strong defense while averaging 8.6 points per game — and some spectacular dunks — in nearly 23 minutes a night for Miami. Our thoughts are with him after this incident.

The time Shaq peed in Suns teammate Lou Amundson’s shoes – and worse!

Suns players Lou Amundson and Shaquille O'Neal (Shaq)
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Gilbert Arenas has earned a reputation as the NBA player who relieved himself in a teammate’s shoe (Wizards forward Andray Blatche’s).

But Arenas’ tactic wasn’t unique.

Shaquille O’Neal got into a prank war with Suns teammate Lou Amundson during the 2008-09 season. It got intense as Phoenix, coached by Alvin Gentry, reached the final game of its season.

ESPN’s Amin Elhassan on “The Dan Le Batard Show With Stugotz” local hour, hosted by Mike Ryan:

Shaq is the big prankster, the big joker. But if you do something against him, there’s no tit for tat. There’s tit for nuclear war.

He goes to Lou’s locker, grabs his sneakers, pees in them.

That’s the start, right? He then goes and let’s just say “messes with” some of Lou’s haircare devices, like his brush and his comb and stuff. Messes with them. Let me put it this way: Messes with them in a way that – I was comfortable telling you he peed in the shoes. I’m not comfortable telling you what he did to the hair stuff. And then this part, I will tell you: He tampers with Lou’s mouth guard.

He tampers with it.

He tampers with it.

Lou shows up at like 8 or whenever he usually shows up. And he’s skittish and nervous. And Suns.com is there like, “What do you think Shaq is going to do?” “I don’t know. I think he’s going to do something, though.”

So, I’ll never forget this. He’s sitting at the locker, and he opens – he starts to reach for the sneakers and then looks at them and says, “Nah, something doesn’t feel right.” Opens the door up, pulls out a fresh pair of sneakers for the last game of the year, right? Again, this is irregular behavior. Usually, you have a couple of sneakers. You break them in for the year, and you switch between two or three or three or four, whatever. So to break out a whole brand new pair … was weird.

Most of the time when you’re an NBA player, you don’t put on the mouth guard immediately. You have it in a case, and you give the case to the trainer. Then, you go out to the bench. Then, when you’re about to come into the game, that’s when you grab your mouthpiece.

There’s no funnier image than Alvin drawing up a play, kneeling down, coaches standing around him. Lou is sitting there, because now he’s in the game. The guys who are in the game are usually seated. Sitting there just staring at the clipboard, like, “OK, coach. I got you.” And everyone else is just staring at Lou. No one’s paying attention.

Puts the mouth guard in. One, two [sounds of disgust], takes the mouth guard out and flings it with tremendous accuracy at the bench. Everyone starts dying. I remember going back and watching the broadcast, “Oh, Suns bench seems to be getting a lot of fun.” They had no idea what’s happening.

What did Shaq do to Amundson’s mouth guard? My imagination is running WILD.

Elhassan also explains why Grant Hill took 25 shots – his most in four years – in that game. Hill needed to score 26 points to average 12 points per game for the season, which would trigger a large bonus in his shoe contract. Hill’s gunning got him 27 points.

It’s a good podcast with other fun anecdotes and worth a listen.